My Top Five Favorite Film Cameras of All Time

My Top Five Favorite Film Cameras of All Time

Criteria

I’ve collected quite a few film cameras over the years, and I found it difficult to select my top five favorites. Having winnowed the field fairly quickly down to 8 semi-finalists, I applied the following criteria to pick the winners.

  • I personally own one or more of each camera, either the exact model or some variant.
  • Number of images taken with each.
  • How often I used the camera in the past year.
  • Ease of use and familiarity.
  • Feelings the camera invokes within me and in others. For example, do people tend to approach me to talk about the camera when they see me using it in public.

#5. Nikon FM2

Nikon FM2

I stepped back from photography in the mid ‘90s while I attended grad school, a period I refer to as my dark ages. I sold all my camera gear except my Nikon FM and the venerable Zoom-Nikkor 35-105mm, a dodgy lens by almost all standards yet one I hold in high esteem. I write nostalgically about this wonderful lens at length in this blog post: https://photography.warrenworks.com/index.php/photography/two-images-decades-apart-same-great-camera-and-lens/  

Large White Planter - Balboa Park, San Diego 1999

Over the Nikon FM, I prefer the Nikon FM2. Like the FM, the FM2 is a fully mechanical camera with several improvements, namely, a faster maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second. It’s a rugged, dependable instrument and is one of the finest cameras Nikon ever produced. I especially like this camera because of its compact size. Yes, they make a motor winder for it, but I have never felt compelled to use it. I like the buttery smooth feel of the manual film advance and the reassuring sound of the shutter release and the mirror moment. It just feels put together, well made, wonderfully engineered.

Pavillion - Balboa Park, San Diego, CA - 1999

It has an exposure meter, which requires batteries, but I never insert the batteries. Instead, if needs be, I use a handheld exposure meter, either the Gossen DigiSix, or a Pentax Spot Meter.

Twisted Trees - Balboa Park, San Diego - 1999

This camera is all about slowing things down and taking your time. What’s the rush? There’s no gunning it, no spraying the subject with the machine gun sound of a high-speed motor winder. With a little thought, planning, and measurement, you can obtain incredible images without wasting film. I’ve used this camera on a tripod more than any other camera I own.

It’s the camera I’d take with me on a trip into the jungle or into the artic. I’d take it anywhere I believe I’d be unable to find batteries or electricity. As long as you have film, you’re in business.

#4. Leica M3

Leica M3 w/Leica Summicron 50mm Near-Focusing Range Lens

I was a late comer to Leica cameras. Like I explained earlier, I chose Nikon over Leica early in my photography career and I’ve been happy with my decision ever since, but when an opportunity came along to acquire a pristine Leica M3, I figured why not? I’m still happy with my Nikon gear, but I must admit, there’s something special about how a Leica camera using Leica glass renders an image on film. There’s more acutance, which comes from the rear of the lens being closer to the film plane due to the lack of a mirror. I still prefer an SLR to a rangefinder, but a well-tuned rangefinder lets you achieve very precise focusing, especially when shooting portraits and you want to focus on the eyes.

Exploring The Barn - Shamba - March 2020

This particular M3 was made in 1962. I like the idea of making images using a camera that’s older than I am. After 58 years, It’s still going strong. And who would have guessed? Retro technology is the new cool thing! Like the Yashica Mat 124G, walking around in public with this camera around your neck attracts aficionados who admire and appreciate sleek design and precise engineering.

I prefer to use the Leica 50mm Summicron f2 Near-Focusing Range lens on this camera. It requires the use of goggles when in the near-focusing range to correct for parallax. The goggles lend an air of mystery to this already beautiful camera which magnifies its attraction quotient substantially. Someone who would ordinarily walk past an old camera in use is drawn to the goggle-equipped Leica M3 like a moth to a flame. You can learn more about this incredible lens in this blog post: https://www.warrenworks.com/film-photography/leica-m3-post-cla-shakedown/

Waiting - Shamba - 2020

The best thing about the Leica M3 is that it’s 100% mechanical. It contains no batteries and no frills. If you want to take a picture, you’d better know your craft. In fact, I enjoy the mental exercise of manually calculating exposure, especially when using this camera. It sharpens the photographic eye.

John - Falls Church, VA - March 2020

#3. Contaxt T

Contax T

The Contax T is the ideal street photography camera. It’s compact, discrete, and unobtrusive. It has a manual focus Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38mm lens, made by Yashica, that folds up for easy storage.

Single-Handling the Contax T
Single-Handling the Contax T
Single-Handling the Contax T

Its manual film advance is easily operated with one hand. It has a leaf shutter, so it’s quieter than the Leica M10D. On a busy street, or in a quiet setting, no one knows you’ve taken a picture. It works in Aperture Priority mode, so in low light you get some wonderful, ethereal, blurry images. 

Alex and Pete - Irish Bar - Courthouse - 2008

It’s a rangefinder, but rarely, if ever, do I focus in this manner. Instead, I set the aperture to F8 and position the green dot on the hyperfocal distance scale opposite the black aperture indicator. This ensures everything between 1.8 meters to infinity will be in focus. Every lens has a hyperfocal distance. I highly recommend you take some time to study this important concept, especially if you’re interested in street photography. With the hyperfocal distance set, I aim the camera in the general direction of the subject, usually from hip level, and fire.

Setting Hyper Focal Distance

I hold the camera in my right hand with the carry strap wrapped around my wrist. I aim, shoot, and advance the film with one hand. I find shooting from the hip yields the most candid shots. The camera is down, out of the way, and inconspicuous. I find that when people see a camera their defenses go up. They become suspicious and sometimes hostile.

Acrobat Man - Leidseplein Square, Amsterdam -  2005

If I want to engage a subject on a more personal level, I will approach them and ask for their permission to take their photograph, like I did with this protester at a Women’s Rights March in Washington, DC.

Protester - March for Women's Rights  - Washington, DC - 2004

#2. Yashica Mat 124G

Yashica Mat 124G

In 2006 digital cameras reached parity with film and professional photographers around the world started upgrading. This resulted in a glut of used medium format gear coming to market at good prices, so I bought a few. One of the gems I acquired early on was a nearly new Yashica Mat 124G. I took it on a trip to Amsterdam and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

Amsterdam 2007

This is a twin lens reflex (TLR) camera and it takes some getting used to. To take a picture, you flip open the top and peer down through the top to compose and focus the shot. From a distance it appears you’re hunched over a mysterious black box. People watching wonder what you are doing, and that’s what makes using this camera so much fun. Perfect strangers, driven by curiosity, approach and start a conversation. Where I to find myself stranded in a strange land with nothing but the clothes on my back and this camera, by the end of the day I could secure a hot meal and a place to stay.

Frankie & Jack - Atlantic City, NJ 2012

I especially like to use this camera to capture images with a different point of view. By the very nature of its twin lens reflex design, one tends to shoot from their belly button, as opposed to a 35 mm SLR, which is most naturally employed at eye level. It’s easy to photograph subjects who are sitting without the need to squat down. Where this camera really shines is shooting at ground level without danger of getting your clothes dirty. I’ve made my best images of my animal friends with this camera.

Pirate Flag - Old Forge, New York - 2007

The Yashica Mat 124G is not a high-end camera. Compared to a Rolleiflex 3.5F or the Mamiya C330 Professional, both heavy, solid cameras, the Yashica Mat 124G feels like a rattily tin can. Using an automobile analogy, the Yashica Mat 124G feels like a Yugoslavian compact car to the touch but performs like an uber engineered German touring sedan. Physically, construction-wise, one perceives loose tolerances, sloppy seconds, false hopes.

In reality, this camera shines in three key areas:

  1. It has one of the world’s finest lenses,
  2. It has a dead-on-accurate, built-in exposure meter, and
  3. It’s one tough mother of a camera.

There’s nothing frilly hanging off the sides of this machine to get destroyed when it’s accidentally dropped, say, when drinking beer and playing foosball at the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. It’s lighter, too, than a Rolleiflex 3.5F or the Mamiya C330 Professional, which makes it easy to carry around for an all-day shooting adventure. And you can buy one for a song, comparitavely speaking. 

Kathleen Thinking - Old Forge, New York - 2007

Well, a Yashica Mat 124G used to be a real bargain on eBay, but a quick glance at recent prices shows mint condition specimens listed for upwards of $800. These sellers are smokin’ crack. A used one in nice condition is listed for $285. eBay used to be a great place to buy used gear until they started charging tax on out-of-state purchases for flea-market items. I’ll save that rant for another video. A used Yashica Mat 124G in good condition between $125 – $250 is a good deal in my opinion.

Stevie - Fat Rabbit Cottage
Ramble Shack In Fading Light
Bent Rim and Trash - Amsterdam - 2007

#1. Nikon F3HP

Nikon F3HP

This is, by far, my favorite camera, period. I love everything about this camera, from the way it looks, the way it feels in my hands, the way it performs, and how easy it is to forget about its controls and simply focus on the art of image making.

Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985

I bought my first Nikon F3HP in 1984 when I was a young sailor assigned to the USS Norfolk, SSN 714, a Los Angeles class fast attack submarine. I wanted to take my photography to the next level and the two camera brands most closely associated with professional photographers in those days was Nikon and Leica.

Fiery Sunset - Squadron 6 Pier - Norfolk, VA - 1984

Eventually, after some research, I narrowed the choice between the Nikon F3HP and the Leica M4-P. Unlike today, where professional grade digital cameras easily cost $5000 or more, and you feel like your arm is being twisted behind your back when you buy one, I recall that neither of these cameras were outrageously expensive, though the Leica did cost more than the Nikon.

Italian Girl Riding Bike
Italian Girl Riding Bike
Italian Girl Riding Bike

Ultimately, I based my choice on my preference for looking through the lens of a single lens reflex (SLR) camera vs. using a range finder, and so I chose the Nikon. I’ve been a loyal Nikon user ever since.

Patrick - Chantilly, VA - March 2020

The HP stands for High Eyepoint. Essentially, what makes a Nikon F3HP a High Eyepoint is the DE-3 finder, which allows you to see the entire viewfinder image while wearing glasses. This is a great feature, because in the ‘80s, I wore Ray-Ban sunglasses, so I could take pictures and look cool at the same time.

Snorking Ops - USS Norfolk - October 1984
Cold Topside Watch - USS Norfolk - January 1985
John - USS Norfolk - On Station
Batman with the Wrong Way Shoes
Five Favorite Film Cameras
Leica M10-D: Comparison to an Old Friend

Leica M10-D: Comparison to an Old Friend

Bottom-Line-Up-Front

The Leica M10-D is a remarkable camera. Its minimalist controls provide an uncluttered, refreshingly simple user experience that compliments your creative process. It is my first foray into Leica’s digital M ecosystem and I’m happy I waited until this camera came along to take the plunge. If you’re jonesing for an M10-D, I recommend you move immediately on your impulse.

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve – Tinsel & Lights – Leica M10-D w/Noctilux-M 50mm

My Frame of Reference

I’m a child of the film age. My first professional 35mm camera was the venerable Nikon F3HP, which I still use today. I repeatedly read Ansel Adam’s books The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, until I had internalized the wisdom contained within those sacred texts and applied it to my own work.

As a U.S. Navy submarine Electronics Technician in the early ‘80s, one of my collateral duties was Ships Photographer. The primary duty of a ship’s photographer was to ensure images made through the boat’s periscopes were of sufficient quality to extract maximum intelligence. On deployments we took along a portable, automatic film processing unit, which was cumbersome to use and provided mediocre results at best, so I preferred to develop negatives by hand. After one exercise which required taking, processing, and submitting periscope images for review, I was happy to learn the Intel guys had never seen such well-developed negatives.

Rick Miller - Early Navy Days

Standing Lookout Watch – 1984, Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.8 – Taken by OOD

Ahh, the memories…, uh, where was I, oh yeah, the Nikon F3HP, anyway, what I like about this camera, among many other things, is its 80% center-weighted metering, Auto exposure mode, exposure memory lock, and the ergonomics of its controls. You can, of course, set the exposure manually, but sometimes I like to be spontaneous, and the combination of auto exposure mode, center-weighted metering, and exposure lock allow me to quickly assess a scene’s luminosity and make bracketed exposures without bothering to drop into manual mode. And oh-by-the-way, there’s no chimping on a film camera.

Savannah Riverfront

The Beef Jerky Shop, Savannah, GA – Leica M10-D w/Noctilux-M 50mm

Another critically important feature of the Nikon F3HP is, of course, that it’s a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, and I recall clearly my struggle to decide between it and the Leica M4-P, which is a range finder. To me, peering directly through the lens seemed like a more natural way to view a scene and more accurately judge image composition, a view I still hold today. So, with limited funds of a young navy squid, and being inclined towards an SLR, I chose the Nikon over the Leica, and I’ve been happy with my decision ever since. I use Nikon’s Flagship DSLRs to this day and all my old Nikon lenses work just fine on them.

Blackberry Bush

Blackberry Bush – Leica M10-D w/Summicron-M 90mm

Que the Leica M10-D

It’s the marriage of intuitive, ergonomic controls and a return to a familiar way of image-making that defines the allure of the Leica M10-D for me personally. It compares favorably in size with the Nikon F3HP sans its MD-4 motor winder. Its metering, by default, is center-weighted, and the exposure lock (called Metering Memory Lock) is activated by a slight pressure on the shutter release button. In this regard, the M10-D outshines the F3HP. It’s a bit of a Kabuki dance to activate the exposure lock with the MD-4 motor winder attached, which is my F3HP’s normal battle configuration.

Backyard Buddha

Buddha & Zen Plant – Leica M10-D w/Summicron-M 90mm

A slew of additional features such as focus peaking and two additional metering modes are available with the use of the separate Visoflex 020 accessory. More about the Visoflex later.

The camera’s operation can be customized via the Leica Fotos app, which connects to the camera via the Leica M10-D’s WIFI (WLAN) connection. The Fotos app also allows you to control the camera remotely, a feature I haven’t tried yet, but seems like it would come in handy to reduce touch-induced camera shake or to just let you take a picture with you in it that doesn’t look like a selfie.

I’m still not as fast at acquiring images as quickly with a range finder vs. an SLR, but I’m getting better with practice.

Grave Site Savannah, GA

Grave Site, Savannah, GA – Leica M10-D w/Noctilux-M 50mm

The Visoflex (Type 020) Electronic Viewfinder

This is one cool accessory. Attaching the Visoflex to the M10-D gives you a DSLR experience without the mirror flap. It connects to the M10-D via the hot shoe mount and provides a full-color, heads-up display with information you’d normally find in a DSLR or mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, including a histogram in the upper left corner of the display. It also provides focus peaking and the ability, with a tap of the shutter release button, to zoom in on a subject to focus on a particular detail. This is all fine and dandy, but I find the battery drains about 10 times faster when using the Visoflex, something to be aware of if you decide to add that accessory to your kit. So, I’ve set the M10-D to my favorite settings and with practice I’m getting better at focusing with the optical range finder.

Leica Visoflex

Leica M10-D with Visoflex and Spare Batteries

Actually, in my experience, I can focus more accurately with the optical range finder, especially in situations where extremely accurate focusing is critical, say, when focusing on an eye at wide-open apertures. The Visoflex favors good, solid edges.

Leica Visoflex Rear View

Leica M10-D w/Visoflex Rear View

So, although I shelled out some hard-earned cash for the Visoflex, I find myself using it less often now as I grow more proficient at range finder focusing. Note: My M10-D is always smartly dressed in its Luigi half case with built-in grip, and UPstrap Medium X Crossover Pad camera strap + Quick Release available at UPStrap-pro.com.

Visoflex Up

Leica M10-D w/Visoflex in Up Position

 

The Fotos App

The Leica M10-D has a minimal set of external controls, and since there’s no screen on the back, to make changes to default settings, or access other advanced features not accessible when the Visoflex is attached, you must connect the camera to the Fotos app to access these settings. Connecting my M10-D to Fotos seems like a hit-or-miss operation at times and requires several retries, but it eventually connects.  Maybe I need to update my camera’s firmware. Once in, however, it works great, and you can change settings and operate the camera remotely, as I mentioned earlier.

The following screenshots step through the process of connecting the camera to Fotos.

Connecting Fotos App

Connecting to Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Fotos App

Remote Operation

Remote Operation

 

Fotos also lets you view and download images from the camera to your iPhone or iPad. One point of caution is in order here – downloading an image from the camera to your device removes the image from the camera. I found this a bit annoying when later I went to import the images into Lightroom and found the ones I had downloaded were missing. I had to import them from my iPhone into Apple’s Photos, then export the original files from Photos then import them into Lightroom. This delete-from-camera-on-download might just be a setting in Fotos. If it is, I haven’t found it yet. Just something to keep in mind.

Something else to keep in mind…using the camera’s WLAN sucks down the battery at about 10 times the normal rate. That’s why you need to buy one or two spare batteries. This leads me to my Tips for All Day Shooting with the Leica M10-D on One Battery:

  • Don’t use the Visoflex
  • Resist the urge to chimp until you get home. (Chimping on your phone is still chimping. Real photographers don’t need to chimp. )

Side-By-Side Comparisons

Leica M10-D vs. Nikon F3HP

Leica M10-D vs. Nikon F3HP

Leica M10-D vs. Leica M3

Leica M10-D vs. Leica M3

New Year’s Resolution: Shoot More Film In 2019 (2 January 2020 Update!)

New Year’s Resolution: Shoot More Film In 2019 (2 January 2020 Update!)

Happy New Year!

 

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of film, but I’m ashamed to admit I slacked off in 2017 & 2018 and shot only a handful of rolls and developed not one. I’m now faced with a stockpile of aging film and chemicals nearing expiration and I need to get busy. I need to shoot more film. 

My ambitious plan for 2019 is to select two cameras from my collection as daily shooters and carry them wherever I go, either one or the other, or, if I’m feeling froggy, both, but that might be too ambitious. In case you haven’t already guessed from looking at the header image, I’ve selected the venerable Nikon F3HP and the Mamiya C330.

Nikon F3HP


Nikon F3HP

The Nikon F3HP was an easy choice as it’s easily my favorate camera of all time. I’m upping the ante by using only two prime lenses: 1) a Nikkor 50mm f1.2 (shown attached to the camera), and 2) a Nikkor 35mm f1.4. The use of primes will force me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to get close and intimate with my subjects. I also need to build an image bank using these lenses and this will give me the opportunity.

Mamiya C330 Pro


Mamiya C330 Pro

I’ve owned the Mamiya C330 for some time, but haven’t had a chance to use it.  Its 80mm f2.8 Mamiya-Sekor lens is superb for portrait work.

Both of these cameras are hefty. In my very unscientific left-hand-right-hand scale test, the Mamiya feels more than a bit heavier than the Nikon with the MD-4 motordrive attached. My strap of choice in situations like this is the UPstrap Large Mountain ‘Hybrid’ Pad Camera Step/Sling. These are, hands down, the best camera straps on the planet. And no, I am not affiliated with UPstrap. I just like to plug companies that make great products here in the good-ol’ USA.

Kodak 400 TX



Kodak 400 TX

For film I’ll be using Kodak Tri-X 400, Kodak Porta 400, Kodak Ektar 100, and ADOX 25. I’ll schlep the film and other doodads around in my goto camera bag: a US Army Communications Peg Bag.

US Army Bag



US Army Bag

The one shown above is a reprodution. I waterproofed the fabric with 3M waterproofing spray and I carry a handful of waterproof pouches for when the weather is particularly nasty and I can’t escape the elements.

I’ll post updates and sample images throughout the year.

Update
2 January 2020

I fell way short of achieving this goal, I’m saddened to admit. I didn’t even touch the Mamiya C330 Pro, but I did manage to take the Nikon F3HP out for several spins over the course of the year and came away with a handful of images, several of which are posted below.

Bentleys Still Life

Bentleys Still Life – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.2

Tri Nguyen

Tri Nguyen – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.2

The Nikon F3HP is perhaps my favorite camera. I’ve used it since the early 1980’s and its controls are as familiar, intuitive, and responsive to me as a lover’s body.

Kathleen

Kathleen – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.2

But it seems I have found a new lover…

Leica M10-D

Leica M10-D w/Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0

…a digital camera that shoots like a film camera, the Leica M10-D. You can read my complete review of this amazing camera here: Leica M10-D: Comparison to an Old Friend

Nikon F3HP

Nikon F3HP

Ever faithful, virtually indestructible, I affectionately refer to this camera as “The Tank”. I purchased my first F3HP in the early 1980s and it served as my constant companion during deployments aboard the USS Norfolk (SSN-714), the USS America (CV-66), and the USS LaSalle (AGF-3). Every photograph I made from 1982 through 1994 I did so with a Nikon F3HP. Many of the following images were made using the venerable Zoom-Nikkor 35-105mm, a lens many consider to be rather dodgy, but I like it just fine.

Nikon F3HP w/Zoom-Nikkor 35-105

Nikon F3HP w/Zoom-Nikkor 35-105mm

 

Fiery Sunset, Norfolk, VA, 1984 – Nikon F3HP w/Zoom-Nikkor 35-105

The Nikon F3, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, seduces your eye and instinctively, as if driven by a primordial force, you want to pick it up and hold it in your hands. The F3, more than any other camera I am personally aware of, is so ergonomically well built it gives one a feeling of pure power.

McFarland Regatta

OCC McFarland Regatta, 4 July 1987 – Nikon F3HP w/Zoom-Nikkor 35-105

I never remove the camera from the motor winder. Together they form a synergistic one. If two mechanical components were ever meant to forever bond it is the F3 and the MD-4. Even when I don’t need automated film advance the MD-4 still serves as the camera’s power source. And the added heft aids in camera stabilization as well as fending off an attack.

Still Life

Still Life – Nikon F3HP w/Zoom-Nikkor 35-105

What I like best about the F3HP is its big, bright viewfinder. I like to wear sunglasses when I’m out and about. I can, with the HP viewfinder, see the complete image from nearly an inch away.

Flight Deck

Flight Deck USS America CV-66, Persian Gulf, Operation Desert Storm – Nikon F3HP w/Zoom-Nikkor 35-105

I prefer to use an architectural focusing screen with the F3HP. (Focusing screen E) These have grids and no center prism.

K-Street Blur

K-Street Blur – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 35mm f1.4