That’s So 80s: Cameras from the 1980s

The 1980s! What a time to be alive! Well, that’s what I’ve heard anyway. I was a 1990s kid, which is basically the 80s best friend. Both pretty cool decades. One thing I’m sure of is the 80s had classics. From music to popular movies, like The Breakfast Club, Brat Pack, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the 80s was the time to live and we owe it to this decade for many of the technologies, music, and movies we enjoy today. Now, all of these things are great, but let’s go back to my point about technology: cameras! The 80s were a peak time in photography.

As the sun set on the 1970s, 35mm cameras were just starting to shift from predominantly mechanical devices into slightly more advanced machines. Like David Hasselhoff in a black Trans-Am on flat desert road, in the 80s, the pace of technological advancement in the camera industry really accelerated to top speed. Having micro-electronic systems at the heart of a camera became the new normal and that made photography easier; new features progressed from more accurate shutter control to program full auto-exposure, to multi-segment light metering systems, to automatic reading of ASA/ISO codes, to integrated motors for advancing and rewinding, and finally AutoFocus (although AF didn’t truly come into its own until the next decade). The dominant manufacturers at the time are sometimes referred to as the ‘Big Five’: Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax. These brands produced the majority of 80s cameras and their now classic models deserve to be passed down from generation to generation (so please don’t store them with the batteries inside). Let’s take a trip down memory lane and show some love to some of our 80s favorites.


The Canon AE-1 Program made its debut in 1981, the successor of the Canon AE-1. The ‘program’ mode is simpler than the Canon AE-1, which allows the camera to automatically set both aperture and shutter speed. All you need to do is focus and shoot! If you’re ready to travel back in time and capture great photos, with its easy use,  this camera is a start.


Another 80s favorite is the the Minolta X-700. A must-have among serious ‘Only from the mind of Minolta’ heads if you’re looking for sophistication and simplicity. If you’re just getting started in film photography it is a great student camera, too. Warning: you might hit a speed bump trying to turn it on! We think this is the only confusing thing about this camera. There is a small switch somewhat hidden under the mode dial. It’s fully manually capable but features an accurate electronically timed shutter that only requires two long lasting MS76 batteries. The early 80s was the dawn of Program Auto-Exposure; the X-700 had the mode.


Oh the artistry of the Nikon FA! This was the most advanced camera on the market in 1983. It’s known for being the first camera to offer multi-segmented light metering for better exposures.



Somewhere in Japan a question was asked: With auto-exposure here to make life easier, who’s going to want a shutter speed control built-in? When Olympus made the OM10 (predecessor to the OMG), the only way to get manual shutter speeds was to buy a plug-in ‘Manual Adapter’ dial, so the answer to this question was that LOTS of people still expected a built-in manual shutter speed control. Olympus brought it back with the OMG which was named the OM20 outside the US.


Think of the P3 as an updated Pentax K1000 with added features like Program Auto-Exposure, depth of field preview, auto-exposure, TTL flash metering, and an electronic timer. The P3 was also one of the first cameras to feature DX code reading where electronic contacts in the film compartment read conductive patches on the roll’s exterior so the camera can automatically set the correct ASA/ISO. Like the K1000, the P3 is great for the beginner film enthusiast for its easy-to-use, reliable body and compatibility with a variety of lenses to experiment with.

Past, present, and probably future decades have had and will have some pretty legendary cameras, but the 80s? Oh this was a beautiful time. I bet, if you rummage through your grandparents basement (or visit KEH.com), you’ll be sure to find one of these now precious classics!





  1. Oh, Caela, don’t drink the Kool-Aid! The 80′ were the beginning of the end of truly classic camera design! Plastic lumps with self-destructing circuit boards? No thanks! Give me a Leica M3 or a Nikon F2 (plain prism, of course). Exquisitely crafted mechanical marvels that actually encouraged (nay, demanded) that the photographer be fully engaged in the process. Am I an old grouch, stuck in the past? You bet, and proud of it! Now, if you really want a rant, ask me about digital….

    1. mm

      That’s hilarious! I definitely appreciate the quality and reliability of cameras from past decades opposed to our most recent advancements, BUT as a millennial I can’t help but love a little bit of everything. I hope you’re following us on social media….we love for our customers to share their insight regarding gear. Rant away! 🙂

  2. As the opposite, I can enjoy the big clunky plastic 80’s bodies.

  3. Ah, the Pentax P3. My first 35mm camera. I chose it over the K1000 because the P3 looked like The Future to my 14-yr-old eyes.
    I still have it, but I wish I’d gone with the K1000. I’m sure I’d still be using that. Instead, when I shoot 35mm these days, it’s with screw-mount Pentaxes from the early 60s and all-manual Nikons (S2, F, F2, and FM2).

  4. I bought my first 35mm camera in 1985 I think. I bought a used Olympus OM-1. It wasn’t even an N. I saved up and got an OM-4 Black when it was released. I have an OM4-T black now. I still love Olympus but have a Nikon digital. I like the new Olympus mirrorless cameras but I’ll wait until they come down in price.

    Whenever I see anything for sale in the Olympus OM system it triggers my hoarding and I have to have it.

  5. I hated the 80s. Rubbish music (in general) and plastic cameras. F3 FM FM2 for me. I was deep in Corpratesville. Living the illusion. Still using my FM & FM2.

  6. Ah, Program Mode, the beginning of the egalitarian age of photography where anyone who could compose a good scene could capture some fine images without having to wrack their brain doing exposure calculations, or get caught up in fiddling with the dials while the subject disappears from view.

    But then, it was the perfect thing for sports photographers who didn’t have time to wait for meter needles to quit swinging, or take their concentration off the developing scene. Events (weddings, business conventions, award dinners, to name some) are another place where you have to shoot fast, and don’t have time to keep track of camera settings.

    I own all but the Pentax (just never got into that system), and they all have their own peculiarities. My preferences won’t be the same as someone else, so I’ll not give any opinions. It’s too bad there are fewer and fewer camera shops every day where one can go and talk over the workings of a certain camera model, and compare it with others before making the plunge, but at least they can read reviews, and Forum comments to see what pro photographers, and the general public thinks about their dream camera.

    I will say one thing though, these five are all good examples of early Program Mode cameras, and for someone new to shooting film, a perfect introduction to photography. Learn to compose first, then worry about exposure calculations later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *