The number of essays, books, and films that have been made to emphasize the importance of film photography in an age of digital images is beyond counting. Whatever point you could try and make about the value of learning to work with a machine that doesn’t immediately provide you with an image, or argument about how the different tonal qualities of various color or black and white films can’t be paralleled has been made ten times over and hundreds of times better already. We don’t want to do that. We just want to highlight what we think are 12 of the best vintage cameras for capturing those perfect moments.
Why? Because we love the quality of images these classic cameras produce, and more generally speaking, we’re fascinated by the history behind these old gadgets. Below you can find a series of cameras that are still floating around out there long after production. Of course the cameras themselves are cool, but what about the images they produce? In addition to showcasing each device, we’ve also decided to focus on images captured by each of these vintage pieces – taken by professionals and amateurs alike. A lot of these cameras can be found online and taken home for your own shooting out in the backwoods or in the city. Take a scroll through and check it out for yourself.
When you read a list about ‘vintage’ gear you don’t usually expect to have the first item have a microprocessor in it, but here we are. Canon’s A1, released in 1976, was actually the first camera body to have a fully automatic setting that would control shutter speed and aperture depending on what the light meter was reading – a function that has become ubiquitous among cameras today. If you are looking to pick one of these old school shooters up for yourself to capture some shots in the wild, just know that it uses the old FD lens mount.
You couldn’t tell by looking at it now, but the Graflex Crown Graphic Special was the first choice among many press photographers. Despite being large they were relatively light due to the fact that they used a focal plane shutter and an external viewfinder. This 4 by 5 inch large format version was released in 1947 and produced for just under thirty years before it was discontinued in 1973. While it was still in production, however, they were used to shoot everything from presidential elections to high speed auto racing, making them well known enough to have ended up on the masthead of the New York Daily News.
Introduced in 1957 by the iconic brand’s namesake, Victor Hasselblad, this camera body was a completely new design direction for the company. Equipped with a shutter system that was built to replace the old focal plane models, it boasted the fastest shutter for the brand at that time – 1/500th of a second (hence the name). In addition to the new mechanism, designers made everything about the camera modular – allowing photographers to use a wide variety of different lenses, film backs, and viewfinders. All these years later the camera is still an impressive piece of equipment.
Kodak Brownie Hawkeye
This small entry-level camera from the late 1940s has maintained popularity partly because of how relatively inexpensive they are, how easily they can be cleaned, and the fact that they take 120 (or 620 if you can still find any) roll film. While users don’t have the same ability to adjust exposure, focus, or aperture that they would with a higher-quality camera, the images you end up snapping take on a kind of unpredictable quality that can be a really nice departure from the measured and scientific approach most high end cameras require.
Used by Robert Frank after receiving his Guggenheim fellowship to make his book, The Americans, a widely praised look at post-war U.S., this model from the respected brand is still one hell of a camera. Produced as the fourth iteration of the brand’s III series, it was kept in rotation for a little over a decade before being phased out of production in the 1950s. This fully manual camera with a die-cast body was billed as an improvement on its brothers and sisters with better ergonomics and improved internal movements. If it was good enough for Frank, it’d be good enough for anyone.
Originally intended for press photographers, this camera has a 6 by 7 format designed to take 120 roll film. The 67 series came in a few different versions – the straight 67 and 670 (designed to take 330 roll film) were equipped with Nikkor 80mm f/2.8 lenses, while the W67 had a wide angle Nikkor 55mm sense. The wide angle lens was widely praised for its ability to capture great buildings and interiors without any flair. With its fold-down lens, this camera has the title of being one of the most portable compact 6×7 shooters ever put on the market, making it an ideal pick for the photographer looking to take medium-format shots while on big outdoor hikes or long trips.
Developed and released as the first in a series of 4.5 x 6 format cameras by the Japanese company, these cameras boasted a shutter speed that varied between 8 seconds and 1/500th of a second, a double exposure lever, and a mirror lock up. When the camera was released in 1975, it was a kind of revelation for some folks who weren’t willing or able to make the leap from 35mm cameras to large format shooters. Marketed specifically towards those hobbyists and professionals, this one bridged the gap.
Nikon’s F model, the first SLR they ever released, also ended up being the first single lens reflex camera many Americans owned. It was a widely popular camera among both amateurs and professionals, who ranged from reporters covering the war in Vietnam to NASA who used it to cover their rockets launches that. For its time, the camera was totally revolutionary including functions that would come to be ubiquitous in 35mm film cameras from then on out. If you can get your hands on one of these now you should take it – they’re still a great old tool capable of taking great shots during a backcountry hike or in daily life.
Olympus Pen F
When you look back at older cameras, you’ll come across some gems that you’d not quite think to be so unique until you took a closer look. This camera from Olympus, produced between 1963 and 1966 separated itself from other cameras by being one of the smallest on the market by virtue of the 36 by 24 millimeter half frame format on the camera.
At first glance, you can usually tell if a camera is medium format, as the body tends to look different in some fundamental way (Mamiya, Hasselblad, etc.). This camera from Asahi Pentax isn’t one of those; the camera’s ergonomics match up almost completely with its smaller 35mm brethren despite having a 6×7 format and taking 120 roll film. If you are willing to handle the nearly 5 pound weight – this camera body is well worth taking out for shooting some of your favorite buildings or portraits.
Ok – we know that this camera became a trendy indie darling back around 2008-2010 and that turns some folks off to this instant-shooter, but truth be told, this thing didn’t become popular years after its initial 1972 release for nothing. This camera has it all; easy to pack with its slim fold-down feature, a lens that could focus on objects both close and far, and a shutter speed ranging from 10 seconds to 1/175, it was both versatile for a more serious photographer and fun enough for a casual one. Of course, what really separated these cameras what the unique quality of their images – an appeal that has reached across decades.
TLR Rolleiflex 6X6
Maybe its the fact that Vivian Maier shot many of her recently discovered photos with one, or its just the fact that shooting through a top-mounted viewfinder is just fun, either way – these cameras are a blast to get your hands on. With a 6×6 format that takes 120 roll film, you can still get incredibly sharp and vibrant images with these cameras. Take it to the beach with you or head out around town with one to see what you can capture.