Film photography. It’s coming back, and more and more photographers are dusting off their old film cameras or going out on a search to purchase one. Many people don’t see the appeal and feel quite comfortable with their phone camera. But for others, it’s becoming the only way they create images.
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What is Film Photography?
Film photography is a method of capturing images using light-sensitive film. It is the middle of the three eras of photography in camera history, sandwiched between plate photography (which uses glass or metal plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion) and digital photography (which uses a light-sensitive electronic sensor).
Plate photography and film photography are both subsets of what is known as analog photography, though film and analog are often used interchangeably by photographers to refer to any photography process that is based on chemical reactions rather than electronic sensors.
The process of film photography typically involves using a camera that holds a roll of film, which is advanced after each exposure. The film is then developed in a dark room or sent to a lab to be processed and printed.
Film photography is often considered a more traditional and artistic form of photography, as the process requires a deeper understanding of the medium and its limitations. Unlike digital cameras, which have instant previews, film photography (apart from instant film photography) requires the photographer to wait until the film is developed to see the final results, adding to the excitement and surprise in the final outcome.
A Brief History of Film Photography
After French photographer Louis Daguerre introduced the first publicly available photographic process, the daguerreotype, to the world in 1839, he got the ball rolling as inventors around the world began to pioneer newer and better ways of capturing photos.
Although the photos created during the plate era of photography were highly detailed, the early processes could not be used to create additional copies, or prints, of the photograph — each one was a one-off.
In 1848, however, English photographer Frederick Scott Archer invented the wet plate collodion process and published his work in 1851. Unlike earlier processes, which produced photos on metal, collodion photos could be produced as a negative on a transparent medium such as glass. This meant that multiple copies of a photo could then be produced by shining light through the glass photos.
A few decades later, it would be American photographer George Eastman who would push photography forward from the plate era into the film era. In the early 1880s, Eastman began developing a new flexible film roll as an alternative to hard glass plates, and he received a patent for his invention in 1885.
In 1888, he patented and launched the Kodak camera, and film photography became a mainstream photographic process. Each Kodak camera was sold with 100 exposures, and photographers could mail back the camera to the company’s headquarters in Rochester, New York, with $10 (over $300 in today’s money) for the film to be processed. The Eastman company would also make prints, reload the camera, and send everything back to the customer.
Throughout the 20th century, major camera companies were born and film photography continued to be advanced through better camera and film formats and technologies.
In the late 20th century, however, digital photography was invented and began to replace film photography as the dominant photographic technology, bringing photography into its third era. However, many modern photographers still prefer film photography for a host of different reasons, and after years of decline, it has seen a resurgence in interest and development as of late.
Film vs Digital Photography
While digital photography has many clear advantages over film photography, there are also many compelling reasons to still shoot film. Here is a breakdown of some of the pros and cons of both film and digital:
Film Photography Pros
- Has a unique “look” and “feel” that many photographers find pleasing.
- Can be cheaper in terms of up-front cost due to inexpensive vintage gear being readily available
- Is a good way to learn the fundamentals of photography and understand the origins of common concepts
- Can be a good choice for certain types of photography, such as landscape and portrait, due to the different film stocks available.
- Slows down the photographer and forces more intentional decision-making.
- Equipment can hold value well and remain functional decades later.
Film Photography Cons
- Can be more expensive to purchase and process than digital over the long run.
- Is less convenient than digital, as it requires a dark room or lab to process.
- Less flexibility than digital, as it’s more difficult to make adjustments to an image after it has been captured on film.
- Requires digitization before photos can be widely shared on the Internet
Digital Photography Pros
- Can be more cost-effective than film, as there is no need to purchase film or pay for development.
- Great for learning, as beginners can experiment and make mistakes with minimal cost
- Offers instant feedback, so photographers can see the results of their shots immediately and make adjustments as needed.
- Allows for more flexibility, as images can be easily edited, cropped, and color-corrected.
- Generally more versatile than film cameras, as they offer a wider range of shooting options and settings.
- Constant evolution as companies continue to improve on imaging technologies.
Digital Photography Cons
- Can appear overly “clean” or “sterile” when compared to film.
- Can cause photo overload with too many photos taken and stored.
- May result in huge numbers of photos stored in archives that are never revisited.
- More susceptible to manipulation and photographic errors are harder to detect.
- Cameras become obsolete and/or broken more quickly due to technology improving and electronic parts failing.
As you can see, both digital and film photography have strengths and weaknesses, so in the end, what a photographer chooses to shoot with simply depends on their preferences and needs.
Why Has Film Become Popular Again?
Some photographers have said that shooting film separates the wheat from the chaff and I can understand their point. Not everyone can create a photograph using film. It requires the experience and skill of shooting hundreds or thousands of rolls and sheets of film to produce a professional image. The photographer only has a limited number of frames as opposed to the almost unlimited frames and a preview of the image that digital cameras are known for. The skill of any photographer can be measured with film.
But you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy film photography. There are lots of inexpensive options available to you to get started. One of the reasons for films’ return is this generation that has discovered an affinity for vintage things that existed before they were even born. Film cameras and other older alternative processes have caught their imagination as well as a love for handmade things.
Film photography will slow down your picture-taking process and that will result in better images. When you use a film camera you know that your frames are limited so you’ll be making sure that each one is properly metered, exposed, and composed before pushing the shutter button. It’s kind of like the old carpenter’s saying, measure twice; cut once. This process especially slows down when it comes to large-format photography because you only have one frame. The process is deliberate whereas with digital the process is often an afterthought. You can shoot hundreds of frames knowing you’ll get one or two that will turn out.
Then there is the look of film. There is a reason that many motion pictures today are still shot on film stock. Some titles that have been shot on film are Inception, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, A Quiet Place, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Every type of film stock has its look that doesn’t require any Photoshop work. Ask any of the younger generations who have taken up film photography and the first thing they’ll tell you is, the look.
Lastly, getting back into film photography is like learning the art all over again. It’s getting back to the basics – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, commonly referred to as the exposure triangle. You’ll learn the camera better and be on your way to mastering these techniques to create great images.
Types of Film
When you’re ready to shoot some film you’ll have to decide on the type of film you’ll want to use. Let’s have a look at a couple of types to help you with your choice.
Negative film (or print film) is what we are all familiar with. You can choose between color or black and white. On the processed film, the tones of the image are reversed from the real world — the darkest areas appear lightest and the lightest areas appear darkest. With color negative film, the colors are also reversed — red looks cyan, green looks magenta, and blue looks yellow (and vice versa).
Before computers, the only way to see your images properly was to have them printed. Once upon a time, you could bring your color film to be processed almost anywhere. Drugstores, department stores, camera stores, and I even remember our local grocery store had a small one-hour lab set up. You could also drop off your black-and-white film at the local camera store and they would send it out for processing.
The other option for the black-and-white film is processing it yourself. Which is what many photographers do. Today, home processing of color film has become quite affordable and easy to do. You can use the same film processing equipment you use for your black-and-white film.
Next is slide film (or color reversal film). This is more commonly known as slide film or, as many pros referred to it, transparencies. To view transparencies you will need a loupe and lightbox or, when they are put into slide mounts, you can view them with a projector. Of course, you also have the option of scanning them. This type of film was used often by commercial photographers as transparency film was great for color separations common in the printing business.
Film is readily available online from any of the major camera retailers. If you have a local camera store they are probably experiencing a resurgence in film photography and will carry a selection. My recommendation when starting out is to shoot color film. It’s economical and still easy to get processed with a nice set of proofs so you can see your work.
You also have a choice of many different film formats that can give you a wide range of negative sizes. The format of the film will be dictated by what kind of camera you have and what you plan on photographing with the film.
35mm film, officially known as 135 film, is probably the most common film format to this day. This format is probably the easiest way to get started in film photography. It comes in 24 and 36 exposure rolls, the latter being the most economical and popular. There is also a wide range of emulsions available to you. Ilford even makes a black-and-white film that can be processed in color chemistry.
Medium format film is the next step up from 35mm. This format is commonly referred to as 120 film. Different medium format cameras shoot variations of this. The film is 6 centimeters wide and comes in 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, and panoramic 6×13. Whereas 35mm film comes in a convenient cartridge that’s pretty easy to load into your camera, 120 film comes on a spool wrapped in a protective paper that takes a little learning to load, but once you have it down it’s easy.
The number of frames you get on each roll is dictated by the size of the frame the camera was designed for. 6×4.5 will give you 16 frames, 120 – 12 frames, 6×7 – 10 frames, and 6×13 only 3 frames. The larger frame of the film results in less grain and more detail than a 35mm frame when enlarged.
Large-format film is the oldest film format that is still available today. Instead of rolls, this film comes in sheets and you must load it into a film holder, usually two sheets per holder. This format expresses its size in inches instead of centimeters. So a 4×5 sheet of film will give you a 4-inch by 5-inch negative and an 8×10 sheet of film will get you an 8-inch by 10-inch negative.
The large format camera you have will determine the size of the film you’ll purchase. Photographing with a large format camera will have you working at a much slower pace than you would with a 35mm or medium format camera. Since a large format camera functions a bit differently than other cameras taking a photo requires more attention to detail and a few more steps. The first of those steps starts in the darkroom because you’ll have to load your film into a holder first. As mentioned previously a large format film holder will hold 2 sheets of film – one on each side.
The best part of shooting with a large format camera is the great detail such a large frame gives you and because of that size, the grain structure is much smaller. The camera also allows you more control over your image. You can tilt and shift the lens board which will allow you to straighten angles and get the entire image in focus.
Choosing a Film Camera and Where to Find Them
Next, you’ll want to start your search for a film camera, which is available in a wide range of types. My suggestion is to look for a 35mm film camera. They are the most common and the easiest to find.
Before you start your search online or at a camera store, I would ask family or relatives if they have a 35mm camera that they are not using anymore. They may give it to you at no cost at all considering it will go to someone who will be using it rather than collecting dust.
You don’t have to purchase an SLR camera to begin your adventure in film photography. Many point-and-shoot cameras take great photos and that’s a common type a family member might have. Don’t forget, you can still get disposable point-and-shoot cameras and some even come loaded with black-and-white film. Ilford offers a disposable camera that is loaded with their XP2 which can be developed in color chemistry.
If you’re a fan of auctions and estate sales, you may want to check out their inventory and see if there’s a camera in the lot that could work for you. Garage sales, swap meets and flea markets can be a treasure trove for all things in film photography. You can also peruse online auction sites. This is a great way to see what film cameras are going for and what’s available. Exercise caution when buying. Read the descriptions thoroughly and examine the accompanying photos closely. There are some unscrupulous sellers out there.
If you do settle on a 35mm SLR camera, another tip I’ll offer is to get a prime lens for it. Prime lenses are fixed focal lengths with an aperture of f1.2 or 2.8 and do not have zoom capabilities. They come in a variety of focal lengths like 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, and 600mm. I suggest a good starting focal length is 50mm. Depending on what you like to photograph, your next purchase will be a wide-angle lens like a 28mm or a zoom telephoto lens.
While most film cameras have light meters built into them, many don’t have any light meters at all. How will you determine your exposure if you don’t have one, you ask? This is where a handheld light meter comes in. These light meters determine exposures in two ways. One is via reflective light which is light that is bouncing off the subject matter and back at the camera and the other is incident light readings. This is where the meter reads light falling directly onto the subject.
Read also: How to Use a Light Meter in Photography
There are many digital light meters on the market today. For the photographer starting in film, you don’t have to invest in an expensive meter with all the bells and whistles.
Something simple to operate and easy to read is all you’ll need. If your heart is not set on a meter with a digital readout, then I recommend looking for an older analog meter. I still own the first meter I ever purchased, the Gossen Lunasix F. You can still purchase analog meters new or you can seek out the used market for some of the others from years ago. It’s not an investment you’ll need to make right away. Unless your camera does not have a working meter. You may want to consider one as your photography journey continues. It is a very accurate way of determining exposure for your film. In the next section, I’ll talk about determining your exposure with no meter at all.
Film Shooting Tips
Here are a few tips when shooting film that will help you get a good exposure on each frame.
- Start with 400 ISO film. Since you probably won’t have a flash yet, this speed of film will help in low light. In outdoor light, it will give you a wider range of exposure combinations.
- Expose for the shadows. If you have been a digital shooter you know that you have to expose for the highlights. When shooting film, you will expose for the shadows. Film manages highlights pretty well but those shadows need a bit of extra help. Underexposing film will result in a thin negative (poor exposure with little to no detail), increased grain, and a flat print with little contrast.
- Learn the Sunny 16 rule. It’s a bright sunny day and your camera ran out of batteries so your meter stops working. How will you come up with an exposure combination? Set your shutter speed close to your film’s ISO rating and set your aperture to f16. For example, if you’re using ISO 400 speed you’ll set your shutter speed dial to 1/500. If your film ISO is 125, you’ll set your shutter speed dial to 1/125.
- Keep a record of each of your exposures. Put a small notebook and pen in your camera bag or pocket and every time you take a picture, record the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. You may also want to make note of the weather and lighting conditions that you made your exposure under.
- Consider pushing your film. Pushing is the term used when you set the ISO on your camera to a higher speed than what the film was manufactured for. As an example, if you were stuck in a very low-light situation (indoors, at a concert, at night) and all you have is 400 ISO film. You can set your ISO to 1600 to get a more favorable exposure. If you’re not processing your own film, be sure to let the lab know that you pushed the film so they can adjust the processing time.
- Process your own black-and-white film. I feel this is an essential step in really learning how to take photographs with film. You will need to invest in some equipment but it’s less than you think and once you take that finished film out of the tank you will be in love with that magical feeling many of us get when we see our images appear before us.
- Learn ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and how they are interrelated. A good subject to study is reciprocal exposures.
A Simple Darkroom
Now that you have finished your first roll of film, the next step is to get it developed. As mentioned earlier, there are still places that will develop your color film. The same can be said for black-and-white films. But I recommended that you learn to process your own film. Learning to develop film will teach you a lot and the magic of that film coming out of the developing tank can’t be beaten! With a small investment in some equipment and a space where you can seal it off from any extraneous light, you’ll be on your way. Here are some of the things you’ll need to process your own film.
- Developing tank. Patterson is almost the industry standard when it comes to film processing tanks. These can hold one, two, three, five, and eight film reels. I suggest a double reel tank to get started. The film reels are adjustable for 35mm, 126, and 120 films. The one and two-reel tanks come with one reel so you’ll need to purchase another if you will be processing two rolls.
- Changing bag. If you don’t have a room or space that you can make completely dark, no need to worry. A changing bag is a great substitute. These are lightproof bags that allow you to load your tanks, film, and reels into and once it’s sealed up you put your arms into the lightproof sleeves attached to the bag and you can load your exposed film onto the reels safely.
- Measuring containers. I suggest you go to a dollar store and pick up some measuring cups that can hold at least a liter. Get three. One for the developer, the stop bath, and the fixer. If you have the budget, you can also purchase graduated cylinders specially made for the darkroom.
- Storage bottles. If you have leftover chemistry, these are handy for storage. Make sure they are opaque and can be sealed very well. Don’t forget to label them so you know what’s inside.
- Thermometer. This is for measuring the temperature of your chemistry.
- Timer. You will need to time exactly how long the film and prints are in the various chemicals used during their processes.
- A pair of scissors. You’ll be using these in the darkroom or changing bag to trim the spool and the leader from your 35mm film.
- Bottle opener. This handy tool makes it easy to pop open the film canister.
- Clothespins or film clips. You’ll need these to hang your film to dry.
Now you have your first roll of film developed and the negatives look great! If you are fortunate enough to have a darkroom set up then you can begin printing. But if you’re a complete neophyte and haven’t quite got the budget to set one up, don’t despair. A computer and a scanner (with the capability of scanning film) are all you need.
There are lots of film scanners on the market today. I’ve found Epson to have a lot of options in features and budget available to the novice and the professional. If you plan on continuing with your film adventures, then you’ll want to make sure you can get a scanner that can not only work with 35mm film and slides but 120 films as well. If you’ve gone into large-format photography, then the capacity to scan 4×5 and 8×10 is in order.
You will want to make sure that the scanner you choose can deliver the resolution to create prints. A scanner with a resolution of 3000 dpi is a good place to start. The higher the resolution they can deliver the more the price goes up. There are dedicated film scanners that are more expensive but a flatbed scanner with a negative scanning feature is a good first choice.
If you set up a digital darkroom you’ll want to have a printer that can create high-quality prints. There are lots of quality printers out there that are affordable but here are a few tips on what to look for when purchasing a printer.
- Check out the look of the prints. Observe the highlight and shadow detail in them.
- Color accuracy. Does the printer reproduce colors accurately? Are the hues correct? Check for color casts in black and white prints.
- Ink type and print longevity. How long will the print last on the different types of paper? Does the printer use dye or pigment inks? Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve found pigment prints to hold their color, vibrancy, and longevity very well.
- Paper types and sizes. What sizes of paper can the printer handle? Are you looking to make large prints or something smaller like 8×10? Some outstanding manufacturers make a wide gamut of papers for printers as well as finishes like glossy, pearl, matte, and even canvas.
I hope you found this guide helpful in beginning your journey into film photography. I learned film photography when that’s all there was but those lessons have stuck with me. As with any artist, you can sometimes get inspired by switching things up. Trying a new medium or a new way to create your vision can be stimulating. It’s always worked for me.
In a time when the world is filled with digital images that are starting to all look the same, film can be what separates your photographs from all the rest. This small step into a new old way to take photographs may encourage you to seek out other older analog photography processes like cyanotypes, wet plate, platinum prints, salted paper prints, and many more. Anything new you can try to give your photographs a fresh look will always stimulate creativity.
Film cameras last longer than digital cameras; that’s why there are still so many in working condition. Your small investment will be rewarded with years and years of service and creativity.
Image credits: Header photo from 123RF