Shooting with film will bring you a whole new insight and delight in photography. So how do you get started? Here’s a quick primer.
Why shoot with film?
Film is analogue, and that means it has its own characteristics. At its best, film is a high quality sensor that renders images in an organic way. Different types of film used in different ways produce different effects. Put this sensor in front of a decent lens and you are ready to take shots full of interest.
The images have a glow that digital images hope to emulate. It is tactile and real. Shooting with film is like taking your shoes and socks off and running barefoot through the grass. There are no electronic gizmos to bail you out. No image review to tell you that you got it right. Just your skill and judgement. Film enforces a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the art of photography.
Which film camera should I buy?
Film still comes in several size options. The focus here is 35mm film, which has a frame size the same as a modern full-frame sensor. The other main contender being medium format film. Medium format actually covers a range of larger film sizes that provide yet another step up in available image quality. It does require a rather different approach and has its own culture, challenges and costs but still rewards the modern photographer with surprising image quality and presence.
If you are going to understand film you really want a camera you can love
My suggested cameras are influenced by my familiarity with Nikons. Canon also have a back-catalogue of good readily available cameras and there is plenty of advice online about what to choose.
For an immersive, manual camera experience get an FM2. Preferably the upgraded FM2n. By ‘manual’ I mean that it is manual focus, manual aperture, manual shutter speed, a manual film advance lever and no auto-exposure! And yet you will find this camera body far, far easier to use than you would expect. I love this camera. As a user experience it is the camera by which I measure all others.
Alternatively, the FE or FE2 are similar to the FM2n but have an AE lock. The equally excellent FA is in many ways similar to the more recent FM3A (or is it the other way around?) and will allow you to shoot in aperture priority mode. These are all fantastic cameras and you can often find them available online at prices below £150/$180/€160.
All of the Nikon bodies designated with FE, FA or FM nomenclature (except the FM10) will give varying degrees of enjoyable service. It is possible to find other film camera bodies from around $25. They will do the job, but frankly, the cheaper Fnn bodies don’t have much soul. If you are going to understand film you really want a camera you can love.
There is also a wealth of good Contax cameras available that have drifted out of the public consciousness, but are worth considering (I’m almost tempted to keep this bit of information to myself). The brilliant but expensive G1 and G2 cameras are common knowledge. More important, for our purposes, are the forgotten ‘sleepers’ – the Contax cameras built by Yashica utilising the C/Y lens mount. There are several very good bodies to choose from. My personal favourites are the RX and RTS ll, both with manual film advance levers, and therefore with more compact and quieter bodies. Importantly, these undervalued bodies put you in touch with some affordable Carl Ziess glass.
The Ziess lenses are all manual focus, but they are a joy to use. Further more, if you have a mirrorless digital camera, those lenses are going to give you even more value for money as they can be easily attached via a lens adapter. Yashica also produced their own branded lenses for the Contax C/Y mount bodies. While not up to Carl Ziess quality, these are none the less very reasonable lenses and they are currently being all but given away.
Alternatively, a Nikon F100 offers a very different film camera choice. For many serious film photographers this was a favourite camera. It delivers a more contemporary user experience with much of the functionality and feel you have come to take for granted on DSLR cameras. It will also work with ‘G’ type Nikkor lenses (see below) so if you already have lenses for your DSLR most of them will work happily with this body. That pretty much goes for your Speedlight too. These bodies can be bought for bargain prices.
Honestly, a fast prime lens that can take a shot in almost any light gives you much more flexibility than a slow zoom lens that lets you adjust the focal distance
What lens should I use?
Let’s have a look at the choice of lenses. Don’t be fooled into using a zoom lens. Honestly, a fast prime lens that can take a shot in almost any light gives you much more flexibility than a slow zoom lens that lets you adjust the focal distance. Don’t get me wrong, there are circumstances where a big heavy zoom lens is indispensable, such as when you need to get close enough to take an incriminating photo of the person who has just fitted you with cement over-boots.
Look out for a good fast 35mm or 50mm prime. Be sure to get lenses with an aperture ring, otherwise they probably won’t work for film cameras (an exception is the aforementioned Nikon F100).
Don’t underestimate the optics on these older lenses. Many of them will also give very credible results mounted on a modern digital SLR. Be aware that lenses marked DX for Nikon or APS-C for Canon are not full frame lenses so they are not suitable to use with film even though they may fit on your camera body.
You won’t need more than one lens to get going. Walk out the door with it and discover that a film camera is fast becoming like a classic or custom car – people want to talk to you about it.
What film should I use?
Shooting with colour film
You probably want to go out and buy some luverly luverly Fujichrome Velvia 50 right? Oh those lush, deep colours and smoothly interpreted bokeh. Don’t do that.
Fujichrome Velvia 50 (ISO 50) is the best ever colour film, bar none – in the right circumstances. You must have full control – or at least foreknowledge – of the lightscape, otherwise you are just going to waste some expensive film. You can’t just change the film’s sensitivity at a whim. Once you have set the ISO, you cannot change it until you load another reel of film.
With film you don’t bang away at the shutter button… the way you might with digital
The down-side of film is that it is expensive to buy and to have processed. With film you don’t bang away at the shutter button like a demented woodpecker, the way you might with digital. To get started, if you don’t yet know what the circumstances of your shoot will be, get ISO 400 colour negative film (as opposed to slide/colour reversal film). This will give you more latitude with the lighting conditions. A good choice of colour film would be Fujicolor Superia X-tra 400. This film will forgive almost anything short of leaving the lens cap on.
Fujifilm do a range of color negative and color reversal films from ISO 50 through to ISO 1600. The colour negative can be pushed by two stops without problem, as long as you can find a lab that can process this for you.
However, these choices may be more forgiving of your nascent film skills, but not so forgiving on your wallet. You might just want to start with something a little cheaper.
If you are unsure about any of this, just plum for a cheaper ISO 400 film and you will get some decent results. If, however, you want that classic grainy look, you should try a high sensitivity film around the ISO 1600 mark. By the way, film does not last forever and the lower the ISO, the quicker the film formulation (the chemical gloop on the plastic substrate) will deteriorate, particularly with colour. Keep your film in the fridge, check the best-before date on the packaging and buy it from a reputable vendor that hasn’t stored it in the back of a van that was left in the sun for a few weeks.
Shooting with monochrome film
Black and white is more forgiving compared to colour film. You might also try developing it yourself. This is actually not too difficult and is richly rewarding, particularly if you like slopping chemicals around in an unlit room.
The secret to getting desirable tonal range in your black and white images is using a coloured filter on your camera lens when you shoot. Use an orange filter (colour type G) to start with. This is a must, otherwise you will get disappointing results. You may quickly decide you want other colour filters, but orange is the one to get going to create impressive full contrast images. You will find it hard to emulate the same rich effect with your editing software. If, however, you decide to go the whole way and print from your own negs with an enlarger, you will discover that colour filters can be added at this stage of the process to finesse the final look.
Black and white is all about the detail. To have those incredibly nuanced black and white images that you aspire to, you need the least sensitive film, i.e., the lowest ISO. However, the same caveats apply as were outlined in the colour film section.
A good film to get started with is Ilford HP5 Plus. Don’t fool around with any of those so-called b&w films that can be processed in a colour film process. That’s because they are colour film that only show b&w. Alternatively, try Ilford FP4 Plus. You can push it easily to ISO 200 and then some.
Just before finishing talking about the film itself, it is only fair that I issue a warning, in order that you set yourself fair levels of expectation. So here is the unvarnished truth: There is an unfortunate dark side to film. Out of a standard reel of 36 shots, you will get a few passable shots, but you will be lucky to get one single shot that you are really delighted with. In fact, I reckon on one really decent shot for every 3 reels of film. The rest is tears and frustration.
So why bother with film if that’s true? Because you will remember that one shot. It’s like the only goal at an FA cup final. You wait in frustrated anticipation, knowing that it might all end badly, but that moment is to be savoured, and with film you have the image to show for it and put it up on the wall as a trophy.
Colour Filters? But I thought It Was Black and White?
Heres the thing about monochrome film, it’s just shades of gray, and that’s pretty dull. To pep it up you need to put a colour filter in front of the lens. This allows different colours of light to get to the film at different intensities, thus creating dynamic contrast.
In order to work out what different colour filters will do, there is an easy way to get some idea of the effect. A colour filter will allow light of its own colour to pass through to the film unhindered. On the other hand ‘opposite’ colours will be substantially blocked.
A yellow filter will make daffodils in a field stand out brightly on a black and white image, but the blue sky will be greatly darkened. Conversely, a blue filter is perfect for making a blue sky appear bright, but a field full of wildflowers may appear pretty dull except for the blue ones.
A red filter is the one to use for maximum grayscale contrast, however, it tends to accentuate the extremes of the colour range and give less nuanced contrast in the middle. For the best graduated general purpose effect, an orange filter is your go-to choice.
Unless you are going full-on black and white, buy yourself a screw on circular type orange filter the same size as the largest lens you plan to use, and then buy a cheap step-up filter adapter for any other lens you will want to use the filter with. This also help avoid any vignetting.
Alternatively, you can cheat and add a colour filter afterwards in your photo editing software, but you may have trouble synthesizing the ka-pow! of the real thing. Also, it goes against the analogue ethos of film photography, like plugging a record turntable into a smartphone. Some things are just wrong.
Use a tripod and an ND filter
One of the best things about digital photography is that as the light fades you simply increase the ISO sensitivity. With film, you can always put in a new reel of higher sensitivity film, except that, similarly to digital photography, as the ISO goes up, the image quality deteriorates and becomes increasingly grainy.
Film is more susceptible to this problem than digital is. By far the best solution is to stay at a lower sensitivity but slow down the shutter speed if you can. A tripod is the answer. Using a tripod together with a shutter release cable will greatly improve the quality of your shots.
Once you are all tripoded up, you can exposure bracket your image into multiple shots and then sort them into one shot in the image post-processing software.
At the other end of the light spectrum, in bright situations, you may want to reduce the amount of light getting to the film beyond the fastest speed of your shutter. Again, you can’t just reduce the ISO on a whim, so be sure to have an ND filter or two handy. I carry a Hoya ProND16, which is equivalent to a reduction of 4 stops of light. For convenience, go for circular filters and buy the largest diameter you will need, then get a cheap step-up adapter ring for each lens you want to fit it to. That way you won’t be carrying around a bunch of expensive filters for each of your lenses and you won’t have problems with the filter causing vignetting.
How to prepare the final images
There are plenty of film labs to be found on the internet that will process your colour film. To get b&w developed you will need to search for a lab that specifically offers that service. Not all labs are born equal so shop around. Almost all of them are able to scan your film images into digital files for a small extra fee. The better labs will offer you lossless tiff files as well as jpegs. Once you have your digital files it’s back to business as usual. I use Metro Imaging near Old Street in London who I’ve always found to be excellent. I send my film to be developed and scanned by post.
The alternative is that you buy some darkroom gear, which is being almost given away nowadays, and develop your own b&w images. But that’s a whole other story.
If you send off film that has been pulled or pushed, don’t forget to make sure the lab is aware of it and also stick a label on the film canister with the exposure information.
All the above in a nutshell
- Buy a good film camera body plus a 35mm or 50mm fast prime lens.
- Get a few reels of ISO 400 film to get started.
- Use an orange lens filter when shooting monochrome
- Post off the films to a photo lab and make sure they scan them into digital files.
- Don’t forget your tripod and a shutter release cable and an ND filter