This list compiling my favorite film cameras for a beginner is mostly just for fun, but I think it provides a nice starting point for anyone out there looking to get into film photography but they just don't know what camera to buy. For every one of these lists you see claiming to know everything you will find ten more claiming the same thing with ten different cameras so please take this with a grain of salt. This is just my humble opinion based on my experience playing around with film cameras for a few decades.
I've talked before on this blog and others about how I think the Minolta X-700 is the best option out there for anyone wanting to dive into 35mm film. My opinion on this hasn't wavered at all. The Minolta X-700 is a very functional and well built SLR with manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and fully automatic modes. It also gives you access to some of the best, and largely overlooked, glass ever made. Lets face it though, you could make this statement about a lot of 35mm cameras and a lot of times that statement would be true. What makes the X-700 truly wonderful is that Minolta produced this camera for nearly twenty years. That means the used market is literally overflowing with Minolta X-700's going for very cheap prices in very good condition. I bought mine complete with 50mm f/1.4 lens for $15.00 and it looked like it was barely touched when I got my hands on it. Even as a more advanced photographer I use my Minolta X-700 quite often. It is durable and nearly the perfect size for travel or a day on the town snapping pictures.
A common suggestion toward those wanting to try their hand at film photography is the Canon AE-1 and the AE-1 Program. Both of those models are wonderful and deserve the recognition they get, but I would personally keep an eye out for the lesser known cousin, the Canon A-1 instead. Not only does the Canon A-1 have more features (full auto, manual, aperture priority, and shutter priority), not only does it have a more robust and well built body, not only is it all black (more attractive than the chrome look of the AE-1 in my opinion), but it can be found on the used market for LESS than the Canon AE-1 and AE-1 Program. For reasons I will never know the A-1 is far less popular and therefore commands lower prices despite being a more feature rich and sturdy camera from Canon. Manual focus Canon glass is top notch and can be found very inexpensively as well, just adding to the A-1's appeal for beginners.
Olympus Trip 35
For what seems like decades I've watched new photographers clamor for small point and shoot 35mm cameras at sky high prices. The Lomography LC-A instantly comes to mind which often goes upward of $250 for a camera that is not exactly reliable nor of great quality. I enjoy the LC-A and own one, but lets fact it, prices for the are ridiculous. So if you are looking for a small point and shoot 35mm camera you could do a lot worse than the Olympus Trip 35. The 40mm lens is incredibly sharp and due to the fact that Olympus sold MILLIONS of these little gems they can be found very easily for fifty dollars or less. A lot of photographers turn their noses up at the Olympus Trip 35 because it is zone focus (i.e. you have to guess) but when it comes to a simple point and shoot camera that goes in your pocket I've never found this to be a big deal.
This suggestion may be the most expensive camera I am going to recommend, however, if you never want to shoot anything but 35mm film, the Nikon F3 could also potentially be the first and last camera you ever buy. There are few cameras that are as universally loved as the Nikon F3 and there are a lot of reasons for that. The Nikon F3 was clearly made with a professional buyer in mind and it is a camera that can easily be operated by a beginner but also leaves a lot of room to grow. There are tons of lenses and accessories made for the F3 and by and large these cameras stay in good working order on the used market. If you are careful and relentless with your shopping habits Nikon F3's can be found for pretty reasonable prices, certainly much cheaper than a modern digital SLR and this is a camera that nobody could ever consider obsolete.
Mamiya C330 TLR
I am always pushing new photographers to step up to Medium Format film sooner rather than later. Working with a bigger negative is where film photography starts to really shine over digital photography and it is fun to see people look at larger negatives with awe and reverence. The Mamiya C330 TLR is a great place to start if you don't mind a camera that is a bit on the large end. What you lose in portability you gain in getting a camera that can be customized to you liking, has a lot of available lenses, and will likely function flawlessly long past your own death. The lenses for Mamiya TLR's are largely under appreciated for how sharp and beautiful they are which means they are reasonably cheap and represent a good way for a new photographer to experiment with a variety of focal lengths coupled with a gorgeous 6x6 negative.
One of the cheapest ways to get into medium format film while still getting a good quality camera would be to look into a Yashica Twin Lens Reflex camera. Pretty much a direct copy of the popular Rolleiflex cameras but at more reasonable prices, Yashica made TLR's for a very long time and the minor differences between various models can be overwhelming. Your best bet would be to find the last model they produced, the "124G". Not only will it be newer, and in theory, better condition, but they also had built in light meters which can be handy for a beginner. All-in-all, these are really nice, lightweight medium format cameras with above average lenses and a simple straight forward control layout. I personally find them easier to operate than a 35mm SLR, and would even recommend a new photographer to try their hand with one of these before a complicated 35mm Single Lens Reflex.
There was a time when Bronica cameras were the work horses of wedding and portrait photographers. When I was first starting out as a photographer and long before the internet was in every household, I used to drool over high priced Bronica cameras advertised in the back of photo magazines. Unfortunately, when photography entered the digital age Bronica was one of the first casualties and now days they are often overlooked in favor of the more trendy Hasselbald, Contax, and Mamiya modular camera systems. The ETR line is a fairly portable medium format rig that is worth a look however and a quick browse on Ebay shows a used market with plenty to pick from. If you want a serious bargain, keep an eye out for the "ETRC" which is the same as the ETR but with film inserts as opposed to a removable film back. I've seen these go for as little as $100 with lens included in some cases.
Okay, so this isn't really so much a camera that you buy, but more of a do it yourself option. That being said, I am a firm believer that every photography student should make a pinhole camera at least once in their life. Sure, you can buy a pinhole camera, and there some incredibly beautiful hand crafted options out there, but nothing else will really give you an appreciation for camera design and the science behind creating a permanent image on film than getting crafty and spending an afternoon designing and building your own pinhole camera. There are tons of tutorials on-line to give you a good staring point and to inspire your inner camera engineer. So grab a friend or a loved one and make it a group activity!!
Polaroid 600 One-Step
Instant Photography has an allure and an aesthetic quality all its own. So much so that I know plenty of photographers who pick it up and never let it go, even to the point of excluding all other photographic mediums. Thanks to groups like the Impossible Project, getting access to integral Instant Film is as easy as a few mouse clicks. On the negative side of things, buying the film is always going to be expensive at about $25.00 for eight instant prints. On the plus side however, picking up a Polaroid 600 One-Step will cost you nearly nothing. I own three of them and never paid more than $5.00 each. One of them on my shelf I even found on top of a trash can in a box marked "FREE" on a street corner. Even if you don't want to work with Instant Film on a regular basis, there is no reason in the world not own one of these cameras. You know... just in case.
Crown Graphic and/or Speed Graphic
For many, the holy grail of analogue photography is moving up the ladder to large format sheet film. It is easy to understand why when one looks at the depth, clarity, and detail of a 4x5, 8x10, or even an 11x14 negative. However, buying a complete large format rig can be both expensive and difficult for many to justify. Just moving your camera around from one location to the next can incur significant cost. That is when the Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic come into play. Originally designed as a "Press Camera" these beauties take 4x5 sheet film and yet fold up into a tight and portable package. They were also manufactured by the thousands so finding one at a decent prices isn't all that difficult. I bought mine at a Thrift Store of all places. You won't have the ability to use all the rise and fall movements that large format photographers like to utilize, but what you lose in functionality you'll gain in portability and cost savings in spades.