How To Get Started With Film Photography
Whether you're thinking about getting into film, or you've magically picked up an old SLR and are confused about how to use it, hopefully, this guide is a good start for beginners looking to get into film photography.
The actual process of shooting film isn't that much different from digital. Assuming you understand how exposure works then the principle is exactly the same.
If you come from shooting RAW on a digital camera then really you only lose three features.
- Ability to change ISO
- Ability to change White Balance.
- Ability to preview your shot *shocker*
Choosing The Right Camera
When it comes to shooting with a film camera, boy is there a lot of choice out there. Not only do we have the standard 35mm format, but there are also larger film sizes such as Medium and Large format, which utilize a larger negative for superior resolution that in some cases far surpasses the output of digital.
Also, as with digital cameras, there is a wide selection of types of camera bodies ranging from compacts to TLR's to SLR's and rangefinders. We're going to stick with 35mm and medium format for this list.
B&H has a fantastic used section on their website with some great deals that can be worth checking out. There is no shortage of models available and prices are far better than can be had from auction sites.
35mm is a good format to start with. Second hand camera bodies and lenses can be had for as little as $100, and film plus processing is still readily available.
- Note: try to go for an old manual built camera from the 70's or 80's. They have less electronics to go bad, less automation and are usually built like tanks.
SLR (Single Lens Reflex)
35mm SLR's work very much in the same way as modern DSLR's, with a prism based viewfinder that allows you to see directly through the lens for focusing and retain a simple layout of controls that are not too unfamiliar from a digital system.
Almost all SLR's from the late 70's onwards contain a built-in meter for spot or center based metering, and newer cameras also feature aperture priority shooting or automatic modes.
The best thing about SLRs are the sheer quantity of affordable lenses available. Fast prime lenses such as 50mm f/1.2's or 1.4's can be had for only a few hundred dollars and are built far better than modern equivalents but still have amazing optics.
The rangefinder system is a smaller more compact alternative to the SLR that offers smaller, lighter lenses with the same quality of that of the SLR.
This system is mirrorless, so focusing is obtained by aligning objects up through an overlay in the camera's window. One advantage of this is the ability to handhold at lower shutter speeds without getting shaky images due to lack of mirror slap. Rangefinders are available with automatic metering, but by far the most iconic is the Leica M series; which are all fully manual cameras, and in some cases offer no metering.
Now a quick word before I talk about 35mm point-and-shoots. 99% of these cameras are utter utter crap, much like their digital counterparts.
Back in the 90's as electronics became more sophisticated and the popularity of photography grew, manufacturers started pumping out fully automatic pocketable 35mm cameras faster than Usain Bolt can sprint the 100m.
Point-and-shoot cameras are, however, apart from being practical, an incredible amount of fun to use.
Nikon, Contax, and Ricoh produced some fantastic P&S cameras featuring fully automatic and manual modes, with a lot of the features you would expect in modern cameras. The exception, however, is the glass. The optics of some of these small cameras is phenomenal and on par with Leica lenses in some cases.
Medium Format Cameras
Medium format film uses a far larger negative than 35mm for superior image quality, however, it is just as simple to shoot as 35mm and thankfully just as cheap. The film format is known as 120 which will provide 12 square images on a roll of film. Less common is the 220 format, which allows for twice as many shots
There are many types of medium format cameras available from rangefinders to SLR's to the type of modular cameras from Hasselblad and Mamiya, which use detachable parts.
Processing is still available but will require a proper photo lab, as places like drugstores will not have the facilities to process it.
- Note: Many modular type systems like the Mamiya and Hasselblad cameras allow for the addition of a polaroid back, for shooting large instant film.
SLR & Modular type cameras
Medium format had it's fair share of variations in camera design, from panoramic rangefinders to traditional style SLR design to modular systems with swappable parts.
Whilst 35mm stills and modern digital cameras use a universal 3:2 aspect ratio for recording images, medium format camera systems can vary.
Hasselblad cameras are famous for their 6x6 square images, whilst brands like Mamiya, Pentax, Yashica and Fujifilm manufactured cameras that use different negative ratios such as 6x4.5 or 6x7.
Most often the camera name is an indicator of the aspect ratio it shoots, such as the Pentax 67 or the Bronica RF645.
The 'Twin-lens reflex camera' as made popular by Rolleiflex, is an all mechanical camera that utilizes two fixed focal length lenses. One is used for focusing through the top down viewing screen, and the other is for taking your exposure. A light meter will be required for gaining correct exposure though.
The TLR is unique due to its simplistic mechanical nature and fact that it requires use at waist level height. Almost 99% of these cameras shoot square 6x6 negatives for a total of 12 images on a roll of film.
Although less popular and massively overshadowed by the mass arrival of 35mm cameras in the 1940's, the folding camera is a unique style of compact camera that features a lens attached to bellows to achieve focus. A small rangefinder is usually included to aid with focus and composition.
The most popular of this variety of camera is the Voigtländer Bessa which shoots 120 film.
Choosing The Right Film
Today's film lineup regrettably isn't what it once was. The two big names FujiFilm and Kodak have both dropped some beloved stocks, leaving us now with a far smaller collection to choose from. That being said, there is no danger in it disappearing completely. It's simply becoming more expensive to source film.
35mm is available is rolls of either 24 or 36 exposures. The film is held inside a light-tight cartridge so it can easily be loaded or unloaded in daylight.
120 (Medium Format Film) is loaded on a spool with a piece of backing paper that protects the film from accidental exposure to light when loading or unloading. Depending on the type of camera is it used in, you can get anything from 8 to 15 exposures per roll.
220 (Medium Format Film) is physically the same as 120 film. However, the protective backing paper is removed restricting loading/unloading to be performed in darkness. It is twice as long in length as 120 film.
Lower (slow) film speeds of ISO 50, 100 & 200 will generally offer better sharpness and resolution and are the preferred choice for outdoor photography such as landscapes and still life. Fuji Velvia 50 is famous for an almost complete lack of grain.
Higher (faster) film speeds of 400, 800 & 1600 will be more sensitive to light so tend to offer up more grain and less detailed images. An ISO 400 film is an ideal compromise between speed and resolution.
Note: film actually has an expected shelf life, after the expiration of a few years it can degrade and colors can shift or fade. To prolong it's shelf life, always store film in the fridge.
The most common of the three types, colour negative film is still in plentiful and fairly cheap supply. Print film as it is commonly called, is identifiable by an inscription of (C-41) on the box.
Generally speaking, it is very forgiving to use. Unlike digital, it copes very well with overexposure and can capture a very wide dynamic range. It is ideal for general use, portraiture and street photography where exposure can be guessed rather than be perfectly metered.
As this is the most common type of film, it can still be easily processed almost anywhere for only a few dollars a roll.
Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/14 AIS | Kodak Portra 400 35mm
Kodak Portra 160 & 400 (35mm & 120) - Very natural colour reproduction with fine grain and massive exposure latitude.
Kodak Ektar 100 (35mm & 120) - Ultra saturated colours. Very sharp. Not very forgiving of under/overexposure.
Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 400 (35mm) - Good cheap film with saturated colours, good exposure latitude.
Slide (Colour Reversal)
Slide film, commonly known as Colour Reversal or (E-6) produces a transparent 'positive' image when processed, which is designed to be projected rather than printed. It was a favorite type of film for many National Geographic photographers and has produced some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
Slide film simply looks amazing! It has superior sharpness, resolution and color rendition to negative film in almost every way. The downside to slide film is that it is very expensive now to purchase and develop, with upwards of $10 a roll and a specialist photo lab required to develop. Also, unlike color negative film, exposure needs to be spot on to avoid blowing highlights for which slide films are extremely unforgiving. When shot correctly, slide film (especially when projected) offers images that just blow you away with their depth and dreamlike range of colors.
Leica M6 | Leica 35mm Summicron f/2 | Fujichrome Velvia 100 35mm
Fuji Velvia 50 (35mm & 120) - Very fine grain. Very saturated colours. Extremely sharp.
Fuji Velvia 100 (35mm & 120) - Faster and more contrasty than Velvia 50. Still sharp and saturated.
Agfa CTPrecisa 100 (35mm) - Cheap fine grained film. Moderately sharp with warm reddish colour reproduction.
Black & White
Above all others, one film type that will never disappear will be B&W. There is still a huge range of B&W films available, and with the developing solutions available for cheap, you might as well buy a kit and develop it yourself at home! You really can't go wrong with any B&W film, it's equally as forgiving of overexposure as color negative, and it's great for shooting in low light situations for gritty, moody images.
Note: when shooting B&W films during daylight try adding an orange filter over your lens to deepen the blues in the sky.
Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/14 AIS | Kodak T-Max 400 35mm
Kodak T-Max 100 or 400 (35mm & 120) - Fine grained low contrasty film.
Kodak Tri-X 400 (35mm & 400) - Contrasty coarse grain for a classic B&W look
Illford FP-4 (35mm&120) - ISO 125 wide latitude and finely grained. Contrasty.
Additionally, it is worth checking out the film stocks available from Lomography. Typically speaking, Lomography source expired films or rejected stock from other manufacturers and rebrand it as their own. They are good for experimenting.
How to Manually Focus
One of the best things about shooting with film cameras is generally you will have a much larger viewfinder than you would find with the digital equivalent. This can make manually focusing so much easier.
The majority of older SLR's work by using a circular split image focusing screen. A small circle in the centre of the viewfinder acts as your focusing aid, with the general idea being that you point directly at your subject and then rotate the focus ring on your lens until the subject comes into clear focus within the circle.
This process can however take a few valuable seconds to ensure you have correct focus. A few valuable seconds that could be the difference between nailing or missing the shot.
This is where our next method of manual focus comes into play, hyperfocal distancing. This is the area by which we want acceptable sharpness to be present.
All manual focus lenses include a distance scale on the top of the lens. This scale is used to approximate and tell you roughly what in your field of view will be in focus, dependant on your selected aperture and the distance set on the focus ring.
In the example below I have set my focus ring to 3 meters (or 10ft). So I should expect an object 3 meters in front of me to be in focus regardless of the aperture I've chosen.
By stopping down my lens further, I also increase the depth of field, thus increasing the chance of getting my object at 3 meters away in perfect focus.
By stopping down to f/8 and looking at the distance scale on the lens, It tells me that any object from just shy of 2 meters to 10 meters will now be in focus.
This method of focusing can be really useful in fast moving situations such as for street photography, where there may be no time to stop and manually focus through the viewfinder.
How to Meter
The long regarded rule with film photography has been to expose for the shadows when shooting B&W or Colour Negative film and to expose for the highlights when shooting slide. This is extremely valuable advice that should always be remembered when out shooting film.
If your camera has a built-in light meter then it's likely to be a spot or center-weighted meter. If it's automatic then that's all good, but if you are having to shoot manual (as you should be!) then sometimes a bit of guesswork is required.
Note: remember to set the ISO dial on your camera to match that of the film speed you are using.
This method is primarily for shooting B&W and color negative film whilst outdoors and during daylight hours when the sun is high. It is a simple method that will allow you to get pretty accurate exposure without having to rely fully on the camera meter.
The rule is to set your aperture to f/16, then take the ISO value of your film and set your shutter speed to the same or nearest available number.
For example: If the camera is loaded with ISO 200 film, set the aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to 1/200s.
For changes in lighting, you can compensate by opening up your aperture.
f/16 - for direct sunlight
f/11 - for slightly overcast
f/8 - for overcast
f/5.6 - for heavy overcast
f/4 - for sunset
Poor Man's Meter
If you're fairly light skinned, then the perfect surface to get a fairly accurate light reading is the back of your hand. This works pretty well for street photography if you are planning on photographing people and want to ensure correct exposure for the face.
Darker skinned? No problem, just add a stop of light to the reading.
iPhone and Android have a range of free incident light meters available from the app store. Although they fail in very low light situations, I have found them to be incredibly accurate in most daylight situations. Test them against the metering on a digital camera first to see if they match.
I use Pocket Light Meter, which is available as a free download for iPhone from the app store
Note: color negative film can often benefit from slight overexposure, so increasing your exposure by 1/3rd to 2/3rd's of a stop can usually result in punchier, vibrant images, with more shadow detail. One method of doing this is to set your exposure compensation if you have it to either +1/3rd or 2/3rd, alternatively change your set ISO on the camera to less than the films rated speed. For example, shooting ISO 400 film, set it on the camera to ISO 320 for +1/3rd stop overexposure.
Processing And Scanning
In order to get your negatives developed, you will need to take it to a photo lab, which can take anywhere from 1hour to 1 week to process your film.
In the US there are still many cheap processing labs at places such as Costco or Walmart who can process Colour Negative (C-41) for a cheap price and quick turnaround. There are disadvantages to using cheap labs, however, opposed to professional film labs.
The issue is one of quality. Whilst C-41 processing is pretty standard as it's run through an automated machine, the cheaper supermarket labs have poorer quality control which may result in your negatives coming back with untrue colors or scratches due to poor handling. Additionally, if you do opt to get prints, you will find that they are inferior to prints from a professional lab.
A pro lab is definitely worth the extra few bucks if you value the output of your film, and if you are shooting slide or B&W film, a pro lab is usually the only option anyway.
When it comes to scans, at a lab the film is scanned digitally and then output to a JPEG file. Unfortunately, most of the machines that do this are pretty old and can only output a fairly low-resolution file. To further add to the scanning frustration, these machines use a piece of software to automatically perform color corrections and brightness/contrast adjustments which can drastically alter the true look of the image.
If you can opt to get your prints and scans done at a pro lab, always ask if they can provide scans at the highest resolution and output to a TIFF file. As a TIFF image is similar to a RAW file, this will allow you to make any color or highlight/shadows adjustments without degrading the image, rather than allowing the lab's computers to do it for you.
The folks over at film preservation store Everpresent.com also have a handy guide to the various labs around the US that still accept and develop film.
Nathaniel Rosaon December 11, 2014
good stuff thanks
Dylan Walker Photographyon October 28, 2014
Great blog, Peter. You're the one that made me get into film photography. Thanks.
No problem Gerard, I think it's important for people to try film because it's just so much fun and can teach you a lot about photography which you can pass over into your digital workflow.
It's also getting progressively more difficult with each passing year to shoot film due to film discontinuations, price increases, labs closing that I encourage people to try it out before it's too late.
Gerard Geradtson September 5, 2014
I stille have a Nikon F50. With the knowledge I got from this article, I feel more at ease schootging with this camera. IT is very usefull. Tanks for that! :)
Hey Guy G,
Thanks for pointing that out. You are absolutely correct. Have amended the article
ISO 400 to ISO 320 is +1/3rd
Guy Gon September 5, 2014
"Note: colour negative film can benefit from overexposure, so increasing your exposure by +1 stop can result in punchier more vibrant images. Alternatively, set the ISO on the camera to +1 stop higher than the film inside. E.g if Using ISO 400 film, set it to 320 on the camera."
+1 stop would be 200 not 320. Nice article.