Dan K’s Top 10 Manual Film SLRs
Dan K is back, with a great rundown of the best manual film SLR’s. Come and read, maybe you will learn something new, maybe you will have something to share. If you are new to film and looking for an SLR guide, this would be a great start.
Introduction and Selection Criteria
I started out compiling a definitive list of the top 10 film SLRs of all time and quickly realised it would be good for nothing but a protracted flame-war. Photographers rarely agree on matters such as this, because they have very different preferences and work in different ways. Instead, I’ll list my own favourites. It helps for readers to know that I am an amateur photographer shooting street and general photography. Therefore, I’m not too worried about how my camera will deliver 6 frames per second, or interface with multiple Speedlights or studio strobes. I want a small light camera that is quick and intuitive to use, subtle in terms of presence and sound, fast to set up for a shot and delivers good photos reliably under all conditions.
Therefore my selection criteria are:
- Great lenses – there are plenty of great bodies, but the selection of available lenses (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the system accessories) should be your first consideration in choosing a body, not the features of the body itself.
- Film – for my personal photography, film is my passion. However, it doesn’t hurt if the lenses can be easily fitted to a FF DSLR body.
- Small body – plus availability of compact lenses. I don’t want to intimidate my subject … or put a chiropractor’s kids through college.
- Manual focus – I am faster with AF, but more consistent with MF. With digital, I can catch my mistakes, but with film I cannot.
- Big bright finder – I don’t want to squint down a little tube with my eyeball pressed to the finder, wondering if the image is in focus. I want to shoot with both eyes open.
- Easy to focus – a finder with good magnification and coverage and eye relief also needs good focussing aids, like split prism, microprisms and a high precision matte for depth of fields.
- Judicious info in finder – I’d like to know key info, but not at the expense of clutter and visual obstruction.
- Manual film advance – film is cheap but it isn’t free. I’d like to fill my roll with keepers, not burn through a pocketful. Manual wind is also much more subtle for candid photography.
- Meter (preferably aperture priority AE) – it’s not strictly necessary, but I work faster when I’m not constantly guessing light levels.
- Metered manual – I want the control of manual exposure settings, but I also want metering while I do it.
- Robust – great build quality, reliability and good finish aren’t just pleasing, they give confidence.
- TTL flash – this is the last consideration as I rarely use flash, but it can help me decide between two closely matched camera bodies
I do own and enjoy more modern auto-focusing and motor driven bodies, such as a Canon EOS1V and Nikon F100. They are efficient. However, they’re big and bulky, they draw attention and their specialist purpose borders on the domain of a DSLR. So unless I have specific reason to want to carry a camera of this type, I’ll always reach for a manual focus and manual advance camera. Among this sub-genre, there are some stand-outs. I find them impossible to rank, so I’ll list them alphabetically.
My Top 10 SLRs
Canon New F1 – this is the best mechanical SLR in FD mount, with an AE finder. It was designed to take on and outdo the dominant cameras of the day, such as the Nikon F3. There are many great FD lenses and as they don’t adapt easily onto most onto DSLRs, they are good value.
Contax S2b – a basic, but high quality camera with 1/250s fast flash sync. My father had one till it was pinched and still misses it to this day. It has a fast flash sync, but the best thing about it is all the Zeiss lenses available.
Leica R6.2 – for many, this is the epitome of the Leica R series. All mechanical, beautiful build quality. It’s the perfect camera to use fabulous Leica glass, particularly the smaller lenses. Prepare to pay a premium price, but no more than you’d pay for an M3 or M4.
Minolta X-570/X-500 – its predecessor, the X-700 is one of my all-time favourite cameras. Think of the X-570 as an upgraded X-700 for even less money. It has a new meter display for easier metered manual and the ability to make slow flash exposures. the X-570 is the cheapest camera to make the top 10. They’re practically free in comparison to the other cameras in the Top 10.
Nikon F3HP – of all the professional Nikon bodies, this comes closest to my ideal balance of size and sophistication, with a gorgeous finder. If only it was just a little smaller and had matrix metering and a hotshoe it would be stellar (It would also be a Nikon FA). I am actively hunting for a good deal on a clean example.
Nikon FA – this is the only camera that will matrix meter with AI and AIS lenses. If you shoot slide film, this is very useful. I am seriously impressed with this camera from a technological standpoint, but it is also a fantastic user. I use it a lot.
Nikon FM3A – a fantastic package overall. If I had to take one camera on a long trek this would be it. When I take one camera to the grave, this will also be it (sorry kids!) A late model to market, many consider this camera to be Nikon’s manual film SLR swansong and they went out on a very high note. Nikon took all that was good about the famous Nikon FE and FM series and combined it into one camera. I prefer the meter needle to a digital readout of the F3 and FA as well. FE/FM/FA/FM3A finder magnification and coverage isn’t quite as good as the F3, but not by much.
Olympus OM-3T – this is an incredible mechanical camera with a fantastic finder and metering system. Its rarity value exceeds its practical value, but you’ll be the envy of users and collectors alike. This is by far the most expensive camera mentioned in this review. I am looking for one, but my limited budget means I will need patience and luck.
Olympus OM-4T – not only has this camera one of the best ever viewfinders, it also has one of the best metering systems with multiple spot metering. It’s very intuitive as well. My uncle is a lifelong avid photographer and this is his only camera. I recently acquired one myself.
Pentax LX – unquestionably the ultimate Pentax of this genre, the LX is of professional spec. Rugged, battery independent, DOF preview, MLU, TTL, a choice of screens and finders, it has one of the best OTF light meters for accurate low ambient light exposures.
I have come across several noteworthy SLRs that didn’t make it into my top 10. Again in alphabetical order:
Canon A-1 – if the F1 is too much, then maybe the slightly less sophisticated prosumer A-1 is called for. The shutter is fully battery dependent, though. This camera sat at the top of my shopping list for years, but I was drawn into the Minolta system instead.
Canon AE-1 Program – it’s not quite as beautiful to my eyes as an A-1, but similar or better in many ways. Simple yet sophisticated, it shoots in program, shuttered priority and metered manual modes. Look for one with a clean finder, unoxidised mirror and smooth shutter.
Leica R9 – this is essentially an R8 with minor revisions and both are a complete departure from the Minolta-related earlier models. This camera feels and operates like an “ultimate camera”. It oozes electronic sophistication, yet remains great for manual operation. If it wasn’t so big and heavy it’d have made the top 10 list. This is a good choice if you are balancing heavy lenses. If you can afford an R8 or R9, you can afford a R6.2. Which one you choose comes down to which lenses you pick.
Leicaflex SL2 – friends insist I include this camera for its legendary viewfinder. I find it big, heavy and noisy; I could still use it if it offered a waist-level finder, but the viewfinder is fixed. It has a poor reputation for reliability at 1/2000s and on some versions the mirror is incompatible with rear-projecting lenses.
Minolta X-700 – this camera has a special place in my heart, being my second manual SLR since I returned to film and a hard act to follow. The finder is one of the best ever on an SLR. I have two and use them more than any other camera mentioned here.
Nikon F2AS – it has extreme build quality and an excellent finder, but I work too slowly with it and lack the energy to carry it. I am sure to be berated by readers who consider this to be the ultimate SLR of all time. It’s a purist’s camera.
Nikon EM – the smallest Nikon SLR, I carry it with a Series E pancake lens in a suit pants pocket. Its size and bargain price belie a big and bright viewfinder. If you shoot in aperture priority and don’t need to set a full range of manual speeds, this is a highly underrated Nikon body. I actually own two of these and when the first was lost in storage, I went straight out and bought another.
Nikon FE2 – if you like the FM3A but have no need to be able to use all shutter speeds without batteries, you may as well just buy an FE2 for under half the cost of an FM3A.
Nikon FM2n – likewise, if you like the FM3A as a battery-independent mechanical camera and don’t need auto-exposure, buy the FM2/FM2n and save yourself a bunch of money.
Olympus OM-2N – predecessor to the OM-4/OM-4T, the OM-2 has a big, bright finder, maybe the biggest bar a mammoth Nikon F2, yet the camera is tiny. Properly tuned, it’s slick as the Devil’s fiddle. John Hermanson is the guy to do the CLA. The service may cost more than the camera, but only because the camera is so undervalued. I have a Hermanson-overhauled OM-2. I also own an OM-2N.
Pentax K1000 – cheaper than an LX or MX, and consequently more popular, this SLR has a cult following. Personally, I would describe this big heavy lump as “agricultural” and leave it to its fans, who will no doubt pillory me for disrespecting it.
Pentax MX – a great little camera with meter needle and DOF preview. OK, I’ll admit I’m reaching; these are common features. At least it’s small, simple and does the job. As such, it’s my #2 choice in PK mount.
If you force me at gunpoint to give up all but one, I’d pick the Nikon FM3A. It is compatible with an extensive range of AI, AIS and AI’d Nikon lenses, including some of the very best manual focus SLR lenses, of which I have several. It is very similar similar to the camera I learned on as a kid and everything about it just feels right. Sure, you could add multi-segment matrix metering, give it a bigger viewfinder image and swappable finders and such, but it fills me with joy and confidence like no other camera, not even a rangefinder, one of my many premium compact film cameras, or a digital camera.
As for the rest, I own or have tried out pretty much all of these cameras, so the preceding lists are worth more (to me) that a typical internet survey. Of course, I haven’t tried every camera in and world and user preferences vary, so I have no doubt left several great SLRs off the list. Be sure to share your favourites and rationale in the comments.
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text © Dan K. All rights reserved.
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