Picking the Right Film Camera

Dan Knight - June 2002

35mm vs. APS

Although I mentioned APS in the Picking the Right Camera, I'm not going to recommend it over 35mm. The only real advantage of APS is that it allows for slightly smaller cameras, something Kodak has promoting since the introduction of the Pocket Instamatics in the 1970s. Those 110 cameras with negatives less than 1/4 the size of 35mm are almost gone today, and the Disk cameras that were intended to replace them were a nightmare.

Some APS cameras are smaller than some 35mm cameras, but some recent 35mm cameras are also smaller than all but the most minuscule APS models. The best argument for APS has vanished with the latest round of compact 35mm point-and-shoot cameras.

APS has a few theoretical advantages over 35mm. APS film is supposed to lie flatter in the camera, comes in longer rolls (40 exposures vs. 36), has a magnetic coating, stores film in its original cartridge (no more fingerprints or scratches on the negatives), and offers three picture formats.

In the real world, APS cameras use a 16.7 x 30.2 mm negative regardless of picture format - the three formats are either full frame, cropped from the full frame, or panoramic. 35mm cameras have a 24 x 36 mm negative (APS is 58% of that) and can be printed full frame or panoramic. The larger negative also means you can get the same sharpness at one print size larger - an 11x14 from 35mm will have the same quality an 8x10 from APS.

There are also a lot more film and camera options available in the 35mm world.

Finally, although APS film is physically smaller than 35mm, APS film costs more to buy and process. APS was a promising format, but 35mm remains more popular because of lower film and developing costs, a wider selection of films and cameras, easy worldwide access to 35mm film, and tradition.

There are some very good APS cameras. We're not telling anyone who chose APS that they made the wrong choice. We're just explaining why we're not covering APS.

What Kind of Film Camera?

There are two basic types of 35mm cameras, those with viewfinder windows and those where you look through the lens (reflect cameras). Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Viewfinder Cameras

Whether you're looking at a disposable camera or a Leica rangefinder, in a viewfinder camera you look through a window usually located near the lens. This means that you don't see precisely what the lens sees, but at normal shooting distances it's close. At close range, parallax error (the technical term for that difference in viewpoint) becomes an issue. Most viewfinder cameras that offer close focus will attempt to compensate for this difference with marks in the viewfinder, and some move the frame lines in the viewfinder.

The viewfinder can be an incredibly simple mechanism or a very sophisticated one. In rangefinder cameras, the viewfinder will also include a focus aid. Such an aid is not necessary in fixed focus, autofocus, or guess focus cameras.

A few viewfinder cameras, such as the Leica M line, Contax G2, and Voigtlander Bessa series, accept interchangeable lenses. These are expensive cameras with costly lenses. The Contax offers autofocus and autoexposure, the new Leica M7 offers aperture preferred autoexposure, the Leica and Bessa R have rangefinder focus, and the Bessa L has no focus aid at all.

Odds are you're not looking at any of the premium viewfinder models, nice as they are. Ignoring the ubiquitous disposable cameras, most viewfinder cameras today have autofocus, built-in flash, and a zoom lens. Prices may start at under US$100 and soar to the $300 range.

SLR Cameras

The other common type of 35mm cameras are the single lens reflex (SLR) models. Instead of looking through a separate window near the lens, SLR users look right through the lens that will take the photograph. This makes for a larger, more complex, and more expensive camera - and it completely avoids the problem of parallax.

Because of this, SLR lenses have long offered closer focus ability than viewfinder camera. The typical 50mm "normal" lens will usually focus to 18", and many zoom lenses can work so close to the subject that the image on a 4x6 print may be larger than the original subject.

Also due to the viewing system, long telephoto and zoom lenses have been available to SLR photographers for decades. On the short end of things, wide-angle lenses have become wider and wider. While lens designers worked hard to offer good 35mm and 28mm wide-angle lenses in the past, it's no longer unusual to find super-wide lenses in the 14mm to 20mm range.

Although there have been some fixed-lens SLR cameras over the years, notably the Olympus IS series, the vast majority of 35mm SLRs allow use of a broad range of lenses.

Viewfinder vs. SLR

The following bullet points are just some of the factors to consider when deciding between a viewfinder camera and a 35mm SLR:

  • SLRs compose through the lens, avoiding parallax error.
  • SLRs are bigger, heavier, more complex, and more expensive than point-and-shoot autofocus viewfinder cameras.
  • SLRs generally offer a multitude of lens options, including wider, longer, closer focusing, and faster (better in low light) lenses.
  • SLRs offer the broadest ranging zoom lenses.
  • SLRs usually give the user as much or as little control over camera settings as they want. If you plan on taking a photography class, you need that kind of control.
  • You can hand a viewfinder camera to just about anyone and say, "Here, take my picture." With an SLR, they may not understand the camera, and you'll be much more worried about it being dropped or stolen.
  • The exposure systems on SLRs tend to be more carefully calibrated. This can be very important when shooting slides, but does not matter as much with print film.
  • When you outgrow a viewfinder camera, you usually replace the whole thing. When you outgrow your SLR, you may choose to update it with a new lens, a separate flash, or a new camera body that uses your old lens.
  • Except for premium viewfinder cameras (Leica, Contax, etc.), SLRs tend to have sharper lenses, which can make a difference if you plan on making 8x10 or larger prints.

In brief, viewfinder cameras tend to be smaller, less expensive, very easy to use, quiet, and great for snapshots. SLRs are bulkier, more expensive, sometimes almost a easy to use, noisier, and offer far more options than almost anyone will ever take full advantage of.

Choose Picking the Right Viewfinder Camera or Picking the 35mm Right SLR.

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