What really are the best beginners cameras? - Part 3

Part Three of Three

So in part three of our article on what really are the best film cameras for beginners, we take a look at our nominations for the crown of “best beginners film camera”.

Remember, we’re applying the criteria from Part Two of the article so worth reading that if you haven’t already.

Olympus OM20

The Asahi Pentax, the first successful film SLR, was such a success back in the late 50s, that nobody bothered to question whether SLR cameras could be designed in an even better way. That is, until Olympus took a fresh look at things with their iconic OM1.

Olympus OM20
The main complaint about cameras before this one came along was their size. They couldn’t fit in even the biggest pocket, and you certainly didn’t want to be lugging one, or more, around your neck all day. But, hey, that’s just how cameras have to be built, right?

Wrong. Olympus worked that out before anybody else. They went, quite literally, back to the drawing board, with the aim of seeing whether SLR cameras could be re-designed to make them more user friendly.

Their solution was the Olympus OM1, a camera roughly, 65% of the size and weight of previous SLR cameras. This meant it could fit in a decent size pocket and that you could quite easily carry it around your neck.

One of the main ways this space was saved was by moving the shutter speed dials from the top of the camera to around the lens mount. This had the added bonus of meaning you could change the shutter speed in a more intuitive way, and without having to move the camera away from your eye to help make the adjustment.

The OM1 was such a success that Olympus stuck with the “OM” design for virtually all of their subsequent manual focus SLRs. It formed the basis for 4 generations of their “pro” level cameras, the next in the series being the imaginatively named OM2, OM3 and OM4.

The OM20 is one of the little brothers of the (far more expensive) OM2. Back in the 70s a lot of camera companies got hung up on whether their cameras were considered "pro" or "consumer" cameras. SLR cameras were becoming affordable and were things that every household wanted to own. This created a drive towards providing cameras specifically designed for this “consumer” market, with a price point to match.

The OM20 was considered a consumer camera, much like the OM10 before it and the OM30 and OM40 that came afterwards. In reality, and especially for newcomers to film, there really isn’t much difference between the pro cameras and the consumer ones.

Unlike the "pro" level OM1 and OM2, this camera has an aperture priority setting; a great help for when you're starting out in film photography. The OM20 also has a fully manual setting, so it scores max points for us in our best film cameras for beginners criteria. Manual shooting for when you’re confident, and aperture priority to give you a helping hand to begin with; perfect!

We think this combination of a great design heritage and an affordable price tag makes it a truly great beginners film camera.

(The Olympus OM10, if fitted with a manual adapter, is also a very good choice. On its own the OM10 is an aperture priority only camera, but the manual adapter lets you shoot in manual if you want to. It is pretty similar to the OM20 (if you have the manual adapter) but the OM20 has a few extra bits that means we have given it the nod over the OM10.)

So the OM20 makes it on to our list because;

  • It offers great value for money, particularly when you compare it to the cost of an OM1, or OM2;
  • You can shoot either fully manual or aperture priority easily; and
  • It benefits from a rightfully iconic and legendary piece of design…..and is bloody good looking too for a bonus.


Chinon Memotron Series

A great value camera, giving the biggest choice of lenses available, from £5 ones to some truly expensive and legendary glass.

Not a household name these days Chinon, but don’t let that put you off; these guys knew what they were doing. These guys were making lenses and film & photo equipment back in the 1940s. Over time they came to make lenses and other parts for many of the bigger brands. Kodak liked what they did so much that they bought them outright in the late 1970s, so no other competing companies could use their equipment.

Like most cameras from the early 70s, this is a heavy, well-built camera. So don’t let the fact you don’t know the name Chinon put you off and make you think you’re getting something inferior. Too many people already make that ignorant assumption, meaning these cameras are cheap, and excellent value for money; use that knowledge to your advantage.

The camera uses Pentax M42 mount, so you can pick up all the lenses you could ever want for next to nothing. And then one day, buy yourself a Flek - that’s the 35mm Carl Zeiss Flektagon for the uninitiated.

This camera is a pretty rare beast, in that it is a M42 camera that offers both manual and aperture priority modes. We won’t bore you with the technical stuff about why there aren’t many other M42 aperture priority cameras, but it’s fair to say Chinon pulled a blinder working out how to marry up the two things.

All of the series (they made 4 in total) come with a pretty impressive spec; shutter speeds up to 1/2000 of a second, a double exposure lever, a decent stepless shutter, to name just a few.

So if your quest for the ultimate beginner’s camera is focused on price, and having lots of choice of affordable lenses, this camera is worthy of serious consideration.

Pentax ME Super

As good as the previous two cameras are for beginners, this really is the ultimate beginner’s film camera for us.

Pentax ME Super
Here’s why.

Like all Pentax cameras from this period, this camera is gorgeous to look at, and lovely and compact.

But why then did we not choose a different Pentax camera? Well, this gem is perfect for the beginner, as it comes with a choice of Aperture Priority mode and fully manual shooting. There isn’t another Pentax from this era that comes with these two options, so it fits the brief in that respect. Sure, the MX was the “pro” level Pentax camera at the time, but that’s manual only, and whilst Pentax made a lot of aperture only cameras around this time (the ME, the MG, the MV…) that isn’t what we’re looking for in a perfect beginners camera.
Like most Pentax cameras, it represents really good value for money too; this will cost you less than an OM20, for example, and it’s got all the same features.

But there’s more……

Even if money were no object we think we’d still make this the ultimate beginners camera. And that’s down to 2 main things;

  1. The revolutionary way in which you change the shutter speed on this camera; and
  2. The metering system displayed within the viewfinder.

Let us explain.

Before the ME Super, and for a long time after, virtually all SLR cameras used a dial on top of the camera body to change the shutter speed. Once you get used to doing it this way it’s not too much of a problem. But as a beginner it could be ridiculously time consuming and frustrating.

See if this sounds familiar to any beginners out there - You point your camera at your target, you get the focus right, and make sure the composition is spot on. Then, if you want to change the shutter speed you’d typically take the camera away from your eye, hold it down by your midriff to look at the shutter speed, then change the speed.

You’d then lift the camera back to your eye and go back to your target. If you were lucky, it would still be there and you’d fire the trigger – all you’ve done then is waste some time. 9 times out of 10 though, your subject will have moved, meaning you have to re-focus, or moved all together, meaning the shot is lost forever, or the light has changed a bit and you have to get the metering right again, or some combination of those things.

Even when you had been shooting film for a while, changing the shutter speed using a top dial didn’t exactly feel like a natural motion, especially not when you have the camera to your eye – you had to make a claw like grip with your right hand, then find the right dial, then remember to turn it the right way. All a bit of an unnecessary faff really.

The Pentax ME Super refused to be bound by this convention, and did things a different way.

Pentax introduced these little black buttons on top of the body. They were positioned, not by accident of course, in a nice natural position, near to the shutter. In other words, they were close to where you right hand would sit when you had the camera to your eye anyway, so no need to do anything that feels unnatural. One button would speed up the shutter speed – unsurprisingly this was the “up” button, the higher of the two – and the other would slow down the shutter speed.

We challenge anybody to use that way of changing the shutter speed and not find it ten times easier than the more usual top dial. You never had to move the camera away from your eye to find the buttons, and you could make changes in a fraction of a second without losing that precious moment you are trying to capture.

Surprisingly, at the time it wasn’t necessarily a huge hit. Some people just don’t like change perhaps, and there was still a certain amount of a distrust about electrical components in cameras that had, historically, always been mechanical.

Coming to things with an open mind today though, we can’t see any reason not to love this camera and the way in which you change the shutter speed. Certainly as a beginner it feels hugely intuitive and easy to use this feature.

This intuitive feel to the camera didn’t stop there though – it was carried through into the way in which the metering worked.

Before the ME Super a lot of cameras displayed the metering by showing you a needle, which you had to align in the middle of the viewfinder to get “correct exposure”.

As you can see, the ME Super has a series of numbers along the side of the viewfinder, showing you the shutter speed you’ve selected. If that shutter speed is “under” exposed, the red light at the bottom of that list of numbers will flash, telling you your shot is under exposed. In other words, you need to decrease the shutter speed to get the exposure right.

Now, when you’re new to film, you don’t want to have to be remembering that to increase exposure you need to decrease the shutter speed. You just want to be able to make a quick decision as to which button to press to get the right exposure. Luckily with the ME Super, that’s dead easy.

If the light at the bottom of the metering display is flashing, you press the down button. If the light at the top is flashing – to tell you the shot is over exposed - you press the up button.

Simple.

It sounds like a glaringly obvious way to design a camera, we get that, but at the time it was revolutionary, and for reasons we can’t understand very few cameras adopted this approach afterwards.

These lights would also be orange in colour if the shutter speed you were selecting was slow (1/30s or less) which was particularly useful if you were shooting in the dark and were struggling to read the shutter speed. A nice little bonus.

So, due to its great build quality, it’s compact and lightweight design, it’s reasonable price point, and those two simple but oh-so-effective pieces of design, we make the Pentax ME Super our ULTIMATE beginners film camera.

 


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