Getting Started In Film Photography For Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide 2017

In this guide I aim to cover everything relevant for a beginner looking to get started in film photography.

Film is a very exciting prospect and it is the reason I fell back in love with photography again. The first roll of film I ever shot was the first day I spent in New York City after having first moved there. I wandered the streets giddy with possibility and excitement of both exploring the megalopolis and how the photos would turn out. Turns out they were pretty crap as I’ll explain later, but it is still a fond memory.

Why Shoot Film

There’s a couple reasons to shoot film.

1. It develops your style

This is the biggest bane of digital cameras. You can hold the shutter release button down and snap away until the 64GB memory card is full, getting thousands of photos. And sure you’ll luck upon a couple that will be good, but they were good by chance, not by skill.

Shooting on film makes you take good photos.

One fears wasting money, so the composition is analysed much more critically. Shots that don’t have any wow factor are dismissed. Shooting on film really refines a photographers technique.

2. It’s like waking up on Christmas morning when you get your developed film back

That probably sounds like a bit of a stretch, but believe me! The excitement is real! One looks through with an appealing mix of nostalgic sentiment and excitement that digital cameras cannot match. Film also helps with selecting your more powerful shots. The immediacy of digital and being able to instantly review photographs means we are flooded visually and it dilutes the power of any wonderful shots or at least our ability to recognise them. Take them all away for a few weeks then review them again and your best shots will really stand out.

Selecting Your First 35mm Film Camera

If you’re a beginner looking to get into 35mm film photography there’s a few different options with the style of camera you can buy, depending on what you want to achieve. Most cameras fall into three main categories:

  • SLR
  • Point and Shoot
  • Rangefinders

SLRs

Single Lens Reflex (SLR) refers to the mirror inside the body of the camera that flips back when you hit the shutter release button. These are the most common cameras in the film market place and for good reason. Examples of entry level cameras are the Pentax K1000, Canon AE-1 Program, Nikon FE and Olympus OM-10.

READ: Canon AE-1 Program Review

Point And Shoot

The easiest to use, but with the least freedom. Point and shoot cameras are exactly that: You point, hit the shutter release button and it shoots. No fluffing around with aperture, shutterspeed or focusing. These usually incorporate built in flashes.

More popular models include Contax T2 and the Ricoh GR1.

Rangefinders

Rangefinders use a different method of viewing and focusing images and can be a little more difficult for beginners to get a good grasp on. Some higher end cameras are only rangefinders like most of the Leicas. I have a rangefinder sitting on my shelf waiting to be used and I’ll update this article once I learn more about it.

The primary difference between rangefinders and SLRs is that you are viewing the image directly through the eyepiece – there is no reflection through an internal mirror prism system. This makes the focusing different. Rangefinders will have two images that converge in the eyepiece. Once fully converged, you know you are in focus.

What Is The Best 35mm Film To Use?

What film you decide to shoot with all depends on your taste. The questions you need to first ask yourself are:

  • How much grain do I like?
  • Do I want black and white, colour or something more exotic?
  • What light conditions will I primarily be shooting in?

Black And White

Ilford Delta 3200

The grainiest of the more popular films usually comes from Ilford. The higher the ISO number the more grain (I’ll cover that soon). Next up would be Kodak Tri-X. Personally, my favourite film is Kodax T-Max, less grain, but really crunchy contrasty shots.

Colour

Source. Portra 800

The go to here is Portra 800 without a doubt. This will cover 80-90% of your shots. It resolves skin tones perfectly and has a beautiful colour palette. If you are looking at shooting landscapes and want some more pop and vibrance, then the go to might be Fuji Velvia 50. This is Ken Rockwell’s personal favourite. You’ll see it in all of his examples. I’ve shot a few landscapes with it and have to say the results are very pleasing.

Exotic

Kodak Infrared Photo

Want to get more experimental? Then a great film to try might be infrared. Be careful though, some cameras this doesn’t work too well on since they have infrared equipment in the camera. Most old SLRs though will be fine. Here’s a few examples.

The only problem with these exotic films is that more and more are becoming discontinued and harder to find as they are used up. And it’s a shame because there are some really creative opportunities out there with certain films. Check out this one photographers work who used old expired Kodak infrared film.

Acknowledgement: Sean Lynch Acknowledgement: Sean Lynch Acknowledgement: Sean Lynch

ISO

ISO stands for International Standards Organisation, which isn’t a very telling title. It refers to the sensitivity to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive it is to light. The most common film is ISO 400 and this covers everything from full daylight to shade. If we were to be shooting at the beach or in the snow on a sunny day it would be better to use a lower ISO film of around 50 to 100 as there is extra light being reflected from the snow and water.

If we are shooting during dusk or inside, it would be better to use film of between 800 – 3200 ISO.

Film can also be pushed and pulled which I’ll endeavour to cover later.

How To Load The Film

NOTE: be careful to ensure that the film loading spool has actually taken up the leader! I’ve met disaster by trying to be too cheap and not winding on enough film. I went out shooting the entire day, thought I had finished the roll and went to rewind only to find that the shots had never taken in the first place! Absolute disaster. There’s a little check you can do by looking at the top of the film rewind lever when advancing the film, this should spin. If it doesn’t, you film isn’t loading into the spool and you’re not capturing anything.

How To Use A Film Camera

Aperture

Aperture refers to the amount of light that is let in through the lens. There are several overlapping blades in the same plane within the lens, these move as the aperture settings are changed. A low aperture value of say f/1.4 means that the lens is wide open, higher values typically around f/16 for SLRs means the aperture is very small and very little light is let in.

Aperture is important when we are taking portrait photos or landscape photos. With portraits we usually want to incorporate some nice bokeh (bokeh is the fuzzy unfocused image behind the subject). In order to do this we open up the aperture by selecting a lower value, around 2.2 – 3 depending how close we are to the subject.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is not exactly the correct term, as we are really measuring the time that the shutter is open. The higher the shutter speed, the shorter the shutter will stay open for and the less light will be let in. The lower the shutter speed, the longer the shutter will stay open and more light will be let in. Shutter speed is important when we want to control the amount of light let in and it is can be used in priority mode when we want to capture a sharp image of a quickly moving object (a high shutter speed) or incorporate some blue into our photos for an artistic effect (low shutter speed).

A shutter speed of around 1/60 is the lowest that will result in a non blurry image. If you are thinking of shooting any lower then this it is recommended to use a tripod of something to stabilise against.

Focus

Depending on how new or old your camera system is, it may come with auto focus or not. Focus is done simply on manual SLRs by twisting the focusing ring on the lens. There will be a small circle in the center of the viewfinder with a line going through the center. As the subject comes closer into focus the images either side of the line will converge. You know the image is converged when there appears to be no break. An easy method to get a subject quickly in focus is to view frame an image such that the focusing line in the viewfinder is perpendicular to a line in your composed image. It will make it very easy to then see the convergence.

Self Timer

Some old film cameras don’t have self timers. I think these can be really useful depending on the types of projects you are working on and especially if you the photographer ever want to get in on the shots!

AE Lock

Depth Of Field Preview

Different Lenses And Changing Them

There’s two options with lenses if you choose the SLR route: prime and zoom.

Prime means a fixed focal length and will always be described with a single digit value. The most common are 35mm or 50mm. The 50mm most closely represents the visual perspective of the human eye and so it is a favourite for many photographers to use. We can also get wide angle lenses at around 28mm and lenses up to 80mm and 135mm.

The 50mm lens is a good starting point when beginning with photography.

Zoom lenses allow you to change the magnification of the image you have composed, there is a plethora of options with these, you can get them from several different ranges: macro, telephoto, and everything in between. Some of the more common ones are 35 – 70mm.

It is said that the image quality of shots taken with a zoom lens is less than that of a prime lens because they have had to incorporate moving parts and this lessens the precision of the lens. This is why prime lens are mostly favoured unless you are shooting something requiring magnification like sports.

What To Do When The Roll Is Finished

Do not make the same mistake I made when I finished my first roll of film. I started rewinding the film without pressing the very small button underneath the camera. This removes the lock on the spooled roll of film allowing it to be rewound. In my haste I started rewinding, and feeling the resistance thought it must have been getting stuck pushed harder – then the film completely broke! I made my second mistake by opening the back of the camera in broad daylight to inspect what had happened! I was able to retrieve less than half of my shots that day, but the first roll of film was a harsh lesson. Luckily, that was a few years ago now and I’ve never made the mistake again.

Where To Get Film Developed

Depending on where you live you’ve either got great options to get film developed (The USA) or pretty crappy options (Norway, Australia). I’ve lived in each of these countries and Norway was a killer. I had to get the film shipped out to Germany to get developed! Australia is getting better now, there’s places like Hillvale photo which do a post only service and load your images to a shared folder online. They’ve become my favourite and will do a process and hi res scan for $20 which is a great deal in the ever expensive Australia.

In the US I used thedarkroom.com which are very affordably priced at around $11 for development and scan to CD with web upload. The quality was fine for what I wanted the images for and if I needed better quality scans at higher resolution for an exhibition or the like, then it is much more affordable to take the specific shots to a professional darkroom and have them scanned rather than the entire roll which would cost and arm and a leg!

The darkroom also has some great photo contests with some cool prizes up for grabs, you can check them out here.

You should also think about setting up a darkroom to develop film and make your own prints. It’s an immensely rewarding exercise. To find out more read my What Do I Need To Set Up My Own Darkroom.

 Read Next: Where Can I Buy Camera Film From?

James Grundy
I’ve been photographing for 13 years and have a penchant for 35mm and medium format film. Black and white street photography is my go-to. My work has been featured in online and print media through a few publications like Shutterstock, Brooklyn Resource Mag, Off The Rails and Collective Quarterly.

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