My collection of old film cameras has settled in at around 30 or 35 I think. Some of those are duplicates. I have at least a half dozen different Pentax Spotmatic cameras, two Pentax MX bodies, a black and chrome Olympus OM-2n and four or five Nikon F2s. My oldest cameras are from the early 1950s and my newest was built in early 2000. The technology represented in my collection ranges from a simple, fixed focus, pre-set aperture box Brownie to the auto-focus, matrix-metered Nikon F100. In between these two, there are cameras with aperture-priority auto exposure, LED readouts in the viewfinder and focus assist.
It’s fun having all of these different cameras on the shelf because I can grab whichever fits my mood for a day of shooting. Lately though, I find myself going back more often to my simple, mechanical cameras. Dials, levers, gears. Lots of metal and glass. And battery power only for the camera’s on board light meter, if there is one. As I look through my images from the past ten years, some of my most satisfying shots have been taken with these simple cameras.
There is something quite wonderful about the feel and sound of mechanical cameras. I think all of us analog shooters geek out over the sound of a nice shutter mechanism, and nothing sounds quite as sublime as the shutters on these old mechanical wonders. 125th of a second seems to resonate best for me—something only a true camera geek would say!
And while I have had several of my electronic film cameras hiccup on me out in the field, none of my mechanical bodies have ever let me down.
If you’re shooting a Canon AE-1 Program, Minolta X-700, Nikon FA or some other auto most everything film camera, you owe it to yourself to try one of these minimalist mechanical wonders. Here are some of my favorites.
Built by hand and nearly indestructible, the Nikon F2 is a mechanical wonder. The camera offers several metering options by changing prism finders. If you really want to treat yourself, send your F2 over to Sover Wong in the UK for a service and it will come back just like new!
The first SLR to offer through the lens metering. These Spotmatics require you to learn stop down metering unless you opt for the F models. And those Takumar lenses are to die for! I had all of my Spotmatics modified with split image focusing screens.
Leica introduced the M2 as a less expensive M3. I’ve owned both and I really prefer the M2’s clean, simple lines. Unless you buy a serviced M2, count on getting it CLA’d at some point. Once that is done, you can shoot this camera forever and ever! Every film photographer should shoot at least one roll in a Leica M.
All of the SRT models are simple mechanical cameras that mount very nice and affordable Rokkor lenses.
Kodak Retina IIc
Besides Instamatics and Brownies, Kodak did make some very fine and very expensive 35mm rangefinders. Even though these Retinas are over 60 years old, they still make amazing pictures. And they feel so good in the hand!
Yes, Leica made SLR cameras too! The R6 and R6.2 were the only full mechanical ones though—think of the R6 as the big brother to the Leica M6TTL. The R system is a very affordable way to try Leica glass
One of the biggest surprises in my film camera journey has been this Canon rangefinder. The P is well made, fun to shoot and the Canon screw mount lenses are just awesome! You’ll need a handheld light meter or learn Sunny 16.
Olympus turned heads in 1972 when they introduced the little OM-1. Exceptional build quality and amazing Zuiko lenses make the OM-1 and 1979’s OM-1n must try mechanical cameras. Affordable adapters make batteries a non issue or have it CLA’d and converted to 1.5v.
A mechanical camera with shutter speeds to 1/4000th of second! FM, FM2 and FM2n cameras were back-up bodies for many Nikon pro film photographers because they just keep on shooting no matter what! That’s my prized 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor out front!
Think if it as the M2 with a light meter. I sold this to buy a digital Leica. This is one camera I truly wish I didn't sell. I will have another someday.
Superb build quality and tack sharp Zeiss glass makes the Hassey a mechanical medium format camera you must try. Note: carrying one around all day is a workout! These are big, heavy cameras!
Besides having one of the sweetest sounding shutters of any 35mm SLR I’ve tried, the Canon F-1’s analog meter display in the viewfinder is pretty cool. And those FD lenses!!
The MX is the pro model of all of the little M series Pentax bodies (ME, ME Super). Huge viewfinder with a very logical analog display. Fun to shoot, bullet-proof camera with a great selection of K-mount lenses.
Those are my favorite mechanical film cameras. What are yours?