Looking for a cheap, interesting, funky, camera.
December 7, 2012 7:20 AM   Subscribe

I’m looking for camera suggestions for a Christmas gift. Something interesting, funky, cheap. Not digital. For someone who is interested in photography, but knows nothing about it.

I see a lot of funky cameras, including many Russian ones, on ebay. I’m looking for something interesting though, not just bad, and something that can’t be accidentally broken or is too difficult while learning.

Is film still viable, can you buy it and get it developed? Is there a kind of film I should avoid? I rarely take pictures of anything so I don’t know.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If your goal is to get a cheap funky film camera, just get a Holga (link to a fun colored one). Sort of the most reputable of the "toy" cameras--though you can take some interesting images with them.

But to answer your other question, no, I don't think film is a great way to learn photography these days. I learned on film, developing my own B&W in the kitchen (yum!), printing my own stuff at home etc. It takes a good amount of time and chemicals, and everything is getting more expensive. Getting B&W printed at a lab is pure robbery. Color is going out, too, and people want to be able to share--so inevitably what happens is you buy a color roll, pay to have it processed and get it on CD, then load the CD into your computer and email it to people. It's a bit of a waste.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:32 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cheap and funky and a bit old: the Canon AE-1

You can find them for around $125 dollars on Craigslist and other places. The FD-type lenses are similarly dirt cheap. Manual focus all the time. It's got automatic shutter priority exposure metering or manual exposure controls if you desire it. A few zillion of them were made so you can find accessories all over the place. Manual controls galore. They feel solid and look great.

There will be a learning curve, particularly for someone who doesn't know anything about photography. As usual, I suggest you throw in a gift certificate for a photo class. Still, the results can be stunning.

You can still buy film and get it developed, I know a lot of drugstores still offer both. But the pool is shrinking and it is expensive. What the Admiral said is all true.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:52 AM on December 7, 2012

If you decide to go the film route, look on amazon/eBay for a used Pentax ME Super. It's a really fun, sturdy little camera that's easy to use. Mine was $60.

Or if you want the analog Instagram effect, look into lomography cameras.

I get my film processed at my local Walgreens, I guess it's a little pricey but it's nice to have something tactile.
posted by justjess at 7:52 AM on December 7, 2012

I have been buying used film cameras for five years. Really fine showroom fresh cameras. Because most people see them as worthless they can be had for a song. I shoot color slides that I get at B&H Photo.
You can buy processing mailers there also.I would advise against Russian cameras. As far as funky goes I would suggest camera brands: Voigtländer, Argus, Kodak, Pentax and Minolta. I recently bought this camera in mint shape for $20.
posted by JohnR at 7:54 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should have a look at the Lomo range of cameras. It's an entire subculture of film photography in its own right. However, despite being based on an old Russian design, they aren't especially cheap.

Yes, you can buy and get film developed. If you want it done well, it tends to cost.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:54 AM on December 7, 2012

That Holga camera is gorgeous in its funkiness.

If you want to go a bit more traditional, the Pentax K1000 is a typical go to standard cheap, tank like film camera. If they wanted to learn how to take "proper" pictures with a film camera, this would be a good cheap way to start.

I do however agree with Admiral Haddock that learning on film will be time consuming and expensive and really only proper for someone who was extremely dedicated to learning this way.
posted by mmascolino at 7:56 AM on December 7, 2012

Do not go for film. It has ridiculously high cost per shot, and if you're learning, you're going to make a lot of bad shots. Also, if you learn on film, you'll ration the number of shots you take, and one of the keys to learning photography is to Take Lots of Pictures.

Those Russian cameras are (mostly) pieces of junk. I had a Russian rangefinder phase where I spent ages dicking about with dodgy seals, knacked shutter sync and misaligned lenses. Not many pictures were taken at that time. Lomography is a means of extracting money from the gullible - you'll get better results for free using Instagram.

In three years, ms scruss has gone from never having taken a picture before to rattling off over 500 shots/month. The key to this was a small, cheap digital point-and-shoot, an $80 Casio. Sure, her first couple of thousand pictures weren't great, but after a few months her composition skills were really good. Those 500 shots would cost you about $140/month if you were shooting film.

(But if you have to go for a film camera, try to find a recently cleaned/lubed/adjusted Pentax MX and a SMC Pentax 50mm f/1.4. All manual. Tiny. Built like a tank. Better than a K1000, and cheaper, because every art school uses K1000s and they have a higher resale value. The Pentax 50mm f/1.4 is one of the most glorious bottles ever to grace the front of a camera, and you can get the camera and body for about $200.)
posted by scruss at 8:22 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I adore my XA2. Great value, pocketable, discreet and perfect for street photography.
posted by nerdfish at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2012

For someone who is interested in photography, but knows nothing about it.

I would strongly recommend including this Understanding Exposure book by Bryan Peterson with any camera you might get. It does an excellent job of explaining basic photography principles in easy-to-understand language. The topics covered in the book are useful to a photographer regardless of what kind of camera is used.

My boyfriend started out knowing nothing about photography a year ago and has made leaps and bounds in the quality of his photos since, in large part due to this book.
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I totally love film and still shoot it, and the above suggestions are good. But for something different that's also nondigital and fun, maybe consider a Fuji Instax Wide 210 instant camera. It can be bought for less than $70, and the film (for the wide model, which I'd recommend) can be had for about 85 cents a shot (20 exposures for $17 on Amazon; you can also find it at Office Depots in a pinch, or at better photo-supply stores).

The Instax 210 is similar in concept and quality to classic consumer-level Polaroid cameras; you have two focusing options and three exposure options. The lens is sharp, and Fuji film is great with color saturation and (as far as I can tell) longevity. (Note: if you want long-lasting prints, avoid the more expensive Impossible Project film with genuine old Polaroid cameras -- I've heard reports that at least as of now, those images fade within a year.)

I love the Instax for the same reason classic Polaroids were great. The limited amount of shots in a pack means you think a little more carefully about each photo, but they're not so costly that they're too precious. No temptation to add stupid filters. And it's so terrific to have a physical object immediately, instead of just a potential print in a memory card or a sleeve of negatives.
posted by lisa g at 8:45 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a Canon AE1 (actually the AE-1P version, which does aperture priority automatic shutter adjustment). It's a great film camera and what I learned on in large part.

The Pentax suggested by scruss would also be a great choice if you can find one; I think it's easier to find Canon FD stuff around, but YMMV. I've always been a Canon guy so I'm probably a little biased towards the FD-mount stuff. But if you could find a Pentax with a 50mm f/1.4 around that would be pretty neat; most of the Canon AE-1s you'll find will probably have a 50mm f/1.8 because that was the standard kit lens. It's still pretty nice though, and a lot faster than most kit autofocus lenses that you'd get on a digital (many of which are only f/3.5 or something else terrible).

As for getting film developed, yes there are still places to get it processed. If you shoot color, you can get very cheap processing at Costco or most Wal-Mart type places. Not the best quality processing (sometimes they scratch negatives, and the prints are ... meh) but good for someone who is learning and just needs to see their results without paying through the nose. If you still have a local store in your area that does D&P, I'd go with them since it'll be easier to ask them to do things like disable autocorrection on prints, cut negatives into strips of 5 (for storing in binders), etc.

Pretty sure B&H is probably still the best place to buy film; I think they still sell multipacks of 35mm, which is the way to go. You're never going to bring the cost-per-shot down to the effectively-zero price of digital, but you can get it reasonably low. If you really want cheap, you can still bulk-load B&W and process it yourself, but that's an entirely separate hobby.

And I am not necessarily sure that I agree with the school of thought that the best way to learn photography is just to bang out a huge number of photos. Sometimes limits are useful. Going out with a few rolls of film and seeing how many of them you can make be not-crappy is a good exercise for a beginner, since it makes you think much more critically about composition than if you have a 8GB card and the ability to "spray and pray" until something comes out decently. And not having a display on the back of the camera for immediate feedback forces you to think about a whole host of things (range, shadow detail) that you can otherwise be pretty lazy about.

A beginner with a digital camera will probably bring back better images in an afternoon than a beginner with a film camera, but that's not really the point; at the end of a few afternoons like that, the beginner with the film camera will probably know more about the craft of photography (whether they'll be better in the artistic sense, I make no claims on) and be in a better place to improve themselves. So for someone who wants to learn rather than someone who just wants to take pictures of their cat or kids or vacation or whatever, there's still a place for film.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:19 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're going to shoot film, consider shooting 120. DSLRs can more or less do everything 35mm film can do, but medium format film is still very special.

Holgas are fun, if ridiculously overpriced nowadays, but if I were you, I'd snoop around for a Yashica TLR camera. Those are well-made, durable cameras. Then again, that's probably about $130 bucks or so for something worth getting, so that might be a bit more than you're willing to spend.

If you'd rather go the 35mm route, then just about any film SLR will be fine, as long as it's in good condition. I happen to be sympathetic to K-mount Pentax SLRs, if only because you can use those same lenses on Pentax DSLRs without any adapters whatsoever, but in general, just about any film SLR still working nowadays is usually of excellent quality.

You could also pick up an Olympus XA, which is a truly pocket-sized rangefinder. Amazing camera design. They're not that expensive, especially if you buy one in person as opposed to online. Technology still hasn't caught up with what Olympus was doing back then, especially at that price point.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:12 AM on December 7, 2012

Film makes you think before you click. An uncle once told me (long before digital), 'give a monkey a motorized camera and he'll get some good shots'......
posted by raildr at 10:28 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You've already gotten a lot of good suggestions for cameras -- I have over 300 film cameras so I could add more of my own favorites to your list, but I think it's far more important to get a camera that aligns with what your gift recipient might want to accomplish than to target any specific model.

For someone who wants to "shoot from the hip" and play around with lo-fi effects, Holga or Lomography-type cameras (as mentioned above) are great starting points -- Holga would be my first choice, and believe me, it's cheap compared to what you can spend feeding it film!

For someone who wants to slow down and learn about framing, exposure, f-stops, etc., a classic SLR or rangefinder is a better choice. Your local camera store may have refurbished ones for sale. Typically rangefinders are recommended for people who like to do street photography, whereas a SLR would be a better choice for someone who loves macro.

For film developing, check out Dwayne's Photo -- decent prices and they do a great job.
posted by Lost Cities at 1:26 PM on December 7, 2012

If this is a gift, avoid a camera you can't inspect by hand before buying, by which I mean avoid e3ay.

As long as your recipient lives in a city of some sort, 35mm and 120 film—both the buyin' and the processin—should be readily available. You can do all this online, too, but it's nice to visit and get to know a local shop for this stuff.

I disagree with scruss about everything except the comment about the Russian rangefinders. These are finicky old beasts that were finicky old beasts even when new. Stick with something 70s/early 80s and Japanese: Canon AE-1, Pentax K1000, etc.

Or avoid the issues of a used body altogether and buy Lomo. The Diana Mini is the first camera on this page, and it takes standard 35mm film which is still available in drug stores and can fit, like, 75 shots onto a single roll of it. Bring the exposed roll to a Target or a Walmart or whatever is handy and get back scans. In 39 seconds they're posted to your gift recipient's tumblr. Fun times.

I'll help you shop for something specific or find the nearest film-carrying outlets if you wanna PM me.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 5:09 PM on December 7, 2012

I have to disagree with suggesting the Diana mini. When I worked at a professional photo lab that catered towards the lomo crowd, we often had people bring in their once or twice used Diana mini cameras because they had broken suddenly. The plastic used to build the lomo cameras is cheep and Not only do they break but they are also difficult to load film, which for someone who is new to cameras would be incredibly frustrating. I would suggest a holga camera if you want to go the toy camera route, or a good cheep slr of you want to gift something more substantial. I have an Olympus OM-1 that is a workhorse and a fantastic camera. Keh.com is a great place to look for used camera equipment, they certify that all the cameras they sell are in good working condition, much safer than using eBay!
posted by ruhroh at 9:44 AM on December 8, 2012

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