Learners cameras

Not totally happy with the pictures you get from a smartphone? Do you want more reach, do you want to capture fast moving action, or on the other hand, are you looking for more control over the depth of field, over the exposure? Do you want the images to be really yours, instead of leaving software developers in Cupertino or Mountain View decide for you how the pictures you’re taking should look like?  You need a “real camera” and you have to learn how to use it.

A manual focus lens  mounted with an adapter on a mirrorless camera (Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter). A way to learn more about the technique of photography without making the jump to film cameras.

Obviously, nowadays, your first “learner” camera will be digital – digital accelerates the learning process – you can see immediately the result of changes in the settings, you can re-take the shot until the results corresponds to the scene you’ve seen with the eyes in your mind: remember, your eyes capture the information, but the processing is done in your brain.

But at some point, you may get tired of modern digital cameras as well. While not as automated as a smartphone, they still decide a lot of things behind the scenes (they set the focus, the exposure, they enhance the dynamic of the image, they sharpen) and it’s not always easy (or even possible) to take control back from them. Maybe you’re ready for something more demanding, but also more gratifying: film photography.

There are so many ways to shoot with film. If you don’t have the time (or the space) to deal with film processing, you can buy color film and have it processed and scanned by a lab – not exactly cheap (at least $0.50 per picture) but not too difficult.

Don’t start with a camera like this one – too complex, too heavy (Nikon F4)

If you want the ultimate silver halide experience, you can set you own dark room, and process film yourself (Black and White, let’s keep it simple). The difficulty will be to scan it – unless you go completely analog, buy an enlarger and make your own prints like they used to do in the old days.

But in any case, you’ll need one (or a few) cameras.

Almost nobody makes new film cameras anymore. So your camera will be an “old” one, bought on eBay, at Shopgoodwill, or from the stores specializing in analog cameras.

If you ask Google about learners film cameras, most of the articles they reference will suggest a manual focus camera from the mid seventies to early eighties – like the Canon AE-1, the Minolta X-700, the Nikon FM, or the Pentax K1000.

This Pentax Spotmatic SP can’t be recommended either – too old (1964), too primitive technically. Pick a camera from the mid-seventies or later.

For a reason. Older cameras (let’s say pre-1975) are generally bulkier, have a more primitive exposure metering system (when they do have one at all) and require batteries which are impossible to find today. They often use textile (silk) in their shutter mechanisms, and tend to be fragile. On the other hand, most of the cameras sold after 1990 are not that different from the autofocus, motorized monsters we use today in the digital world.

  • why manual focus? The assumption is that if you shoot film, it’s because you’re not in a hurry and therefore can take the time to set the focus on your own. Personally I like to focus manually, it leaves me more time and opportunities to look at the image and consider the composition, the depth of field and the exposure.
  • Focusing manually lets you determine what part of the picture will be 100% in focus, and with the help of the aperture ring and of a depth of field lever, determine what will be out of focus and pleasantly blurred.
For learners, Pentax launched in 1997 a manual focus version of the ZX-5. Canon and Nikon also had previously created “autofocus-less” versions of their autofocus cameras. The focusing screen of the ZX-M is designed for manual focusing (split image telemeter and ring of microprisms) but the viewfinder is on the narrow side.
  • Using a camera with an easy to use semi-automatic exposure system (matching needle or LEDs), you can take all the time you need to determine the perfect settings, or in doubt, take multiple shots at different settings. You can also more easily compensate for the limitations of the metering system (average weighted metering can be easily fooled by a bright sky – but it’s also easy to understand how it’s being fooled and take countermeasures).
    Interestingly, you don’t necessarily need a semi-auto camera – some automatic cameras like the Nikon FE are absolutely great when used in semi-auto mode (better than most native semi-auto SLRs).
  • one camera or more? considering you can get film cameras for a few dollars, why buy only one? Just remember that experience and muscle memory play a role – the more you shoot with a particular camera (or with cameras of the same generation and from the same manufacturer), the higher your chances of catching the “decisive moment” and get the picture of your life.
  • Lenses – not as cheap as cameras (at least, the good ones). You can buy prime lenses, you can buy zoom lenses (if they were released in the late eighties or later and come from one of the great camera manufacturers, they’re generally good enough). Canon, Minolta, Olympus have all abandoned their old FD, MD or OM mounts when they introduced their autofocus cameras, but Nikon and Pentax have been using the same family of bayonet mounts since 1959 (Nikon) and 1976 (Pentax). You have more options with those two brands even if the compatibility between different generations of camera bodies and lenses is somehow limited.
  • Film – I know it’s fashionable to use bad film (expired stock, film engineered to look like stock from the 60s, not to mention monstrosities like pre-scatched film …). I believe my images deserve better than that and I buy the best film I can find. The choice is up to you.

So, what camera?

This list is about cameras I know – for having burned at least a few rolls of film with them, and which meet my definition of a learners camera. There are other good manual focus cameras that make great learning tools (the Minolta X series for instance) but I never tested them, and interesting cameras (Nikon F3, Canon A-1 or T90, the rangefinder Leicas, the Contax ST) that are a bit too complex and expensive to make it to this list.

I did not include any Fujica, Contax or Mamiya SLR in this list, a learner will need a set of lenses (a couple of wide angle lenses, a short tele, maybe a zoom) and they tend to be difficult to find (and expensive) if you leave the usual gang (Canon-Minolta-Nikon-Olympus-Pentax).

The list….

  • if you love Canon, you can go with the AT-1 (instead of the AE-1 or the AE-1 Program): it’s half the price, and easier to use in manual (semi-auto) mode. All right, it needs an easy to find battery to operate. But it has a good viewfinder and you can’t beat its simplicity.


  • if you love Nikon (and in particular if you’re using a full frame Nikon dSLR), go with the FM or the FE, or for a little more money, for the FM2 or the FE2. Avoid the EM, FG or FA – they’re too automatic, and don’t leave you enough control on your images. You can also pick an early autofocus camera like the N2020 (F501) and use it with manual focus lenses. It works very well.

Nikon FE2

  • If you love Pentax, don’t follow the crowd and don’t buy a K1000. Far too primitive (it’s a derivative of the Spotmatic F of 1973, itself derived from the original Pentax camera of 1957). Similarly, be prudent with Pentax cameras of the late seventies/early eighties: in my experience, they tend to be a bit fragile.
    The P3 from 1985 was not really designed as a learners camera (more as an affordable and easy to use manual focus camera) but it’s not artificially spec’d down and that would be my choice in the Pentax family. When the K1000 and the P3 needed a replacement, Pentax created a camera designed specifically for learners, the XZ-M and sold it until 2004. It’s a modern autofocus motorized camera with 4 exposure modes (PASM) – but without the autofocus system and the built-in flash. It’s built out of plastic therefore feather light, but Pentax also saved weight and money on the viewfinder which is narrower than the norm.
    The ZX-M is an interesting camera, but the P3 (P30 in the rest of the world) is probably a better choice. By default it operates in program mode, but the semi-auto mode works very well, the viewfinder is large, and the build quality is good (the camera were still made of metal at that time).
The Pentax P3 – a long production run – and one of the last mass market non motorized SLRs. It’s designed to work in Programmed Auto exposure mode, but if the aperture ring of the lens is not set in the A position, it becomes a semi-auto camera. It is the same camera as the P30 (Pentax used different model names for the US market).
  • Olympus – don’t go for the OM-1 – it needs 1.35v batteries which are a pain to find and use. Go for the OM-2 – it’s automatic, but you can use it as a semi-auto camera. Smooth as a peach, great viewfinder, ideal if you shoot in places where you can’t use a tripod or a flash. The best of both words. Later models are either plagued by battery management problems (OM-2sp, OM-4), or extremely expensive (OM-4ti).
Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n
Olympus OM-2n and Olympus OM-2S program – the OM2n (left) is the one to pick
  • The Canon T60, Nikon FM10, Olympus OM-2000, Yashica FX-3 2000 and a few other Vivitar cameras were designed and manufactured by Cosina in the nineties to be sold as gateway and learners cameras under the label of the big brands – they’re not identical – but they’re built on the same technical platform. They all work OK as learner cameras, but the genuine Canon, Nikon or Olympus cameras are much nicer objects, much better built, and will provide more satisfaction (even if the results should be more or less equivalent).
Same lens mount – totally different cameras – Olympus OM-1 and OM-2000
  • Autofocus SLRs are cheap, and the early ones are dirt cheap. But if you use an autofocus SLR in full auto mode to shoot color print film and download the scans after the Noritsu and Fujifilm processing machines have played their magic on your negatives, how different is the experience going to be from shooting with a digital SLR? Admittedly, some early autofocus SLRs are still relatively simple and easy to use and will increase your success rate, but you won’t learn as much as with an older manual focus camera.

Come on. Shoot with film. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s a lot of fun.

Venice - gondoliers
Venice – Gondoliers in the sun set. Nikon FE2. Fujicolor 400 film




Canon AT-1 – the polycarbonate FTb?

Something strange happened to the Canon AT-1 recently – it has become sought after.

When the AE-1 was establishing sales record for reflex cameras, its little brother, the AT-1, was struggling on the marketplace (Canon did not even bother selling it in Japan) and it remained until recently an under-appreciated camera.

The AE-1 was the undisputed star of the new Canon A line-up, the real successor of the FTb. The AT-1 was a bit of an afterthought, developed for cost conscious photographers who did not trust auto-exposure systems. With the same shell, the same electromagnetic shutter command and the same accessories as the AE-1, the AT-1 had some of the attributes of a modern camera, but its CdS meter (as opposed to the Silicon cell of its siblings) and its semi- auto exposure system with matching needle inherited from the FTb anchored it in the past. Contrarily to the FTb (and to almost any other semi-automatic camera), it could not operate at all without batteries – because of its electromagnetic shutter command.

The large shutter speed selector and the shutter release are very smooth.

The electromagnetic shutter has its advantages (soft shutter release, smooth shutter speed knob, automatic selection of flash sync speed when a Canon Speedlite is mounted on the camera), but the ability to operate without batteries has always been a huge selling point with users of semi-automatic cameras. The AT-1 was not meeting this basic requirement, and it could explain why it remained under appreciated for so long.

the timer of the shutter release is electronic – much more reliable than the fragile mechanical timer of conventional semi-auto cameras.

Before buying a good copy recently on eBay, I never had  used one. When I bought my first semi-auto SLR a long time ago, I only had eyes for the Nikon FM and for the Pentax MX – for the record that’s the Pentax I ended up buying, the Nikon was far too expensive. At that time, Canon’s marketing pressure was completely focused on the AE-1 and as far as I can remember, I did not even look at the AT-1. In any case, in comparison to the Nikon and the Pentax (with their LEDs and GASP metering cells),  the AT-1 would have looked too primitive to me.

  • Weight, Size and ergonomics
    The AT-1 shares its general dimensions and layout with the AE-1. The construction is similar (with some components like the prism housing using a mixed polycarbonate and copper plating construction). It’s not the most compact camera of its generation (the honor goes to the Olympus OM-1) but it’s not significantly larger or heavier – all the cameras of this generation (1975-1980) are more or less the same size. The AT-1 is one of the simplest conventional cameras you can find – the on/off switch on the left, the large and smooth shutter speed dial on the right, a large shutter release button – that’s all.
  • Viewfinder
    The viewfinder is relatively large with enough eye relief for photographers wearing glasses (larger than on a Nikon FM/FE, for instance). And because the viewfinder does not provide any information about the shutter speed or the aperture at the periphery of the frame, the eye of the photographer can remain focused on the center of the frame, which makes the viewfinder seem larger than it is. The focusing screen is not as clear as what you find on a comparable Nikon camera, but it’s fine enough. The split-image telemeter and the micro-prisms are present, and focusing is easy. The two needles of the metering system are located at the bottom right angle of the viewfinder, and are easy to read as well.
Very simple viewfinder – and a perfect implementation of the old “matching needle” semi-auto metering.
  • Metering system
    Based on a CdS cell, it’s one generation behind the Silicon or GASP cells that Fujica, Nikon or Pentax were installing on their semi-auto cameras in the second half of the Seventies. CdS cells are supposed to be less sensitive in low light, and to suffer from a memory effect (they need 30 seconds to adjust when you move to a low light scene immediately after a bright scene). The matching needle mechanism is very easy to read (when there is enough light) but is not as easy to read as LEDs if the scene is dark.According to Canon, the camera uses some form of average/center weighted metering (I could not find any further explanation).  In my experience, it does not seem to be as selective as the cell of a FTb (or of a T90 in the “partial selective” mode), and most of the images, including those with a large bright blue sky, are correctly exposed.
  • Battery
    Like all the cameras of the A series (AE-1, A-1, AL-1,…), the AT-1 relies on a relatively easy to find (and cheap) 6v battery. This battery is available in an alkaline and in a silver oxide version. As explained before, the camera can’t operate without a battery.
The AT-1 does not work without this battery.
  • Compatibility
    Canon manufactured tens of millions of FL and FD lenses, that the AT-1 will happily support. FD lenses used to be cheap until the advent of mirrorless cameras and the development of FD to Sony FE lens mount adapters made them popular again. Truly exceptional lenses (the L series) are now seriously expensive, but cheaper alternatives abound. Most of the Canon accessories (winder, flash) can be shared with the AE-1 or A-1 models.
  • Reliability
    Compared to the multi-auto-exposure and auto-focus cameras launched in the following decade, the AT-1 is a very simple machine. With the A series, Canon had introduced new design and manufacturing methods, with significantly more plastic and electronic components that before, but Canon’s engineers did a good job and the cameras of that family don’t have a bad reputation when it comes to reliability. Over time, cameras of the Canon A family can be affected with the squeaky shutter syndrome, but I’ve not found anything on the Internet showing that the AT-1 is affected (my copy is not). In any case, the AT-1 was not designed for war correspondents or National Geographic photographers taking tens of thousands of photos per year in impossible situations; it was an entry level camera designed for cost conscious amateurs, and it does not seem to have betrayed its targeted audience.
Canin’s platform strategy – in the foreground the Canon AV-1 (automatic, aperture preferred), the AT-1 (semi-auto) in the background. Both were positioned under the flagship AE-1 model and share their chassis with their bigger brother.
  • Scarcity and price
    With only 520,000 copies manufactured between Dec 1976 and 1985 (to be compared with 9,700,000 AE-1/AE-1 Program during the same period), the AT-1 was not very popular – for a Canon SLR, that is.  Today, with the AE-1 and the AE-1 Program becoming seriously expensive (for mass market SLRs of the early eighties), the AT-1 suddenly becomes a sort of next best option for people eager to use Canon FD lenses, and not willing to spend more than $50.00.
Narbonne (France) – Christmas market – Canon AT-1


Compared to its more expensive siblings of the Canon A family (AE-1, AE-1 Program, A-1), the AT-1 is a very simple camera – but to my surprise, it did not feel like an excessively spec’d down camera, and happened to be very pleasant to use.

The viewfinder is large and bright, and focusing is easy thanks to a combination of micro-prism and split image telemeter. The shutter speed dial is large and smooth, which makes it easy to adjust the exposure by changing the shutter speed (the shutter speed dial is generally very stiff on semi-auto/mechanical cameras, but the AT-1 benefits from its electromagnetic  shutter command).

Nothing important is missing (it has an electronic timer for “selfies” and a depth of field preview button) and little details taken over from the AE-1 make the life of the photographer easier. Even though it retains the metering and the on/off switch of the FTb, it feels like a much more modern camera than its famous ancestor, its only limitation being the lack of any information about shutter speed or aperture in the viewfinder.

In the Canon family, there are more elaborate cameras for users of Canon FD lenses. Their performance may be better (more precise metering, faster shutter, larger viewfinder), but they’re also less flexible and – for some of them – not as reliable. Simpler and offering more control over the exposure than the AE-1, lighter and not as expensive as the A-1, more reliable than the T90, it’s a very good camera to go back to the basics.

MIR – Canon AT-1 Specs

Narbonne (France) – Christmas decorations – Canon AT-1
Landscape of the Corbieres (France). Canon AT-1
The Eiffel Tower in the backyard – Lezignan-Corbieres (France). Canon AT-1, FD 24mm lens.