So you have decided to (re)go to the cinema.
It’s booming right now, after all, and it’s not hard to see why: the images you can get from the film are dreamy, colorful and nostalgic. But the question is; Which 35mm camera should you buy?
Here are some of your options:
- Rangefinders: difficult to photograph, incredible image quality, expensive
- Point-and-shoots: good image quality, super portable, cheap (sometimes)
- DSLR: easy to photograph, incredible image quality, often very inexpensive
For my first foray into 35mm film photography, I decided to opt for an SLR. Now there are classics Manual SLRs, like the ever-reliable Canon AE-1 and Pentax K1000, and then there are modern SLRs, which are electronic and for all intents and purposes work just like modern DSLRs. That’s what I have.
Because I was a little piggy and didn’t want to buy a camera for the first time, I decided to buy a Canon EOS 7 in “excellent” condition from KEH for around $200. This camera, which I’ve compared here to the EOS RP, was released in 2000 and looks just like any other Canon camera. I was able to start filming with it almost immediately.
The EOS 7, also called EOS 30/33 or Elan 7 in some markets, is a thick, bulbous camera. It weighs just over 20 oz and it has a nice meaty grip. Although not the best camera, it is a professional camera and as such should accommodate professional lenses. This means that the EOS has a deep grip that really helps balance big glasses.
The top panel has a handy LCD screen and a few knobs and buttons. I shoot with rangefinders these days, and let me tell you, I quite miss the EOS 7’s top small LCD screen. It gives you all your critical exposure information in one place, and it’s easy to read in direct sunlight.
When you look through the viewfinder, you’ll notice a few things. First of all, it’s absolutely huge. I’m still used to Sony’s impossibly small viewfinders on the A6000 series (and the A7C, a cheap criminal if you ask me), and the EOS 7’s optical viewfinder is nothing short of amazing. Mine is a little grubby though, and as these cameras age, you should expect a bit of funkiness in the viewfinder. That said, the viewfinder also includes handy data such as shutter speed, aperture and EV compensation.
At the back there are a bunch of wheels and knobs, and at first glance it can be a little intimidating. I won’t go into what each one does (you should check out this very good manual for that), but most of them are what you’ll use to change some of the camera options. You’ll be looking at the LCD screen while you fiddle with those buttons, and that’s pretty much how you do it. It’s not bad, but you can see how the modern touchscreen-joystick combo has become the norm.
On the left side we have the mode selector and the control lever. The modes work exactly the same as on modern DSLRs, and if you’re using an autofocus lens, you can just put it in Auto (the green box) or P (also mostly auto) mode, and just go to town.
Ok, but what about the physical loading of the film? There is a small switch that you pull on the left side that opens the movie door. Inside, you’ll see a very standard-looking film bay, but there’s a lot of innovation at work here. Unlike previous film cameras, Canon has eliminated just about every point of user error, so there’s nothing you have to insert film into or sprockets you have to align, just put down the movie and you’re pretty much good to go. That’s what they paid a lot of money for at the time.
Canon lenses and ecosystem
As noted above, people looking to get into filmmaking have a pretty incredible number of options. I chose to go with Canon really out of impatience and limited experience with Canon DSLRs, but I’m glad I did, because there’s so a lot of Canon equipment on the second hand market. Let me explain.
I bought the EOS 7 for $200, a used 24-105mm f/4.0L lens for $450, and a Canon 580EXII flash for around $100. So for a total of around $750 I was able to put together a pro-level setup, and that’s what I brought to the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Z Fold 3 press event where I took these pictures.
To some, $750 will seem like a lot, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First off you can get an EOS 7 for around $100 on eBay, I just paid extra to get the KEH warranty. Second, you can use Great Cheap EF lenses on the EOS 7, like the Canon AF 28-80mm lens that I got for around $50, plus the adorable 270EXII flash that I got for around $60. In decent light, this combo will give you very sharp shots, all for just over $200.
You can really get great stuff for not much money.
Because all of Canon’s gear works together and has been on the market for so long, you can get great products for little money. Plus, if you have a Canon digital camera, these EF lenses and flashes can be used on both systems, directly or with an adapter.
A quick note: in the digital mirrorless world, one of the best ways to get started cheaply is to adapt vintage lenses to digital cameras with a physical adapter. It doesn’t really work on the EOS 7. I’ve tried suitable lenses from Pentax and Contax and they both blocked the mirror which would ruin a movie if there was film in the camera.
Shooting with the EOS 7
Once your film is loaded, the CR123A batteries installed and the EF lens mounted, you turn the camera on by turning the mode dial to the desired mode. Then you’ll make sure your settings are correct on the LCD screen, put your eye to the viewfinder, and take a shot.
The movie will advance automatically, and the sound is so retro and fantastic. The small film counter on the LCD screen will advance by one. Everything is magic.
The autofocus – one of the main reasons to get one of those early 2000s DSLRs – works very well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s slow compared to the latest digital cameras and lenses, but not as slow as you might think. Remember, people used to shoot a tonne weddings on these things, and it’s basically just pure autofocus chaos.
Now let’s talk about counting. In older cameras, through-the-lens (TTL) metering was a big innovation, and it’s been perfected in modern cameras like the EOS 7. In practice, I have no complaints; the vast majority of my shots came out with normal exposure, and those that didn’t were just a little underexposed.
A lot of people like to shoot professional films like Portra 400 and Fuji Pro 400H (RIP) a bit overexposed. You can actually do this without fiddling with the ISO setting using the exposure compensation feature, but you only get two stops up or down. This will be fine for most people, but if you’re taking more artistic photos with expired film and a lot of overexposure, you’ll have to do it with the ISO.
One thing that might surprise you about the EOS 7 is that the battery life is nuts. According to the manual, you can expect to shoot over 100 rolls of film before the battery fails. For all but the heaviest shooters, this will take weeks or even months of battery life.
Should I buy it?
One thing is certain: if you get an EOS 7 in good condition, it will work like a charm. It will probably surprise you with its modernity and efficiency in almost all dimensions. But the question is: what kind of photography do you do?
If you’re shooting product photography like me, or weddings, events, or really any commercial photography, the EOS 7 is exactly what you’re looking for, hands down, no caveats.
But after a few weeks with this beefy SLR, I found myself wanting something smaller. I’ve looked at some of the high-end point-and-shoots everyone loves, like the Olympus Mju II and the Contax T3, but they’ve really skyrocketed in price.
A few weeks ago I bought a Bessa R4A and a Voigtlander Color-Skopar f/2.5 35mm lens for around $2000. That’s 10 times the cost of a cheap EOS 7 setup, but it’s also about the same as a Sony A7C with a kit lens or a Fujifilm X-Pro3. It all depends on what you need.