Five Best Digital Cameras for People Who Love Film Cameras
At Casual Photophile, we love film cameras for many reasons; notably their historical significance, their ability to make world-class images, and their low cost compared to their digital counterparts. But I think most of the writers here appreciate and maybe even prefer film cameras for one very specific reason – they feel incredible. Film cameras are creations from a time when physical mechanisms drove the world, and it’s rare to find such haptic joy in the modern era in which consumer goods are often thought of as disposable, or at least inevitably replaceable.
All of that said, there’s no denying that we also love certain digital cameras. While many digital cameras seem bland and, as stated, disposable, there does exist a handful of really phenomenal digital cameras that not only make amazing images, but also feel like the classic mechanical cameras that we love so dearly. It’s also hard to argue against the speed and efficiency of the digital workflow (there’s a reason all of the product shots here and in my camera shop are made with digital machines, after all).
The writers and I decided to sit down and brainstorm which five digital cameras currently selling today are best for those of us who love film cameras. Here they are.
Fujifilm X100 Series
When the original Fujifilm X100 debuted at Photokina in late 2010, it made a massive splash. In an early 2011 writeup, DPReview described the X100 as “…a firm favorite in the dpreview offices.” Adding that “Its drop-dead gorgeous looks and excellent build make it a camera that begs you to pick it up and take it out with you,” and later describing the image quality of its 12.3 MP APS-C sized CMOS sensor as “…nothing short of superb.”
The original X100 and subsequent models in the series are such great cameras for people who love film because they’re all characterized by some very “film camera-like” features. They all look and handle like the classic compact or rangefinder cameras that film-shooting street photographers lust over (think Canon’s Canonet or even Leica’s M series). They feature a traditional optical viewfinder (with a decidedly trick hybrid electronic viewfinder system), they have classic physical controls for shutter speed, aperture, and more, just like film cameras of the past, and they all feature a number of “Film Simulation” modes which reproduce the look of classic Fujifilm emulsions.
Since the release of the original X100 (actually called the FinePix X100 – all later cameras dropped the FinePix nomenclature) Fuji has released three additional X100 models. The X100S refined the user interface and ergonomics while replacing the original X100’s excellent 12.3 MP CMOS sensor with a 16.3 MP Fuji X-Trans CMOS II. The third model, the X100T, retain the sensor, lens, and core functionality of the previous model, but improve on the X100S in incremental ways. Most interesting to film lovers might be the addition of the “Classic Chrome” film simulation.
The fourth and latest X100 is the X100F. This camera is naturally the most advanced X100 yet, packing a 24 MP X-Trans CMOS III sensor into the traditionally compact X100 series body, as well as introducing a veritable cornucopia of new improvements. These include a new image processor, built-in ISO dial (a friendly addition for us film camera fans), a larger battery, an improved 91-point autofocus system, a 60 frames per second electronic viewfinder refresh rate, and a Fuji Acros film simulation mode. This last addition is especially interesting considering that Fujifilm discontinued production of their Acros film last year, and just recently announced plans to introduce a new Acros film after hearing the public outcry from film photographers.
The X100F has been the recipient of numerous awards in the photography press, and has successfully convinced the world that the X100 is a true professional photographer’s camera.
Which X100 camera should you buy? Well, the thing about the Fuji X100 series is that every single model in the series is fantastic. My advice is to first decide on your budget and then buy the newest X100 you can afford. Even if that ends up being the original X100 with the 12.3 MP sensor, you’ll be getting an incredible machine that will make phenomenal images. Anything more than that is just a bonus.
At around $1,200 the X100F is one of the more expensive cameras on the list. But for those of us looking to save money, the original X100 can be bought on eBay for an astoundingly low price – around $300.
The Ricoh GRIII is an obvious choice for any film shooter whose preferred film camera is a compact point-and-shoot. It’s a strong digital stand-in for the premium point-and-shoots from Contax, or the ever-popular compact cameras from Olympus and Yashica. And of course the Ricoh GRIII is the perfect digital camera for anyone who lives and dies by the earlier Ricoh GR1 film cameras.
We’ve written about the reasons the GR1 series of film cameras are such incredible point-and-shoots in our article earlier this year, and many of the core superlatives that characterize those film machines are carried over to their counterparts in the digital GR series. In his video review of the new GRIII, Kai Wong called the Ricoh GRII one of his “…favorite cameras of all time,” and went on to describe the GRIII as “..something truly great.”
Kai’s not wrong. The Ricoh GRIII was released just a few months ago and it offers everything you’d expect from a brand-new, world-class digital compact while retaining the core concept that has made the GR series a camera loved by street photographers and snap-shooters for decades. It’s incredibly small and well-made, features one of the best 28mm (equivalent) lenses in the photographic world, has in-body image stabilization, excellent high-ISO capability, and an incredibly quick start-up time for capturing snapshots at a moment’s notice.
It’s an especially great camera for those of us who love compact film cameras because while it offers everything we’ve mentioned plus countless modern conveniences, it’s really a simple camera like the compact film machines we all love. It’s as “point-and-shoot” as it gets, without sacrificing anything in terms of image quality or tech. Oh, and it’s got some pretty fantastic film simulation modes too, if you’re into that (and we are).
At $899, it’s the least expensive new camera on the list. For what the GRIII offers, that’s truly impressive.
[Friend of the site and former president of Pentax USA, Ned Bunnell has been shooting the GRIII since it released earlier this year and he’s been posting his images and experiences with the new camera on Instagram. He’s also been posting a collection of film simulation shots made with the camera, which you can see via the hashtags #NedsGR3bw and #Nedspositivefilm.]
Olympus Pen F
I’ll admit that some of the allure of classic film cameras, for me, is just how gorgeous these old machines look. There’s something about the proportions, something about the finish of satin metal contrasting against black or brown leatherette or vulcanite; film cameras are beautiful objects. It’s especially intoxicating when these gorgeous machines also happen to be extremely capable image-making devices. Which brings us to our third pick, and it comes from a legendary camera maker – Olympus.
Olympus is celebrating their centennial this year, and like they’ve done for many of the last hundred years, it seems Olympus is content to get down to the business of quietly making exceptional cameras and lenses. Without a lot of fanfare or marketing hullaballoo, Olympus has recently released a truly impressive digital compact in the form of the Pen-F Digital.
Like its earlier film ancestor, the Pen-F digital is uncommonly small. The Maitani-designed Pen F film camera was a half-frame camera, while the newest Pen-F Digital is a micro 4/3rds machine. This makes it well-suited for travelers and lifestyle shooters, or for event photographers looking for a pocketable camera for candids.
Like earlier Olympus designs, the Pen-F digital has outsized dials and knobs and switches for all the most important controls in photography. Big, mechanical dials click into place with directed force, controlling exposure compensation, firing modes, aperture, shutter speed, and more. And it feels dense and solid while never feeling heavy or awkward. Put the Pen-F Digital into the hands of a film photographer and he or she will instantly feel at home.
The tiny camera is packed full of incredible features – a 20 MP sensor (with 50 MP high-res shot mode), five-axis image stabilization, 10 FPS sequential shooting mode, an exceptional OLED electronic viewfinder, 81 point autofocus, and… a tilty-flippy screen. If you can’t get the shot with the Pen-F, it’s probably not the camera’s fault.
Interchangeable lenses from Olympus’ famed Zuiko line complete an imaging ecosystem that can compete with much larger (and more expensive) cameras. When we see the images that Olympus’ micro 4/3rds cameras can make it becomes obvious that the lesser-celebrated brand is still a powerhouse in optics – they’ve been doing this for a hundred years, after all. Oh, and the Pen-F Digital is (in my opinion) just about the prettiest camera on the market today. That counts for something.
At $999 the Olympus Pen F body lands right in the middle of the pack regarding price. Add a lens and we’re looking at a $1,200-1,400 price point.
The Nikon Df was very nearly replaced on this list after the team and I discussed its history and reputation and modern relevance. We had almost decided to include it at the end as an honorable mention. Call it nostalgia or perhaps a power move by my inner Nikon fanboy, but I just had to include it on the list.
The Nikon Df was released in 2013, and marketed by Nikon as a return to the purity of their earlier F series film cameras. With a full-frame sensor, dedicated physical dials to control the most important aspects of photography, a full metal construction including top plate and metal controls, and removal of the video mode often found on DSLRs, the Df does indeed seem like a perfect film-like interpretation of the DSLR.
The top plate is packed with big metal control dials for exposure compensation, ISO, shutter speed, shooting modes, and more. And in this way it truly does look and feel like one of Nikon’s modern classic SLRS, the F4 or the F5. But the rest of the camera is decidedly a digital machine. The back has everything you’d find in one of Nikon’s contemporary to the Df DSLRs, the D610 or the D750 for example. Which is good, but also somewhat confusing.
Is shooting the Nikon Df like shooting a film camera? Not really. Sure, it’s got physical controls, but it’s really quite a massive camera with very DSLR-like ergonomics. It’s the least pleasant camera on this list to shoot for those of us who just don’t get excited by DSLRs. And on this site, that will include a lot of readers as well.
Where the Nikon Df might become the perfect digital camera for the film shooter is when we discuss Nikon specifically. If you’re already shooting a bunch of Nikon cameras, say an original F, an F4, and even a Nikon DSLR, the Nikon Df could be a great fit. That’s because it’s the only Nikon DSLR that can mount and shoot every Nikon lens that’s been made since the original F mount was introduced in 1959. That’s pretty incredible. But then again, the new Nikon mirrorless Z6 and Z7 can do that too (with adapters). Decisions.
At $2,795 the Nikon Df is one of the more expensive cameras on the list. In fact, it’s only topped by our next machine. This will not be a surprise…
For many film photographers, the Leica M series is the perfect combination of all the things that make film cameras special. A beautiful, timeless design encapsulating nothing but gears and levers and steel and brass, the early M cameras especially are mechanical masterpieces (see our guides to the Leica rangefinders and their SLRs). Even today, Leica still makes two mechanical film cameras, the meter-free M-A and the light meter-equipped M-P.
With this pedigree and continued ability to create what could be the best film camera in the world right now, it’s no surprise that Leica should make some truly impressive digital cameras. While the brand seemed to struggle to find its footing in the digital age, their latest releases, the Leica CL, the Leica Q and Q2, and their newest M, the M10, are all grand slams.
Each of these cameras feels like a classic film camera in the hands. The dials and controls are simple and straightforward. The mechanisms actuate with incredible precision. The ergonomics and methodology are simplified down to the basics of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. In many ways, shooting a CL or a Q2 or an M10 feels like shooting a Leica M3 from 1954 or a CL from the 1970s. And that’s a good thing.
The M10-D is a recent release, and it’s the purest expression of the film camera ethos in a digital machine. The M10-D is essentially a Leica M10 that recalls the look and feel of the original M series camera. It loses the Leica Red Dot logo and replaces it with the more film-traditional Leica Script engraving. There’s a thumb rest on the top of the machine that flips out, looking and actuating almost exactly the same way that the film advance lever of the M3 does. The on/off switch is a ring surrounding an exposure compensation wheel that’s a clear reference to the film speed reminder of the oldest M film cameras (or the ISO selector on later M film cameras). This on/off and exposure compensation dial sits on the rear of the camera, exactly where most digital cameras would show their LCD display (this space is available because the M10-D simply doesn’t have an LCD display). This is the M10-D’s boldest move.
For a digital camera in 2019 to not have an LCD screen is weird and, some would say, silly. And it’s an easy thing to poke fun of when we’re talking about the extremely pricey products that Leica creates. In case you’re not keeping track, I’ll tell you – the M10-D costs approximately $1,500 more than the M10. Why would anybody spend more money for a digital camera with fewer features than the camera from which it’s derived? There’s something to be said for staying in the moment and eliminating distractions, sure, but is that worth $8,000?
It’s a question that I won’t answer in a definitive way. Different strokes for different folks. But if you’re looking for the closest experience to shooting an incredible film camera but want those digital files and digital workflow, the M10-D might be the pinnacle of modern machines. (Even if I’d never buy one).