Vintage 35mm Film Cameras

image of film camera and 35mm film

I wanted to change things up a little for my first post of 2019.

I recently acquired two different 35mm cameras and wanted to talk about them here, since I plan to periodically post film photography stuff on the blog mixed in with the regular writing and book-related content.

The first is a Pentax KM (~1975) and the other is a Canon FTb (~1971).

Here’s a photo of them taken with a modern digital camera, ironically.

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Read more details about these cameras after the jump.

Pentax KM

This is a great camera I scored for about $35 at a thrift store. I was originally seeking out a Pentax K1000, but after some patient research I’m actually happier with the KM.

The K1000 is insanely popular. If you search Google or Youtube for “film photography” chances are a Pentax K1000 will eventually be mentioned. They are a sturdy, stripped-down camera that helps students and purists focus on the fundamentals of the craft (composition, exposure, etc) rather than features. That said, the KM is essentially a K1000 with a few more bells and whistles.

The KM actually came first, and includes both a self-timer and a Depth of Field preview button. It is heavy, sturdy, and 100% mechanical save the battery-operated light meter. That is thankfully powered by a basic LR44 battery; a stroke of forward-thinking genius on the part of Pentax (seriously, did they have a time machine?).

The K1000 garnered it’s reputation (and increased price tag) due to notoriety and longevity, while the KM and it’s classier cousin, the KX, languished in relative obscurity and were quickly put out to pasture. I get the ultra-minimalist design as part of its production cost, but it seems crazy they removed these components. A self-timer is a totally functional feature to reduce camera shake if you’re using a tripod and don’t have a cable release handy. The DOF preview is also very useful once you understand it. Depth of Field is one of the trickiest concepts for beginners, and I’m surprised Pentax didn’t leave that on the K1000 since it was aimed at students and beginners.

Regardless, I love my KM. It’s rugged, cleaned up real nice after a servicing, and makes that lovely shutter slap when you press the button. You definitely know it when you’ve taken a photo.

Beyond the camera itself, I managed to score some very nice “prime” lenses for cheap on EBay. The KM came with a 50mm/f1.8 when I bought it, and I got the 28mm/f2.8 and 135/f3.5 for less than $30 each. These are vintage k-mount lenses that are extremely sharp and well built (metal and glass). Shockingly, these are compatible with modern Pentax systems. If I ever invest in a DSLR, I know what company is getting my money.

If you’re exploring vintage film cameras and land in “35mm SLR world”, I suggest the K-Mount system. There is an insane amount of sharp, fast lenses out there for cheap. If you’re not concerned with brand names you can rob the grave of an old Sears Portrait studio by way of eBay, and have a professional kit for under $150.

Canon FTb

Similar in appearance, identical in function, but with a few key differences, I was gifted the Canon FTb this past Christmas. For those who care, this is the original FTb QL, not the FTBn which came out a few years later.

This is another lesser known camera, falling far short of the Canon F-1 or AE-1 PROGRAM in terms of popularity. It’s also brawny all-mechanical beast, albeit with a 1.3v mercury battery needed to power its match-needle light meter (luckily alternatives are available on the interwebs).

The FTb has some really nice features my KM doesn’t. The first is mirror lock-up. While not an everyday function, mirror lock-up is great for landscapes. The second is the “quick load” system, and it’s SO GOOD. Loading 35mm film can be tricky, and I’m honestly shocked that other companies didn’t figure out a way to ape Canon’s style when this thing came out. Quick load is essentially just a metal sheath that lays over the film and presses it against the sprockets driven by the wind lever. It’s simple but very convenient. It’s the type of thing that lowers just one more barrier of entry for a novice, and also makes life easier for someone who is burning through lots of film with one of these.

image of canon 35mm film camera

The Canon FTb also has a shutter lock so you don’t accidentally take a picture, as well as an on/off/battery-test switch for the light meter. This is a big improvement from the Pentax KM which has no on/off switch and drains the battery unless you put the lens cap on! That and the FTb’s DOF preview is accessed on the same switch as the self-timer, which is arguably easier to use than the KM’s button.

Beyond the quality-of-life options, the Canon has its FD lenses. These are CRAZY sharp. Absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, Canon no longer supports these (without 3rd party adapters) on new equipment. The trade-off is it keeps prices low, so with some luck and patience you can build a nice set of FD lenses on the cheap.

Here’s a few test pics I snapped with these bad boys over the holidays.

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Conclusion

I think both of these cameras make fine choices for beginners with room to grow, especially the Canon. They are about as straight-forward as SLR’s come, and can be scooped up for relatively little money. While not as renowned as some of their peers, they are still excellent pieces of equipment in their own right.

Thanks for checking out this post and informal gear review. I look forward to writing more about film photography here in the future.

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