Film Photography, Give It A Shot

Are you thinking of giving film photography a try? There are a few things you should know before running out the door to expose your first roll of film.

Old-timers, like me, who started out with film, could pick up a film camera and start shooting with no problem. But what if you’ve never used a film camera before? It’s pretty easy, but you do need to know your photography. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • There’s no chimping. You need to have a complete command of exposure, composition and more to create a great shot, with no chimping or immediate viewing of an image.
  • You won’t know if your exposure and focus are correct until the film is processed.
  • The old cameras had a lot of metal, so they are heavy. But that made them more stable. I had no problem with mine hand-holding at 1/4 second, and getting razor sharp images. And, except for time exposures, I never used a tripod outside. I only used a tripod in the studio when doing tabletop projects.

If you’re ready to try your hand at film, you can pick up a used camera and lenses pretty cheaply. Pawn shops and camera stores often carry them, as well as online sellers. Personally, I would want to see the camera in person, and run a roll of film through it before purchase. That way, you can be sure everything works, and there are no light leaks.

The following cameras are pretty tough and last a long time. Canon (EOS-1v, Rebel Ti), Nikon (FM10, F6), Pentax (AF PZ-1P, MX and LX series) and Minolta (Maxxums). And the lenses you use on your digital camera will probably fit on these. That is, Nikon lens on a Nikon film camera, etc.

You also want to make sure you can still purchase the meter battery. Usually, all you need is a button battery to run the light meter and it will probably last for at least a year. If you get an old camera with no light meter, you can use a hand-held light meter. And if the camera’s meter battery dies, you can still use all the features of the camera, except for the meter. Mechanical cameras have their advantages.

When it comes to film, you have three choices, black and white print, color print and color slide.

  • C-41 color print film offers good exposure latitude, and great color and grain characteristics. Many drug and big box stores can develop this film, as well as professional labs.
  • Black and white print film can be easily processed at home with nothing more than a developing tank, film washer, chemicals and a coat hanger and clothes pin to hang it up to dry. If you want to get a little more professional, get a film chamois, negative squeegee and Kodak Photo-Flo. These items help you prevent or deal with water spots on negatives. I used to process all my black and white film in an upstairs bathroom, and printed in a spare bedroom where I converted the closet to hold my enlarger and chemical trays for prints.
  • E6 Color negative film can be processed at home if you want, or most places that work with C-41 can process this film.

Should you get professional or amateur film? Yes, there are two levels of film. The main difference is that pro film is sold closer to its expiration date. As film approaches its expiration date, it “cures” and when it’s “ripe,” or near its expiration date, offers the best color quality. Pro film usually has less contrast and better color rendition than non-pro film.

Another great thing about film is its permanence. File formats change; future software may not be able to read your current image files. And RAW file formats are different with every camera and camera software upgrade. But with film, I can print an image I took yesterday, or an image I took 50 years ago, using the same equipment and chemicals for both. Don’t let your images become part of the looming Digital Dark Ages.

Shooting film is like having Christmas presents all year long. The joy and excitement of opening a box of slides, placing them on a light table and seeing the colors jump out at you like a hand full of jewels is hard to beat. Or placing strips of color or black and white film on a light table and slowly examining them with a loupe. You’re never 100% sure what you have until you see the film/slides, and it’s pure pleasure. One of my favorite things to do is to watch a black and white print appear on the paper as I move it around in the developer tray. It’s magical, and brings a whole new dimension to photography that’s not possible with digital.

Have Fun,