Perhaps the greatest and most overwhelming part of vintage film photography is how many cameras there are to choose from. There are dozens of terrific options that serve a whole variety of needs, but here we'll focus on some of the best choices for beginners, to film photography and photography in general.
1. That Camera Your Grandpa/Mom/Uncle/Cousin Has Hanging Around
The best option for your first film camera is one you can already get your hands on for free. Too many retro cameras are sitting unused in basements and closets. You'll be doing the whole analog photography community by bringing one back into active use, providing it works and uses a type of film that's still in production. Odds are it won't be exactly what you're looking for, but it will help you figure out what you do want, and you can always set it loose on eBay to help you get the funds for an upgrade.
2. The Fully-Auto Point-and-Shoot: Nikon L35AF
The Nikon L35AF is a great option for anyone looking for an iPhone-like experience, but with an analog twist. With a great 35mm f/2.8 lens, integrated flash and fully automatic exposure, this still-affordable plastic brick is a dead-simple point-and-shoot for people who don't want to shell out for trendier, increasingly overpriced options like the Contax T2 or Yashica T4. Best of all, it takes normal double AAs for batteries. Couldn't be easier.
3. The Zone-Focus Pocket Warrior: Olympus XA2
Another, slightly trendier and more expensive option (and my first film camera) is the Olympus XA2. Also a point and shoot with fully automatic exposure, the XA2 complicates the calculus of shooting with its zone-focus operation. No autofocus here; you have to eyeball the distance to target and select one of three focus zones you think it's in. That adds a little challenge for a novice, but a uniquely analog one. And the XA2's clamshell design makes it all but destined to live in your pocket for good. I can recommend it as a first film camera from personal experience.
4. The Anonymous, Affordable Fixed-Lens Rangefinder: Yashica MG-1
For shooters who'd prefer to have a little more to do, the Yashica MG-1 is one of many aperture-priority, fixed lens, manual-focus rangefinder cameras. With no help on the exposure (other than an LED that will warn you if you're severely over/under), it requires a little more technical know-how than pure point-and-shoot options, for better and for worse. There's nothing particularly special about it, but it's a (big, heavy) tank and can be had for quite cheap owing to its general anonymity, making it great for beginners. I got one at a flea market for $20 in 2019 and it was worth every penny and more. The manual calls for now-out-of-production mercury batteries to operate, but you can actually get it running just fine with 4 LR44s and some tinfoil to make the fit snug.
5. The Nigh-Indestructible Mechanical SLR: Pentax K-1000
One of the most popular film cameras ever made, the Pentax K-1000 is a fully manual SLR camera, compatible with a large, affordable suite of K-mount lenses and easy to get repaired if it comes to that. It's a bit bulky and heavy with its metal body, but it can handle a few drops. Its combination of fully-manual aperture and shutter controls (no auto modes here) with a simple meter makes it a great workhorse for anyone trying get a deeper understanding of exposure and metering actually works. Since it's fully mechanical, it'll also work totally fine without batteries; you'll just need to remember your Sunny 16 rule.
6. The Medium-Format TLR for Maximum Analog: Yashica Mat
For the aspiring film photographer who's already got a firm grasp of digital photography, a medium format Twin-Lens Reflex camera is a great option to grow in a new direction. The various models in the Yashica Mat line are some of the best buys out there now that prices for its premium competition, the Rolleiflex, are skyrocketing. With fully manual controls, lovely large 6x6 medium format negatives, a mirror-image waist-height viewfinder, and quite often the need for off-camera metering, a Yashica Mat of any model provides an experience and result that's completely unlike the digital cameras you're used to. That means that, yes, there's a substantial learning curve. But the uniqueness of its operation and result lets it tickle a completely different part of your brain and pair nicely with your DSLR without ever threatening to replace it.