Monday, December 7, 2009

My Favorite 35mm Film Cameras for 2009

During the Summer of 2009, I went through a 35mm film camera buying frenzy. After testing/using them, I'm keeping the "winners" and selling the "less than winners" (I don't want to call them "losers", because they were quite nice too!).

So, which ones did I pick as the "winners"? And, what made them the winners? First, let me list the 35mm film cameras I bought:
  • Canon Canonet QL17 (lens: 40mm f/1.7)
  • Konica Hexar (lens: 35mm f/2)
  • Leica Mini II (lens: 35mm f/3.5)
  • Leica Mini III (lens: 32 mm f/3.2)
  • Ricoh GR1 (lens: 28mm f/2.8)
  • Ricoh GR1s (lens: 28mm f/2.8)
  • Yashica T4 with the 35mm f/3.5 lens
You may notice that all of these have fixed focal length (versus zoom) lenses. The best way to get a high quality lens in a "point-and-shoot" 35mm film camera is to get one with a fixed focal length lens.

Let me rank/order these cameras on a few different scales....

Physical Size (in order from largest to smallest)

  1. Konica Hexar (largest)
  2. Canonet QL17
  3. Leica Mini II and Leica Mini III
  4. Yashica T4
  5. Ricoh GR1 & GR1s (smallest & most pocketable)
My Cost (most to least expensive)
  1. Ricoh GR1s (most expensive: around $450)
  2. Ricoh GR1
  3. Konica Hexar
  4. Yashica T4
  5. Canonet QL17
  6. Leica Mini II
  7. Leica Mini III (least expensive: around $50)
Autofocus Performance (from fastest to slowest: *very* approximate!)
  1. Konica Hexar
  2. Leica Mini II
  3. Leica Mini III
  4. Yashica T4
  5. Ricoh GR1 and GR1s (note: there's a prefocused "snap focus" mode that is faster than any autofocus)
  6. Canonet QL17 (slowest: doesn't have autofocus)
General Observations

Even though I'm used to using zoom lenses on digital SLR cameras, I found I was able to become accustomed to having a fixed focal length quite quickly and could get awesome photos. Also, I found (more like "reminded myself") I really like the look of film.

I tended to like my results using B&W film better than using color film. However, I was quite pleased with the grain structure of some of the color negative photos. Color slide film was clearly best for capturing bright colors, but the cost of processing slide film versus negative film is significantly more.

Comparative Observations

The photos I got from the Ricoh GR1s, the Leica Mini II, and the Canonet QL17 stood out the most in my "experiments". They simply had some extra special "quality" that endeared me to the results. I should caution that this wasn't a well-controlled comparison (I was shooting with various types of film I had available in different settings); regardless, these three stood out for me.

I was disappointed in the Yashica T4 (I actually had two different copies of it), primarily because I missed a lot of shots with it. It turns out that pressing the shutter button halfway doesn't actually physically focus the lens; exposure readings are made and locked in, and maybe even the focus distance is locked in, but the lens doesn't actually move into focused position. When you finally press the shutter button the rest of the way down, it physically focuses the lens and takes the picture. It's amazing how easily you can miss shots of children and people due to their moving during this short delay! And even though the optical quality of the T4's 35 f/3.5 lens is quite nice (you'll hear many photographers touting it in Internet forums), I found it no better than the Leica Mini II--which also has a 35 f/3.5 lens--and the Mini II doesn't have the T4's pre-focus lag (i.e., it actually moves the lens into focused position when you press the shutter button down halfway).

I shot one roll with the GR1s, was blown away by the results, but then sold it because I had spent $450 on a used point-and-shoot film camera that I wasn't going to be using for photography income! Also, I found the autofocus somewhat slow and unpredictable. I've since discovered I could have make the autofocus a little more predictable by changing one of the camera's settings; but I think I would have still sold it because of the cost.

I ended up finding a cheaper GR1 which is *very* similar to the GR1s. Both are the most pocketable of all the film cameras I bought; so I'm holding onto the GR1 for now. I need to experiment with the snap focus mode to get past the reservations I have about its slow autofocusing.

Because I liked the Leica Mini II, I had high hopes for the Leica Mini III, which had a slightly wider and faster fixed lens...and which I also picked up for a *great* price. However, it focusses a little more slowly than the Mini II (it's not a *huge* difference, but there's definitely a difference), and the subjective quality of the photos isn't quite as nice as those I got with the Mini II. There's nothing wrong with the photos I got with the Mini III, they just weren't quite as rich or deep or...something like that!

Even though the Konica Hexar is kind of large for a point-and-shoot, it's solid and focuses faster than any of the rest of these cameras! I only ran one roll of film through it and got mixed results (the film didn't work well in the high constrast lighting conditions) . However, some of the photos were quite awesome, so I'm sticking with it for another few rolls...:-).

The last of the group I'm keeping is the manual focus Canonet QL17. It's not particularly small or light--and it doesn't autofocus--but:
  • it feels good/solid in your hands
  • having to manually focus it really keeps you "in the moment"
  • it's got the fastest lens of all of these cameras (f/1.7)
  • the images I shot on the one roll of B&W film I ran through it definitely had a special "quality" to them
So--for now--I'm keeping the Ricoh GR1, Leica Mini II, Canonet QL17, and the Konica Hexar. The rest have either been sold or are currently being sold by me at eBay.

If you've had experiences with any of these "point-and-shoot" 35mm film cameras--or some I haven't mentioned--please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below...:-).

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

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