There's just something about the timeless, gorgeous quality of vintage cameras that makes almost any picture super special. Getting that experience is actually a lot easier than you might think, and it's completely worth the investment of a little time and money. You can find a totally shootable and super lovely vintage camera system that's perfect for your needs.
I shoot antique and vintage cameras every day, and there are a few things I look for when choosing a camera. And let me tell you, I love my cameras. If you're just getting into film photography or are thinking about trying out a new format or camera system, these tips can help you find your new favorite creative tool.
Before You Pick a Vintage Camera
Before anyone picks a vintage camera, they need to know how into this they're going to be. There are people who take great pictures who aren't super into photography. And there are people (like me) who obsess about photography. Your involvement level is definitely going to affect a bunch of stuff.
- Budget - If you're doing this as a casual hobby, you won't want to spend a ton of money on gear. If you're doing it as a career or significant part of your life, your budget may be higher.
- Film - Most vintage cameras shoot film, but they shoot different kinds of film. Many shoot 35mm, which isn't terribly expensive ($6 or so for a cheap roll). Others shoot more expensive medium-format or large-format film.
- Complexity - A vintage camera with interchangeable lenses will give you the most options, but it might not be what you want if you're just doing this as a fun alternative to your phone. In that case, a point-and-shoot might be more your style.
Related: 10 Old Cameras Worth a Lot of Money
About that film... You have some options when getting it developed. You can do it yourself (easier than you might think) or drop it off at a lab. Then you or the lab will scan the film so you can share it online.
Four Factors I Consider When Choosing a Vintage Camera
There's no wrong answer when it comes to cameras, as long as you have one that works for your needs. But this is the process I use to pick a camera I can fall in love with.
What Is This Camera's Purpose?
Sometimes you need a camera for travel, so it should be light and compact and not overly complicated. Other times, you want to get really into the process and slow way down with your photos, and that can mean a camera with lots of lenses.
What Kind of Shape Is This Camera In?
Some vintage cameras come down through the years looking almost new. Others look super beat-up and worn but still function beautifully. And some don't work at all. Before I buy, I always make sure the camera has been recently checked and works the way I expect it to.
Can I Get Film for It?
Believe it or not, you can get film for most old cameras. It's super easy to find 35mm, 120, and sheet film at most camera shops and online. However, some vintage cameras shoot film that isn't made anymore. There are a few companies that recut or reroll other types of film so you can shoot it in these old cameras, but that's more expensive. I stick to film I can find easily.
Do I Love This Camera?
A camera is a tool, but it's also more than that. You have a creative relationship with it. So think about how the camera feels in your hands and how it affects your experience of taking pictures. If you love it and it has features you need, chances are it's the camera for you.
Where I Buy Vintage Cameras
You can find old camera lots of places, but they aren't all the same as far as your shopping experience. I've bought cameras at antique shops, from online auctions or sellers, and from camera stores. Each option has some pros and cons.
- Antique shops or thrift shops - These are great for getting a good deal on a fairly simple camera system, but I don't recommend getting anything complex this way. If it doesn't work, there's usually no return policy.
- Online - If you get super into photography, there are some vintage cameras that are just really hard to find anywhere but on eBay or from sellers online. I buy quite a few things this way, but I've also had some bad experiences with cameras or shutters that just didn't work properly.
- Used camera stores - Used camera stores are my favorite place to buy old cameras, because many of them have great return policies (often six months). I have returned cameras or had them fixed for free with no hassle at all at places like KEH and UsedPhotoPro.
Three Cameras I Own and Recommend
I shoot all kinds of camera, and some of them are very finicky and not really something most people would enjoy shooting. However, I do have a few cameras I think almost everyone would love.
This is a 35mm film camera that uses autofocus lenses, which means it's kind of perfect for sticking in your bag and shooting moving subjects like kids or pets. It's also pretty cheap and sells for under $200 with a decent lens. It's a good starter film camera, and it's useful even if you've been shooting a long time.
If you're into something a little more mechanical but that will do everything you want, the Nikon FM is pretty awesome. It's also a 35mm film camera, but it doesn't have autofocus. It's tiny, and you can use a huge selection of lenses on it. It's great for travel because it weighs so little and is super versatile. They sell for about $300 with a lens.
This medium format camera uses 120 film and operates almost like a giant 35mm camera. It's easy to use and fun to shoot. It has a dramatic sounding shutter that is super loud. There's no autofocus, but it's easy to manually focus once you get used to it. The image quality is stunning, and you can get lots of different lenses for it. This camera sells for around $1,200 with a really nice lens.
Take Pictures You Love With Vintage Cameras
If you're not sure what vintage camera to choose, take some time to ask friends or other photographers what they like. Chances are, if it's a good camera for someone else, it could be a good camera for you, too. Then buy it from a reputable place and practice with it a ton. Pretty soon, you'll be taking pictures you love.