The best film camera of all time is the Olympus OM-1. That’s all folks, end of the article.
Ok Just Kidding…Sort Of…
Alright, alright, I do realise that just because a camera is my favourite camera, it isn’t necessarily the best. This is probably the most subjective thing to try writing about, but I’m going to try to address it without starting World War 3 (or maybe I will…it is the internet!).
Film photography, hence film cameras, has been around for much longer than we’ve had digital photography. The number of cameras that have been produced in that time, and their variations, is staggering, to say the least.
From incremental tweaks like moving dials to a different location on the body of the camera to complete paradigm shifts like the introduction of the pentaprism, each year saw the release of many new cameras to play with.
There’s also the issue of comparing apples to oranges when comparing film cameras. There are many categories and sub-categories involved. There are rangefinders, single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, twin lens reflex (TLR) cameras, point and shoot (compact) cameras, instant cameras, and so on. Most of those are further divided by the format of film they use; 35mm, 120 (medium format), and so on.
I also have to acknowledge that there are and were great cameras that I just have never heard of. For the purpose of this article, I’m going shortlist what I think are contenders to be the best film camera of all time, then I’ll try to pick a winner.
First Up – Best Rangefinder
In my biased opinion, I’d pick the Olympus 35 SP to head this bunch. Not just because I’m sort of an Olympus rangefinder fan, but because I owned and used one extensively and absolutely loved it. It’s also packed with features beyond the majority of any rangefinder camera of its time. If I try to be objective, however, the crown would go to the Leica M3, very narrowly defeating Hasselblad XPAN II and Voigtlander Bessa R3M.
The Leica M3, like most early Leica cameras, was so well made that if you inherited one from your grandparent who probably took incredibly good care of it, it will probably outlive your grandchild if shown the same care.
The Best SLR
Again, my biased brain is screaming “Olympus OM-1”, but If I’m being clear-headed, I’d pick the Nikon F2. Tens of thousands of professional photographers would agree with me too. The thing is, the OM-1 would have been my pick for sure, except for one thing – mine broke.
In my opinion, it’s a much more refined camera than the Nikon. That isn’t surprising seeing it’s more than a decade newer. What it gained in refinement, size and looks, it lost in ruggedness and longevity.
The Nikon F2, on the other hand, is the Thor of SLRs – as strong as the Incredible Hulk but not as ugly. Most cameras built to the ruggedness level of the Nikon F2 look much clunkier and less attractive. Not the F2, with its chiselled handsome looks.
The F mount of the Nikon F2 also means it accepts a very large array of existing lenses, both vintage and modern. When it comes to Lenses, Nikon is king of backward compatibility.
The Best TLR
This category of cameras is one that I have the least experience with, but I have played with a few TLRs in my time. I also own a few, including the Voigtlander Brillant and the Lubitel 166B.
Of all the categories, the TLR probably best evokes that vintage photography era. The photographer Vivian Maier used TLRs extensively, particularly Rolleiflex made cameras, which can be seen in many of her self portraits.
From my research on the internet and speaking to various film photography buffs in real life, it appears there are three contenders for the best TLR of all time; Mamiya C330, Rolleiflex 2.8C and Yashica MAT-124G. I can’t see a clear winner in this TLR war since various fans of each brand have put up great arguments for why their choice should be crowned the king of TLRs.
Since I’m a fan of Vivian Maier’s work, I’m going to go with her taste and pick the Rolleiflex 2.8C as the winner since it's the only one of the three I’m aware of her using.
Next Up – Point and Shoot / Compact
This category is probably one of the hardest to chose a winner from. It’s also the most difficult to group since not all ‘compact’ cameras are necessarily ‘point and shoot’. A few of these cameras have also entered the public consciousness recently due to there use by celebrities and celebrity photographers. I think this has created a somewhat skewed view of their ‘quality'.
Cameras like the Yashica T4 and the Contax T2 have been made famous in the media and are now perceived to be two of the best ever made. While they are contenders for sure, and may even be picked by other reviewers, I think there are other lesser-known cameras that outclass these.
My top three would be the Ricoh GR21, Konica Hexar AF and the Fuji Klasse. If I’m to pick a winner, I’d go for the Ricoh GR camera which very narrowly defeats the Konica Hexar AF in my view. They’re so close for me that I’d almost call this a draw.
This category is a little different from the rest because of the technology involved in the film used. Polaroid is probably the most recognisable name in the Instant photography world.
Instant photography has experienced a kind of renaissance of late. Fujifilm, Lomography and the new Polaroid (formerly The Impossible Project) all released new cameras and film in the last couple of years following the success of Fujifilm’s Instax brand.
One might be tempted to pick one of these modern instant cameras as the greatest because of the new technology involved. For instance, it could be argued that the new Polaroid Onestep 2 is ‘better’ than the original, iconic Onestep, but that’s not necessarily true.
Anyhow, I wouldn’t pick either of them as the greatest ever. That crown goes to the Polaroid SX-70. The SX-70 is not only an instant camera, but it is also a collapsible SLR! The technology that was invented to make this camera happen made a major contribution to camera technology as a whole. So, apart from being a great camera – a pocketable SLR, it also represented a breakthrough in photography technology of the time.
So How About Cameras I Haven't Mentioned
There are other types of camera that I haven’t mentioned in this article such as pinhole cameras, large format cameras and so on. While some of these cameras were great, or even revolutionary in their time, I can’t imagine any of them would contend for the best film camera of all time. For one, most of them were either inaccessible due to cost or logistics, impractical or experimental.
And The Winner Of Best Film Camera Of All Time Is…
I have mentioned some incredible cameras in this article. If I’m pressed to pick just one winner based on a multiple of factors, I’d have to go for the indestructible Nikon F2. I’ve picked this because I think it shares many of the reasons why the other cameras are great. It’s got an iconic design much like the Ricoh or Rolleiflex. It’s as reliable and solid as the Leica M3.
Someone, somewhere, is reading this and laughing to themselves because they own a camera I’ve never heard of that would probably wipe the floor with the Nikon F2.
I believe, however, that if you gather a few thousand photographers, professional and otherwise, and asked them to pick a winner from my list, most would arrive at the same winner as I have.
So what do you think about the Nikon F2 (or any other film camera)? Do you have a personal favourite? Make sure you give us your opinions in the comments below.