The Best Film Camera of All Time is…

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The best film camera of all time is the Olympus OM-1.  That’s all folks, end of the article.

px olympus om film camera
Ok, bias is a thing…my favourite is the Olympus OM-1 Photo by Martin Taylor

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 cameras
Photo by Jakob Owen

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.

vintage cameras
Photo by Alex Rhee

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.

35mm film
Photo by Jakob Owen

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.

35mm film camera
Photo by Colin N

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.

point and shoot vintage camera
Photo by Alex Baber

Instant Cameras

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.

polaroid camera
Photo by Lorenzo Spolet

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. 

vintage nikon camera
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP at Unsplash

Final Thoughts

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.

Further Reading

About Author

I am a lover of vintage cameras and photography. I share videos on YouTube of my experiences with said cameras.

I have to agree. I started on a Minolta x-700, still have it but never use it anymore. I really loved that camera. I ended up with just about every accessory made for it! When shooting film I use my Nikon F5

You are right. I thought the aesthetics are similar enough for the purpose of the article. Besides, even though I didn’t mention the M2 specifically, it’s a contender for sure.

I have used the Yashica 124G and the Mamiya C3 TLR cameras and think the Mamiya Xxx camera far outshines anything else. Impossibly robust and the only one of your three with exchangeable lenses.

TLR category was the hardest for me to judge since I’m not too experienced with them. My pick was clearly not very objective. Thanks for your input. I did see a lot of people swearing by the Mamiyas too.

I’m a bit Canon biased so I would say the EOS 3. Rock solid. I used to have one, now I use the Elan 7-e. Close but not the same. I shot Nikons in the 80’s, I agree they are fine film beasts.

A friend of mine had the EOS3 as a backup for shooting weddings a while back. I’ve never used one though, but it seems like a beast, especially when kitted with the grip.

Ask 100 pros you’ll get as many answers. It’s completely subjective. We all are loyal to our favorite brand names and models. For me its the Minolta a7. Most advanced slr made. But in the end it’s lenses and film not to mention the talent and imagination of the photographer.

I cannot agree with this list. I routinely shoot with an excellent 35 mm camera. It is a Contax G2, and I have all the glass. It’s equipped with the best autofocus system ever created (it involves an infrared beam). The glass is distinctly superior to Leica. And guess what? The camera is a bargain (for what it is). They are rare as hen’s teeth (while Leicas are common as muck: that should tell you something about pro photographers as distinct from rich collectors). For medium format my favourite is my Contax 645, perennially the most sought – after medium format camera in existence (no, they aren’t cheap, but have a look). And now that I’m going, I’m not acquainted with a pro who doesn’t rate the Contax TIX as the best point – and – shoot (pointless now – just get a pro. phone, Polaroid’s replacement). Finally, there are some decent Leicas out there. I still use my IIIf. Super for street since the shutter is virtually silent. The glass is fine (if hardly in the class of Contax). Not worth the money (I inherited mine). Not quite finally. The real steal is a Contax AX. Why? It autofocuses manual lenses. I leave it as an exercise to the intrigued reader (if any) to work out how it does that, and why it matters. I wrote this for keen amateurs. I agree with MS / Mr Taylor that every pro has a different opinion. I’m broad – minded: I shoot with Pentax, Canon, Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Nikon … Just for starters! The best Minolta is mine: the immortal top – of – the – line alpha (with all the glass). Try it out with Ilford infrared film.

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