I'm sure it won't surprise you that I have a few opinions about what cameras are best to start out with when getting into film photography. Some of the cameras that I recommend are on other's lists, but other commonly mentioned cameras are not on my list. Read on and you'll get my take on best cameras for getting started in film.
First, I'm going to step out on a limb and state that the best camera type for starting out in film is a 35mm SLR (single lens reflex). Here are my reasons for making that claim.
SLR Shooting Experience
With an SLR, when you look through the viewfinder you see what the camera sees. The image coming through the lens is reflected up to the viewfinder using a mirror and prism. You are seeing the image as it will be captured on film, not a rough approximation of it. An SLR viewfinder typically shows you 93% - 100% of the total image. I am a stickler for doing edge patrol on my frames, so an accurate representation in the viewfinder is extremely important to me.
The best values going on the used film camera market are 35mm SLRs. Even though film camera prices have increased with the resurgence of film photography, it's still easy to find good condition 35mm SLRs for under $250. Conversely, the prices on point & shoot and rangefinder 35mm cameras have increased to crazy levels.
35mm SLRs are among the most portable cameras available. Some of the more modern 35mm SLRs are beautifully compact, such as the Olympus OM-2n. The Nikon FE2 is another great example. Both these cameras are extremely well built, though, so don't confuse compact with cheaply constructed.
In their day, 35mm SLRs were super popular, and for the most part, they were extremely well built, so a good number of them are still working and available today. For example, the Nikkormat FT2, which was a brand of Nikon, is available for under $100 in good condition. If you're not completely comfortable with your knowledge in making a purchase, I'd turn KEH, a reputable online retailer of used cameras. If their rating says a camera is in excellent condition, you can count on it. You can also look on eBay, but you have to be more careful there. I've actually found prices to be better from KEH than eBay. Another good buying option is your local camera store. Most have an inventory of used film cameras. I bought my Nikon F3 from my local camera store, National Camera Exchange.
My camera recommendations are based on actual shooting experience. If I haven't shot a camera, I won't recommend it. I'm targeting my recommendations at the inexperienced film shooter. Here are my criteria for recommending cameras from among those I've shot.
My Camera Recommendations
I fully admit that my list is not exhaustive, and yes, there certainly is a Nikon tilt to my recommendations, since that is the brand I have the most experience with. There are a lot of fine brands I haven't shot, including Minolta and many other Canon and Pentax film cameras. I'd rather stick with my own personal experience when making a recommendation.
If you were to ask me to recommend one camera from all the 35mm SLRs I've shot, I'd go with the Nikon FE2, with the Olympus OM-2n a close runner up. If you're looking for the most affordable option I'd go for the Nikkormat FT2. Those can typically be had for less than $100.
A camera isn't any use without a lens. I recommend for starters you get a 50mm fixed focal length lens from the camera manufacturer. Generally, these are going to be f/2 or faster lenses. The 50mm lens was the standard kit lens in the day, so there are a ton of them available at reasonable prices. Once you've got the standard lens covered, then you can start expanding your collection. But for starters, it's hard to go wrong with a good old 50mm prime lens. If you're buying a Nikon film SLR, you need to be sure that the lens you're considering is compatible with the camera body.
If you have any questions or want feedback on a potential camera purchase, please submit a comment. I'll do my best to get back to you.