8 Best 35mm SLR Cameras for Beginners

In a digital world, sometimes it's good to return to a slower pace of life. It seems that every few months there's some new, fancy model of digital SLR which promises to be a million times better, faster, sharper than the last, with more fancy features, most of which we'll never use. As a professional, we're told that we always need the latest gadgets, despite the eye-watering price tag, just to keep up.

There's always a debate about which is more cost-effective; digital photography, or analogue. Sure, digital cameras, while often costing considerably more, consists of, in theory, a one-off payment (unless you are pro, in which case, prepare to regularly fork out for an upgrade), after which you need never pay a penny again. No printing fees, unless you so choose, no need to buy and develop film. At most, you'll need to fork out for online storage or a harddrive for your accumulating digital files, but otherwise, zero costs. Whereas a film camera can be easily purchased for at times a bargain price online or in thrift shops or flea markets, but then of course you'll be forever budgeting for the purchasing of rolls of film, and, either the fees for developing and printing in a photo lab, or the cost of supplies if you prefer (and have the space to) do it yourself. Depending on the camera, film is often cheaper up front, but you have to pay for every single photo from then on.

That said, in my opinion, nothing compares to analogue photography, and I've recently been forsaking my digital camera more and more in exchange for one of my film cameras. With the rebirth of Polaroid and the rise of companies such as the Impossible Project (which was relaunched as the new Polaroid brand), and exciting startups such as Intrepid Cameras, analogue photography is definitely on the rise once more.

If you're looking for your first analogue camera, you can pick up numerous beautiful 35mm cameras online or in vintage camera shops for very little.

Here are my top recommendations for first cameras:


Pentax K1000

I'm going to start with my first analogue 35mm camera, purchased on Ebay when I began studying photography at college; the Pentax K1000.

Known for being an absolute tank of a camera, there are still plenty on the market in excellent condition because they're just so indestructible. Okay, admittedly, I did accidentally smash the mirror in mirror and lens of mine, after a decade of frequent use, but everything has it's limits and apparently for the K1000, the fourth floor window of my then-apartment building was it. Lesson learnt; move the camera off the windowsill before trying to close the window.

Manufactured between 1976 and 1997, this is an excellent camera for beginners because of its basic, easy-to-use features, such as a TTL metering system and wide-ranging shutter speeds from 1/1000 to 1 s. The K1000 does not, however, include certain features found on more advanced models, such as depth-of-field preview, self-timer, or a separate meter on/off switch. This camera is bare bones, but it never once failed me.

While the rising popularity of film cameras in general has driven up prices to match demand, I still regularly see Pentax K1000s in great condition selling on Ebay for less than £200, fully serviced and often including a standard 50mm K-mount lens. I've even seen some for sale for less than £100 if you're willing to clean and service it yourself.



Olympus OM-1

I continue with the camera which replaced my Pentax K1000; the Olympus OM-1. Another camera that frequently features on best-for-beginners lists, the Olympus OM-1 was introduced in 1972. The OM-1 is a mechanical SLR, featuring a large, clear viewfinder with interchangeable screens but a fixed prism. It also has a through-the-lens exposure meter, and a self timer. It has a very compact body, whose form was retained in later models. While lighter and smaller than many similar-range 35mm film cameras, including the Pentax K1000, the body is nevertheless sturdy and well-made.

I purchased my camera for less than £100 through a private seller who didn't know much about cameras on Ebay. That said, when it arrived, it wasn't in perfect condition, though functioning, and needed a service in order to get it up to scratch. I have, however, seen several fully serviced cameras, with a standard 50mm lens, for as little as £150.

Tip: the OM-1 was originally named the M-1, until Leica filed a complaint, and the name was changed. Therefore, Olympus M-1 cameras are exceedingly rare, and therefore worth a considerable amount.



Canon AE-1

Canon and Nikon dominate the camera industry, and many people, when choosing their first analogue camera, look to these two well-known brands. And, yes, they have made some of the best 35mm analogue cameras (as well as digital cameras) over the years, many of which are still affordable today, and some of which I have included on this list. That said, their popularity has somewhat driven up prices, but that's not to say that you can't still find a bargain, and that you won't get your money's worth.

Manufactured between 1976 and 1984, the Canon AE-1 is sturdily built and has a long reputation as an excellent first camera, and includes a range of excellent features, including depth-of-focus preview, a built in exposure metre, a self timer and a shutter speed range up to 1/1000 second.

A Canon AE-1 with a standard 50mm lens can be found on Ebay for less than £200, with prices rising up to £250 or more if fully serviced by a professional.


Minolta X-700

While Minolta is a well-known brand amongst camera aficionados, it's not the first brand that people new to photography tend to consider when purchasing that first camera. It's a strong contender for consideration, however, as time and again Minolta have produced cameras to the same high standard as any on this list.

The Minolta X-700 was first manufactured in the early 1980s until 1999, winning European “Camera of the Year” on its release. Fully manual, the Minolta X-700, designed to compete against Canon's better known AE-1 and A-1 models, features shutter speeds up to 1/1000sec, aperture priority and programmed automatic exposure modes when used with MD lenses. This is a simple camera; no bells and whistles here, but then, there's no need for any.

Minolta cameras are much lesser known then brands such as Canon, Pentax and Nikon, and yet equally reliable and well-made, and therefore you can pick up a bargain camera which will suit your needs just as well. I've seen Minolta cameras sell for £150 or less, in great condition, including a standard 50mm lens.



Nikon FM

Between 1977 and 1983, Nikon produced two compact SLR cameras to compete with the Olympus OM range; their Nikon FM and Nikon FE (which also featured in this list). Excellent for beginners in search of their first camera, the Nikon FM features include a shutter speed range of 1-1/1000sec, a self timer and depth-of-field preview. The FM, while much smaller than the professional F and F2 line of Nikon SLRs, nevertheless retained the traditional rugged metal construction of its predecessors.

As with Canon cameras, the reputation of the Nikon brand can push prices up to meet demand, but you can still find Nikon FM cameras on Ebay in excellent condition, often including a standard 50mm lens, for less than £250, fully serviced or even less than £180, if you're willing to take to take a gamble with a private seller and potentially service it yourself if needed.


Pentax Spotmatic

I very nearly bought one of these cameras to replace my Pentax K1000, and, while I don't regret my Olympus OM-1 for a moment, I rather wish I had bought the Pentax Spotmatic when I spotted it at a Bouquiniste along the Seine in Paris. There are times when impulse buys are the right this to do!

Introduced in 1964, the Pentax Spotmatic it was the first camera to sell well with through-the-lens metering. Fully mechanical, other features include a self-timer and shutter speeds between speeds 1 - 1/1000 second.

This camera is one of the cheapest featured in this list, with several listings of the Pentax Spotmatic, in great condition and including a standard 50mm lens, for sale for less than £100!


Minolta XD-11/XD-7

Released in 1977, this model of Minolta is known by various names depending on region; XD-11 in America, XD-7 in Europe and the XD is Japan. However, they are different in name only.

The camera was developed by Minolta in conjunction with Leica, and the body became the basis for the Leica R4, and later, as the chassis for the the Leica R5, R6 and R7. The XD11 was the world's first camera with aperture priority and shutter priority, as well as a fully metered manual mode, and is still highly praised as the greatest manuel-focus Minolta camera of all time. Features include a 1-1/1000 second shutter speed range, self timer and a depth-of-field preview button.

The Minolta XD-7/XD-11 can easily be found online, in great condition and including a standard 50mm lens for less than £200 or even £180.


Nikon FE

Released just one year after the Nikon FM, these two models of Nikon 35mm SLR camera are very similar. One distinguising feature, however, is that the FE includes a larger prism cover. Small detail. The shutter speed ranges from an amazing 8 seconds to 1/1000 second, while ISO setting is selectable from 12 to 3200, and there is also a self timer feature. Truly, this is one of the best 35mm cameras to emerge from the 1970s, and to this day is still a brilliant camera, especially for beginners. Personally, I'd be very happy with either a Nikon FM or FE.

I don't know why, but I tend to see more body-only sales for Nikon FE cameras, so if you are willing to buy your lenses separately or if you already have an F-mount lens, you can easily buy a Nikon FE body for less than £100 in excellent condition. If you do wish to buy a lens inclusive, however, you can expect for that price to double.

Check out my photography portfolio here.

Read about my adventures in my photo journal here.

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