Greg Pak: Photography

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I’ve started shooting 35mm film again after a 20 year hiatus, and I love it with all my heart. You can see my photographs on Grainery, Instagram, and Twitter, and you can back my analog photography guide and memoir 35mm Love Letter at Crowdfundr!

Took a picture of the moon

Photo of the moon

Ever since I’ve gotten back into analog photography, I’ve had my eye on the various cheap 500mm telephoto lenses that pop up on auction sites all the time. I finally plunked down sixty bucks for a Tamron SP 500mm fixed f8 tele macro reflex Adaptall lens, stuck it on my old Panasonic DMC-GX1 digital camera, set up a tripod, and took a picture of the moon.

I’m still figuring out how sharp the lens really is. But I’m already thrilled — OVER THE MOON, if you will (AAAAAAH!). I’ve never been able to take a picture of the moon with anything approaching this kind of detail, so sixty bucks seems like a brilliant investment at this point.

I’m eager to try it out with an actual film camera. Weirdly, when I put the lens on my Canon New F-1, the camera’s shutter won’t fire. Seems to work fine on my Canon T60, though. I’ll have to do a bit more research and experimenting. I have another Tamron Adaptall to Canon FD adapter around here somewhere, so maybe just swapping that out will make a difference.

Tamron 500mm lens

UPDATE: Took another picture of the moon!

the moon

The Metropolitan Museum of Art at dusk

The Metropolitan Museum of Art at dusk

I’m really only comfortable shooting 35mm film with manual exposure. It’s just the way I learned, it gives me the most creative control, and it actually feels faster and more natural to me.

But I recently picked up a ridiculously cheap old Canon A-1 and invested a little time and love to cure it of a sticky mirror and the notorious “Canon cough.” As a result, I now have a brand new sentimental attachment to a classic camera that’s one of Canon’s first SLRs to feature aperture priority and shutter priority exposure.

Canon A-1

So I’ve taken this turn of events as a challenge to try shooting a few rolls on this camera with automatic exposure. It’s still weird for me! Still takes me longer than shooting with manual exposure on an old Canon FTb! But I like the feel of the A-1, I’m intrigued by the possibility of getting comfortable enough with this that it actually speeds up some of my shooting, and I like some of the results, like the image above of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at dusk.

Canon A-1, Canon nFD 28mm f2.8, Kodak Tri-X 400 (expired in 2020), developed with Arista Premium Liquid Film Developer.


Shooting 35mm cityscapes in New York City

Back in 1986 when I was a high school senior in Dallas, Texas, I had a vague thought of driving around town at night and photographing the funky neon signs that towered over so many of the city’s corner shopping malls. Even then I had the sense that they weren’t long for the world and that as a 35mm photographer, I actually had the means of preserving their memory.

But high school was a pretty busy time and I never got around to it.

Decades later, I’ve fallen back in love with 35mm photography. Now I live in New York City, which isn’t particularly known for suburban shopping malls with funky neon signs.  But I’m more conscious than ever of the fleeting nature of our surroundings, and I’ve developed a habit of carrying a camera whenever I’m running errands in the city and shooting images of any bit of the landscape that catches my eye.

I’ve shot plenty of photos of some of the city’s biggest landmarks, with a special emphasis on the Empire State Building, probably my favorite building in the city. But other shots feel like my modern day version of the Dallas neon sign project I never started — such as photos of graffiti or old painted company signs on the sides of buildings that might be gone in another decade or two.

Here are some my favorite shots of the year with a few thoughts. I hope you’ll enjoy them, and I’ll be thrilled if they inspire you to take a little time to document your own surroundings.

In my first month of shooting film again, I shot this image with a Canon FTb, a Canon FD 50mm f1.8, and a yellow filter on Ilford HP5 400. This remains one of my favorite images I’ve shot all year. I never used filters in high school and college, so it was a revelation that I could pull so much more detail out of the sky with a yellow filter. But mostly I just love the way the framing and light work here. In film school at NYU in the 1990s, our cinematography teachers taught us to use light to direct the eye within the frame. I think this photo achieves that. For a fleeting moment, the sun glanced off of the Empire State Building in a lovely way, making it pop in the middle of these dark canyons of tall buildings. I also remember being dazzled by that famous shot in Rosemary’s Baby in which the camera ramps up the subliminal tension by not quite showing all of Mia Farrow through the doorway. Similarly, I love the way the framing here leaves the Empire State Building partly hidden by buildings in the foreground. It’s not a horror movie tension like Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s a bit of drama that pulls me in.

Canal Street scene shot with a Canon FTb on 35mm film

I shot this photo with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4 lens on a 20 year old roll of Kodak High Definition 400 ASA film. It’s just a shot of Canal Street. But I freaking love it. The frame feels just right to me. I spent so many years shooting thousands of images with a 50mm lens; my eye just knows how to frame things with that focal length, and it feels so good. I also love the way this expired film renders the light, especially on the side of the building in the middle of the frame. It’s so crisp and cool and fresh. And the film holds the colors together in a special way, as if the entire scene were art directed. There’s a coolness to the sky and buildings that lets the red details of the signs and the Chinese medallion pop in a subtle, lovely way. Again, a simple image, but it makes me happy every time I look at it.

Boris Frumin, one of my brilliant NYU directing professors, used to list things that were cinematic, including flags and water and smoke. I’d absolutely add steam to the list, and was thrilled to find this great cloud rising from a grate in the Village this March. I shot this on Ilford HP5 with my old high school Canon New F-1 (newly repaired!) and, if I remember correctly, my mom’s old Canon FD 28mm f2.8.

New York City just screams for vertical shots. I was pretty thrilled with this angle on one of the entrances to Grand Central Terminal. The symmetry of the buildings is offset in a pleasing way by the car on the bottom left and the light reflections on the upper right. Just feels right to my eye. Shot on a Nikon FG with a Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

Another vertical shot that feels very similar to the Grand Central image. This is that fantastic United States Post Office building on Canal Street, but it felt like it wanted to be framed to emphasize the buildings overhead and that lovely shaft of angled light. Shot with a Canon A-1 and a 50mm Canon lens on Kentmere 100. This image really works because of the light. It’s creating the angle on the building on the right that makes the frame work in an interesting way, and it’s making the flag pop out from the foreground.

One of my ongoing themes has been the sky between buildings in New York City. I just can’t get enough of the shape the buildings make of the sky, and this image kind of epitomizes that interest. Shot on a Nikon FG with a Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

This is my NYC equivalent of my never-begun Dallas neon sign project — shooting old painted signs on the sides of buildings. I love everything about these old signs — the textures, the way the paint has weathered, the glorious old fonts, the brand names and products advertised. An added bonus is the old school water tower on the building. I love it when I shoot a photo that at first glance you think might be decades old. Shot with a Canon AT-1 with a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 on Arista Ultra EDU 400.

I shot very little color film back in the day. I just loved black and white and had the most control over its look since we had a small darkroom and I could make prints on my own. So I’m still figuring out what I’m looking for when I shoot color film these days. This image felt like it worked — with lovely detail and color in the sky while maintaining detail in the buildings. Shot with a Canon AT-1 and a Canon nFD 24mm f2.8 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200.

Another color shot that felt good. If the previous shot was all blues, this one’s all reds, and I dig it. Shot with a Bell & Howell FD35 and a B&H/Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200. Back in the day, the widest lens I had was a Canon FD 28mm, so this 24mm feels considerably more funky and dramatic to me, but I think the Ghostbusters building earns the treatment.


Just an absolutely everyday image of the IFC Theater in the West Village. But in five, ten, or twenty years, this might become a treasured record of the way things were. I’m trying to shoot lots of photos like these, and I feel good every time I get a keeper. Shot with a Canon A-1 with a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Kentmere 100.

Jimmy Aquino interviews Greg Pak for Comic News Insider

In the wake of the New York Comic Con, my friend Jimmy Aquino interviewed me for the Comic News Insider podcast! We talked about a new comics project I’m working on for the NYC Department of Education, Planet Hulk Worldbreaker, Skaar, Darth Vader, Duo, and analog photography, accompanied by the glorious ambient sounds of Bryant Park in New York City. Check it out!

Cameras I Wanna Try

Look, I don’t NEED any more cameras. I got my beloved high school Canon FTb and Canon New F-1 repaired and I’ve fixed up a couple of cheap Canon T60s and a Canon AT-1 as wonderful take-everywhere cameras. I’m totally comfortable with Canons of this era and I love the images they let me take. But I’ve had a ton of fun over the past year trying out cheap vintage 35mm cameras from other manufacturers from the 1960s through the 1980s, and when I have a little idle time, I get the hankering to try out a few more. So here are a few of the cameras still on my mind.

Pentax MX

The Pentax MX is famously the lightest fully mechanical and manual 35mm SLR ever made. I’ve read multiple glowing reviews of how fantastic and huge its viewfinder is and how wonderful it is to handle. And it’s relatively cheap, with nice looking copies regularly selling for $70 or so on But that puts it just a touch out of my typical comfort range for buying used cameras. As nice as a camera looks in online auction photos, you never quite know if it’s going to work properly until you get it in your hands. So I usually balk at spending more than $50 for a camera in these auctions. I’ve seen Pentax MX bodies go for that amount or less, but somehow I keep missing the deadline to bid. Some day!

Olympus RC and/or the Canon QL17 GIII

I grew up shooting single lens reflex cameras like the Canon FTb and Canon New F-1 and was barely aware of rangefinder cameras until very recently. But over the last year, I’ve been conducting a slow motion search for a cheap, super-light, take-everywhere camera to toss in my satchel while running errands in New York City. The Canon T60 has become that camera for me, but the Olympus RC and Canon QL17 GIII seem like serious contenders. Both cameras are compact and light with manual exposure controls and famously excellent lenses. But the Olympus RC tends to sell for $70 or so and the Canon QL17 GIII tends to sell for a bit over $100, which, again, is a bit out of my comfort range. However, there’s a Canon GL17 model without the GIII designation that’s pretty much the same camera as the GIII and tends to go for a lot less, so hope springs eternal!

Minolta ER

When I was in high school, I somehow got ahold of an old Minolta SLR with a fixed lens that I can remember fiddling with and keeping on my bookshelf but never actually shooting. I have no memory of where it actually came from. It might have been a camera my mom owned and used before she got her Canon FTb. Or maybe we picked it up at a yard sale or something. I noticed the camera in the background of a photo I took of my bedroom in high school and immediately felt the muscle memory of handling it. It was a heavy, solid, metal camera that made very satisfying clicks. It took a while to figure out what the make and model was, and now I’m a little obsessed with tracking one down. It’s a bit of a goofy desire — the camera’s too big and bulky for everyday use, and the chances that I can find an actual working model are pretty slim anyway. But I want to hold it in my hands again, feel that weight, and let that muscle memory take over. Nostalgia and sentiment are strong, y’all. Of course, the only samples I can find are over $100, so I’m not sure I’m going to pull the trigger on this any time soon.

Contaflex II

This was my maternal grandfather’s camera. He took hundreds of gorgeous, vibrant slide photos with it on Kodachrome during family roadtrips when my mom was a teenager. I dug up the camera after my mom died, and I love its weight and feel. But sadly the shutter’s gummed up and these cameras are notoriously over-engineered and difficult to service and repair. They’re not that expensive on auction sites, but according to various experts on the internet, the chances of finding a working model are extremely slim. I’d still love to shoot with this camera to get into my grandfather’s head for a bit. He was a quiet, meticulous man, and I have this strange feeling that learning to work his camera would help me understand the way his mind worked just a bit more.

Canon Dial 35

I became a bit obsessed with half frame cameras this year, and the Canon Dial 35 is a funky model that I’d just love to fiddle with. Half frame 35mm cameras take two 18×24 mm pictures in the space a normal camera takes one 36x24mm picture, which means you can get 72 frames out of a typical 36 exposure role of film. Each image is lower resolution, of course, since it takes up half the amount of film, but that’s part of the charm. The Canon Dial 35 stands out because of its strange form and clockwork mechanisms. Its unusual vertical orientation and funky crank knob make it look like something out of a 1960s science fiction or spy movie, and it was actually featured in The Prisoner television show. It’s a bit silly for me to want this camera — it’s an autoexposure only machine, and I only really enjoy shooting with full manual exposure controls. And I already have multiple great half frame cameras, including a phenomenal Konica Auto-Reflex that uses standard Konica SLR lenses and thus provides incredibly good image quality. But I look at the pictures of the Canon Dial 35 and I just want to fiddle with it. These are sometimes pretty cheap, so who knows!

Konica FT-1 Pro Half

Speaking of half frame cameras, the Holy Grail of the format appears to be the Konica FT-1 Pro Half, a full featured SLR that’s a variant of the full-frame Konica FT-1 Motor. Apparently Konica manufactured a small number of half frame versions of this camera that were given to special customers and executives around 1982. I don’t know if any other half frame cameras were being manufactured at the time, and I’ve never heard of a half frame SLR as modern as this one. I’ve only seen an active auction for one of these, and the asking price was $1399. So no, I’m not buying this camera. But boy, it’d be fun to try one out!

Olympus Pen F with an Olympus OM adapter

Okay, we’re getting into fanciful realms here. The only other half frame SLRs I know of besides the Konica Auto-Reflex and FT-1 Pro Half are the Olympus Pen F and FT. These are highly coveted, all manual, all mechanical compact SLRs with interchangeable lenses. I’d probably have managed to scrounge one up by now, but the big drawback is that the two most standard lenses for these cameras were manufactured with thorium glass elements, which means they’re slightly radioactive. Different people have different ideas about the actual danger levels of thorium in camera lenses, but I try to avoid it, so I’ve pretty much given up on chasing down these cameras. But there are lens adapters that allow you to attach Olympus OM lenses to Pen F series bodies. The trick is that the adapter itself sells for about $150. Add the camera itself and an Olympus OM lens or two, and the price starts to get pretty high up there. Again, not something I’m going to spring for any time soon, but fun to think about!

Canon EF

This is a strange, rare, but currently pretty cheap camera that was part of the Canon F line that included my beloved FTb and New F-1. The EF was built on the same basic chassis, so it’s a solid, heavy, classic-feeling Canon camera that takes FD lenses. But it’s got an electronic shutter and a shutter priority mode. Like the AE-1 and A-1, it also doesn’t show you your actual aperture in the viewfinder when you’re exposing manually — it just shows you the suggested aperture, and you have to lower the camera from your eye to make sure your lens is set properly before shooting. That should be a dealbreaker for me, but I got my hands on a non-working Canon EF and just like the feel of it. I’d love to try out a working version. But I haven’t yet committed to plunking down $60 or $70 for the privilege.

As I said at the outset, I don’t need any of these cameras. But it’s fun to learn and think about them, and it’s fun to have a little list of things to look out for when I pass a stoop sale or flea market. Simple pleasures, right?

Fixed a sticky aperture on a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 breech mount lens!

I spent an hour tackling one of the most challenging camera repairs I’ve dared so far, and it worked! Check out the clean, smooth action on this previously oily, gummed up aperture assembly from a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 breech mount lens!

Since I’ve gotten back into 35mm photography this year, I’ve been itchy to get my hands on a Canon FD 135mm f2.5 breech mount lens like the one my mom gave me in high school. As it turns out, that f2.5 lens is considered to be one of Canon’s best vintage primes, but the aperture on mine became unreliable in high school and I eventually gave it away in the early 2000s. I’ve kept my eye open for a replacement, and I thought I found one in a cheap Canon FTb lot from an auction site. But when I got the package, I discovered the lens was a f3.5, not a f2.5, and it was full of fungus and the aperture wasn’t working. Aaaah!

The first day I got the lens, I opened it up and cleaned the glass. I was able to get rid of the fungus, but it’s still pretty dusty — there are just a lot of flecks in there I can’t quite get out. I strongly suspect they won’t affect image quality, but I wasn’t ready to test the lens yet because the aperture was stuck wide open.

This morning I had a spare hour, so I finally opened up the lens again, removed and opened up the aperture assembly, and carefully used isopropyl alcohol to clean the housing and blades, which were indeed oily and sticky. Huge thanks to mikeno2, whose video about cleaning this model of lens was incredibly helpful.

The toughest part of the job was reassembling the aperture assembly.  Tiny pegs on the bases of the blades fit into tiny holes in two different parts of the housing, and the blades overlap in a circular pattern, and the very last blade has to tuck under the very first blade, which is a tricky maneuver. But it all worked out, and now I have what looks like a working Canon FD 135mm f3.5 breech mount lens!

This is a lot of effort for a lens that can be bought in good condition for under $40. But it’s enormously gratifying to fix up something that came to me in such bad condition.

Yes, I’ve still got my eye open for the f2.5 version of this lens, but for now, I’m going to have a lot of fun testing out my repaired f3.5 in the field.

I did the Minolta X-370 capacitor fix! (And then I discovered the REAL problem!)

Minolta X-370

A few months ago I picked up a old Minolta X-370 for less than $10.  This is a bit of an underdog of a camera, overshadowed by the X-700, the full-featured flagship of its line. But I like the simplicity of the X-370 — it’s a very light, efficient machine with manual exposure controls that don’t require you to lower the camera from your eye when you’re shooting. I thought it might be a good candidate for a cheap take-everywhere camera, and it cleaned up nicely and worked great — for two rolls. Then the mirror got stuck in its flipped up position and the camera exhibited the classic symptoms of the capacitor failure that plagues Minoltas in this line.

After reading a bunch of message board posts and watching this excellent video from Matt Originals multiple times, I decided to embrace the challenge of replacing the capacitor. I visited Digi-Key, spent a few bucks on the exact part Matt Originals recommended, and dug up my soldering iron.

Long story short: I replaced the capacitor! And the camera’s working now! But I’m not entirely sure the capacitor was the actual problem!

Replacing the capacitor

The message boards were right — if you can solder, this is a very manageable job! First, I removed the batteries and the four tiny screws on the bottom plate of the camera to expose the capacitor. It’s the blue thing on the left. As recommended by various online guides, I took note of the plus sign on the right side of the capacitor — I’d need to make sure the new capacitor was installed with its plus side in the same place.

Minolta X-370 with bottom removed to show blue capacitor

Second, I removed the old capacitor by carefully melting the solder attaching the capacitor to the circuit board, taking care not to melt the thin plastic of the board itself. I then cut the wires extending from the new capacitor to match the length of the wires on the old capacitor.

Old and new capacitors for the Minolta X-370

IMPORTANT: the specs for the new capacitor note that the longer wire is the positive terminal. So it’s key to remember which side that is before you trim the wires so you can make sure the positive wire of the new capacitor is attached to the same spot that the positive wire of the old capacitor was.

Then I soldered the new capacitor into place. I haven’t soldered anything for years, so I was pretty pleased with the outcome!

New capacitor in place in the Minolta X-370

Finally, I screwed the bottom plate of the camera back into place, reinstalled the battery, and fired up the camera… and the camera wouldn’t advance, the shutter wouldn’t fire, and the mirror remained stuck. Oh no!

The real problem?

I started googling again and read the message boards very carefully. According to Minoltafan2904 on, the capacitor problem is characterized by the shutter not firing, the film advance lever not moving past 30 degrees, and the LEDs in the viewfinder illuminating briefly, but going out when you press the shutter release button. All of those things were happening with my camera — but in addition, the mirror was stuck in an upright position.

Stuck up mirror on a Minolta X-370

So I started searching specifically for the mirror problem, and eventually I found this post by John Koehrer on, who suggested that a stuck mirror might be due to a shutter curtain not completing its cycle. The curtain on my camera looked fine to me. But on closer inspection, I saw just a bit of the black metal edge of the curtain on the far left. So I very carefully and gently nudged that metal edge to the left… and the mirror released!

Nudging the edge of the shutter to release the mirror on the Minolta X-370.

Now everything works properly! The LED viewfinder lights stay on and function correctly and the film advance and shutter advance work. The mirror got stuck again a few more times as I tested the camera, but I just nudged the shutter to release it and after a few dozen more firings, it doesn’t seem to be getting stuck any longer.

So was my problem all along just a shutter issue? Or did I have both a shutter and a capacitor issue? I suppose I could get a definitive answer by reinstalling the old capacitor to see if the camera still functions. But that feels like begging trouble. At least I know that I rose to the challenge of soldering and correctly installed the new capacitor (whether or not I needed to), which makes me pretty proud.

I still need to load the camera and test it in the field to see if the sticky shutter and stuck mirror problem recur. It could be that the camera needs a good old fashioned CLA (clean, lube, and adjust). But that would probably cost four or five times the price of a new used X-370 body. If we get to that stage, I might just do some more googling to see if I can figure out how to CLA an X-370 myself.

Maybe this seems like a lot of effort for a $10 camera. But this is one of the glories of analog photography for me. It feels absolutely fantastic to crack one of these problems and actually fix an old camera, and the photos I take with this junky beater will always feel extra special.

A little story about a Canon TLb and letting things go

Canon TLb

I gave away a camera this week, and it felt great.

When I was plunging back into 35mm film photography earlier this year, I discovered that the shutters on both of my high school cameras needed repair. So I bought a used Canon TLb, which is basically a simpler version of my beloved Canon FTb, and fell in love immediately. The TLb felt fantastic and familiar in my hands the minute I picked it up and I had a tremendous time learning how to do basic maintenance like replacing its foam light seals.

Tiffany Lamp at the Queens Museum
A Tiffany lamp at the Queens Museum shot with a Canon TLb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200.

And of course I love this particular camera for kicking the door to 35mm photography back open for me. Shooting with it was an absolute pleasure. My eyes are terrible and I hate peering through the small viewfinder of my digital SLR. Looking through the big viewfinder of the TLb made me feel like I could actually see again.  And it was a total thrill getting my first rolls of film back and seeing such lovely results, particularly with color film, which I never shot much of 20 years ago.

New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Shot with a Canon TLb on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200.

But over the next few months, I picked up several more used cameras and got my original Canon New F-1 and Canon FTb repaired, so the TLb ended up spending most of its time on the shelf. I’d somehow become a vintage camera collector, so I liked owning it — it’s part of a fantastic line of classic Canon cameras that includes the TX, the FTb, the F-1, the New F-1, and even the Bell & Howell FD35, and I entertained this vague notion of trying and owning them all.

But in recent years, I’ve been trying to simplify my life and possessions in other ways, finding places to donate hundreds of books and other physical objects I just don’t need any longer. So while I’ve loved every cheap vintage camera I’ve picked up this year and become even more attached to them after fixing them up, I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t really need all of them and could benefit from clearing some space on my shelf and in my mind.

So when I found out that a friend was very interested in 35mm photography, I was thrilled to pack up the TLb for him. A number of friends and family members have given me old cameras over the last year, so it felt like continuing a fine tradition and passing on a kindness.

And cameras are meant to be used. I believe that analog photography is a beautifully slow and human undertaking that can bring more beauty into the world and more peace in the hearts of those who practice it. So I love the idea that new images will be made and experiences had because this camera’s been put back into use. I’ve got a few more cameras I’m planning to spread around and I can’t wait to see what new pictures result.

But as I told my friend, it made happy on yet another level to pass a camera to a new home before I’d become so sentimentally attached to it that it was hard to let go. I love my high school FTb and New F-1 not just because they’re great cameras, but because my mom bought them for me. At the time, they were the most expensive single items anyone had ever given me and represented tremendous trust and hope and love. Since my mother’s passing, they’ve become almost painfully precious to me. I’m so incredibly grateful for everything they represent and so happy to still have them. But I could see myself finding a way over time to attach the tremendous connection I have to those specific cameras to all my other cameras, which doesn’t feel like the most emotionally helpful of all paths to take.

This is a little story about a little thing. But in the end, we give up everything, whether we’re ready for it or not. So I’m grateful to my friend for letting me practice giving something up in a happy way by taking my pretty little TLb before it became too much of a treasure. I feel like we’ve dodged a tiny, silly sadness and turned it into a tiny, lovely joy. And my mom would definitely have approved.

Quick reviews of eight vintage manual 35mm cameras!

I grew up shooting 35mm film with manual focus and manual exposure on a Canon FTb and a Canon New F-1, which I loved dearly. But those cameras are heavy, so as I’ve plunged back into analog photography in my 50s, I’ve been looking for something a bit lighter to toss into my satchel every day.

Over the past few months, I’ve haunted auction sites and snagged a few cheap, lighter 35mm SLRs that meet my minimum requirements for manual focus and manual exposure. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of some of the cameras I’ve tested.

Olympus OM-1n


A beloved classic, the OM-1 is a sturdy, simple, mechanical camera from the 1970s. I’ve got the OM-1n version, which is functionally pretty much the same. Pros include its small size and light weight (519 grams) and a match needle exposure system that doesn’t make you lower the camera from your eye. Biggest cons for me are the placement of both the shutter speed and aperture controls as rings on the lens. I’m used to a shutter speed control dial on the top of the camera, and after shooting a few rolls, I still haven’t really adjusted to the OM-1’s arrangement. Also, OM lenses don’t have intermediate clicks between f-stops, which means I have to fret a bit more when the exposure really wants to be right in the middle. Finally, OM lenses are a bit pricey, so I still haven’t nabbed a nice wide angle prime, which limits my shooting a bit. Still, a great camera, beloved by many, and pretty cheap on the used market.

Minolta X-370


The Minolta X-370 is one of the lower end cameras in its line, which includes the X-570 and the much beloved X-700, but it’s a great lightweight machine with an LED exposure system that lets you shoot in manual exposure mode without lowering the camera from your eye. My X-370 is just 469 grams, and I picked up a cheap 140 gram Minolta MD Rokkor-X 45mm f2 lens with the idea of putting together a super-light, take-everywhere rig. And yes, that lens does have intermediate clicks between stops! It all worked pretty well — for two rolls! Sadly, the X-370 is an electronic camera that craps out completely if a certain capacitor dies, which apparently happens in a large percentage of these cameras, including mine. It seems to be a pretty easy, cheap fix if you know how to solder, but I haven’t tried it yet, so I can’t speak from experience. I’m not mad, though — the chance for me to do a little DIY repair on these cheap vintage cameras is a feature of the hobby, not a bug. So I’m looking forward to the challenge and will post again when I’ve given it a shot.

Canon AE-1 and Canon A-1


When I was growing up, my mom had a Canon AE-1 and my sister had a Canon A-1, but I didn’t take much interest in either camera because I couldn’t figure out how the manual exposure controls worked. This year, an awesome relative hooked me up with an old AE-1 and I picked up a ridiculously cheap A-1 from a poorly labeled online auction. And I’ve learned that in manual exposure mode, both cameras will show you a recommended f-stop in the viewfinder — but they don’t show you the f-stop that’s actually set on your lens, so you have to lower the camera from your eye to set it. I love the feel and handling of both of these cameras, but I don’t love interrupting my flow by lowering the camera from my eye to set the f-stop. These A-series Canon cameras are also susceptible to cracking battery doors and the infamous “Canon cough,” which is a grinding, squealing sound the camera can develop when you fire the shutter. My bargain A-1 had a bad cough, as well as a weird sluggish mirror that took a second to flip up after pressing the shutter release. I did some searching online and followed the instructions at Fix Old Cameras to apply a tiny bit of oil to the right place inside the camera… and now it works great! And now I feel happy every time I pick up this camera, despite its hinky manual exposure issues. Investing a little time and effort to fix the darn thing has made me kind of love it!

NOTE: To be clear, the AE-1, A-1, and AT-1 (below) are not exactly lightweight cameras — my AE-1 and AT-1 are about 584 grams and my A-1 is 621. That’s actually pretty heavy for most folks. But compared to my beloved FTb, which clocks in at 744 grams, these are much, much easier on my shoulders over the course of a day.

Canon AT-1


The Canon AT-1 is a hugely underrated camera that hits a bunch of my buttons in a very good way. This is essentially a Canon AE-1 with a manual match needle exposure system. And it only weighs 590 grams and often sells for a third of the price of an AE-1! The minuses are that it’s an electronic camera that’s unusable if the battery dies and that as a Canon A model camera, it’s susceptible to the Canon cough and the fragile battery door. Like the AE-1 and the A-1, it also winds the film against its natural curve (which makes film shot on this camera just a touch harder to roll onto developing spools) and lacks the FTb’s easy QL loading system. And its match needle system is a bit different from the Canon FTb’s — with the FTb, the needle moves in response to changing shutter speeds and the circle moves with changing f-stops. But with the AT-1, the needle always points to the same place based on available light, while the circle moves when you adjust either the f-stop or shutter speed, which takes a bit to get used to and gives me a bit less information when I’m shooting. But I’ve got a cough-free camera with a good battery door and none of the other quirks are dealbreakers. I dig this camera a lot!

Canon T60


Probably my favorite current camera for everyday use, the Canon T60 was actually manufactured by Cosina instead of Canon as a lower end product and maybe has a bit less cache as a result. But it’s an all-manual machine that takes all my favorite FD lenses and displays exposure with clear LED indicators that let me shoot without taking the camera down from my eye — and it’s an astonishingly light 361 grams! I love this camera. I even love the almost comically loud slap the mirror makes inside its plastic fantastic body. But after picking up several used copies of this camera, I’ve discovered a couple of manufacturing quirks — one of which can result in scratched negatives. After a lot of thinking and testing, I figured out a relatively simple home repair for that particular problem, but that extra effort is probably too much for many folks, so it’s a tricky camera to recommend. I’ll delve into all this more in a future article.

Vivitar V2000 and Promaster 2500PK Super


Like the Canon T60, the Vivitar V2000 and the Promaster 2500PK Super were made by Cosina, based on the Cosina CT-1, so they feature pretty lightweight, mostly plastic bodies with manual focus and a viewfinder that lets you set exposure manually without taking the camera down from your eye — so good so far! The LED exposure indicators on these cameras have less information than the T60’s — just three lights to indicate if you’re above, below or right on the correct exposure. Not ideal, but workable. These cameras take Pentax K mount lenses, which makes it possible to use a huge range of great, cheap glass from a ton of different manufacturers. Alas, the K mount lenses I have don’t have intermediate clicks between f-stops. And I think my Promaster may need a little home repair to take care of the same negative scratching quirk I mentioned above with my T60. But these cameras literally cost me ten bucks or less each, so it’s been fun to test them and have working bodies for any great K mount lenses I might stumble across.


I remain full of love for my Canon FTbs, and I encourage you to read all about them right here. But after testing all these cameras, I’m pretty sold on both the Canon T60 and the Canon AT-1 as lighter, everyday-take-everywhere cameras that I can use with any of my Canon FD lenses. But all of these cameras are fun and I’m absolutely going to shoot more with the AE-1 and A-1 to see if I can ever feel comfortable with any auto-exposure settings. I’m also eventually going to try to fix my Minolta X-370 and give it another whirl — I’d love to see what that 45mm lens is really capable of.

A Love Letter and Guide to the Canon FTb: The Best First Film Camera Ever?

After trying out a dozen great cameras from various manufacturers since I re-immersed myself in 35mm photography this year, I’ve fallen back in love with my first serious camera, the Canon FTb, which might just be the best and most affordable single lens reflex camera for beginning analog photographers interested in the creative freedom provided by manual controls.

Full disclosure: my beloved and brilliant mother, Jane Pak, taught me how to shoot 35mm film on her Canon FTb almost four decades ago and I’ve shot thousands of images using Canon FTbs ever since. So I’m deeply attached to the camera out of habit and sentiment. But I think its advantages are real. Read on and see if you agree!

My mom, Jane Pak, with her Canon FTb, shot circa 1975 by me with a Kodak 110 Instamatic.


Aesthetically, the Canon FTb is a metal bodied 1970s film camera that comes in black and silver or all black. If you’re looking for that unmistakable, classic retro look, this is your baby.


The FTb is a workhorse SLR camera with a sturdy metal body, manual focus, manual exposure, shutter speeds ranging from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second, and a combination self-timer and stop down lever. The camera is fully mechanical and everything but its light meter works without a battery, so you can continue taking pictures even if the light meter or battery fails.

What the camera doesn’t have is as much of a bonus for me as what it does. I love the lack of autofocus and autoexposure features. When I’m shooting film, I want instant, intuitive control over focus and exposure so I can shoot in the moment, making aesthetic choices on the fly and implementing them as fast as my fingers can move. Manual focus means that I chose what part of the frame I want to emphasize and don’t risk missing a moment while the camera searches for focus. Manual exposure means I can purposefully over or underexpose the image to accommodate unusual conditions, like heavy backlight. It also gives me better awareness and control of my aperture, which determines depth of field, which can be a deeply important part of the aesthetic impact of a photograph. So weirdly, autofocus and autoexposure slow me down. The all-manual FTb lets me move at just the right speed.

The second generation Canon FTb my mom bought me in 1985 with her Canon FD 28mm f2.8 lens.

Canon made two versions of the FTb. I’ve used and loved both. My mom had the original version, which she gave me when I first started shooting film; when that camera got stolen a short while later, she bought me a used, second generation FTb.

In her fantastic FTb review, Mel at high5cameras writes that the original FTb’s mechanics run more smoothly than the second version’s due to all metal interior parts. On the other hand, the updated FTb shows the numbers of your chosen shutter speed on the bottom left of the viewfinder, which is a nice bit of extra information to have. But I honestly never noticed any functional differences between the cameras when I was in high school.

You can distinguish the two versions at a glance by the shape of the self-timer/stop down lever. In the original FTb, the lever has an asymmetrical shape designed to accommodate your thumb. The updated FTb has a straight, symmetrical shape like the lever on the original Canon F-1. The cameras are similar enough in form and function that when I say “FTb,” I’m usually talking about both of them.


I love the handling of the FTb. Again, I’m biased by my long history with the camera, but every knob feels like it’s in exactly the right place and responds in exactly the right way for me to shoot freely and seamlessly, setting exposure and focus nearly instantly while never having to lower the camera from my eye.

I also love the literal feel of the camera in my hands. The FTb’s silver metal has a kind of satin finish that just feels good to touch. The metal of black version is more polished and slick, but feels just as good. The camera’s solidity also creates a feeling of trust that means I don’t have to think about the FTb or its similarly sturdy Canon FD lenses when I’m shooting. I can move fast, spin that solid focus ring, and crank that film advance without even subliminally harboring doubts about the camera’s ability to hold up under pressure.

Please know that I love shooting with this camera much more than my expression might indicate in this photo.


The FTb’s metering system features a circle and a needle on the right hand side of the viewfinder. The circle travels up and down the edge of the frame depending on the aperture you set — the lower down on the frame, the wider your aperture. The needle rises and falls based on your shutter speed — the lower your shutter speed, the lower on the frame the needle falls. When you get the needle to cross the circle, you’ve got a good exposure.

I love this system because I can set my exposure without lowering the camera from my eye. In contrast, when exposing manually, the viewfinders of the much more popular (and expensive) Canon AE-1 and Canon A-1 only indicate the aperture the camera suggests, not the aperture the lens is actually set to. So you have to check what the camera suggests in the viewfinder, then lower the camera to confirm your lens is set correctly. I don’t have to take that added step when shooting with an FTb, so I stay in the moment, have more fun, and don’t lose shots.

As another huge bonus, the FTb’s light metering system works like a semi-spot meter, which allows for more precise creative decisions on the fly. Most cameras of the era averaged the light throughout the entire frame. But the viewfinder of FTb shows a rectangular area in the middle of the frame that takes up about 12 percent of the viewfinder. That’s the area the camera is using to measure light. So, for example, if you’re shooting a backlit subject, you can fill the subject in the foreground with that smaller rectangular area, set the exposure accordingly, and run less of a risk of underexposing that critical part of your frame.

The only minus for me with the FTb’s metering system is that in very dark environments, it can be hard to see the needle and circle. The Canon New F-1, based on the same body as the FTb, has an internal light that illuminates the metering indicators. The Canon T60 uses tiny LEDs that are always easy to see. But in the dark with the FTb, you may have to squint a bit or work a slightly lighter background into the edge of the frame for a moment to see the settings.

Finally, the FTb’s viewfinder is big and bright and, according to the manual, shows 94 percent of the actual picture area. I have terrible eyes and wear glasses, so it’s hard for me to work with cameras with dim, small viewfinders. The FTb’s viewfinder is a joy — I never feel like I’m struggling to see when I’m using the camera.


I’ve been shooting 35mm film for decades, and I can still screw up loading film into my cameras. But it’s very hard to mess up loading an FTb. The inside of the camera’s fitted with a special brace that flips down and locks the film leader into place as you close the film door. So instead of threading the leader into slots on the take up reel, you just line up the end of the leader with the red film set mark, partially close the film door until the brace locks the film in place, then close the door completely and you’re good to go. Canon cameras with this system are marked “QL” for “Quick Loading.”

The inside of the Canon FTb, showing the Quick Loading system.

Another advantage of the FTb’s QL system is that it rolls the film along its natural curve on the take up reel. Many other cameras, including the Canon AE-1, roll the film against its natural curve. This is really only an issue for me when I’m developing film at home — film from an FTb that’s been rolled along its natural curve is just a bit easier to load into a developing reel.


A great camera body will help you nail your exposure and release the shutter at just the right moment, but the final image quality depends on your lenses. Fortunately, the FTb uses interchangeable Canon FD lenses, which is a huge advantage in my book. Different photographers have different favorite lenses, but I’m hard pressed to think of a better overall system for analog photographers on a budget than Canon FD primes. Vintage Canon FD lenses can only be used on modern Canon cameras with an adapter that contains an extra glass element, which decreases image quality. So FD lenses have typically been cheaper in the resale market than many other premium vintage lenses of similar quality. Some more recent digital cameras can use FD lenses with glass-free adapters, which has bumped up their value a bit. But I’ve still found plenty of bargains.

Black and white image of the Empire State Building seen between at the end of a canyon of dark buildings in NYC.
One of my favorite recent shots, made with a Canon FTb and the most regular schmegular of Canon FD lenses — the basic 50mm f1.8, which is great!

I also love Canon FD lenses because they feature intermediate clicks between f-stops. Some lenses from other manufacturers have just one click per f-stop. So if your exposure really wants to be between f4 and f5.6, you have to pick one or the other and hope for the best. With an FD lens, you can click to the intermediate spot and get a more exact exposure.


So far I’ve primarily sung the FTb’s praises, but some photographers with specialized needs might reject the camera because its fastest shutter speed is 1/1000th instead of 1/2000th of a second and its slowest shutter speed is 1 second. But I’m not trying to freeze hummingbird wings, so 1/1000th of a second feels fine to me. And if I wanted to try long exposure night shots, I could do a little more math for the exposure time and use a shutter release cable and the camera’s “B” setting, which keeps the shutter open as long as you’re depressing the shutter release button.


A bigger disadvantage of the Canon FTb is that its light meter was originally designed to be powered by a 1.3 volt 625 mercury battery, which is no longer sold for environmental reasons. There are two modern replacement batteries, each with small drawbacks. First, Wein makes a 1.35 volt MRB625 zinc air replacement battery that costs about six dollars. The WeinCell’s advantage is that it’s about the same voltage as the original battery and will theoretically get the most accurate results from the light meter. The disadvantage is that WeinCells react with oxygen and only last a few months after being exposed to air. Since they’re pricier than other batteries and expire a little faster, they become a more expensive option.

The alternative is a 1.5 volt alkaline battery like a Loopacell 625A, which is cheaper and lasts longer than a WeinCell. But its slightly higher voltage will typically make the light meter a bit more sensitive, which could lead to slightly underexposed negatives. Professional camera repair shops can recalibrate the FTb’s light meter to give correct readings with these 1.5 volt batteries. But these alkaline batteries also supposedly provide less voltage as they age. That means the light meter might become less reliable towards the end of the battery’s life, so you’ll need to pay a bit more attention and replace the battery before the meter starts giving false readings.

I’ve used WeinCell batteries in my FTbs without issue for months at a time and have taken many lovely pictures with them. But most of my WeinCells are currently on their last legs, so I now have 1.5 volt Loopacell 625A batteries in all three (yes, three — I told you I love the camera!) of my FTbs, even though I’ve only had one of those cameras recalibrated to 1.5 volts by a pro. Strangely, all three cameras are giving me identical light meter readings. It could be that the light meters on my uncalibrated cameras are simply off a stop and the voltage difference between a 1.35 volt and 1.5 volt battery coincidentally provides the exact correction needed. Or maybe these used cameras were recalibrated for 1.5 volt batteries before I acquired them. It’s a mystery!

Regardless of exactly what’s going on with my own cameras, the lesson here is that it’s important to check the accuracy of a used FTb’s light meter regardless of which battery you go with. If you have a light meter or existing camera you trust, you can just compare the measurements you get from your trusted device with the measurements from your FTb. If there’s a big discrepancy, you can adjust the ISO on your FTb until the measurements match.

A practical example: I have a Bell & Howell FD35, which is the same camera as the Canon TX, which is basically a stripped down FTb with the highest shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. With a 1.5 volt battery, my FD35’s light meter recommends f5.6 when my trusted Minolta Spotmeter F recommends f4. So I reset the ISO on the camera from 400 to 800 to accommodate.

If you don’t have a trusted light meter or just don’t have the patience to muck with all this, you can shoot a test roll and adjust your ISO for future rolls accordingly if you think the negatives look over or underexposed. For what it’s worth, you can often over or underexpose 35mm negatives by a stop or so without really noticing it that much, so the differences between a 1.35 and a 1.5 volt battery might not matter a great deal in the end for some shooters.


My only other serious quibble with the FTb is its weight. Without a lens, my old high school FTb weighs 744 grams. With my old Canon FD 50mm f1.8 breech mount lens, that jumps to 996 grams — over two pounds! When I was a teenaged photojournalist, I never thought twice about that kind of weight. But at the age of 54, it’s more of a commitment for me to toss an FTb in my satchel when running errands in New York City. So as an everyday-take-anywhere camera, I’ll often pack a Canon T60 instead — it’s less than half the weight of an FTb. (Please know that I love the T60, but that camera has its own quirks and can be trickier to find than an FTb, so before recommending it to beginners, I have a few more caveats, which I’ll try to detail in a future article.)

The counter-argument to the weight complaint is that little heft can be a good thing. The solidity of the Canon FTb may help me avoid blurry images at low shutter speeds. I feel pretty confident shooting at 1/30th or even 1/15th of a second with a standard 50mm lens on an FTb.

If the weight of the FTb still feels a bit intimidating, there are several very similar, cheap Canon cameras that are a bit lighter. The Canon TLb, the Canon TX, and the Bell & Howell FD35 are all based on the FTb but have a slower top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. My Canon TLb weighs 695 grams; my FD35 weighs 706. These aren’t radically lighter than the FTb, but an ounce or two might make a difference over the course of a long day.

(As a weird footnote, I’ve discovered that my different FTbs have slightly different weights. My high school camera is 744 grams while my two more recent acquisitions are about 730. All three of these cameras are second generation FTbs, so I have no idea what’s going on. My high school camera has a lower serial number than the others; maybe it’s an earlier version that uses the all metal interior gears that Mel at high5cameras mentions and thus weighs a bit more? Another mystery!)


If you’ve got the money, the most straightforward, efficient, risk-free way to get your hands on a fully functional FTb is to buy a tested, serviced camera through a reputable store or online site with a return policy like You might pay anywhere from $100 to $250 for a guaranteed FTb under these circumstances, which is pricey, but a lot more affordable than the $300 to $400 you might pay at the same store for a more popular camera like the Canon AE-1.

But if you’ve got the time and inclination to do some bargain hunting, the skills for a little DIY cleaning and repair, and the willingness to risk blowing a few bucks on a dud, it’s possible to nab FTbs for ridiculously low prices through auction sites. A Canon AE-1 with a decent lens will typically go for over $150 on ShopGoodwill, my favorite place to buy used cameras. In contrast, I’ve picked up Canon FTbs through ShopGoodwill with great lenses for as little as $30 to $50.

The risk of course is that a camera from an auction site might have big problems or not work at all. I study the listings pretty carefully before bidding, but I’d say that about 10 percent of the used cameras and lenses I’ve bought online have turned out to be unusable, and almost all the working cameras I’ve bought have required some DIY maintenance like replacing foam light seals. But one advantage of a vintage mechanical camera like the Canon FTb over a more complex electronic camera is that there are fewer things that might have gone wrong with it over the years.

That being said, your average FTb is about 45 years old, so here are a few things to keep an eye out for when buying.

Do the light seals and mirror bumper need to be replaced? (Probably!) Light seals are black foam patches along the sides of the camera door that keep light from leaking into the body and fogging the film. The mirror bumper is a strip of foam along the top of the inside of the front of the camera that keeps the mirror from slapping into the metal camera frame. Over time, all this foam decays and can get gummy or crumbly. You can pay a camera repair shop to clean the camera and replace the foam. Or if you’re a little handy, you can save money and do it yourself. You can find loads of great videos and guides online to learn how.

How clean is the viewfinder? It’s rare to find a perfectly clear and clean viewfinder in a 45 year old vintage camera, and most photographers can live with a few specks of dust. But if you’re bothered by dust in your viewfinder, it’s possible to very carefully clean the mirror and focusing screen — again, I’d recommend searching online for some good videos and guides before you dive into this, and I wouldn’t risk a DIY job like this on a very expensive camera. An even bigger viewfinder problem is interior fungus or debris that you can’t reach because it’s inside the eyepiece glass or in the prism that connects the focusing screen to the viewfinder. It’s a big job to open up the top of the camera and disassemble the prism at home and expensive to pay a camera shop for the job, so I’d recommend not buying any camera with those kinds of issues.

How does the battery compartment look? If a battery has been left in a camera for years, there’s a possibility it’s cracked and leaked. If you can’t inspect the camera yourself, I’d highly recommend asking the seller to confirm that the battery compartment is clean in order to avoid buying any camera that contains a corroded battery or residue from corrosion. This is particularly important with the Canon FTb, since it originally used mercury batteries, which are now banned for environmental and health reasons. I can’t remember ever finding a leaky mercury battery inside a used camera, but if I did, I’d probably seal the whole camera body in plastic bags and get rid of it at a municipal safe disposal event. Safety first!

How does the shutter fabric look? If you open up the back of the camera, you should be able to see a rectangular black fabric shutter curtain. The curtain is made up of two parts, but under normal conditions you should just see a single sheet of black fabric. If you can see the vertical metal edge of one of the curtains, that means one of the shutter curtains isn’t fully retracted or extended. That’s not normal and could indicate a shutter problem that could lead to bands of overexposure in your negatives. I’d avoid any camera with shutter curtain irregularities.

Can you test the aperture and shutter speed operation? If you’re looking at used cameras in person, you should test a few basic functions. There probably won’t be a working battery in the camera, so you might not be able to test the light meter. But the FTb’s a fully mechanical camera, so you should be able to crank the film advance lever to charge the shutter and fire the shutter release. If you look in the front of the camera with the lens off when you fire the shutter, you should see the mirror flip up and down. If you look through the back of the camera with the camera door open and the lens on, you should see a brief flash of the open aperture when you fire the shutter and the mirror lifts. The size of the aperture should change when you change the f-stop on the lens, and the length of time it’s open should change when you adjust the shutter speed. A professional shop can time the shutter speeds precisely to see if they’re on target, but even with the naked eye you can get a general sense of how well they’re working. If you notice big discrepancies, like the shutter remaining open for a full second when it should only open for 1/8 of a second, maaaaaybe don’t buy that particular camera.

Does the self-timer/stop down lever work? If you push this lever towards the camera lens, you should be able to see the aperture of the lens contract to whatever size you’ve set it for. If you turn the self-timer lever around the other way until it stops, it should charge a spring-powered timer. If you crank the film advance lever and press the shutter release, a buzzing sound will commence and the lever will start to travel back to its original upright position. As it draws near to its fully upright position, the shutter should fire.

Does the lens focus properly? The focusing ring should move smoothly and you should be able to focus on objects when looking through the viewfinder. Objects in the far distance should come into sharpest focus when you hit the furthest mark on the lens, usually signified by an infinity symbol. If you hit infinity and objects in the far distance go out of focus, there’s something wrong.

Is the lens radioactive? Sadly, this isn’t a joke. Certain vintage camera lenses include glass made with a radioactive substance called thorium. Different people have different opinions about the dangerousness of this kind of glass, and some collectors actually go out of their way to acquire thorium lenses because they tend to have great image quality. But I personally avoid any thorium lenses. According to the Camerapedia Wiki page on the subject, Canon lenses that supposedly contain thorium include the Canon FL 50mm f1.4 and f1.8, the Canon FL 58mm f1.2, the Canon FD 35mm f2 (with the concave front element), the Canon FD 55mm f1.2, and the Canon 17mm f4. It’s up to each person to make their own decision about whether they’re comfortable handling or owning these items. Thankfully, the most common lenses that come with used FTbs are the Canon 50mm f1.8 and the Canon 50mm f1.4, which I’ve never seen listed as containing thorium.

UPDATE 04-25-2023: I recently saw a post in which an Italian photographer measured radiation slightly above background levels for the Canon FD 50mm f1.8, which I’d never seen reported anywhere else. So I bought a dosimeter and tested my own lenses, and while I am not a scientist or expert, I also found levels slightly above background levels for the Canon FD 50mm f1.8 and the Canon FD 50mm f1.4 when placing the dosimeter directly against the glass elements and measuring for at least an hour. I haven’t fully tested them all, but I believe it’s possible other Canon lenses of this vintage, including my Canon nFD 28mm f2.8, may similarly register slightly above background levels.

For comparison, the level of radioactivity I got from these lenses was considerably less than what I measured from a bathroom sink and a granite kitchen counter and vastly less than what I’ve seen reported for known thoriated lenses. My best guess at the moment is that the lenses may have been made with lanthanum, which according to what I’ve read was used as a replacement for  thorium and is much less radioactive. The Canon FD 50mm f1.8 is one of the most popular and common vintage lenses ever made and I’ve never seen anyone report any health concerns associated with it, and I’ll personally continue to use it and my other vintage lenses. But everyone has different comfort levels, so I’m sharing the information, with the caveat once again that I am not a scientist or expert and everyone should do their own research and make their own decisions.

How clean is the camera lens? Some grime and scuffing on the casing and rings of decades-old thrift shop lenses are to be expected, and much of that will clean up nicely with a little isopropyl alcohol. The real question is the glass. Any scratches on the surface of the lens, particular on the rear element, can be bad news. But you should check the interior of the lens as well. If you shine a flashlight through the lens, you’ll almost certainly see some flecks of dust between the lens elements. Some dust is normal and typically doesn’t interfere with image quality. But you may also see a more fine and generalized mist — that’s haze, and it can sometimes result in foggier, lower contrast images, especially if you’re shooting into the light. And then there’s the possibility of bigger chunks of detritus — I once found a spiderweb inside an old lens!

Pretty sure that’s a spiderweb in an old Canon FD 50mm f1.4 S.S.C. lens.

More commonly, you may see weird irregular blotching on the glass, which may be fungus that’s grown inside the lens due to storage in humid environments. I’ve successfully opened up Canon lenses and cleaned out patches of fungus on my own. But sometimes fungus etches the lens, damaging the actual glass. Remarkably, you can often get pretty decent images from pretty dirty lenses. But if the lens is filled with fungus, the camera was probably stored improperly as well and the chances of unseen problems increase.


It’s easy to go hog wild with lenses and accessories. But sometimes keeping it simple is the best. Many of my best photos have come from walking around with just a camera and a standard 50mm lens. If you’re on a tight budget, a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 is a great first lens. I grew up shooting with an older breech mount model with the silver mounting ring. But now I mostly shoot with the all-black new FD (or nFD) version of this lens, which has a plastic body but feels sturdy enough and weighs much less than the older breech mount version.

A step up would be a Canon FD 50mm f1.4, which is usually much more expensive, but the lens is beloved by portrait shooters for its wide aperture and will allow you to get about a foot closer to subjects for tighter, almost macro-feeling shots. The nFD version of the 50mm f1.4 is a bit lighter than the FD breech mount version, but as far as I know, the optics are the same. Both the FD and nFD versions of the f1.4 are heavier than their f1.8 counterparts, so I’ll often carry the nFD f1.8 instead of the f1.4 when I’m traveling light, but the f1.4 really is lovely.

A dandelion shot with a Canon FTb, a Canon FD 50mm f1.4, and a Hoya +4 filter. The Hoya +4 filter is doing most of the macro work here, but the 50mm f1.4 lens made a big difference by letting me get at least a foot closer to the subject than the f1.8 would have.
A photo of comics editor and creator Joe Illidge shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4, a lens that portrait photographers love — for good reason!

When I want to have more options, I’ll also carry a wide angle prime and a telephoto prime. My favorite wide angle right now is a Canon nFD 24mm f2.8, which is a bit wider than the 28mm lens I grew up with and feels a touch more dramatic, which I like. I got a very good deal on it, but it can be a pricey lens. The Canon FD or nFD 28mm f2.8 can still be a bit pricey, but it’s cheaper and more common than the 24mm. A much cheaper but solid wide angle alternative is the Vivitar 24mm f2.8. I somehow picked up two copies of this lens. One of them’s fantastic; the other’s not quite as sharp. But both were cheap!

For a telephoto lens, I grew up using my mom’s Canon FD 135mm f2.5, which I later learned is very highly regarded. Unfortunately, the aperture on mine locked up in the 1990s and I gave it away instead of having it repaired. Now my standard telephoto is a Canon nFD 135mm f3.5, which is a slower lens, but it’s much lighter and feels just as sharp as my mom’s old f2.5. It’s also frequently sold for ridiculously low prices.

Airplane shot at Bachman Lake in Dallas, Texas, with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 135mm f3.5 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200.

Many used cameras come in bundles with old zoom lenses. I’m not a big fan of zooms. I loved them when I was shooting 16mm documentary film back in the day. But I’ve never gotten into a good rhythm shooting still images with the extra variable of zooming, and zooms tend to be heavier and produce slightly softer images than primes. So I don’t have any particularly good recommendations for you here, other than to note that Canon branded FD zooms tend to be cheap and are generally considered to be pretty good. I’ve also heard good things about Vivitar Series 1 zooms.

If your lenses don’t come with skylight protective filters, I’d recommend picking some up. Some photographers don’t like any unnecessary filter between the lens and the subject. But I’ve never seen any loss of picture quality from a clean glass filter, and I like the anti-scratch insurance when I’m quickly changing prime lenses. If you’re shooting black and white film, I’d highly recommend a yellow filter, which darkens blues and makes skies a bit more dramatic. And I like slightly warmer colors in general, so I’ll often use an 81A filter when shooting color negative.

The other essential accessories would be a camera strap and some kind of protective camera bag. The FTb is heavy, as we’ve discussed, so I recommend a wide camera strap to distribute the weight more evenly over your neck and shoulders. I use old, vintage, so-called hippie straps that are two inches wide. I still have a couple from when I was fifteen years old. Most of the rest I got as bonuses in recent old camera auction bundles.

I don’t have an actual camera bag these days. Instead, I picked up a small, inexpensive, padded camera bag insert that I drop into a satchel or backpack. Eventually I may need to upgrade if I go on a bigger trip with multiple cameras, but for now it’s been great.


Thanks so much for reading so far into an article that ended up about 4000 words longer than I anticipated!

I’ll leave you with a few more images shot with my Canon FTbs over the last few months. All the best and happy shooting!

Shot with a Canon FTb and a nifty fifty Canon FD 50mm f1.8 on Tri-X. A yellow filter helped darken the blue sky a bit for dramatic effect.
When a shot like this involves a lot of bright sky, an automatic exposure system might expose for the sky and render the building too dark. Manual controls let you split the difference or pick what part of the frame you’re exposing for. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 on Ilford HP5 400.
Sometimes losing the focus slightly can be a beautiful thing. Canon FTB, B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4, Hoya +4 filter, Arista EDU Ultra 400.