Discover how to shoot film in the digital age — it's not as hard as it looks!
Film (or analog) photography has been around for decades and has enjoyed a significant resurgence over the past few years. Shooting with a film camera will expand your creativity and teach you a few photography principles along the way. And most of all, it's fun!
What is film photography?
Film (or analog) photography is both a magical and technical experience, even to this day. The tactile process of loading a film camera, carefully considering each image before pressing the shutter, and then seeing your photos come alive after developing them is vastly different from digital shooting.
In simple but technical terms, film photography uses chemicals to capture images. To create an image, photographers have to use film — a thin plastic sheet coated with a gelatin emulsion on one side. When pressing the shutter, the camera briefly exposes the film to light. This process creates an image you can develop using chemicals at home or sending your film roll to a professional lab.
Many film formats and cameras are available today, from simple point-and-shoot cameras to intricate large format cameras that use individual sheets for each photo. One of the most affordable and commonly used film formats is 35mm, so if you are new to film, it's a great starting point.
Why shoot film?
If you are a digital photographer, you may wonder what makes the analog shooting experience so appealing. It is not only impossible to see images on the back of your camera during a photo session, but you also have to wait days, if not weeks, to receive the final images.
The core principles of film and digital photography are similar. Getting to the finished product, however, is a vastly different process. Working with film can be a breath of fresh air because it is a slower and more mindful process, particularly in today's digital world, where photographers are inundated with images daily.
Cinematographer and vintage lens enthusiast Mark Holtze believes taking time to learn film photography expands every photographer's creative horizons. Through learning new ways of shooting and experimenting, photographers can grow — sometimes in new, unexpected ways.
Film photography will also help you improve your technical knowledge. You will see firsthand the effect your chosen camera settings have on different types of film and in various shooting situations. Putting technical knowledge into practice is one of the best ways to learn and retain information.
Where to buy a film camera?
Compared to digital, film photography has a cheaper entry point for anyone looking to buy their first camera. That's because film cameras have been in circulation for over a century.
Photographers have several options for buying a film camera, but Holtze recommends visiting a camera shop in person, if possible. You can browse any used film equipment in stock, and the shop assistant will be able to help with any questions you may have without the pressure to buy. For example, they can show how to load the film and use the different dials and knobs to take your first film photo.
If a physical camera shop is not an option, it's worth asking friends and family for any film cameras they don't use anymore. As the primary medium for decades, many people still have theirs. Not only will you save money borrowing a camera, but you may get a one-on-one lesson on how to use it.
If you know what equipment you want, shopping online for a film camera works well. To avoid spending money on faulty photography gear, check return policies and buy from reputable online sellers. Online marketplaces such as eBay, Facebook, and others also offer plenty of listings, but be aware these purchases rarely have a guarantee of quality.
Pick your first film stock
There is no doubt that film stock is at the heart of film photography. Your choice of film will, for the most part, determine what kind of photographs you can take. This is because you can't easily change the sensitivity of film stock or switch the color balance mid-shoot, unlike digital photography.
With that in mind, consider the type of photography you want to do. Do you want to shoot in color or black and white? Maybe you want to shoot in low light or bright sun. Most online stores selling film show detailed descriptions of each film stock, so you can make an informed choice.
"Certain film stocks also respond differently to exposure, so perhaps one stock blooms beautifully in over-exposed highlights, while others can grain out an image to the point of ruining it if too underexposed," Holtze explains. "This will all come out with experimentation, and it's best not to overthink the first roll."
If you are unsure where to begin, Emma Lloyd, an expert from the United Kingdom-based film store and lab Analogue Wonderland, recommends beginners start with a black and white film. Not only is it cheaper than color film, but it also has creative benefits. It is more forgiving regarding early film shooting mistakes, like incorrect exposure. The absence of color also makes photographers focus on composition, light, and other key elements that help create a good photograph.
But, if you want to try your hand at color, Lloyd recommends Kodak Gold and Kodak ColorPlus as two beginner-friendly consumer films. Holtze also adds Kodak Ektar 100 to the list of recommendations. For lower light conditions, take a look at Lomography Color 400 film. It has higher contrast, bright color, and a more noticeable grain.
To track your progress, you can write down your settings for each shot you take. When you get your prints back from the lab, you can study how camera settings affected each exposure. For Holtze, this helps teach how to make the most of each film stock's strengths and weaknesses.
"Your choice of film will, for the most part, determine what kind of photographs you can take."
Process your film
A film lab is the easiest place to process your first film. There are several high-store chains and independent labs that offer this service. Generally, Lloyd recommends working with an independent lab because they usually employ passionate and knowledgeable professionals who can provide expert advice and care for your film.
"They will also be able to talk to you about the results – if there is anything in the photos that you don't understand what's happened – so that you can learn and grow as a photographer," Lloyd tells Focus.
Almost everyone makes mistakes, especially at the beginning. But, most independent labs will contact you if something goes awry with your film. For example, Lloyd has seen photographers send their film without the canister, which protects it from light and damage. Some have posted an unraveled 120 film, and a few shooters didn't realize a film development process is necessary before seeing the photos.
Independent film labs are on the rise, so you are more likely now than ever to find a local service where you can drop off the film in person. It is the most secure way to get your film in the hands of lab technicians. If that is not possible, you can send it by post but make sure to pack it safely and add tracking to avoid getting lost in transit. Not seeing the long-awaited photos is every film photographer's worst nightmare!
If you are unsure which local film lab to pick, look at their customer reviews or ask for recommendations from local shooters using Facebook groups, forums, Twitter, and other social media sources. Most film photography communities will be happy to share advice.
"If you are unsure which local film lab to pick, look at their customer reviews..."
Digitize your film photos
When film labs develop your film, they turn it into negatives you can scan and use to print your photos. If you want to view and use your images online, you have to digitize them first.
Most online labs now offer a service to scan and digitize photos, and you can order that alongside film development. When you receive your scanned files, you can use them online or order prints as you usually would with digital photographs. If you want to print large, check the lab offers scans with a suitable resolution.
A home scanner can save money long-term if you're up for the challenge. A flatbed scanner is the main equipment you need — buy a new scanner online or look for a second-hand one.
Black and white film is generally easier to scan, while color can be more tricky to get the tones right. But, you can make image adjustments using the scanner software. Use post-processing software, like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, if you want to edit your film scans further.
This is just a brief overview of film photography. Every photographer's experience with film is unique, and the process takes time to refine. In the end, what matters most is not to rush but to enjoy the process — even when it goes wrong.
Whenever you feel stuck, remember film photography has a long history, and with that comes an equally immense amount of resources. From books to free blog articles and YouTube tutorials, many experienced shooters have covered different camera models, film types, and shooting tips and tricks learned over the years.