I’ve been collecting cameras for (ahem) well over half a century. But unlike many of my fellow film camera fanatics, I actually use these things to make pictures, which is a lot more fun. That’s why all the cameras on my 10 Favorites list below are prime, high-performance user-collectibles capable of outstanding image quality that can give those digital upstarts a run for the money. Yes, shooting film is a lot less convenient, and more expensive than shooting digital, but if you enjoy being a contrarian, iconoclast or outlier, being a Film Dinosaur is a great way to go.
Aside from film, and a good film lab, anyone who shoots with old cameras, even very well made and reliable ones, needs a good camera repair outfit to keep them in good fettle. I can highly recommend Pro Camera in Charlottesville VA, headed up by ancient camera guru Bill Moretz, and United Camera Repair in Rock, Island IL.
Finally, if you have a favorite user-collectible that’s not on this list please tell us about it and make your case. You never know, but there could be a follow-up article. And speaking of follow-up articles, if you enjoy film photographry, check out My 10 Favorite Film Stocks of All Time. You also might be interested in my picks for The Top 20 Greatest Cameras of All Time.
1. Leica M-3
My all-time favorite user-collectible, the M-3 was introduced in 1954 and widely hailed as the finest interchangeable-lens 35mm rangefinder camera ever. The most advanced rangefinder 35 of its day, it established the form of all subsequent Leica Ms including the acclaimed digital M (Type 240). Its most significant features: a magnificent long base (68.5mm) nearly life-size (0.9X) combined range/viewfinder with true projected, parallax-compensating, auto-indexing framelines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses, the M-type bayonet mount, a two-stroke film-advance lever (later modified to provide single-stroke operation), and a hinged back section to facilitate cleaning, shutter checking, and aligning the film. A translucent light-collecting window in between the rangefinder and viewfinder windows provides illumination for the bright, crisp white finder framelines, and a frameline-selector lever below the front viewfinder window lets you visualize the effect of mounting other lenses. The integration of its various components is brilliant. It’s rubberized, 1-1/1000 sec plus B, cloth focal plane shutter is whisper quiet. Its rounded contours mold seamlessly to your hands, and its shutter release, wind lever, and focusing mount operate with silky precision.
Leica M3s are readily available but hard to find in pristine condition. The single-stroke version of mid-60’s, with more rugged, durable wind and shutter mechanisms, a larger exit pupil for enhanced finder brightness, and serial number above 1,100,000, is especially prized (and more expensive). Earlier two-stroke models in average condition are more affordable.
Favored lenses are the collapsible, rigid, and Dual-Range 50mm f/2 Summicron, which gets down to 19 inches and the rigid 50mm f/2 Summicron, which is more common. A mint single-stoke M3 with rigid 50mm f/2 Summicron lens can easily fetch $3,000 and up, but you can acquire a two-stroke model with lens and body in user condition for under $1,000.
2. Canon 7s
The ultimate interchangeable-lens rangefinder Canons in terms of overall quality of construction, finish, and heft, are the lever-wind VI-L and the the trigger-wind VI-T which have a three-position range/viewfinder showing the fields of 35mm and 50mm lenses, a 1.5X setting for critical focusing, auto-parallax adjustment of shoe-mounted finders (!), and a coated stainles steel focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus T and B. However, my personal favorite user-collectible rangefinder Canon is the very last screw-mount rangefinder Canon, the 7s, which has the same shutter, a built-in coupled CdS meter (alas, with ISO settings only up to 400), a beautiful 0.8X viewfinder with selectable, labeled, parallax-compensating pairs of framelines for 35/50mm, 85/100mm, and one for 135mm lenses, and an outer bayonet for mounting the groundbreaking 50mm f/0.95 Canon lens shown on our example. The 7s is most often found with 50mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.2 Canon lens, and the very last 7s models (commonly designated as 7sZ) have a larger rewind crank and a rangefinder adjustment screw located in a different position. A clean, functional 7s with the excellent 50mm f/1.8 Canon lens currently runs about $400-600, more with 50mm f/1.4, and over $4,000 with the collector’s heartthrob 50mm f/0.95.