How cheap can it get?
The price of used film cameras on eBay is racing to the bottom. No brand is immune – not even Nikon or Leica – only a few models seem to be worthy of the consideration of the buyers and still sell for more than $100.00:
- single digit Nikon F models,
- Nikon FM2 or FM3A,
- Contax 159mm or ST,
- pristine and tested Canon T90 or Canon New F-1,
- all rangefinder cameras from Leica and a few of their SLRs,
- Olympus OM-3t / OM-4t.
The very last high end film auto-focus SLRs of Canon, Minolta and Nikon – such as the EOS-3 and EOS-1 V, the Maxxum 7 and 9, and the F100 and F6 – are also in a a category of their own. As the “ultimate” film SLRs, very close technically from the current dSLRs of the same brand, they can be sold for anything between $200.00 and $2,000.00.
The rest is trending towards being virtually free, and autofocus SLRs fare even worse than manual focus bodies: I recently paid $3.25 for a nice N6006, a Nikon SLR from the early auto-focus era and $15.00 for a beautiful Minolta 9xi with a good lens, its original catalog and user manual. We already passed the point where the shipping costs exceed the sale price of the camera, and where a set of batteries can be many times more expensive than the camera itself – the lithium battery of the N6006 cost me $12.00, almost 4 times the price of the camera.
For the photographer starting to shoot with film, there has never been a better time to buy a good camera on the cheap. Collectors are more attracted by pro or high-end cameras which were expensive when new, and still are in top condition. The “last pro or last high-end film cameras manufactured by a given brand…” fare particularly well: a tested and working Pentax LX, a beautiful Olympus OM-4Ti or a Canon EOS-1 V are relatively rare and can sometimes reach prices between $400 and $1,000.
SLRs originally positioned as mid level cameras for enthusiasts or experts provide the best opportunities, in particular if you’re willing to accept a few scratches or blemishes on the body: they tend to be much more usable than entry level cameras (they’re almost as feature rich as the high end models, if not as solid), but don’t catch the attention of the collectors because they’re too ordinary and too easy to find.
On my short list of recommended cameras:
Manual Focus cameras: strangely enough, manual-focus cameras from big brands tend to be more expensive than most of their auto-focus SLRs.
Although not as expensive as a T90, a FM3A or an OM-4Ti, the three cameras listed below can still command prices in the $70.00 to $100.00 range. They are very competent tools, they benefit from a large supply of good lenses, and are a great way to move one step higher with film photography:
- Canon A-1
- Nikon FE2
- Olympus OM-2n
You can find cheaper manual focus alternatives – the Olympus OM-2000 is one of my $5.00 cameras, but I’d be more prudent with brands like Fujica (and other brands which did not have strong following on the expert or enthusiast markets). Not that they did not make good cameras – but good lenses are going to be more difficult to find – and without a set of good lenses, a SLR camera is not really worth having.
Auto-focus Cameras: manufactured in the early to mid-nineties by the big four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax), they are mature technically, with a good multi-sensor auto-focus, matrix metering, and a long eye point viewfinder. The lenses are still somehow compatible with the current dSLRs of the brand – and they’re incredibly cheap. A few examples of the “expert” or “enthusiast” category:
- Minolta 600si
- Minolta 9xi
- Nikon N90s
Auto-focus cameras designed for amateurs (such as the Minolta 3xi or the Nikon N6006) are the cheapest of them all, but the price difference with the “expert”, “enthusiast” or “prosumer” model of the same brand is minimal (the price of their disposable Lithium battery, roughly). Don’t hesitate. Go for the top of the line.
As usual, I only recommended cameras I’ve used and liked. I’m sure there are very good auto-focus cameras from Canon (EOS mount), and great manual focus cameras from Minolta (MD mount) or Pentax (K mount). They’re all supported by a great line of lenses and will also constitute very good buys.
One last word…of caution
When you buy a camera for less than $5.00, you don’t always win.
- shopgoodwill.com is a very good source for cheap equipment, but you have to consider it’s sold as is, by people who – generally – have absolutely no clue of what they’re selling and can’t describe it in any useful way. To me, it has been a bit of a hit and miss – cameras from the 90s (the Olympus OM-2000, the Minolta 9xi, the Nikon N90s) were diamonds in the rough, and after a good cleaning, they worked perfectly. Older cameras (a Spotmatic, a Fujica AX-3) were broken and could not be fixed. The older the camera, the riskiest it gets. But most cameras are sold with a lens, and even if the camera is defective, the value of its lens alone sometimes makes buying the set a good deal.
- eBay – thanks to the system of feedback, sellers tend to describe their items with some level of accuracy. In my experience, if you stick with sellers with an almost perfect feedback score (99% or better), and read the item description extremely carefully, you won’t be disappointed.