Vintage cameras: the most accessible way to experience the past?

Photography by Colin Wood

My finger slams down on the shutter release as I whip my Pentax K1000 across the apex of Turn 5 at Sebring. A hardy ka-thunk reverberates through the camera’s body as I keep my eye trained on a bright-red GT40 roaring around the circuit.

Just as the Ford passes and blasts off toward Turn7, a slew of 911s come rushing toward the corner. I rush to cock the shutter and lock my lens on the lead Porsche, working to adjust the manual focus.

One photo. Advance the film. Two photos. Advance the film. Three photos. Advance the film.

The field passes. I catch my breath.

Did I get the shot I needed? Did the photo even turn out? I won’t know for at least a week when the film is developed.

Film grain. Light leaks. It’s evidence you’re working with physical materials. Even newer creations display that vintage warmth when shot on Kodak’s finest.

I’m on assignment at this year’s HSR Spring Fling at Sebring International Raceway. Yes, I brought my company-issued DSLR, but I also captured  the event through the lens of a film camera.

Why would anyone, especially someone born in the age of digital photography like me, go through the hassle of taking pictures on film?

There’s actually a pretty simple explanation.Back in 2020, when the world had shut down and all my social media feeds were flooded with sourdough, I started to grow fond of a Fuji Instax instant camera my wife had bought some years prior.

Namely, I enjoyed the physical product of taking the picture, regardless of whether it was a decent photograph or not. In fact, I discovered that was the part of the magic–almost like every photograph was a happy accident.

I hungered for more. Something more substantial. Something more serious.

In minutes, I had two highly recommended candidates: the Canon AE-1 and the Pentax K1000. Both were regarded (on the forum and on other parts of the web) as perfect introductory cameras widely available today at very fair prices. 

In case the first few sentences of this story didn’t give it away, I opted for the K1000.

The Pentax’s entirely mechanical, workhorse nature appealed to me, as I wanted something that functioned right out of the box and would keep on going even in less than ideal conditions. (This was a learning experience, so I was bound to make some mistakes.)

The fact that the camera didn’t even need a battery to operate–except for the light meter–really caught my attention, too, because I had no experience using a camera aside from usually keeping my digital camera on auto. I wanted to learn more.

A hundred bucks and a few short weeks later, I had a fully functioning Pentax K1000 fitted with the versatile “nifty 50” lens sitting on my doorstep. An order of five or so rolls of Kodak ColorPlus 200 followed soon after.

Like a classic car, a film camera isn’t the most efficient or reliable way to get the job done, as more modern, streamlined solutions exist. On top of that, many of these cameras have been out of production for decades, making repairs and maintenance an extra challenge–especially true when the company that made the camera no longer exists.

Of course, there’s a vibrant community out there that’s all too willing to guide newcomers and seasoned veterans alike. There are also specialty shops that cater to just about whatever need may arise, be it developing film, repairing your gear or even selling you more old cameras. 

Also, whereas modern cameras can shoot thousands of photos and store them neatly on a little card that easily plugs into a computer, you’ll only get 24 or 36 shots on a single roll of film–so you better make it count. You won’t even be able to see what you shot until you get those photos developed.

The experience of using it, though, is why I keep coming back to film photography. (And why you likely keep coming back to classic cars.) It’s a tactile experience that takes more attention and care than modern machinery. There’s a feeling, a sound and even a smell that you don’t get using a modern digital camera or a smartphone. 

Using a film camera, just like a classic car, lets us savor the past–even if it’s one we never personally experienced.

Want your own 35mm camera? As with classic cars, the answer depends on how much money you want to spend.

Some of the most accessible cameras on the market are billed as “point and shoot” models. While light on features, they can be a great gateway into the world of film photography, especially if you’re looking for a more raw, unrefined look. These sorts of cameras can be found for $100 or even less.

Next up is a novice-friendly SLR like that Canon AE-1 or Pentax K1000, although prices have increased recently.Expect to now pay anywhere from $100 to $300 for one. Even something more advanced, like the Canon F-1–once the darling of pro shooters from war zones to the Olympic games–can be found around the top end of that range. 

Looking for something flashier? If you have the means, look no further than a Leica. Playing in this game can cost a few thousand dollars or more, though these cameras can also be handsome statement pieces in their own right.

Were these images taken last week or last millennium? Break out a ’70s-era Pentax and suddenly you’re transported back to a time when 36 exposures were enough to capture an entire outing. 

In the end, though, there are 35mm cameras for just about any budget–some easier to use and live with than others–and there are plenty of model years to pick from. Remember, 35mm film started to become popular in the mid-1930s, and digital photography didn’t become mainstream until just before the new millennium. This means there’s roughly 70 years’ worth of film cameras to pick from, some more technologically advanced than others.

Regardless of how much you spend on a camera, there will always be a great equalizer: film. Yes, there are many different options on the market, but that’s a story for a different time. The basic lesson here is that the film is what will likely impact the look and feel of your photos more significantly than whatever gear you’re using.

Another side effect of carrying a film camera? You’ll attract some curious stares, and some people will even stop you in your tracks. This happened to me at this year’s Rolex 24 At Daytona. I was minding my business, walking through the garages to catch teams fixing cars, when I heard from over my shoulder, “Is that a K1000?”

I stopped and turned to see two middle-aged gentlemen, both holding expensive, modern cameras fitted with massive telephoto lenses.

I told them yes.

One of the men turned to the other and said, “That’s what I learned to shoot with in film class.” 

The other nodded in agreement, as if to say, “Yeah, me too.”

Whether it’s a local British car gathering or a view of Daytona from above, did the scene get captured as hoped? The digital camera hangs while Colin uses the vintage Pentax. 

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sir_mike Reader
8/8/23 9:16 a.m.

I still use my Yashica TL Electro I bought in 1973.I'm amazed how many people comment on it when they see it still in use.Film will never go out of style.

Richard Richer
Richard Richer New Reader
8/8/23 11:28 a.m.

When I moved four years ago I never got 'round to unpacking my Nikon FtN bodies and lenses.  I'm now inspired to do so!  Lots of mileage on them at Bridgehampton, Lime Rock, Thompson Speedway old and new, Pocono, Summit Point, Watkins Glen, Bryar Motosport and Mosport, back when those now running as vintage racers were there for the first time.  The gear is old and I'm alot older, and probably have 20+ years of digital camera work under my belt, but there is still the draw of the analog film quality that makes the color qualities, motion and film warmth unique. Thanks for reminding me why I got into the photo and motoring hobbies to begin with!

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/8/23 11:59 a.m.

In reply to sir_mike :

I understand the feeling. It often seems like people go out of their way to comment on my camera when I use it.

Another response I've gotten a few times:

"Wow, that looks just like a film camera"

That's because it is.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/8/23 12:01 p.m.

In reply to Richard Richer :

That's awesome, I'm glad to hear this story inspired you to break out the Nikon again!

If my Pentax could talk, I'd love to hear more about its previous owners.

8/8/23 1:13 p.m.

And why not take pictures of vintage cars with a camera that's even older than the car. My No. 1 Panoram Kodak Camera was made between 1900 and 1926 -- and it still does the job. 

rcampbell New Reader
8/8/23 2:04 p.m.

This 1957 Porsche 356 is in the foreground of a panoramic picture taken with a Krasnogorsk FT-2 swing-lens camera (1958-65). A standard 36 exposure roll of 35mm film (rewound into the camera's custom cassettes) takes 12 exposures (24x110).

cwfritz New Reader
8/8/23 3:03 p.m.

This story is right in my wheelhouse.  One of the best things about using manual, mechanical film cameras is the quality of the lenses made for them.  I have a Pentax SP1000, predecessor of the author's K1000, a full-size all-metal precision instrument which uses a screw-on lens mount known as the M-42 mount.  The quality, quantity, diversity, and value of Pentax M-42 lenses is amazing.  My other toy is a Nikon F2, which like the SP1000 was made in 1974.  It's more brawny and heavy, meant for photojournalists and Indiana Jones types as opposed to hobbyists.  Also fully manual and fully mechanical like the SP1000, with even more diverse and brilliant lenses available.  Neither body cost me more than $150 in good condition, and lenses are usually under $75 if I shop carefully.

The other big choice is the film.  Shooting cars outdoors in daylight, we can use slow, fine-grained films in the ASA 50-100 range to get closer to the fine resolution and subtle tones seen in car photos from the '30s onward, many of which were shot with big medium-format press cameras.

Thank you for publishing this piece!

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/8/23 3:14 p.m.

In reply to rcampbell :

Those are super cool. A swing-lens/panorama camera like those are on my "buy eventually" list.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/8/23 3:16 p.m.

In reply to cwfritz :

You are very welcome. This piece was a lot of fun to write.

It's really cool to see some hobby I picked up a few years ago turn into a work assignment.

rcampbell New Reader
8/8/23 3:42 p.m.

It's good to consider the conditions when you're out taking pictures of cars. Several years ago I was at the VSCC Lakeland Trials -- on the side of a cold, rainy hill. I had a Canon DSLR with a fast zoom lens. Very automatic, and totally dependent on batteries. 

Everything froze up, so I was forced to shoot with my Olympus C310Z point-and-shoot. (I was wishing I had my Exakta, but I was traveling light.)

But the Olympus came through with some nice images. 

wlkelley3 UberDork
8/8/23 8:12 p.m.

I learned with a Brownie that was antique at the time. In high school used a Rolliflex that you looked in the top of and everything was backwards. In the military I bought a Minalta X700 with a couple lenses including a 70-210 zoom. Took photos from the helicopter I flew on and have photos of bald eagles soaring the mountains in Alaska, dog sled racing, the running of the Olympic Torch before the olympics in Korea in 1988. Have a box of photos stored away. I still even have a couple rolls of 35mm film that needs processing. Inherted dad's Minalta X370 that is broken but came with some extra lenses different than what I had. Haven't transitioned to a digital SLR, use the phone camera nowadays.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
8/18/23 11:54 a.m.

Yeah, Colin totally captured using film in his piece–the nostaglia, the wonder, etc.

We have a house full of film cameras with several going back a hundred years. I keep saying that we need to have a film day....

wspohn SuperDork
8/18/23 1:39 p.m.

Photography has been a long time pastime for me.  Problem is that I have trouble ever selling my old cameras but don't seem to have the same reluctance at acquiring new ones.

I still have my first underwater 35 mm camera, a Calypso, made to order for Jacques Cousteau (he soon sold the rights to the Japanese and they came out with an almost identical camera they called the Nikonos) and I have a couple of my first digital cameras that I never use but can't bring myself to get rid of.

Of course I also seem to have the same sort of reluctance to part with cars that I have owned for years and no longer use, much or at all.

stu67tiger Reader
8/18/23 4:02 p.m.

I've been threatening to sell my Nikomat and several Nikon lenses for years, and even took all the pictures for the ads.   These are all from the late'60's - early '70's.  But it went no further, and the're still here.  Can you still get PX13 batteries?   

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