Stocking stuffers: Five film camera bargains

Stocking stuffers: Five Film Camera Bargains

If you’ve read any of my previous articles here at DPReview ($20 film camera challenge, electronic vs mechanical cameras), you know I love a good film camera bargain. With time on my hands these last few months, I’ve been scouring the auction sites and I’ve come across some tremendous buys. If you’re looking to expand your 35mm camera collection for the holidays, here are five(ish) film cameras you can find at stocking-stuffer prices.

Nikon FG

The FG is the Nikon that Nikon-lovers love to hate. Great as I think this camera is, I can see where they are coming from: Compare the FG to an FE- or FM-series camera, and you may start to wonder if Nikon turned the FG’s engineering over to the interns. While the FE shoots with almost no perceptible vibration and its winder moves the smoothest clockwork, the FG shakes like a hiccupping elephant and winds with all the precision of a 99-cent water pistol.

And yet when it comes time to shoot, I prefer the FG over the FE. Why? It’s smaller, it’s lighter, and it has a certain underdog charm. It works great as a manual camera, with one of the few LED meter displays I actually like, and if automatic is your thing, the FG has aperture-priority plus a program mode that works with any AI-or-later lens. It even does off-the-film flash metering. Most importantly, the FG uses fine Nikon glass and takes pictures every bit as good as the hero-worshipped FM cameras.

Where the FG really shines is price: Thanks to its less-than-stellar (and I think mostly undeserved) reputation, there is no better bargain among manual-wind Nikons. FGs frequently auction for $50 or less, which is half the cost of an FE and one-quarter the price of an FM2 or FM3.

Minolta 4- and 5-series SLRs

I own a few autofocus Minolta film cameras and can’t get over how good they are – and how inexpensive. While Minolta’s manual-focus SLRs command good prices (and deservedly so), its ’90s-era autofocus SLRs don’t get any love. All the better for us bargain hunters, because I think they are the best kept secret in the 35mm SLR world.

The trick is to look for autofocus Minolta Maxxum or Dynax cameras with a model number starting with 4 or 5. The 300si is a bit too basic (effectively an interchangeable-lens point-and-shoot) and the 6/7/9-series cameras get pricey, but the 4- and 5-series models are right in the sweet spot. They allow full manual exposure control and also have shutter-priority, aperture-priority, full program and scene-specific auto modes. They’re perfect for digital photographers making that first hesitant foray into film.

The plastic-bodied Minoltas aren’t the most robust cameras, but with prices the $10-$20 range they’re practically disposable. Matching Minolta AF zoom lenses are sharp, if a bit slow, and sell in the same unbelievably low price range. I purchased my 400si body for $12 and my Maxuum 5 (a camera with so many features I’ve yet to find them all) for $16 with a lens – and those prices include shipping. Both work perfectly and take lovely photos. Of all the bargain film cameras on this list, Minoltas are the bargain-est.

Pentax P30T

The Pentax P-series is a strange family of cameras, caught between the eras of manual-wind metal and auto-focus plastic cameras. The 1990s-vintage P30T was the final camera in this series, and with its cheap price and manual-focus, manual-wind operation, it was pitched as a successor to the legendary K1000.

Understated in its gunmetal gray, the Pentax P30T is often overlooked and unappreciated, but it has a lot going for it. It runs on inexpensive button batteries that last forever, its traditional controls make manual-exposure shooting easy, and it has an aperture-priority automatic mode (and full program with any KA-mount lens). It even has a DOF preview! It’s a noisy camera, but it feels solid and reasonably smooth.

Unfortunately, the Pentax P30T’s cheap plastic is more than skin deep, and many used examples suffer from winding and shutter problems. Find a working one, though, and you should be able to nab it for $40 or less. Pair it with a Pentax-M 50/1.7 lens, which you can buy for about the same price (not because it’s a lousy lens, but because Pentax made so many of them), and you have a good, low-cost, knock-about SLR.

Nikon N8008 (F801)

Introduced in the late 1980s, the N8008 (F801 in Europe) was Nikon’s second-from-the-top camera and a frequent choice of pro photographers as a backup body for their F4. The N8008 was a camera that used to make me smolder with jealousy because I could never afford one – but nowadays they’re dirt cheap!

The Nikon N8008 is a tremendous camera, literally and figuratively. (If you buy one as a stocking stuffer, you’re gonna need a bigger stocking.) It’s a pro-level machine with no scene modes or a built-in flash. Its primitive matrix metering system works very well, as does its screw-drive autofocus. The N8008 is the camera I use when I absolutely, positively, have to get the shot. So why is it so affordable? Lousy timing: The N8008 was released just a year or two before the highly-vaunted F90, and a year after that it was upgraded with spot metering and a new name, N8008s.

That was bad news for the N8008 but it’s great news for bargain hunters, because these things are now comically inexpensive – $25 or less for what was one of the best Nikons you could buy. But wait, it gets better: It even takes cheap AA batteries. The N8008 is 85% as good as the F4 and sells for 15% of the price. How can you beat that?

Sears KS-series

Sears-Roebuck rebadged a lot of cameras over the years, and their KS-series cameras of the late 1970s and early ’80s were based on the Ricoh KR and XR line of SLRs. The Ricohs are great cameras, tough if a bit unrefined. Don’t let their plastic bodies fool you: They’re made from super-tough polycarbonate. Ricoh SLRs are under-appreciated and inexpensive, and Sears cameras even more so.

There are several KS-series models varying levels of features, including basic student cameras, auto-only models (L-A-X on the shutter dial), and full-featured models with manual and automatic control, self-timer and DOF preview. The Auto Sears lenses are rebadged Rikenons (also made by Ricoh) and of very good quality, but as these cameras use the Pentax K-mount, buying a Sears KS opens you up to the wonderful and value-priced world of Pentax glass.

I’ve bought several Sears (and Ricoh) cameras ranging from $15 to $45 inclusive of shipping and a lens. People don’t seem to know much about Sears cameras, and finding out they are rebadged Ricohs doesn’t clarify the situation. Lurk like a crocodile on the auction sites, and it won’t be long before you snap up a great deal.