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The absolute beginner’s guide to film photography: 7 common camera types

The 7 common film camera types

One of the complications of film photography is that there are so many different types of film cameras. A hundred-plus years of development has led to several different ways of getting images onto film. In this installment of the Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography, we’ll explore the most common types of cameras, and we’ll follow up with some of the more obscure types in a future installment.

All photos: Dan Bracaglia, except where noted

Single lens reflex cameras (SLRs)

You’re probably familiar with DSLRs; take away the D for Digital, and that’s an SLR. When film was king, single lens reflex cameras were the most popular type of 35mm film camera for pros and advanced amateurs. Like the DSLR, the film SLR uses a single lens for both viewing and taking the photo, with a mirror that reflects the scene up to the optical viewfinder. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips upwards and the shutter opens to expose the film. Most SLRs have interchangeable lenses, a key element of their popularity with enthusiasts.

Early SLRs are fully manual (focusing, exposure, and film loading and rewinding), while later models offered the automation we are familiar with in our digital cameras, including autofocus and automatic and semi-automatic exposure modes. Some entry-level SLRs offered only automatic functionality, allowing them to work like simple point-and-shoot cameras. Though most people associate SLRs with 35mm film, there are medium-format SLRs as well.

SLRs today

The SLRs is a great choice for those who want maximum creative control. There are plenty available on the used market, and it’s still often possible to get them repaired. Film SLRs are moderately priced compared to digital cameras, and some lesser-known camera brands, as well as newer and more automated SLRs, can be real bargains.


Rangefinder cameras use a complex mechanism of mirrors, prisms and cams to allow focus to be previewed in the viewfinder without the need for an SLR-style pentaprism ‘hump’. As a consequence, rangefinder cameras are smaller and lighter than SLRs, and generally quieter and smoother in their operation because they lack a large moving mirror and its associated mechanism. Some rangefinder cameras offer interchangeable lenses, and the lack of a mirror box means that the rear elements of lenses can sit much closer to the film plane, making the camera + lens package more compact.

Amateur-level 35mm rangefinders were largely replaced by compact point-and-shoot cameras in the 1980s (see below), though many high-end models remained in production for a long time. In fact, Leica only recently discontinued the semi-automatic M7, and still makes two manual M-series film cameras.

Rangefinders today

The rangefinder is a good choice for film photographers who want a camera that is compact and quiet, but don’t want to give up the image quality provided by an SLR. However, high-end rangefinder cameras are expensive, and can be costly to repair and service.

Compact point-and-shoot

Compact point-and-shoot film cameras, often abbreviated P&S, emerged in the early 1980s and became immensely popular, serving much the same role as smartphone cameras do today. P&S cameras were simple to operate, hence their name, and featured either automatic exposure and focus or a ‘focus-free’ design with a small aperture and a single shutter speed that relied on the latitude of color print film to provide usable photographs. Earlier models had fixed lenses while later models incorporated zoom lenses. The compact point-and-shoot camera was a huge advance for casual snap-shooters, allowing them to get results comparable in quality to a 35mm SLR with no knowledge of photography.

Compact point-and-shoot cameras today

P&S cameras are easy to find and, aside from a few models that have achieved cult status (see above photo), and cheap to buy – that is if you don’t already have a relative willing to give you the one that’s been sitting in the closet for the last twenty years. Though they limit creative control somewhat, they’re great for budding film photographers who just want to start snapping away.

Disposable cameras

Disposable or single-use cameras became popular in the mid-1980s. They are simple plastic affairs, usually with fixed-focus lenses, that contain a single roll of film. Once all the pictures are taken, the entire camera is sent for processing, where the film is developed and the camera itself disposed or reloaded for re-use. Disposable cameras were popular alternatives for travel (no need to worry about your expensive camera being stolen) and for guests at parties. Some vehicle fleet operators used to put a point-and-shoot camera in the glovebox to record the scene in the event of an accident.

Disposable cameras today

Disposable cameras are still in production. They’re a good way to try film on the barest possible budget, though they offer next to no creative control and image quality will not be as good as a halfway-decent point-and-shoot. Some film photographers like the ‘lo-fi’ look of their plastic lenses (and they’re great for weddings and kids’ birthday parties).

Photo: Lomography

Bridge cameras

Bridge cameras still exist in the digital age, and their film forbears fulfilled much the same mission, bridging the gap between simple compact point-and-shoot cameras and interchangeable-lens SLRs. The film-era bridge camera appeared around 1988, and most were autofocus SLRs with a non-removable zoom lens. Many bridge cameras combined features that appealed to snap-shooters, like built-in flashes and scene modes, with more advanced creative controls.

Bridge cameras today

Bridge cameras represent a good bargain buy for modern-day film photographers who want more creative control than a P&S would give them but don’t need to interchange lenses. The downside is that compared to most compacts, they’re massive. If you buy a bridge camera, you’ll want one that uses 35mm film, as APS film is no longer being made.

Photo: E Magnuson

Toy cameras

Most toy cameras aren’t actually toys, but rather inexpensive consumer-grade cameras that typically originated in Eastern and Soviet-bloc markets. These cameras started to make their way to Western countries in the 1990s and quickly became popular for their artistic effects: Their cheap plastic lenses and inconsistent construction quality (and resulting light leaks) introduced a random element to photography that expensive, high-end cameras could not replicate. Most took either 35mm or 120-size medium-format film. Popular toy cameras include the Holta, Diana, and the Lomo LC-A, which inspired the Lomography corporation.

Toy cameras today

For today’s film photographers, toy cameras have much the same appeal as they did in the 1990s, and they’re good fun if you want a level of unpredictability in your photos. While many take 120-size film, don’t think of them as entry-level medium-format cameras, as they cannot reliably produce the high-quality images for which medium format is best known.

Photo: Garry Knight

Instant Cameras

Instant photography is almost a separate branch of film photography, and it’s one that has a lot of devotees. Instant cameras use a special type of film that contains development chemicals in a pouch adjacent to the image area. After the picture is taken, rollers in the camera distribute the developer as the photo is ejected from the camera, and the picture appears in a few seconds. Instant photography was a fixture in the mid-to-late 20th century but was largely displaced by the advent of consumer-level point-and-shoot digital cameras. Instant photography was pioneered by the Polaroid Corporation, which went bankrupt in 2001 but has since been resurrected as a brand that you’ll see licensed for use on various photo-related products. Polaroid film has its own unique artistic appeal, but the per-shot costs can be very high.

Instant cameras today

Instant photography is alive and well – read our Instax camera buying guide. The new Polaroid Corporation (formerly The Impossible Project) sells instant cameras and film for both new and classic Polaroid cameras, while Fujifilm sells its own instant cameras and film under the Instax name. Pack film, in which the picture must be peeled away from a backing containing the chemicals, is not currently in production, nor is instant film for Kodak’s Colorburst instant cameras, which were discontinued following a lawsuit by Polaroid.

Photo: Jeanette Moses

About this guide

Our ‘Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography‘ is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more. View all of the articles in our guide here.