A Beginner's Guide to 35mm Film Cameras

Your Instagram game will never be the same again

Chances are you have a mate who carries a vintage camera at all times. Spends each weekend wandering aimlessly around the Barbican, photographing leaves and balconies. Would defend their Instagram ‘aesthetic’ with their lives, if it came down to it.

Still, what an Instagram it is! And they’re not alone in their obsession. Driven by a desire to stand out from the brunch crowd and grow their follower count, millions of people have dived into the world of #35mm cameras over the past few yearsand needless to say, you want in too.

Well, It’s not as simple as you might think. But who better to start you on your journey than John Wade, author of Retro Cameras: The Collector’s Guide to Vintage Film Photography? No one, that's who...


“There’s bags of stuff on eBay, and that’s probably the first place to start,” says John. “A 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera would be your best bet."

Opt for a model from one of the big five brands from back in seventies: Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus or Pentax. They’re all basic, hardwearing, top quality and shouldn’t come at too much cost. 35mm film cassettes can also be bought cheaply on Amazon.

“You can pick a classic, pre-owned Canon A1 up for around £80, or an AE-1 Programfor slightly more, and they can do everything. But any camera with a program mode is good for a beginner.” Program is an exposure function that does all the hard work for you, until you feel ready to manually alter your shots.


Famed for bridging the gap between photographers and hobbyists in the seventies, both Canon cameras come fitted with ‘shutter priority’, which means “you can choose your shutter speed, and your camera will automatically choose an aperture” (that’s the hole in the lens which dictates how much light travels through the camera body). Other great options include the (almost) indestructible Pentax K1000 and the Olympus OM-1.

If you want to get your hands on the camera before you buy, then check out vintage markets – but without the safety net of eBay or Amazon, you have to know what to look out for. “As you pick them up, go through all the shutter speeds and make sure they're not sticking - that is, opening but not closing. That's your first port of call.”

It's also worth checking if replacement batteries are still available for your chosen camera. "Mercury sales were deemed a bit dangerous in the late eighties, so many batteries have been discontinued." Give it a Google before you buy, just in case.

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One more thing: if you authentically want to pursuit film photography, then steer clear of Lomo cameras which produce those once-trendy but low-quality shots that took over Instagram a few years agothe ones where color bleeds into the edges of the frame.

"A lot of people refer to all old film cameras as Lomo, but they're not. Lomo cameras have got nasty old plastic lenses, and produce imperfect pictures. I spent my life trying to avoid taking shots like that!" 

Of course, if you've got some money to spend then you can get your hands on a brand new, top-spec camera. We recommend the Leica CL 18mm F2.8.

Understanding your camera

If you want to move past automatic mode, then you’ll have to get your head around the shutter speed, aperture and focus functions. “For a picture to look natural, it needs to be correctly exposed,” says John.

The aperture controls the light let through the lens, and the shutter speed decides how much light is allowed to reach the film. According to John, different shots require different combinations of the two.


“If you're interested in photographing sport, for example, you'd want a fast shutter speed to capture the actionand that means you need a wide aperture. If you're photographing landscape, you'll rely on the aperture, and then compensate with a light shutter speed.” Fast shutter speeds freeze the action, while slow speeds can be used to blur movement.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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