Film is awesome, especially black & white. The grain appearance and dynamic range is unmatched by digital cameras. It has a certain analog visual charm that is hard to reproduce. Developing it only requires a changing bag, tank, reels and chemicals. The process is fairly easy. Film scanners are affordable. So, why not giving it a try? Ah, you don’t have a film camera…
So, what would be the greatest camera to start film photography? A Leica maybe? Sure, if you have the money, go for it! I would suggest a used M4-P, probably one of the most affordable “recent” Leicas, or even a IIIc. Of course there are all the great cameras of the past, Canon A-1, AE-1, Pentax K1000, Nikon FM2, Olympus OM, etc. many available used from $50 in decent shape. Also keep in mind which lens you are going to need because that should be your first priority and it might determine which camera body you should buy. Always spend more on the lens than on the camera body.
There is a camera that was produced for longer than any other (21 years) for professional photographers, that is the Nikon F3 or F3HP. You could still buy a new one after the F4 and F5 came out, and for good reasons. The F-series is a professional line of Nikon cameras that are more rugged than their “general public” models. I won’t get into specifications, you can find them here.
I will say that holding and using an F3 is unlike using any other camera. It feels very solid. The F3 body can probably take much more abuse than yours before biting the bullet. I used one during my newspaper photography days and it was subjected to abuse no other camera would have survived, including one motorcycle wipe-out while the camera was strapped to my back with no protection. It bounced on the asphalt a few times and got a few scars in the process but worked just fine. I viewed it as the tool it was to get the job done. Though I tried to take good care of it, the nature of the job takes a heavy toll on equipment.
Ergonomics are excellent and the viewfinder of the HP is one of the best out there, still to this day. Multiple accessories are available, including the MD-4 motor drive, which balances the camera perfectly to use with heavier lenses and give you 5fps. Note that Nikon still makes brand new manual focus lenses, and some of their best models to boot, like the 50mm f1.2 and the 28mm f2.8 AI-S lenses. These lenses alone justify buying a used Nikon. You can even use them on the latest digital models.
I made the mistake of selling my F3 and its MD-4 motor drive after leaving that job; what a mistake. I bought another one years later because I missed it, sold that one too. How can you get any dummer? Now I am waiting for my third one, and will never sell it, even if it means skipping meals because I am broke (which I am now!). At the time I also sold a couple Angenieux that are worth thousands today. I am still hitting myself on the head for that. Never sell lenses! They are an investment, especially famous ones from leading brands that are now or will be hard to find in the future. That includes any excellent manual focus lenses by Nikon.
A near-mint Nikon F3-Hp will set you back only about $200-$250. Compared to a new DSLR, that is pretty affordable. You will spend much more on good lenses of course, but until you save up some money you can always find a Nikon zoon like the Nikkor 35-70 f3.5 AI-S for about $75 to $125. I don’t like zooms much but that is a decent one for a very low price. A used MD-4 costs about $85. When it came out, this camera was very expensive, today it is one of the best photography bargains on the market, and there are plenty for sale online. I had thought about getting an F5, but you can’t separate the motor drive from the camera and it is heavy. I might settle later for a D2Xs digital, which will accept my manual focus AI-S lenses. I have enough cameras as it is though, and probably should sell one or two to finance new lenses.
Getting an F3 was for me righting a wrong done years ago (twice) because of my lack of foresight and empty wallet… If I had to sell everything and keep only one camera, I would be torn between the F3 and my Leica M4-P. I would get rid of my Fuji X100S before selling either, though I also love that camera. There is just something about rugged and durable metal manual* cameras that appeals to me.
Update, July 26: My F3 and MD-4 motor drive were dropped off by the mailman tonight. Both look like new and work flawlessly. I am very glad to have gotten an old friend back! Now I want to get a 50mm f1.2. One thing at a time…
* The F3 has only one mechanical shutter speed for backup but the battery lasts for years..