Digital has become king in filmmaking. It’s become commonplace in terms of equipment and processing, due to how significantly cheaper it is compared to shooting on celluloid. Bigger budget and speciality movies still use film, but it’s becoming more rare, especially since more processing and scanning facilities are closing their doors. Digital is great, and it’s come a long way; the initial introduction of digital super 35’s drew harsh criticism, as they were just nowhere near the quality and “cinematicness” of traditional 16mm and 35 mm, but as the technology developed, opinions started to change. Now with Alexa Large Format and the new line of Reds (Monstro & Hellium), the digital format has caught up with film and them some.
Where does that leave film today? Much the conversation has shifted from comparing quality to comparing artistic merit. The push for film is now to create specific aesthetics that you can’t fully capture in digital. Arguments can be made about this point, but it’s the reason why top tier directors like Nolan still rely heavily on film. It’s become a point of prestige.
Shooting film can get quite expensive if you’re not familiar with the process. I wouldn’t go as far as to say film is always more expensive than digital, but there is a real concern of waste. Digital has an abundance of storage, so you can shoot and reshoot take after take. Film not only has a cost per roll, but you aren’t able to see the result of your take instantly, like digital. This means you have to work at reducing your shooting ratio; with digital you can get away with 10:1, but with film you just have to be smarter and more efficient.
All that is to say that film is expensive if you plan to shoot as if you were shooting digital. The cost structure is quite different, however: for film, the equipment to shoot on is cheaper but the cost for conversion and scanning is significant; digital is expensive upfront for equipment, but the cost for processing is non-existant. Once digital footage is captured, it’s ready to be edited.
If you’re not deterred by the points above and are still interested in tackling a film project, we have a list of 16mm and 35mm cameras. You can find these cameras at rental places, where they’ll be cheaper than their digital counterparts, or you can purchase them secondhand. The good thing about owning these cameras is that you won’t be worrying that they’ll become outdated, because you’re purchasing them for their unique, vintage qualities in the first place.
Before we begin the list, we have a few disclaimers that I’m sure people are going to point out if we don’t mention them here.
- It’s not about the look, but the story. Film won’t fix a bad story.
- Audiences don’t care if it’s digital or film. You’re choosing to go with film for your own personal reasons. That’s okay, but it’s important you’re honest with yourself.
- This list includes 35mm and 16mm, but if you’re new to film, I’d recommend starting by playing around with Super 8s.
Without further adieu, our list of the best Super 16mm and 35mm cameras.
The Arriflex 35BL was the first silent 35mm camera (BL stands for blimped). A Blimped Camera or Self-Blimped Camera doesn’t mean a camera in a blimp, but a camera that is designed with internal soundproofing without the need for an external blimp. The BL4 is the fourth iteration of this popular line and was released in 1986.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Fargo, Leon The Professional, Shawshank Redemption
- Self-blimp for sync sound
- Relatively simple to operate
- PL Mount – many lenses available
- Heavy – not great for steadicam
- Still quite expensive for an older camera system
Arri 35 III
The original Arri 35 is a legendary camera. It was introduced as a handheld newsreel camera at the Leipzig Trade Fare in 1937 and is still used extensively in motion pictures for sequences without synchronous sound (“motor only sync”) and unique camera movement, e.g. on Steadicam. This 3rd version was released in the 80s with added improvements, but still retains much of its legendary design and function.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Thin Red Line, Aliens, Die Hard 2, Reservoir Dogs
- Stable camera with pin register
- A little awkward to hold
- Lighter than the BL4 but not really a run and gun camera
- Loud (MOS camera, not used for sync sound)
The Arri 435 is the successor to the Arri. It’s a MOS camera and a bit more expensive. This model was released in 1995. This became a line with several different models: 435 Advanced, released in 2001 with lower frame rates and added features, and then the 435 Extreme, a more electronically advanced version released in 2004.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: The Lord of the Rings, Justice League, The Untouchables (and many more: this is still a staple in the industry)
- Better for steadicam and handheld (better than 35 III, but heavier)
- Higher frame rate (up to 150 fps)
- Loud (MOS camera, not used for sync sound)
- Significantly expensive to own
- Higher power demand
Moviecam SuperAmerica MK2
Originally designed in Vienna, Austria as an in-house project of Fritz Gabriel Bauer and Walter Kindler’s Moviegroup film production company in the late 1960s, the SuperAmerica is one of only three models that the company ever released. Despite the fact that Moviecam cameras have not been manufactured for almost ten years, their quality and features have kept them in service to meet their consistent high demand by feature film shoots.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Nightwatch, Honey I Blew Up The Kids, Aliens
- Cheaper than the Arris
- Quiet and good to use for sync sound
- Company no longer exists (bought by Arri)
- Not a great viewfinder
Aaton doesn’t get the same cache as Arri as a company, but the XTR is one of the best 16mm cameras ever engineered and the best for handholding, designed to be used on the shoulder from the word go. Its magazines are easy to load and change, as most of the threading can be done in daylight.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Blackkklansman, City of God, Enter the Void, March of the Penguins
- Great option for steadicam
- Really quiet
- Powerhorse with great stamina
- Has a unique mount, so it will need an adapter to work with most lenses
- No pin register
The SR3 is the last of the legendary 16SR line of cameras from Arri and was originally released in 1992. The 16SR series of cameras are distinguished by their small portable profile, their multidirectional viewfinder that provides a correctly-oriented picture in all positions to the right and to the left of the camera, a crystal controlled motor and a quick-change 400 ft coaxial magazine.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Theory of Everything, Hustle and Flow, Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Fantastic viewfinder
- Arri magazines are widely used and easy to manage.
- Heavier 16mm, not great for handheld in comparison
Arri 416 is a successor to the legendary the SR16 line. The 416 still retains the qualities of those trusted cameras, but for a more modern era. The 416 was launched in 2006. The camera is lightweight, with a 35-style viewfinder and an amazingly low sound level. Its speed is variable, from 1 to 75 fps, and its mirror shutter can be manually adjusted from 45 to 180 degrees.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Vice, Fruitvale Station, Black Swan, Blue Valentine
- Fantastic battery life and power management
- Extremely quiet
- Can run upside down
- Most expensive for both ownership and rental
The Eclair NPR, originally manufactured in the early 60s, is a small, quiet camera that allowed sync-sound shooting. The NPR helped to revolutionize the art of film-making with various technical innovations. It’s considered a major contributor to the French New Wave genre and enabled independent filmmakers to create movies outside the confines of a major studio.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Call First
- Great beginner 16mm
- Noisy but can still shoot sound (boom mic)
The Krasnogorsk-3 is a 16-mm windup camera made in the former Soviet Union. Its low price, rugged construction and sophisticated optics have made it very popular with both beginning filmmakers and professionals. Director Spike Lee shot some of the footage in his film Get On The Bus using a K-3. There is a photo of Spike holding a K-3 on the cover of the soundtrack CD.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Give Me Liberty, Amator (Russia)
- Extremely affordable to own
- Easy to use
- Great beginner film camera
- No sound sync
- Needs to be modified to be Super 16
Bolex H16 Reflex
The Bolex H16 Reflex is a beautiful motion picture camera made in Switzerland in the 1960s. It has a lens turrent capable of holding three C mount lenses, variable frame rates including 12, 16, 18, 24, 32, 48 and 64 frames per second, and an automatic threading and looping system to make loading easier.
Movies Filmed with this Camera: Pi
- Quite affordable
- Reflex viewfinder (what you see is what you get)
- Easy to use
- Unique C-Mount and has a problem with heavier lenses