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Beginner’s Guide to Using a Film Camera

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Want to try out film photography? Read on to find out what to look for in your first film camera, how to choose your roll of film, and which 35mm film cameras are best for beginners.

Words by Urth HQ

Practically everyone has access to digital photography in the form of a smartphone, and even though the world is growing increasingly digital on every front, there are considerable benefits to the slower approach to shooting, developing, and appreciating film.

Many photographers who’ve only ever shot on digital eventually get the itch to try analogue, be it for a change of scene and pace or simply because they find the aesthetic alluring. Film photography has an air of nostalgia and mystery about it that digital simply cannot replicate.

35mm film photography35mm film photography

What’s Film Photography?

Film photography is the art and science of capturing photographs on thin, transparent strips called film. One side of the strip is coated with a gelatin emulsion that contains small silver halide crystals, which determine the contrast and resolution of a photograph amongst other qualities.

The practice of film photography is all about patience, perseverance, intention and delayed gratification. Shooting on film instead of digital often allows a photographer to slow down a bit and produce images with a greater sense of purpose, meaning, and intent. Any photographer can hold down the shutter without much thought to composition or framing, but film photography forces the artist to be more considerate and purposeful with every shot.

Is film photography expensive?

Film photography for beginners is relatively more costly than digital. This is mainly because of ongoing costs for the material and labour versus the ease and simplicity of the digital format. Most digital cameras only need partial servicing or routine maintenance every few years whilst film photography costs practically per shot.

You can get a rough idea of your cost per shot by adding up the costs of your film stock (also known as your roll of film), costs of developing (including postage and return if you are mailing in), and the cost of printing or scanning your developed film. Costs for these will vary according to whether you are shooting on large format, medium format, 35mm format, or slide film.

All in all, this often makes for a less frugal approach to photography, but shooting on film is rarely something people do to save and streamline their process. This is why brands will often commission photographers who shoot on film for campaigns, but e-commerce photography is almost completely transitioned into the world of fast-moving digital production.

Film photography is a practice and discipline in itself with benefits that can’t necessarily be quantified, and each photographer will glean something unique from trying it out regardless of whether or not they convert to the more traditional medium.

35mm film photography

What Film Camera Should I Buy?

The most common questions for people interested in film photography for beginners is what kind of camera is best to start out with and what functions or features work best for the inexperienced. Below, we outlined the basics of buying, although we’ve also compiled a shortlist of the 5 Best Film Cameras for Beginners if you don’t know where to start.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SHOOT?

First and foremost, you need to think about what subjects you want to photograph, what conditions you’ll likely be shooting in and what film format type you’d like to explore. These factors will help you figure out the kind of film camera you’ll need and the type of film to buy to suit your creative style.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 35MM FILM, 120 FILM AND LARGE FORMAT

There are typically three kinds of film cameras that each take their different film stocks: the standard 35mm film format, the 120 and 220 medium format films, and large format film, which is the oldest format still available and comes in sheets instead of rolls.

35mm film photography

35mm is relatively smaller and often cheaper than 120 film, making for a more portable and efficient medium with the trade-off being visible detail, dynamic range and resolution. Inexpensive compared to the other formats, 35mm photos are accessible and easy to use regardless of experience level. The combination of 35mm cameras and film are great for travel too with options ranging from disposable point-and-shoots to cameras that fit in your jeans pocket. Check out our guide on our favourite 35mm film cameras for travel if you’re looking for something to use on the go.

Medium format film is often associated with more premium and luxury applications as these deliver a higher level of quality and tone compared to 35mm photos. Because 120 film has a bigger frame, each roll only holds up to 16 shots instead of the 24 or 36 in 35mm film canisters. Whilst it’s more expensive and time-consuming to use 120 films, the resulting images are often worth the extra hassle. Take a peek at our post on the 3 best medium format film cameras if you’re keen to explore this front.

For complete beginners, however, we recommend starting with a 35mm camera as they often require less technical skill while still producing beautiful images (as long as you expose your shots correctly!)

WHERE CAN I BUY FILM CAMERAS?

There are plenty of options for second-hand film cameras out there from traditional brick and mortar specialist shops to web stores or online enthusiast collectives. Do a bit of research and scope out your options.

You might want to check out your local camera shops and see what they have to offer. The benefit of shopping offline is that you can physically inspect the camera and speak to the seller, but you will often pay a premium for this versus shopping online.

Great online stores for second-hand analogue cameras at reasonable prices include eBay, Etsy, and even Craigslist — although it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Always check with the seller as to whether the camera is fully functional. We also recommend taking all possible precautions by checking out the seller’s rating, quality of listing information, and the images provided. Other essential things to look out for are signs of wear and tear on the body, or dust, scratches and fungus on the lens.

What Roll of Film Should I Buy?

Once you’ve decided on a film camera, you’ll need to pick a film stock that’s best for your needs. Consider both your shooting style and the lighting conditions where you shoot most often.

35mm film photographyImage by Dino Kužnik
35mm film photographyImage by Chiara Zonca
35mm film photographyImage by Dino Kužnik

Film speed is the sensitivity rating of the film, which is sometimes referred to as ISO. A film’s speed determines how sensitive it is to light; lower ratings require more light to get the correct exposure than higher ratings, which require less. 400 ISO film is a great place to start as this is a good all-rounder rating that performs well in most situations.

Unlike digital, you will also have to choose between black and white film and colour film. If you’re just starting out, experiment with both to get a feel for your preference.

If you want to shoot colour film, Kodak Colorplus 200 is a great choice for beginners with consistently beautiful results at a price point that gives you the freedom to experiment and make mistakes. Fuji Superia 400 is also a popular choice and a great all-rounder. Eventually, you will likely also want to try the professional’s favourite, Kodak Portra.

As for the first choice for a black and white film, Kentmere 400 is a decent pick for beginners. It has a great dynamic range and a consistent look that helps when learning the ropes of shooting black and white. Eventually, most photographers will want to try the classics including Ilford HP5 400 and Kodak Tri-X 400.

Where Can I Get My Film Developed?

Once you’ve gone out and shot a few rolls, you’re going to need to get your film developed. You can either take it to a laboratory or develop it yourself with materials readily available in most countries.

There are mini-labs that will process your film quickly and reasonably cheaply, but results will vary and some can prove to be unreliable. Professional darkrooms and commercial laboratories are often a safer, better choice. They tend to have more experience with a longer track record for consistent service, which makes them worth seeking out.

For purists and analogue lovers with a bit more time and resources on their hands, learning how to develop film yourself often provides a deeper understanding of the film process, as well as an appreciation for analogue photography as an art form. To learn, check out our guide on how to develop your film at home.

Is Shooting on Film Worth It?

This will always depend on the person asking it, but by and large, photographers agree that every visual artist ought to try, even if only once.

The principles of film photography and digital photography are the same in theory, but the difference is in practice — shooting on celluloid is often a slower, more intentional approach versus the relative ease of digital sensors and memory cards. Enthusiasts and purists alike agree that the magic of film cannot be explained and must be experienced, so the easiest way to answer this question is by going out into the world and experimenting yourself.

And if you find that you love the look of film but want to stick to digital for convenience, it’s worth checking out our article on the best vintage lenses for a film aesthetic on a digital camera.

Did you know Urth makes camera gear that reforests the world? Five trees are planted in deforested areas for every product purchased. Shop our range of lens filters, lens adapters and camera accessories here.

35mm film photography

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2022-04-06T23:25:59+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , , |