Beginner 35mm SLRs
Just started that new photography class and your teacher has sent you on a mission to acquire a manual camera? Or perhaps you're a parent and your child came home today with a list of camera needs half a page long and you are uncertain of where to start? The following will be a series of codex entries exploring our five top recommendations that ought to get you off to a running start. But first, let us cover some common ground before getting down to specific cameras.
Five names worth remembering
There are five major brands you will come across when looking for that perfect student camera: Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Minolta (in no particular order). One question we field quite a bit at the counter, "is one brand better than the others?", is answered quite simply with a "no". All five brands have excellent potential student cameras. There are certainly differences between the brands, but taken as a whole, brand is much less a consideration than you might think. Instead of being overly concerned with brand, there are a few other considerations to take into account first.
Your primary concern when choosing a camera is its ability to allow you the use of manual control over exposure. Many photo instructors require their students to look for cameras that give them complete manual exposure control, meaning the user should be able to manipulate shutter speed and aperture manually. A vast part of learning photography is going to happen manually, so not only should you verify that the camera has manual shutter and aperture control, but a working light meter that functions in manual mode as well. Be wary of some later cameras that, while featuring manual controls, were designed to be used more heavily in auto and do not make manual control particularly convenient or intuitive. Remember, the class is likely going to require the use of manual much, if not all, of the time so make sure you get a camera that will be easy to use in this manner.
Concerning cost, student cameras fall into two families: the older, metal, mechanical cameras of the 1960's, 70's and early 80's, and the later, plastic, more electronically advanced cameras of the late 80's through the 90's and beyond. The former tend to be the more expensive, with bodies averaging 150-175 dollars. Within the latter group, bodies can be found for as little as 30-40 dollars. If this causes you to think, "well that's an obvious decision", consider a few things first. The older cameras, being simpler of design and made of metal, are much more rugged and reliable. They were built to last for decades, and have proved this easily; thirty years later most of them still work as well as ever. They are also simpler, making them easier to learn and use. In contrast, the later designs of the 80-90s are more plastic and prone to quicker wear and failure. They are also much more complicated contraptions, with more moving parts and therefore more parts to potentially break. We see a much higher failure rate starting to show up amongst these cameras than their earlier, all-metal counterparts. When you consider a camera potentially lasting you for 20 or 30 or even 40 years and you spread that initial $150 cost over that span, the investment proves to be quite good. Additionally, students have a reputation for being a bit rougher on their equipment - cameras are meant to be used after all - and the rugged nature of the earlier cameras make them better suited to the rougher use they can expect to see. Look at it this way; if your budget allows you to buy the earlier cameras, then do so. They will payoff dividends over the decades to come and their simpler design will make learning on them much smoother. If you are on a really strict budget, then consider the later cameras. They will be trickier to learn and will carry a higher risk of camera failure, but will likely serve their purpose and get through the class.
In addition to the camera body, you will need a good lens. The standard recommendation is a 50mm. While there are a number of other potential options, the 50mm makes great sense. They approximate the same angle of view as our eyesight, making them easy to use. They are also incredibly common, inexpensive, and generally well made. Most 50mm lenses will cost between 40 and 50 dollars.
Another thing to consider
One last piece of advice before we turn more specific; put cameras into hands before buying. It is a valuable step to take the time to pick up a camera and see how well you like the feel and weight of it, as well as how intuitive are the controls. Is the meter easy for you to see and understand? Is the shutter speed dial in an awkward spot? Is the camera too heavy or too small? The camera you buy should not be a pain to use no matter how highly it is rated or recommended. After all else has been considered, buy the camera that feels the best in your hands. The more comfortable you are with your new camera the better you will use it.
Now we present you with our five recommendations, one from each brand, of cameras to consider. They will be featured one at a time, starting with the Pentax K1000 in a few days and moving down the list. This selection is not meant to be exhaustive as there are a number of good options for student cameras - which is the point of this abbreviated list, to winnow it down a bit and make it easier to find something that will work well for you.
Without further ado, here is our list:
There are few better places to start this list than with the K1000. The K1000 is often referred to as "The student camera". Note the capital "T". The K1000 is the embodiment of simplicity. Originally introduced in 1976, the camera enjoyed a production run lasting until 1997. This bit of history is germane because it means a squillion of these cameras were produced over two decades and a squillion cameras translates into vast numbers for both purchase and as a supply of spare parts. All those spare parts allow K1000s to be easily refurbished - not that they often need it (I once saw A K1000 survive a house fire, quite literally).
Referring to the K1000 as spartan is a compliment. The camera has little in the way of bells and whistles, giving the user just the three controls they need to make pictures: aperture, shutter and focus. Imagine this for a moment; in a world where cameras drown us in functions, custom settings and menus, the K1000 has just three controls - and they are exactly all you need. No fussing with buttons or dials, or wading through pages of menu options. You want to make a picture? Well, a flick of the wrist and twist of the fingers and you and the camera are ready to go. Of course, the bare-bones approach means the camera does lack some features that can be useful, such as a self-timer and depth of field preview. Metering on the K1000 is also quite straight-forward. The camera uses a simple center needle metering system. A lone, black needle on the right of the viewfinder indicates your exposure. Get the needle in the middle and exposure is good. If the needle drifts up toward a large "+" then you are over-exposing and if it dips down toward the "-" under-exposure is the result.
The lens mount used by Pentax is referred to as the Pentax K mount. Pentax is one of the few brands that has largely left their mount unchanged through the transition from manual focus cameras to auto focus cameras (and don't forget digital). This means that most Pentax lenses mount to most Pentax cameras, with some exceptions and conditions. This is a handy feature in that it allows Pentax camera owners to pick from a much larger selection of lenses. It also means that if you ever upgrade your K1000 to an auto focus or digital body, you can continue to use all your old lenses. The downside of this continuity is that there is much more competition for the same lenses and prices can be a bit higher for similar lenses amongst Pentax than some other brands.
Simple. Easy to learn and use.
Well built. Reliable. Rarely requires maintenance.
All mechanical camera, only the meter requires a battery (which you will have to change about once a year).
Versatility of the Pentax K-mount means even later auto-focus lenses can be used (in manual focus) on the K1000.
Lacks some potentially useful features like self-timer, depth of field preview and multiple exposure lever.
Versatility of the Pentax K-mount means fiercer competition and higher prices than some other brands for lenses.
Also consider: Pentax MX, Pentax ME Super, Pentax K2 or KX
Images from the K1000: www.flickr.com/groups/k1000
Perhaps the second most popular student camera after the Pentax K1000, the AE-1 was introduced in the same year and enjoyed a production run of a decade - not too shabby really. While it is not as simply and elegantly designed as the K1000, the AE-1 is still an easy camera to pick up and learn. and has become justifiably popular with photography students over the decades. The AE-1 incorporates additional features not present on some other student-level cameras, such as a self-timer and depth of field preview. In addition, the AE-1 can also accept other accessories such as a power winder for more rapid film advance and a databack in case you insist on imprinting an LED date across all your photos. In other words, the camera has a simple and direct approach well suited to beginning photographers, but with room to grow.
The metering system on the AE-1 is a bit different than on similar student-level cameras. Instead of the usual match needle metering, the AE-1 displayed a range of apertures inside the viewfinder, lighting up the appropriate value needing to be set by the user, as based on lighting conditions, ISO and shutter speed. This sounds a bit more complicated because it is.
Canon is one of three brands (along with Minolta and Olympus) that changed their lens mount between manual focus and auto focus. The earlier style mount is referred to as FD, or FL if you go even earlier, both of which fit on the AE-1. Canon's auto-focus lens mount is labeled EF and is still used today on all their modern DSLRs. The AE-1 cannot accept EF lenses, and modern cameras cannot accept FD lenses (without the use of special adapters). This is a double edged sword; you will be limited to just the Canon manual focus lenses when shopping for a new lens but will have less competition from digital users for those same lenses, making them easier to find and much less expensive. Additionally, Canon produced a huge library of lenses, second only to Nikon, during this era. Even though you will be limited to just the FD lenses, you really will have an enormous catalog of lenses to choose from.
Easy to use and learn. A very good student camera.
Common and easy to find.
Lighter than many other similar student-level cameras.
Additional features not found on some other student cameras such as self-timer and depth of field preview.
Very large selection of lenses available.
Camera is battery dependent. No battery = no shutter. Carry a spare.
Metering is not a simple as match-needle systems found in the Pentax K1000 or Minolta SRT 101.
Canon FD mount is not compatible with later EF (auto focus mount).
Be wary of AE-1s that have sat for a period of several years without being used, they tend to develop a nasty squeal. It is easy to fix, but annoying.
The greater use of plastic parts, such as the battery door, led to slight reduction in durability.
Also consider: Canon AE-1 Program, Canon A-1, Canon FTb
Images from the Canon AE-1: www.flickr.com/groups/canonae1
I will admit right from the start, I am biased toward the Nikon FM. My first SLR was (and still is) a Nikon FM2n. I love that camera. I loved it from the beginning and that admiration grew at the same pace I did as a photographer. Personal bias aside for a moment, the Nikon FM is similar to all the other suggestions listed here for student cameras. The FM is simple, easy to learn and easy to use; the controls are manual by nature - focus, shutter and aperture all need to be set by hand - as required for learning students. The Nikon FM stands apart from these other four cameras though in the fact that it was designed to be used by professionals as well as amateur photographers. The camera was meant to back up the venerable Nikon F2 and F3 carried by photojournalists. As such it needed to be rugged. It needed to be modular. And it needed a certain degree of additional functionality to satisfy the demands of the professional world. Because of this, the Nikon FM (and by extension the FE, FM2 and FE2) are incredibly reliable. They allow the attachment of motor drives and replacement of focusing screens. The camera's functions include a depth of field preview, a self-timer, a mirror lock up and a multiple exposure lever. Another additionally nice feature is the film advance lever serves as an on/off switch, allowing the camera to easily be switched off conserving battery power, which in the FM is used solely for the light meter - the rest of the camera is purely mechanical like the K1000, OM-1 and SRT 101.
There are four popular cameras in the FE/FM series. The Nikon FE and FM are nearly identical, the big difference being that the FE is an electronically governed camera (hence the E) where the FM is mechanical (hence the M). The FE allows an aperture-priority automatic exposure mode as well as an extended range of slow shutter speeds beyond 1 second on the shutter dial. The FE2 and FM2 have additional top speeds up to 1/4000 of a second. In truth, any of these four cameras will make an excellent starting choice.
Incredibly well built and designed. A reliable camera that will last for years and is easy to have maintained and refurbished.
Simple and easy to learn, but leaves plenty of room to grow into.
Incorporates many additional features such as self-timer, depth of field preview, mirror lock up and multiple exposure switch.
Nikon lens mount has remained consistent over the decades, allowing the use of most manual and auto focus lenses.
The Nikon line of lenses has become more expensive in the last few years due to the interchangeability amongst manual focus, auto focus and digital bodies.
Not much else.
Also consider: Nikon FE, Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2, Nikon FA and FM3A
Images from the Nikon FM: www.flickr.com/groups/fmseries
From a design standpoint, the OM-1 is the most unique of the five cameras on this list. Olympus set about redesigning the SLR from the ground up, and with their first entry into the field, they did an excellent job breaking from the rest of the pack.
The first important (and most noticeable) change is the size and weight of the camera. The OM-1 is a very slim, very lightweight camera that nonetheless offers all of the mechanical, all manual control that makes for a good student camera. As small as the body is, it still offers one of the largest viewfinders found in an SLR – one quick look through an OM-1 and you'll note just how easy it is to focus on your entire frame.
More significant is the change in the control layout. Forget what you already know about the orientation of camera controls – on the OM-1, the shutter speed dial is now located on the lens mount instead of the top of the camera. While this may throw you for a bit of a loop at first, you'll quickly realize the main advantage – focus, aperture and shutter speed adjustment are all controllable with the same hand, and all usable without having to look away from the viewfinder.
Metering is likewise simple and intuitive, done via a center needle system similar to that of the Pentax K1000. Another aspect of Olympus' rethinking of camera controls is the depth of field preview – instead of being built into the body of the camera it is instead incorporated in the lenses themselves, allowing all Olympus lenses the use of this helpful feature. The OM-1 includes a self timer and mirror lock-up lever, giving it a well rounded list of additional abilities.
Compact and elegant design makes these some of the smallest SLRs available.
An all mechanical camera needing battery power only for the light meter.
The entire range of Olympus lenses are of superb quality.
The smallest of the five big camera manufacturers means there is not as much Olympus equipment to be found as compared to Nikon or Canon.
The adjusted layout of camera controls takes some getting used to.
Also consider: Olympus OM-2
Images from the Olympus OM-1: www.flickr.com/groups/olympus_om-1
Minolta SRT 101
Burly and reliable, this early entry in the SRT line is built like a tank. One of the most important aspects of this camera is its sheer heft - a very popular choice among those who plan (or don't, hey accidents happen) to put their camera through heavy use. While we cannot necessarily recommend this, there is a popular gossip that the camera doubles nicely as a mallet.
The SRT 101 is the oldest camera on our list, having been introduced in 1966. It adheres to the design philosophy of that time; build it from metal and build it to last. Four decades later, these cameras are still going strong, with no trace of the planned obsolescence so commonplace today.
As you would expect of each camera on this list, the SRT 101 is simple in design and use. Metering is as quick and straight-forward as you want it to be via a match needle system. The SRT 101 is also fully equipped with a self-timer, depth of field preview and even a mirror lock-up. Early models do lack a hot shoe, but flash photography could still be done via a PC port on the camera body. In short, Minolta covered all the bases.
Simple. Easy to learn and use.
Extremely well built. Reliable. Rarely requires maintenance. Almost entirely metal.
All mechanical camera, only the meter requires battery power.
Many models include additional features such as mechanical self-timer, depth of field preview and mirror lock-up.
Big and heavy.
Most early SRT 101s have no hot shoe, though the camera has a PC port for flash photography. A hot shoe was added to later versions of the SRT line.
If the camera has not seen a repair shop in a while, it may need to have the meter calibrated for modern 1.5 volt batteries.
Also consider: Minolta SRT 102, SRT 201, SRT 202 and Minolta X700.
Images from the Minolta SRT 101: www.flickr.com/groups/minolta_srt