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.
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.
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.
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!
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.