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My daughter has a photography course coming up for school. The instructions from the course say that we need to get a film camera for her.

The requirements state the following: "35mm single lens reflex camera (capable of operating in manual mode). Camera does not need to be new but must be in good working order with fresh batteries and include the owner’s manual."

When I search on ebay, there are tons of different models to choose from. Searching here didn't seem to get many applicable results and searching on the internet gives plenty of different suggestions (e.g. Pentax K1000, Canon AE-1, Nikon FM2). The problem is that I have no idea if they are suitable for a course. Are there different types of manual? When I look at my digital camera, I can set things like ISO, aperture, etc. If I look at something like the Canon AE-1, it only has a single dial with what looks like a single ISO. My knowledge of cameras is slim, at best.

It would be nice if we could get something that is usable in the future and not just around for the course.

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    When I was 15 years old I bought a brand new AE 1 for my high school photography course. ( my high school had a dark room ) in my 20s I bought a Canon A 1, that is my favorite 35mm camera. – Alaska Man Jun 3 at 4:04
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The Pentax K1000 is the classic student camera and would be perfect. My first one was the similar Ricoh KR5, which was great. I have not used the Canon AE-1 or Nikon FM2, but based on the images I Googled, I can see that they have the standard manual exposure controls and will be fine as well.

There are not different kinds of manual exposure mode. They all allow you to choose what aperture and shutter speed you want, which is exactly what your daughter will need for the course. On a digital camera, ISO can also be selected on a shot by shot basis. On a film camera, you dial this in when you load the film, and leave it until you switch to another speed film.

She of course will also need a lens. The standard recommendation here is a 50mm as this offers a similar perspective as the human eye. If you buy the camera and lens separately, make sure you get a lens with the correct mount. Feel free to post back here with the body you choose if you need help finding a lens that will fit.

I would also suggest a camera bag and a tripod. She doesn't need anything expensive here, I would recommend a LowePro bag (they are awesome, and they stand behind their products... I have one that is 20 years old and is still in good shape) Something like the Lowepro Adventura SH 140 II should be a good size. An inexpensive tripod is handy. I haven't used it, but the specs on the Sunpak 6630LX look about right for an intro course.

  • Thanks for the help. That makes a lot of sense. My daughter took a look at the two and decided that she liked the Canon AE-1 so I will shop around for one and see what is available. Hopefully I can get a 50mm lens too. – Graymatter Jun 3 at 9:53
  • If you're going to use manual exposure (mode) then the AT-1 would do just as well. BTW good luck on finding a fresh 6V battery, neither camera works at all without one. – Jeroen van Duyn Jun 3 at 10:38
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    @JeroenvanDuyn Why should that be a problem? Both Pentax K1000 and the Canon AE-1 use a 4SR44 (or equivalent) battery, which is still a more or less common battery type, made by most major battery manufacturers and available for a few dollars. Unless a camera really requires a mercury battery, wich are not produced anymore, and that mostly applies to cameras 50 years or more of age, it is usually no problem at all to get batteries for old cameras or photo equipment. – jarnbjo Jun 3 at 15:04
  • @jambjo Where I live the 4SR44 is not available in the proverbial corner store, so I have to find it in one of very few online shops. Just warning that the battery is not just for the light meter, the shutter release also depends on it. (You might get a camera for a very good price if the owner is not aware of this, hehe.) – Jeroen van Duyn Jun 3 at 17:51
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    @Jeroen van Duyn Yes, replacing the battery requires planning ahead, but it is becoming more and more common to have to buy any kind of photo equipment online due to the closure of so many local camera shops. A sad casualty of the rise of e-commerce. I would say this has become par for the course with photography in general these days. The same situation is even more likely when she needs to buy film. – Phil Anderson Jun 4 at 1:49
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Any SLR film camera with shutter speed and aperture control would work. Some schools have equipment checkout. She may be able to use a school camera for the first several assignments or even the entire course. Consider purchasing from a local shop that tests and guarantees equipment.

  • Shutter speed dial is on the camera.

  • Aperture ring is usually on the lens. Exceptions include Canon EF and Minolta AF.

  • ISO is set once per cassette when loading film. It's not like digital cameras where we change ISO from shot to shot. Newer cameras may read the DX encoding from the film cassette.

  • There are too many available cameras to choose from. I would choose a mount, then look for a suitable camera. My top picks would be FD, PK, and MD because OEM lenses in those mounts tend to be good and still useful on digital (mirrorless with adapter).

  • Consider a Canon T70 or T90 (but not T50, which does not have shutter speed controls). They are powered by standard AA batteries, which are cheaper and more readily available than other options. In a pinch, she could pull batteries from a flash unit. They use the same FD mount as the AE-1.

  • Also consider a Canon EOS SLR, which uses the EF mount that's still used in Canon DSLRs. The camera would have fairly modern features (autofocus) with a good selection of lenses should she decide to stick with film. If she instead decides to transition to digital (via an EOS DSLR), the new system would be familiar and easy to learn. If she collects high-quality EF lenses, they would still be useful on digital.

  • An auto-incapable camera is likely unnecessary.

    • The requirements you quote imply manual-capable, not manual-only. – "35mm single lens reflex camera (capable of operating in manual mode)."

    • After clicking on the first dozen or so PDFs in a Google search for film photography syllabus, I encountered only one syllabus that could be interpreted as requiring an auto-incapable camera. It also states that cameras would be inspected and approved prior to the first assignment.

      Majority of others seem more concerned that students not use point-and-shoot, box cameras, or auto-only cameras. Even though I explicitly specify Film in the search, some courses allow a digital option, and one high-school course even allows camera phones for the first half of the course.

Lens selection:

  • For Canon FD, the standard Nifty Fifty (FD 50/1.8) is very good. Some assignments are best done with fast prime lenses. (Depth of Field) The FD 35-105/3.5 zoom is also good, but susceptible to veiling glare.

  • For Pentax PK, SMC primes are well regarded. The SMC-A 35-105/3.5 zoom is very good. Not as sharp as its FD counterpart, but more resistant to veiling glare.

  • Good lenses can survive the transition to digital via adapters on mirrorless bodies. I regularly use several FD and PK mount lenses.

Other comments:

  • Keep in mind that when looking through the viewfinder, she would effectively be looking directly at whatever is on the other side of the lens. Be careful when the sun is in the frame.

  • Don't worry about having a paper owner manual. Operating instructions should be available online for most cameras (Butkus Camera Manual Library). The rationale behind the requirement is likely that the instructor does not want to answer a lot of questions about how to operate specific camera models.

  • Many assignments will likely need a tripod. (Long exposure, multiple exposure, variable exposure, variable aperture, etc.)

  • Do get a neoprene strap. It will make carrying the camera much more comfortable.

  • Wait on getting a camera bag. Film cassettes will fit in her purse, and she's unlikely to be carrying around multiple lenses at this stage. Cameras are easier to use when they aren't hiding in a bag.

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    The LR44 batteries used by the AE-1/AE-1P, F2M, and K-1000 are plentiful and may also be bought at any Walmart, Dollar General, CVS, etc. – Michael C Jun 3 at 21:25
  • "consider a Canon EOS SLR, which uses the EF mount that's still used in Canon DSLRs." - This is good advice. If she ends up liking photography, she will very likely want a digital body. This would make the transition more affordable. (although EF mount lenses are available pretty cheap.) – Phil Anderson Jun 3 at 23:41
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When many photography courses require a "fully manual' film camera, that can mean one of two different things:

  • A film camera capable of being operated manually, even if the camera can also be used in automatic or semi-automatic modes.
  • A film camera that can only be operated manually and has no capability of using automatic or semi-automatic modes.

From the way you describe the course expectations, it sounds like you probably don't need to worry about this. Others with similar questions might. Although anecdotal, my personal experience has been that the latter is more often the case than the former. Instructors typically require this because it is impossible to tell from the images captured if a film camera was used in fully manual operation or if one of the automatic modes were used to produced the photographs a student submits for an assignment.

You could check with the course instructor for a clarification on this point. All of the cameras you have listed in the question would meet the conditions of the first option above but one of the three you list would not meet the requirements of the second.

When buying any older film camera you should verify that it operates correctly and doesn't have any light leaks that could fog loaded film. You need to include time to do this no matter which camera you wind up buying. It just goes with the territory of buying used film cameras. Good reputable sources for used camera gear are national retailers such as B&H and Adorama, as well as KEH who specializes in used gear only.

The Canon AE-1 and AE-1P offer some automatic exposure control as well as full manual control. Canon FD mount lenses used by the Canon AE-1/AE-1P are still reasonably plentiful and relatively easy to find on the used market.

The AE-1/AE-1P are powered by either a single 6V 4SR44 battery (various manufacturers have different numbers for it) or by 4 1.5V LR44 batteries. The LR44 button cells are still fairly common and relatively inexpensive. Major brick and mortar retailers sell them as they are used in a wide variety of devices from meat thermometers to wristwatches. The single 6V varieties are mostly carried only by specialty camera stores but are fairly easy to find online. Without batteries the AE-1/AE-1P are not operable. The horizontal cloth shutter curtains of the AE-1/AE-1P have not aged quite as well as the vertical travel metal shutters found on some other film cameras from the same era, but there are still many around that are in great shape. Of note is that the AE-1/AE-1P offered shutter priority auto-exposure but not aperture priority AE at a time when most AE cameras were the opposite - they offered aperture priority but not shutter priority. The only way to manually select the aperture with an AE-1/AE-1P is to use manual exposure mode. On the other hand, one could fully control the shutter speed and let the camera calculate the needed aperture.

The Nikon FM2 is a manual exposure only camera. Nikon F-mount lenses compatible with the FM2 are also plentiful, though one must be careful because although they will mount on older F-mount film cameras, some newer types of F-mount lenses introduced from around the year 2000 will not be fully functional with the older F-mount film cameras.

From Wikipedia (italics added):

The FM2 accepts all Nikon F bayonet mount lenses that support the Automatic Indexing (AI) feature introduced in 1977. The Nikon-made AI lenses of this type are the AF-S Nikkor, AF-I Nikkor, AF Nikkor D, AF Nikkor, Nikkor AI-S, Nikkor AI and Nikon Series E lenses (not to be confused with the more recent electronic AF Nikkor E type Nikkor lenses). Nikon’s most recent 35mm film SLR lenses, the AF Nikkor G type (introduced in 2000) and the AF Nikkor DX type (2003) will mount but will not function properly.

The Nikon FM2 is powered by either one 3V CR1/3N lithium battery, or two 1.55V SR44 silver-oxide batteries, or two 1.5V LR44 alkaline batteries. As mentioned above, LR44 and equivalent batteries are still very common and readily available at many retailers. The CR1/3N is used today in the collar of several popular "electronic fences" for pets, and many pet stores carry them. They're also readily available online and are also relatively inexpensive. FM2 bodies will operate without a battery (except for the light meter). Technically, FM2 bodies made after 1984 are FM2n models, but the only external difference on the camera body is the red 1/250 second shutter speed marking denoting the flash sync speed. The original 1982-84 FM2 bodies had a different shutter mechanism and the flash sync speed was 1/200 second.

The Pentax K1000 is a manual exposure only camera. You'll likely find lenses for the Pentax 'K' mount more easily than for the Canon FD mount.

The Pentax K1000 is considered by many to be the archetypal "student" camera. I've actually seen a few course syllabi back in the 1990s where the K1000 was one of a very short list or even the only acceptable camera for the course. The examples made in Japan or Hong Kong between 1976 and 1990 are all metal. The ones made in China between 1990-97 have a plastic lid and bottom plate. All versions have a rubberized cloth horizontal shutter. The same readily available LR44 batteries mentioned above are required to operate the K1000's light meter. Without a battery everything except the light meter still works and photos can still be taken at every available aperture and shutter time setting.

From the above it should be clear that availability of batteries and lenses that fit a particular camera, along with shutter durability, are things that should figure high on the list when buying an older used film camera.

If she's allowed to have some auto-exposure capability the Canon AE-1 would be a good choice. If she must have a manual only camera the K1000 is hard to argue against but the Nikon FM2 is also very good. You can get LR44 batteries for all of them at Walmart, Dollar General, CVS, etc. Used K-mount and F-mount lenses are plentiful and affordable. FD lenses are also still fairly easy to find, though not quite to the extent of the K-mount or F-mount.

When I look at my digital camera, I can set things like ISO, aperture, etc. If I look at something like the Canon AE-1, it only has a single dial with what looks like a single ISO.

The large control dial on the AE-1 is the shutter speed control. The ASA (ISO setting is incorporated into this dial and visible through a small window in the dial. As mentioned above, the AE-1/AE-1P was a "shutter priority" (Tv or S mode on your digital) camera at a time when most semi-automatic cameras were "aperture priority" (Av or A mode on your digital camera).

Most film cameras leave the aperture setting to a ring on the lens, rather than placing it on the camera body. If a camera has automatic modes where the camera selects the aperture, the lens will have an "A" (for Auto) or similarly named position on the aperture ring that allows the camera to set the aperture via a mechanical linkage.

Related questions here at Photography SE:
I'm getting started in photography and taking a photography class — what camera should I buy?
Is a Pentax K1000 relevant today, and how can I get the best use of it?
Is a Nikon FG good enough for art school?
What considerations should be made for choosing a manual film SLR for photography classes?

For after the course:

Even if she decides she wants to ultimately shoot with film, shooting with a slightly older used digital camera is a faster and more economical way to improve with many of the fundamentals of photography, including exposure, composition, technique, and how using different focal lengths, apertures, shutter times, etc. will affect the resulting image than starting out with a film camera would be. This is particularly the case when one might not be sure if any problems one might see in one's earliest images are the result of user error or of camera malfunction.

For more along those lines, please see:
With which film camera should I start?
Should I continue to learn exposure on a film camera or switch to digital?

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    The instructions state "capable of operating in manual mode". If the instructor wanted a manual-only camera, probably would have included the word "only" somewhere. When I took a photography class (in the pre-digital dark ages), auto was allowed except for specific assignments. Anyone here would be able to tell within a second of seeing the negatives if they were not done in manual mode. – xiota Jun 3 at 19:34
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    Do you know with 100% certainty that is a verbatim quote from the syllabus? There is no way to tell if a negative has been exposed using manual or automatic exposure. On the same film in the same light, 1/100 at f/5.6 looks the same regardless of how those settings were determined. – Michael C Jun 3 at 21:22
  • The statement is presented as a quote of the requirements. Assignments that benefit from manual are often a series of exposures to demonstrate the effects that settings have on images. If you saw such a series, you would be able to identify the setting that was changed. In a good class, assignments have purpose. Students don't use manual just to use manual. – xiota Jun 3 at 22:56
  • Also consider classes that use digital cameras. Manual only digital cameras aren't readily available to most people. Exif data can easily be faked. Instructors have to be able to recognize when image characteristics are consistent with learning objectives. – xiota Jun 3 at 23:05
  • In the syllabi for most college level courses such as being discussed here that I've seen, there are a few such assignments, but they're not that significant in the totality of the full course. There were more than a few such courses back in the 1980s and 1990s when I was around educational communities that required a manual exposure only camera precisely to insure that the students were using manual exposure modes. At least as recently as the late 2000s the local high schools and community college still required manual only cameras in their 'Photo 101' courses. – Michael C Jun 4 at 4:39
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This is a bit long for a comment but I mean this answer to be an addendum to the other good answers already here.

It's highly likely that any manual film camera that you pick up was manufactured at least before the 1980's. These are mechanical devices - using them wears them down; Not using them wears them down.

If you are buying one of these cameras from a private seller, unless otherwise specified, I would expect the light seals and mirror damper to be in rough shape and I'd expect the shutter speeds to no longer be accurate. If you were to take one of these cameras to a repair shop, you can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a CLA (Clean, Lube, Adjust) to get the camera back in tip-top shape.

If you buy the camera from a pro photo store (there's usually one in any major city, see Pro Photo Supply in Portland or Tempe Camera in Tempe for examples), I'd expect these things to have already been done (but definitely ask!). From my experience buying used gear - you'll pay more buying private and then paying for a CLA than you would buying straight from a photo store in the first place - so see what options you have.

The Pentax K1000 is the quintessential photo student camera, but because of this, demand in some areas is actually inflating their price (The hipsters here in PDX are doing just that - to the point that I'm tempted to start buying them from out of state and reselling here ;-). Also in this range from Pentax is the KM, the KX, and the K2. The K1000 is the most bare-bones, stripped down version while the K2 is the most feature-rich. I mention these because they can often be found for equal or less cash than the K1000.

  • "using them wears them down; Not using them wears them down" – What to do? – xiota Jun 4 at 22:15
  • @xiota keep on keepin' on. Also, once one masters the power of the force, the unstable mechanics can be held in check, in a quasi-equilibrium with your power. You may also now be a dark side shooter. – Hueco Jun 5 at 16:15

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