The JCH favourite 35mm film cameras


by Bellamy /

6 min read

The JCH favourite 35mm film cameras
I get a lot of mails asking me what my favourite cameras are, and I do mean a lot of mails. So in order to try and answer that most pressing of questions I decided to do a little list of my (current) favourite 35mm film cameras.

Now this is in no way meant to start any kind of ‘my camera is better than yours’ discussion. These cameras are the ones that I have used and loved. Some of them might surprise you as to why I consider them a favourite and some of you may disagree with my decisions, as is your right. These cameras are simply cameras that I have considered to be fantastic bits of kit.

Nikon F3
The Nikon F3 is a classic. And the reason I love it is because it was my first true professional camera. Call it rheumy-eyed sentimentality, but for me this was and is a great camera. It is not as capable as some of the later offerings from Nikon, but it was plenty capable in the day and is still great now. The good thing about this camera is how tough it is. It seems like they are built for war (in the case of the Press version, it basically was). They are sturdy, can use the Ais lenses, easy to repair and service and they are inexpensive. Which makes them a definite favourite for me.

Leica M6
Well, we all know how I like the M6. I don’t actually think it is the best Leica camera because of the build, some people have me mistaken on that. The reason I like the M6 is that it is a workhorse metered Leica that will not cost you the earth, and will keep on going as long as you care for it. There is nothing that sets the world on fire with this camera, it gets the job done and that is what you need. I think this camera is the ideal introduction to the world of M-mount Leica. The good thing about the M6 is that there are loads of them, getting them repaired is a non issue and you can pretty much get what you paid for it if you decide to move on.

Canonet QL17
An icon. Millions of them were built. Nothing amazing about the lens or the functions on this cmaera. There are plenty of very similar cameras out there (Konica etc) and Dan K has written extensively on this, but the Canonet is accessible and cheap. Sometimes really really cheap. And for that it gets high marks from me. Yes, the black ones look sexy, but they are expensive and becoming more so. If you are wanting to learn about rangefinders, grab one of these little buggers and play with it until it dies, then buy another one and keep on going!

Olympus XA (any of them)
I love the XA cameras because of the cheap simplicity and absolutely wonderful lenses. How can a tiddly little compact rangefinder camera have such a fantastic lens? I guess this was before the Olympus execs where cooking the books. My favourites are the XA and the XA2. Though the XA4 is a wonderful little camera, it can get pretty pricey because of the rarity. These can be found easily and cheaply online and you will have a whole bunch of fun shooting them. I would consider the XA cameras to be a ‘hot’ item at the moment as everyone seems to want one, so prices are rising.

Contax T2
Why the Contax T2 and not the T3 you ask? Well, I love the T3, but the prices for them nowadays just make them unreasonable for most people. But not just that. I have had T3’s and they are stunning cameras, but you have to hold on tight because if you drop them you can kill them. But I have had T2’s which are totally beaten and battered and they have kept on ticking. That is the appeal for me. This is a solid camera that seems like it will keep on going forever.
There is one thing about the T2 though. It is by far my most requested camera, and there are simply not enough of these cameras to go around any more. They are becoming harder to find and the prices are rising. If you have one, keep it. If you don’t have one, get one.

Kodak Retina
A bit left field here, but I love this camera for the lenses. That and I was reminded about his camera recently when I saw my mate Vishal (of Camera Film Photo fame)pull one out of his bag in Hong Kong and start merrily shooting away. Simple mechanical cameras with wonderful glass that don’t cost the earth. True vintage class for not a lot of money. I had one of these and foolishly sold it. Another great advantage to this camera is that you can still have them serviced, and if the body is really gone then you can have the lens converted into an RF coupled M mount lens.

Contax G2
Although everyone calls this a rangefinder camera, it is not. It is a larger automatic compact camera, with interchangeable lenses. And the lenses I would consider to be some of the best lenses on any film camera. They really are that good that I still consider this camera a viable option. But it is not just that. It is the way this camera was put together, it is a joy to use. And it looks pretty damned nice too. The main issue with this camera is it cannot be repaired any longer, which makes the G2 are rather risky investment, unless you consider the lenses. They are still brilliant and you can have them converted to M-mount when the camera finally dies.

Fuji TX-1
What is not to love about this camera? This beast was made when Fuji actually cared about film photography and had some of the most skilled engineers in the world working on their products. How they came up with this is anyones guess, but they did. A ‘true’ panoramic 35mm camera. This camera is one of my runaway favourites of all time and the only reason I don’t own one any more is because every time I find a really nice one, someone asks me for it and I sell it to them, and then I realise I wanted to keep it. The only downside about this camera? Total lack of repairs now. If it dies you better know a really skilled electrical engineer/camera guru as otherwise you are pretty much up the creek. But if you have a good working one, slap some slide film in it and go somewhere beautiful, you will not regret it for one second.

Contax S2/Sb
Another one that is slightly left field, but was spurred on by a conversation I had recently about Contax cameras. Simply put there was nothing like them on the market. It was almost as if they were just too good and people didn’t understand. The S2 was simple, small, lightweight, fully mechanical and extremely capable. And it came paired with all that lovely, wonderful Zeiss glass. Oh my. This was a misunderstood camera and was often overlooked. Now people are starting to cotton on to these and the prices are going up.

Konica Big Mini
There are not many ultra budget compact cameras that I like. But I love this one. A really great lens, and an easy to use camera that can be bought for peanuts, what is not to like? Well, the fact that you cannot find them anywhere any longer. That is the only real problem with them. Everyone loves them and I cannot find them any more. And the prices, well, they have basically tripled in the last few years. If you do find one of these on the cheap grab it immediately and tell no-one.

There are obviously loads more cameras that I love and have loved (ooer, I sound like a cameraslut), but I cannot possibly list them all. These are the ones I have used recently and would continue to use.

What about you? What are your favourite cameras and why? Share with us below. Or tell me what you think of my selection, I can take it, haha.

If you are looking for any of these cameras I can help you to find them. Apart from the T2, you are going to have to join the queue on that one. 


23 comments on “The JCH favourite 35mm film cameras”

    stuart fisher-spurlock April 5, 2015 at 8:03 pm / Reply

    Mamiya 6: Whats not to like about a medium format rangefinder with some of the best glass ever (!) in a package about the size of a 35mmSLR? With the lens collapsed it easily fits under your arm or coat. It is nearly silent. Runs on LR44/AG13s for what seems like infinity. The finder is ginormous and bright and I can easily see the 50mm lines with glasses. I love traveling light with just the 50 and 75mm lenses-all I usually need.

    Nikon F80: Obviously not as durable or versatile as the F100, but almost every bit as capable. Plus it can be had for a song -about 30bucks usually. It is small and light even has some features that the f100 does not (like on camera/in viewfinder flash compensation, plus the built in flash obviously). My only beef is the fact that it won’t meter with manual lenses, but oh well.

    Minolta CLE: A sexy little Leica M Mount camera that was decades ahead of its time. The metering system is more advanced than that of the M7 built about 20 years later. One of the best finders I’ve ever seen, and I like the info shown. I also love the “true normal” focal length – the 40mm Summicrons and Rokkors are cheap and stellar. The CLE with a the 40cron fits in my coat pocket with ease. My only beef is the lack of an AE lock but one can obviously work around this with exposure comp dial. Very strange is the lack of metering in manual mode (what were they thinking?!)

      Tobias W. April 6, 2015 at 11:10 pm /

      I own a CLE with the Rokkor-M 40mm. It’s an awesome little camera. However, it falls short of making it a recommendation to anybody as a classic film camera investment for some very good reasons. First of all, there are only about 35,000 cameras ever produced. It’s a pretty rare camera. Finding one will get harder and harder. This gets even worse by the fact that the CLE depends on electronics circuits to do anything and the electronics Minolta used are not very reliable. The one I got (from Bellamy no less), needed a repair. I was lucky that back then, there still was a shop in Hamburg run by former Minolta repair technicians sitting on a stockpile of spare parts. The shop is bust by now, there is probably no way to get the CLE repaired anymore. In the meantime I noticed that TTL flash metering is broken on my CLE. I would not recommend the CLE to anybody anymore. It’s just too fragile. I am using mine and enjoy it while it lasts – but I know once it breaks I will have to invest into a M6 or M7 to replace it.

    Ralph Hightower April 5, 2015 at 8:11 pm / Reply

    That’s a gorgeous case for the Nikon F3.

    My favorites are the Canon A-1 and F-1N. I bought my Canon A-1 in 1980 and still shoot film with it; I added the motor drive about a year later. In July 2013, I bought a used Canon F-1N with the AE Finder FN, AE Motor Drive FN, and two focusing screens, spot and partial split image/microprism. I had coveted the F-1N ever since I got interested in 35mm photography, plus I can share the lenses that I have for my A-1.

    Steve Kleinheider April 5, 2015 at 9:24 pm / Reply

    The following would have to be my favorites, chosen from my inventory:

    1) Leica M6
    2) Zeiss Ikon ZM
    3) Voigtlander Bessa R3M
    4) Voigtlander Prominent I
    5) Voigtlander Vitessa T

    Geoff_R April 6, 2015 at 2:41 am / Reply

    Great read Bellamy and I’ve had so many cameras over the years of all formats but I love 35mm these days. I have a ton of cameras at the moment but if I had to keep just a single bag to narrow my choices the T90 would be at the head of the list. I just love the T90 and for me after using 1D series cameras for years professionally owning and using one is like and old friend coming home. I’d add its little brother the T70 as its just such a cheeky little camera that can be had so inexpensively and the wide and tele programs do work. My compacts are a mixed bag, I’ve just put a roll through a Canon Sure Shot Supreme but I was lucky to find a new in the box Konica Big Mini just before Christmas which I love. So mine would be T90, T70 and Konica Big Mini I think :-)

    Dave Disley April 6, 2015 at 2:52 am / Reply

    My all time favourite 35mm camera has to be the Nikon FE2 with a 105mm F2.5 Ai lens. Lovely stuff. For bang for buck, I also love my Nikon F90x. The list of features & handling for a camera that only costs about £40.00 used just can’t be beaten. For sheer construction & quality of build, my Nikon F4s. When I’m in another time mode, my pre-war Contax II with Zeiss Sonnar helps me to relax, slow things down & think about what I’m doing. Basically, I love them all, but all for different reasons.

    Frank April 6, 2015 at 5:27 am / Reply

    Hi Bellamy,

    You’re certainly right about the Olympus XA and XA2! I always have at least my XA2 in my pocket. Wonderful camera.

    As for the SLR camp, I’m cleatly rooting for the Olympus OM1 and 2’s. Small, silent (for SLR’s) and beautiful things!

    Then there’s the Olympus Trip35 – mine wears red leather and has never let me down. And of course the magnificent 35SP!

    You see, I’m definitely an Olympus guy, nothing against Nikon or Canon or the others, but the wizardry of Maitani San and his colleagues has always fascinated me. I résolu the mighty Canonet QL17 you found fir me, but I’ll never let go of my Olympus cameras!

    Frank April 6, 2015 at 5:29 am / Reply

    Sorry, forgot my Website and Flickr:

    Jaime Acosta April 6, 2015 at 8:56 am / Reply

    I love my XA. I carry it with me most of the time, especially if I’m running out the door or if I don’t feel like getting my bag ready. Aperture priority, small, silent…what’s not to love?? I’m glad I got it at a fair price, especially since the MJU II’s are unnecessarily expensive now!

    Those Retinas are hard to come by in good condition. Usually they sell for way too much at antique stores as vintage decorations, yet they tend to look like they got fished from the bottom of a lake.

    Olen April 6, 2015 at 9:50 pm / Reply

    In the 35mm realm, I really loved a pair of Fujica AX-5 cameras I picked up on the cheap about a decade ago. They were never marketed well in the States and because of that, very underrated. Fuji made some very nice glass for them, but I switched to a Nikon F3 and an FE2 about three years ago and haven’t looked back. I just love the way the Nikons feel in my hand and the look of images from them.

    Tobias W. April 6, 2015 at 11:25 pm / Reply

    Nice compilation Bellamy and I agree with most choices – although it is by definition a very personal list.

    One thing I’d like to correct though is your statement about the G2 not being a rangefinder camera. It is true that the G2 is not an optical rangefinder camera such as the Leica M system. The Contax G camera system is an electronic rangefinder camera system that uses two different methods of acquiring correct auto-focus. One method is by an active IR beam (same principle as the Konica Hexar AF). The other, mainly used method is a passive electronic rangefinder that works much the same way as phase detection works in modern DSLRs. The G2 features a pair of CCD arrays whose phase is compared by a microprocessor. In contrast to a DSLR where light falls through the main lens path onto the CCD arrays, the G cameras feature separate windows for this. These windows are positioned fairly close to each other to keep the camera compact in size. Since phase detection works similar in principle to the trigonometry within an optical rangefinder system, the Contax G relies on a rangefinder base length within that calculation just the same way an optical rangefinder has a base length. The G2’s base length is extended by “folding” the light path within the rangefinder optics (the windows above the lens) which is why Contax marketed the G2 as a camera with an extended rangefinder base length.

    In essence, the G2 does the same thing a human operator on a Leica M does. It compares two images using the mechanics of trigonometry to calculate the range to a subject measured. Both the G2 and the Leica M couple its rangefinder to the viewfinder and the mounted lenses. The only difference is that the G2 does this electronically while the M features an optical image overlay of both images for the photographer to overlay both images.

    So, I need to disagree. The G2 is a genuine rangefinder camera.

    Benn Murhaaya April 7, 2015 at 10:22 pm / Reply

    I have to XA3s dead, sitting on my desk at work for decoration. First died after about 20 films, the second one after three or so. Electronics I guess, which is sad because I consider them to be the best compact cameras I ever used. Mju II would be my choice when the price would be a factor. They come cheap, they have good ergonomics, the lens is freakisly sharp and has only few downsides.

    As far as compact cameras go, I am now settled on Fuji Tiara (DL Super Mini) (I’ve written quite extensive article about it on but the fuji DL line has other interesting cameras as well.

    My main workhorse and also a child of Yoshihisa Maitani as XAs are is Olympus OM-1. How come the OM system is not up there with Nikon F and Canon FD getting the well deserved praise is a mystery for me.

    I must say, I never really fell in love with the Canonet QL17 GIII. I loved it’s side, quickload, flash photography but the viewfinder was pain to use for me. I loved everything about this camera, except actually taking pictures with it… such a shame…

    I am still thinking about the Contax T3. If I ever switch from the Tiara it will be for the T3 or Minoltac TC-1

    Dave Kerr April 9, 2015 at 5:39 am / Reply

    My favorite camera list is the same as Bellamy’s with the exception of three cameras: Kodak Retina, Fuji TX-1 and the Contax S2/Sb.
    I bought the F3 back in the day; not long afterwards inherited another one. Leica’s are M2, M4 and M6; acquired the M2 and M4 when I thought I was going to pursue a career in photojournalism (late 60’s). Circumstances led me down another career path.
    I bought two Canonet QL 17’s when they came out; a black one for me and a chrome one for my parents. I still have and use them. Great glass.
    The XA? I was an early adopter of that one too. The Contax T2 and the G round out my list. There are others, including one oddball Canon, the Shure Shot A1. Looks are deceiving as it looks like a kid’s camera. I love this camera. It has a very sharp 32mm lens and a large viewfinder. I keep Ilford XP-2 film in it from which I’ve made 11 X 14 prints. A real sleeper. Oh, you can go under water with it too.

    Horace April 9, 2015 at 9:26 pm / Reply

    Who services Kodak Retinas?

    Cheyenne Morrison April 22, 2015 at 8:11 am / Reply

    Thanks once again Bellamy, great read and some new cameras to investigate. An XA is already on my list.

    Steinhall Casca II. Wow if there is any camera prettier than a Leica this is it, super, super rare but they are so well made very easy to repair.

    I notice Alpa never gets mentioned, it’s the Rolls Royce of cameras, crazy Swiss precision made and some of the early ones such as the Model 7 are a lovely as Leica’s. Plus the rare models seem way cheaper than Leicas. Lenses are bit harder to get I admit, but you only need a few 35/50/90. Hell the Alpa 50mm lens is incredible.

    Zeiss Ikon ZM?? Great build quality, half the price of Leica and world class ZM lenses that will also fit a Leica if you own one.

    Robot Royal 36S! God I love the look of these, and they have fantastic lenses, heavy buggers, but the auto winding and film loading and way better than the Leica. Also have a super collectible black lacquer version that costs a pittance compared to “Original” black paint Leicas.

    Levari May 4, 2015 at 3:00 pm / Reply

    I’d like to recommend an outlier, the ricoh 500g rf. If you can find one that’s light sealant isn’t crumbling, these are fabulous mini rangefinders. Light but still firm in the hand, they are only slightly bigger than the trip 35. The VF is no Leica, but it’s very good, and the 40 mm rikenon lens rivals my 40 cron, and may make up for in character what the cron nails in precision. It takes absolutley stunning photos with both 400 color and bw. I’ve also pushed the film with these for even more atmospheric results. They cost about 15 bucks. Besides finding one that’s light sealed, the only other downside is that the shutter is loud. Compared to the XA or my leica its a thunderclap, but not nearly as loud as, say, the Sony alpha digital line.

    I second the XA, just an unbelievable camera. If my XA2 were a stronger night/low light shooter without flash I probably would retire every other camera. It’s as small and good and joyous to use as the legend. But I use the M5 from dusk till dawn, the best night shooting M model Leica ever made, and sorely underrated. The M5 is still affordable, reliable, ergonomic. You can hand hold it at 1/8 wide open and barely a shake appears.I cannot say that about many other cameras…I can’t say that about any cameras. The M5 is longing to be discovered.

    atmtx June 2, 2015 at 10:24 am / Reply

    I recently started collecting and shooting classic film cameras. I’ve built up an interesting set within the last year. I’ll need to blog about these too, when I have the time.

    Just finished my Maitani collection. I have the Olympus Pen EE, Pen FT, XA and OM-1
    In the premium compacts collection, I have the Contax T2, Contax TVS and Nikon 35Ti
    In the interesting classic area I have the Kodak Retina 1a and Rollei 35.

    Brett Rogers June 6, 2015 at 11:29 pm / Reply

    Chris Sherlock in Dunedin, New Zealand, specialises in the various Kodak Retina and Retina Reflex models and is very well regarded.

    Andrea Taurisano June 15, 2015 at 2:24 pm / Reply

    Great article as always, Bellamy. A few favorites of mine with keywords on the reasons:

    – Ricoh GR1 series: Spectacular lens, ultra compact (=always with me), fast focusing even in challenging conditions, Daido feeling..

    – Nikon 35Ti: Fabulous 35mm lens (ideal focal length), solid feeling / good grip

    – Pentax MX: My first SLR, tiny/compact yet solid and reliable, sexy slim design



    John Lockwood June 15, 2015 at 9:17 pm / Reply

    It seems the Olympus OM series has a number of fans and I would have to concur. Still have my OM-1 purchased new in 1978 with a 50mm lens, back when all cameras came with a fast fifty. Also, owned an XA and A11 flash for many years. Incredibly small with a fine lens.

    Mambo June 15, 2015 at 11:50 pm / Reply

    I have a QL17 Giii and its a gem! Cheap, but I think the image quality the lens produce isn’t. I think it performs best with black and white images though.

    Steven Yang August 13, 2015 at 12:21 pm / Reply

    The Leica M6 is the best choice

    iGlad January 3, 2016 at 3:14 am / Reply

    I love the Kodak Retinas and yes the lenses are simply brilliant probably the best i’ve used. Don’t overlook the Kodak Retinettes, which can produce a great image. I discovered them last year and just fell in love with them……..I now have a small collection of 7. No GAS here just that if i see one that takes my eye then it’s bought and used.

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