For many years, 35mm was the dominant film camera format for the mainstream consumer market as well as for many professional photography sectors. The growth in digital photography has led to 35mm being seen as outdated or outmoded technology by the general public, and a reduction in the availability of new 35mm film cameras (and the film for them) has naturally followed. Developing and printing outlets, once a frequent sight on the high street, have also become fewer in number.
Film cameras are still favoured by many amateur and professional photographers for a number of reasons.
New 35mm Film Cameras
Nowadays, when compared to the number of 35mm cameras available in previous years, there is a very limited selection available, with the mainstream makers largely shifting to digital products, leaving only one or two models aimed at the serious amateur or professional. Looking at a few of the leading camera manufacturers, Canon has only one 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) and two compact cameras in its range. Nikon has only one SLR, and Pentax and Olympus have none.
In marked contrast, there seems no shortage of disposable 35mm cameras, which largely seem to be aimed at usage for parties, weddings, and, in the case of some waterproof models, in circumstances where owners would not want to use a regular camera, such as at the beach, near the sea, or in rainy conditions. As these cameras aren't designed with any particular features in mind other than their disposability, they will be considered no further in this article.
Used 35mm Film Cameras
35mm film has been in use for film cameras since the early 1900s, with the first twin-lens reflex and single-lens reflex cameras (TLR and SLR respectively) reaching the mainstream market around the 1920s and 1930s. With the presence of 35mm film and cameras in the market spanning some 80-90 years or so, there are many makes and models in the used market to choose from, varying from the vintage, some of which may well belong in museums, to recent models. With the growth of digital photography, many amateur and professional photographers have moved on from film cameras, and these will often find their way onto the used market. Many of these are likely to be well-built classics or professional models from the last quarter of the 20th century, and if researched and bought carefully, could well give many more years of service.
Any buying guide looking at 35mm cameras generally has to look at the history and development of these cameras in order to classify them by maker, style, and features.
The dominant makers in the last quarter century or so have been the likes of Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, and Leica to name but a few. Canon and Nikon have tended to dominate the professional market and have hence been the favoured choice for many keen amateurs and semi-professionals. The other makes, while popular in the general consumer market, failed to make the same impact with the professionals.
In terms of style, the earliest to appear in the 1920s and 1930s were TLR and SLR models from the likes of Rolleiflex and Contaflex.
Although the typical TLR uses medium-format film, a few models which used 35mm have been made in the past. These include an Agfa, manufactured in the early 1960s, and a Contaflex, first manufactured in the 1930s. Due to their low numbers and age, they're likely to be quite rare and difficult to find, if any usable examples can be found at all.
Compact and Rangefinder
The relatively small size of 35mm film cassettes allowed the build of compact cameras barely larger than the size of a cigarette packet. Virtually every camera manufacturer of note had one or more compact cameras in their range, and many of these are available on the used market.
SLR cameras offered more flexibility than compact cameras, with changeable lenses, through-the-lens (TTL) light metering, and, in the later years of development, a variety of auto-exposure modes.
In terms of features to look for on a 35mm camera, these will vary by style. Compact cameras can differ in their focusing mechanisms. Some offer a simple viewfinder with fixed focus, others use a rangefinder method of variable focus. This uses an additional lens to refract the subject into the viewfinder; when the images from the viewfinder and additional lens fuse as one, the subject will be in focus. Automation on compact cameras will differ by era, with automatic exposure modes becoming more common in the late 1900s. SLR cameras are typically the most fully-featured, but the basics need to be considered. Look at the presence or absence of auto-exposure; if auto-exposure is present, find out whether or not it can be manually over-ridden. Exposure compensation is likely to be needed in many situations where auto-exposure is used. Also look at other features, such as depth of field preview, autofocus, self-timer, and multiple exposure capability.
General Buying Guidelines
Once the decision is made to look for a 35mm camera, there are a few general pointers to keep in mind when assessing a possible purchase.
Essentially, determine whether or not the camera works. Find out if the seller can provide evidence of recent photos taken with the camera, and if so, try to see these before purchase. If possible, and depending on the financial commitment to the purchase, arrange to try out the camera first.
Whilst the odd cosmetic scratch or mark is unlikely to affect the operation of the camera, any severe dents in the casework should probably ring alarm bells. If a camera has any dents, it's likely to have been dropped or hit with something, and one or more of these events are most likely to cause some damage to the internals of the camera as well as the casework. If the camera can be inspected in person prior to purchase, all good and well, otherwise consult any pictures of it carefully before commitment.
The light seals should all be in good condition, and if the seller is unable to confirm this and a visual inspection is not possible, then perhaps some of the budget should be set aside against the possibility of later replacement.
Accessories and Packaging
Determine if the camera is supplied with any of its original accessories, and if it is still in the original packaging. Confirm whether or not the original instruction manual will be included. The presence or absence of any or all of these items essentially tells the prospective buyer how well the previous owners have looked after it, as does the presence of other items such as the original body and lens caps as opposed to aftermarket replacements.
Certain cameras may be limited to compatibility with certain lenses. As an example, when Canon introduced the EOS series of lenses, it effectively rendered the previous series, using the FD mount, obsolete, since the FD lenses would not integrate with the EOS-series camera electronics. There are too many variations on this theme to document them all here, but some online searching should bring forth the relevant information for any projected purchase.
Finding 35mm Film Cameras on eBay
From the eBay homepage, select Buy, then Browse Categories, and Cameras & Photography. From the selection table at the left-hand side, choose All Categories, and select Film Cameras from the list. This selection can be refined by subcategories, including their Brand, such as Canon, Nikon or Pentax. Selection by some of the types mentioned above could include Rangefinder or SLR. Alternatively, they can be filtered by New or Used cameras, independent of Brand or other categorisation.
With very few new 35mm cameras on the current market, the majority of choice available is from the used market. Given due care, and following the broad guidelines shown above, the purchase of a used 35mm film camera can yield a quality product that will give years of dependable service.