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What 16mm cameras can be picked up cheaply?

Internet Filmmakers' FAQ

Although the digital revolution has empowered filmmakers in ways never seen before, a good many people still prefer the look of film. For the budget-challenged, the prospect of shooting a low-budget feature (or short) on film is largely kept alive by the availability of relatively cheap 16mm gear. Whilst new 16mm products will give you that empty wallet feeling, the age of the format means that there are a whole host of cameras which can now be picked up relatively cheaply.

Bolex H-16
By far the most popular and easiest to use (and cheapest to buy) cameras around is the venerable Bolex H-16. The favoured camera of many a war news reporter, these babies are versatile and tough; the only downer being that they are clockwork. Yes, that means no batteries – you simply wind them up and shoot away. Because of the popularity of these cameras, many enterprising individuals and companies have produced electric motors for the Bolex H-16 which can be attached with relative simplicity (if a permanent conversion hasn't already been done). Unfortunately, it's not really possible to shoot sync sound with a H-16 as they tend to be quite noisy and most standard models lack any kind of sync output device, however for short takes and non-sync scenes, they are great. The single-frame mode has also made H-16s and extremely popular choice for use on an animation stand.

The Bolex H-16 comes in two different flavours: reflex (sometimes called "rex") and non-reflex. The different names refer to how the viewfinder system works. Older H-16s use a parallax viewfinder which is mounted on the side of the camera, or rotated into position using the lens turret. Consequently, there is always a margin of error involved when using non-reflex cameras, due to the inability to look through the viewfinder during filming. Creativity and practice can minimise the effects of this.

Newer H-16s make use of the reflex viewing system, which uses a prism to split the light entering the lens. Most of the light is delivered to the film gate, however a small percentage is redirected to the viewfinder. The advantage is, you can generally look through the viewfinder whilst filming. The disadvantage is that you need to adjust your exposures to compensate for the slight degradation in the intensity of the light hitting the film surface.

Reflex cameras are by far the easier of the two to work with, which of course also means they tend to cost a little more on the second hand market. For the most budget option, consider non-reflex models, or look for the early rexes (version 1-3), as newer models still fetch close to $1000 (and sometimes more. Non-reflex cameras can be as little as $100. For a rundown on the history and features of the H-16, see the NCS Products Bolex Page.

Bell & Howell 70 Series
Also known as "Filmos", the B&H 70 series is another dirt cheap option and they're extremely tough (the US military used to use them). Like the H-16, Filmos are clockwork and you therefore can't sync them to a sound recording device. Typically you can pick up a Filmo body for $200-$600, depending on the condition and of course, where you buy it. Lenses are usually extra, but the beauty of the Filmo is that it uses the standard C-Mount, which ensures your options are extremely wide.

If you're in the market for an el cheapo sync sound camera, you can keep your eyes out for an Auricon (of any variety). Whilst they're not the most user-friendly cameras around, and shooting for one for any length of time will definitely give your arm muscles a workout, they tend to be pretty cheap on the second hand market.

Beaulieu R16
Another good option in the sync sound department is the Beaulieu R16 (often refer to as a "Beuley"). These French cameras are rugged, versatile, and relatively cheap. The Beaulieu R16 takes a 100ft magazine inside, or can be used with an external 200ft "mouse ears" magazine which sits on top of the camera. The cameras support speeds from a single frame up to 64fps, and some models have an auto-focus function (which only works with the correct lens). Most R16s also have a built-in light meter, although it's very basic.

The Beaulieu R16 can be used to shoot sync sound (it has a sync mechanical sync output), however they tend to be a bit noisy in a confined space. The magazines are notoriously fiddly to load, so you need to make sure you do all your loading in a comfortable place with plenty of time. Basic R16 packages tend to start at around $700, but can move into four figures if they include a decent lens (many R16s come with the sought-after Angenieux 12-120 zoom lens which is worth as much as the camera body, if not more).

Krasnogorsk K-3
These Russian cameras are solid, durable and incredibly cheap. Bodies start at around $300 and you can pick up a package for around $2,000... for a new camera! The basic K-3 is a clockwork camera, however there are options to add electric motors, and some can even shoot sync sound. There are also K-3s out there which have had a Super-16 modification. Some people point at the need for non-standard lenses as a major weakness of the K-3, however it's possible to have them converted to a standard C-mount for not a huge amount of money, and you can get adaptors for the major lens mount formats. More information is available at the NCS Products K-3 page.

Arriflex 16S
A little more upmarket (both in image and price) is the trusty old Arri 16S. One of the most respected old 16mm cameras around, the 16S was the main workhorse of the indie filmmaker prior to the digital revolution. Robert Rodriguez shot El Mariachi with a borrowed 16S. Known for their rugged, no-nonsense design and manageable weight, 16Ss can be used for sync sound shooting (with the right motor) and will also do variable frame rates. They take 400ft magazines and standard Arri-mount lenses. Because of their dependability (and the Arri brand), 16S tend to hold their value well if kept in good condition and consequently, start in the region of $2000 - $3000 on the second hand market.

Worth a look are also the Eclair NPR and the Cinema Products CP-16 (used for the film sequences in The Blair Witch Project). NPR packages start around $3000, whilst CP-16s can often be picked up for under $2000.

Where to Buy Them
Buying second hand camera gear presents somewhat of a dilemma. The easiest place to find them is through camera shops and other dealers, however these people are more likely to be clued in to the value of the gear, resulting in higher prices. The flip side is you'll probably get a better deal through a private sale, but it requires more effort to locate the camera and the condition can be variable.

eBay is of course another place to look, although it's probably better to try the usual second hand forums in your area (newspapers, garage sales, etc). Although it's beginning to dry up these days, another good source of cheap 16mm gear can sometimes be through organisations such as universities or government departments. The video and subsequent digital revolution means that these places sometimes have old film equipment lying around gathering dust which they're willing to off-load.

Of course, online is also a great place to locate second hand gear.'s free classifieds, The Toolshed, is good starting point. You can also try B&H Photo in New York, or use Google to locate smaller retailers closer to you.

Answer by Benjamin Craig  |  Last updated 19-Jan-2005


Older Comments

Frank  |  14-Jul-2010
Anybody know the camera that Christopher Nolan used for Following? Thanks!
Pierre  |  30-Dec-2009
I use an Emig C16, more easier than Bolex or Beaulieu. Results are just as good as my EBM. For small clips and visiting touristic places, I use a magazine 16mm B&H 200, quality equal to any other in a pocket size.Handling is comparable to super 8 as you can carry difefrent film indexes and load any time in full daylight. Difficulties are the magazine loading which can be mastered after few hours practice. I ,modified all my magzines to single perforation and some to super 16 with breathtaking results. Of course, there is no relex view finder and sound, things I don't need for my application, although in some cases with a Sony cassette recorder, I added sound later on and did not notice synchronisation problems during projection.
Sean McHenry  |  09-Apr-2008
K-3s are not going for as much as was written above. Perhaps the author menat $200? A full K-3 kit with all the "standard" additional lenses, cable release, shoulder mount, etc can be found easily on Ebay for around $300. Naturally, buyer beware of foreign importers but most I thik if they have been there a while seem trustworthy. Do check who you are dealing with but the venerable K-3 is not all that expensive. S.
Haffif  |  03-Apr-2006
Some SRI and SRII models were manufactured as factory Super 16 compatible. These cameras had a different front casting with a bayonet mount that was shifted 1mm to align it for Super 16. The cameras had a 172.8º mirror shutter. These cameras could not be used to shoot on standard double-perf 16mm film, as the lens mount is permanently set to super 16 and would be far out of alignment for standard 16. This misalignment causes zoom shots to have a very noticeable lateral image shift, and prevents the use of standard-16 lenses that would otherwise be compatible because of vignetting. The magazines on these factory Super 16 cameras were exactly the same as on a standard 16mm SR. This can cause scratching or pressure marks in the image area on the right side of the frame. It is reccomended that all 16SR magazines be upgraded to Super 16 compatibility. Although some would make the claim that the modifications are not neccessary, ARRI certainly felt changes were needed when it made the appropriate changes to the SR3 magazine.