Film Photography: Keeping it under check

Lucia Falls, East Fork Lewis River. 7 Sept 2020. Camera: Olympus XA2. Film: Kodak Pro Image 100.

Since I acquired my first film camera in about twenty years (the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s) in January, I’ve picked up several cameras. It seemed inevitable: there’s so many good vintage 35 mm cameras out there, and many of them can be had for a song. I’ve picked up a total of eight cameras, and that counts one camera that was broken before I used it and one I gave away after the first roll. The total cost for all of those cameras comes in right at $109, not including shipping. Of those eight, one got dumped (that broken camera), two I gave away to friends, (the Fujica DL-100 and Konica C 35 EF) and two I sold for the combined amount of $50.* I’m down right now to three cameras:

  • Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. The big rangefinder with the great f/1.8 lens
  • Olympus XA2. The cute and small cult compact zone-focus
  • Pentax IQ Zoom 928, the 90’s bulbous super zoom

Three should be enough to “get me by”. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking at other cameras. It’s easy to be on the hunt once you start getting interested in things like this, especially if you follow film photography blogs that constantly talk up and review vintage cameras.

There’s a name for this: GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. This happens in a lot of hobbies, but it seems to be acute in vintage film cameras. And it’s easy to get more and more cameras with this thing called eBay. If you think three cameras is too much, I’ve read of people who have thirty, and it’s still not enough! And being involved with bikes, I’ve seen those garages and sheds jammed with bikes. I get a little bit of smug satisfaction with knowing I only have five bikes and three cameras, but if I had more money and less self-control, I’m sure those numbers would easily increase.

One way that I’ve been keeping things in check (besides not having a lot of money) is asking myself: Is this camera different enough from the cameras I already have, and/or can it fulfill a different role? So I’ve only been going after cameras that fulfill a niche. This isn’t always successful, see the two cameras that I got and got rid of that were supposed to be “smaller than the Minolta but sort of rangefinderesque.”

And what rabbit hole did I fall down? Well, for a little bit I was going after a 50’s era Germanesque viewfinder. After seeing pictures of the Voigtlander Vito B and reading a few reviews, I thought about getting one. eBay has quite a bit, and they really aren’t that expensive. But while they look cool, they are a bit more limited in function than the fixed-lens Japanese rangefinders that came the following decade. And seventy year old cameras are probably going to need service. I already have one camera in the shop for a CLA (clean, lube, adjust), and while CLA’s are well and good, that service is going to cost me more than the cost of all my cameras combined.

And do I need another 35 mm camera like this? I already have the Minolta. So then I took a lateral move: What about 120? Medium-format seems like “the next step” in film geekery, larger negatives are “better”. The Germans made viewfinder 120 cameras that are aesthetically similar to the Vito Bs. So I started looking in that direction.

The cameras I was finding weren’t super expensive, but not cheap either: An Agfa Isola was going for $30-50. Not horrible, but that’s sans shipping. And since most of the specimens I saw were from Europe, I’d be spending a chunk of change for post and waiting a while to get one. And really, while these 50’s viewfinder 120’s were aesthetically pleasing and decently built (they are German!) they are pretty basic cameras: one, maybe two (slow) shutter speeds, two or three apertures, no metering.

I still may get one if I find one cheap enough and in the States. But I realize that I really want a nice 120 camera, one with good optics and mechanics. After shooting with cameras like the Minolta I’ve realized that I’m more into the “getting good film cameras” angle than the Lomography vibe. That rules out the Dianas, Holgas, and other cheap plastic cameras. And while folding cameras have decent glass, old bellows can be damaged. What’s left in 120? Nothing cheap. Both vintage TLRs and more modern SLRs and rangefinders command high prices.

This is when I realized that I can get a decent 70’s era SLR for the price that people wanted for those Agfa Isolas and the like. While this means the smaller 35 mm negative, I get a much more versatile camera. Maybe this is the angle I should go for? Urgh.

So right now I’m back at square one. I’m still enticed by all these neat cameras, but I don’t want to pull the trigger and buy any particular one. I don’t want to get something because it’s cheap or looks cool. I don’t want to get more cameras just because. After testing seven cameras in nine months, I’m also not as enthusiastic about going through the process for another one, especially if it’s untested and turns out to have problems. I do want to get an SLR at some point, but I don’t want to buy one impulsively. I want to get to be methodical and something that suits my needs and works. I’ll keep looking occasionally but I’m happy to sit on the fence for awhile.

Yet despite my best intentions, I’m sure I’ll get another camera at some point. There’s too many good cameras out there that can be had for a song…

*One camera I sold for about as much as I got it, the other for more. And the one I sold for more actually inadvertently scored me a free camera.

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8 thoughts on “Film Photography: Keeping it under check

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  1. As someone who has more than 30 cameras and more than 4 bikes I can appreciate your thoughts here 🙂
    Before deciding on what camera you want, it’s best to consider what you want it for… if you know the subject matter, features etc that you need it is easier to slim down the wide choice of options

  2. I can recommend a Canon EOS-1 without reservation. As Canon’s first professional EF mount camera it is built like a rock. Imported a good condition one from Japan for $70 plus $30 international shipping.

    I’ve probably put 30+ rolls of film through it since I got it in January. Of course you’ll need a lens. But the good news is that any EF lens you buy will hold its value. I paired my EOS-1 with a used EF 50mm F1.4 USM that I got on eBay for about $175.

    When it comes to more expensive pro films I’ve found a reliable and accurate meter is by far the most important quality.

    Of course spending nearly $300 on a film camera might seem like a lot but I guarantee I’ve spent twice that on film and development in since January.

    Good luck finding your next camera. Fight GAS is a tough endeavor, but I like to think of my cameras as investments. If I play my cards right, I’ll get most of my money back when I’m tired of them.

  3. Great post! I’ve been shooting film for about 2 years now and my first camera I picked up at an old vintage camera store in my city – it’s a manual Minolta Hi-Matic F. I shot a few rolls on it and then my grandpa gave me his old pentax (which is broken now unfortunately). I found an awesome point-and-shoot Canon for only $3 after that which I fell in love with because it was less daunting to use than the Minolta. Now 2 years later from the start of my film journey I am ready to get back into manual photography with the Minolta thats been sitting on my shelf. I’ve been watching many YouTube videos to learn how to set the proper exposure and focus to hopefully be more successful with my shots. Wish me luck!

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