Amazingly, in the age of AI image creation, film photography is not only popular but it’s growing again after an initial decline. More and more, people are finding value in timeless, handcrafted imagery.
With the discontinuation of all new 35mm SLRs, the closure of most of the country’s local film labs, the repurposing of school darkrooms, and the general high expense and lack of continuously available film, now is not only the most challenging time to learn basic film photography, but it’s also, I believe, the best time.
Thanks to a century of data, a committed niche community, and even digital technology itself, the average film photographer is, in some respects, more informed and better equipped than ever before. If you want to be a part of this, listen up!
This is how to get started!
Use Your Smartphone
Ironically, the first place to begin your analog journey is on your smartphone. Create a film photography folder on your phone. In it you’ll want to keep a basic 35mm photography guide, the user manual to your camera, a light meter app, and anything else that helps you learn. Social media film photography groups probably go without saying!
A basic 35mm photography guide can be purchased as a physical book or downloaded. There are also some great articles, websites, and resources (including PetaPixel‘s Learn Photography page) that you can bookmark in your smartphone folder. Reference this information anytime, while shooting or when you have a few minutes to read.
Build the foundation of your film knowledge on time-tested long-form information published by experts, not just social media posts alone. Similarly, it’s useful to learn how to use your camera via the original user’s manual which is often lost. All cameras share certain characteristics but only the original manual that came with your camera will detail the particulars accurately.
Digital photographers have largely forgone using dedicated light meters but film photographers will always depend on them to some extent. Even if your camera has a built-in meter, a light meter app installed on your phone is handy not only for measuring light but also to record what settings you chose for each photo. A simple screenshot of your light meter app for each scene will help you correlate what settings you chose with the resulting images.
If you’re into instant film, you can also connect your phone to an Instax printer to share instant film prints of your digital or digitized film files.
And lastly, some photographers even use their smartphone to digitize their film to edit and share it online.
As you get more into film photography, there are plenty of other apps that you can install to help you in numerous ways.
Take A Class
Study film photography like you would any other subject in school, don’t just lurk on forums and try to figure things out on your own. Check your area for local film photography classes and meet-ups. Learning from YouTube is great but nothing beats sitting down with someone who knows what they’re doing, who can handle your specific camera and talk about the exact scene you’re photographing.
It’s always fun to meet other local film photographers and draw inspiration from one another too. Local photographers can tell you all the best places to buy cameras, film, and get developing services in your area as well as organize exhibits in your community. Check out the growing list of Beers And Cameras factions that are sprouting up all over the U.S. There’s also Film Photography in Baltimore and Sip and Develop in Washington DC, just to name a couple of my local groups. Use the full extent of your online and real-life resources to become a knowledgeable and proficient film photographer.
Use a Reliable Camera That Inspires You
Most photography courses will require you to use a fully manual 35mm camera with a 50mm lens. This means that in order to take each photo, the ISO, shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and focus must all be set by you, not the camera. Also, the lens mounted to your camera should be labeled “50mm.” It should NOT be a zoom lens. Other “normal” lenses from 35 to 55mm are fine too but I wouldn’t recommend anything outside this range.
Most people will tell you to start with a Pentax K1000, Nikon FM, Canon F-1, or Minolta SRT. These are all fully manual 35mm SLRs (single-lens reflex cameras). But there’s nothing wrong with starting on a fully manual 35mm rangefinder either. One of my current students is learning on a Kodak Retina and is doing great.
It’s easy to get distracted by all the different brands and models available, how much they cost and what features they do and don’t have. You obviously need to know a few models so that you can find something that fits the criteria, but my point is not to obsess with what names are written on a camera because they really don’t matter at all.
What matters, is if it works or not!
Film cameras can be very old, so choosing a working one is critical. Find a trusted local camera store or online shop like KEH, Used Photo Pro, or Central Camera that sells used film cameras and offers a several month warranty on them. Businesses that offer warranties on used film cameras have employees who service or at least inspect them for correct functionality.
When we’re getting started in film photography, we all ruin plenty of shots with things like incorrect exposure settings and improper loading. With the high cost of film, development, and value of your time, who wants to cheap out on a dicey thrift store camera that might ruin your photos too?
Now, if you have your pick between multiple, working cameras within your budget, go ahead and read some reviews and get some opinions on which is best for you. If you can buy a warrantied all manual 35mm camera locally, choose the one that excites and inspires you when you pick it up and look through it. That’s the camera that you won’t want to put down and will learn best on.
Find a Lab
So you’ve got a cool camera and are ready to get started, but before you choose what film to buy, figure out how you’re going to get your film processed!
Some labs only process some types of film, so you need to know about this to get started.
At the time of writing, there are three different types of 35mm still photography film that are currently manufactured. They are; C41 color negative films such as Kodak Ektar, Portra, Gold, ColorPlus, and Fuji Color; E6 color positive films such as Kodak Ektachrome, Fuji Provia, and Velvia; and black-and-white films such as Ilford Delta, HP5, FP4, PANF, SFX, Ortho, Kodak TMAX, Tri-X, and Fuji Neopan.
So you will need to check labs’ websites or call them to be sure they process C41, E6, and B&W depending on what you want to shoot. I recommend starting with C41, but it’s up to you!
It’s great if you live near a lab like MotoPhoto in Bethesda, Maryland, but if not, there are numerous mail-order film labs. The Darkroom is my personal favorite but Indie Film Lab, Dwayne’s, and Richard are all popular.
When you give your film to a lab to process, you need to provide the following instructions “develop only,” “develop and scan,” “develop and print,” or develop, scan, and print.”
Develop should be self-explanatory – they’re turning the exposed film into negatives that can be viewed.
Scanning is basically taking digital photos of each frame of film so that the photos can be viewed, edited, and shared on a computer. You can choose different levels of scanning. Cheaper scans are lower resolution. More expensive scans are higher resolution.
Printing per roll is not as common a practice as it used to be, but you can usually choose to get a small print for every image on the roll of film.
Most photographers use the “develop and scan” option and only make prints of their favorite photos from the scans. Some photographers will do “develop only” and scan the film themselves. You can even use your digital camera or smartphone to do this as mentioned above. And some photographers, of course, don’t use a lab at all, choosing to develop, scan and/or print their photography at home.
There’s no shame in using a lab to do however much of your work you want them to. I actually recommend using a lab until you’re comfortable with shooting film.
Shoot Fresh Film at Box Speed
As you can see from the photos in this article, I’m a b&w guy. I use mostly Kodak and Ilford films. But you can choose color film by Fuji, Lomography, CineStill, or whatever you want! Start on 100 ISO films if you like to shoot in bright sun or 400 ISO if you like to shoot a variety of subjects. But whatever you buy, buy fresh and shoot it according to the packaging!
Old, expired film can sometimes be cheaper to purchase than fresh, new film. It will usually still produce images but can result in weird colors and unexpected exposures. Some film photographers enjoy experimenting with the unique looks that can result from expired film. Experienced photographers often rate and develop their film differently than the ISO noted on the package. But I don’t advise doing either of these when you’re still learning the basics.
Sure, you can use a few rolls of expired film to practice loading. Or you might accidentally set the ISO on your meter incorrectly and need to push or pull process. But when you shoot fresh film and follow the manufacturers’ recommendations, your results will be consistent and reproducible. Once you understand how to shoot film properly as recommended, then you can build on your knowledge with alternative processes and expired stocks if you wish.
Be a Photographer
Film photography is a lot of fun once you have learned the basics and get some images back from development that you love. You will probably start noticing all the fascinating and funky old cameras and lenses as well as the various films available too. I encourage every shooter to explore these engaging aspects of film photography and to enjoy whatever calls to you. But at the same time, I want to warn you that many of us become more obsessed with collecting photographic paraphernalia or experimenting with endless variables than actually working to improve our photography.
Some film photographers’ social media feeds contain more digital images of their film cameras than film images taken with their film cameras. Others contain post after post of totally boring images taken with about every camera, lens, film, and developer known, and sometimes unknown, to humanity. Then there are the refrigerator film hoard shots.
There’s room for everyone in the film photography community, of course, and expertise in these ancillary fields is fantastic. For example, I develop my own film but have only used a handful of developers. Photographers who experiment are so much more knowledgeable than I am in this regard and help me with questions all the time. And it’s really cool to learn the history behind our cameras from the collectors. But I would urge you not to get so distracted with shopping that you lose sight of the reasons you got into film photography, to begin with.
Don’t Get Discouraged
The cost required to practice film photography will always increase with time. We don’t need to know the details of the latest price hike drama to know this. Between keeping aging cameras running and paying higher prices for niche products and services, you’re going to have to find ways to keep up with film photography without compromising your vision.
And as sure as costs will rise, you will undoubtedly receive unsolicited, condescending advice from certain digital photographers who regurgitate tired lectures against the continuation of real film photography at every opportunity they see. They will often criticize and judge us and our work over what they are the first to admit is a completely trivial matter.
There will be shoots that you completely mess up for one reason or another and in your weakened state of self-doubt with a depleted checking account, you will also question why you are shooting film.
But remember, don’t give up, don’t get discouraged. The longer we hold out and keep film photography going, the more important it becomes, if only to a few like-minded people.
Also don’t presume that something shot on film is inherently better than a digital version. The mediums are just different. Digital, film, and hybrid photographers should be able to celebrate what we do without being criticized for it, or stepping on anyone else. To me, diverse visual communication should be our common value as artists and photographers, not what separates us.
I hope that my recommendations set you off to a strong start and you’ll find shooting and sharing film images as rewarding as I do! Maybe the vets will share some more great advice in the comments section too. Thanks for reading, and best of luck with your photography!
About the author: Johnny Martyr is an East Coast film photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. After an adventurous 20-year photographic journey, he now shoots exclusively on B&W 35mm film that he painstakingly hand-processes and digitizes. Choosing to work with only a select few clients per annum, Martyr’s uncommonly personalized process ensures unsurpassed quality as well as stylish, natural & timeless imagery that will endure for decades. You can find more of his work on his website, Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram.