Beginner's Guide to Film Photography
In a world of instant grams, snapchat filters and face-tuned selfies, film photography stands as an outlier. An itch that compels you to pause and capture a moment in complete stillness, an intrigue that keeps you waiting until the negatives are developed, the tactility that goes beyond everything digitalisation has cornered us with. It teaches you to be patient with art — that is the beauty of film photography.
While the aesthetics of the pictures are resoundingly unbeatable, to become comfortable and eventually master film photography can be daunting. From questions such as which camera to buy to understanding certain technical jargon, this blog is the ultimate beginner’s guide to film photography that will help you get started.
So, what exactly is film photography? Film photography is the process of taking pictures on a camera that uses thin plastic strips known as ‘film’.
These films are what you might have seen as dark tinted strips, which are coated with gelatin emulsion containing silver halide crystals which, in turn, produce a ‘negative’ when the camera lens exposes it to light. After getting the negative developed, you get the striking results; pictures which are a visual translation of the moment captured.
Choosing the Right Camera & Film
To get started with film photography, the most crucial and often overlooked step is choosing the right kind of camera. The most common format and widely available film camera is the 35 mm film. The 35 mm is the physical width of the film strip and was the format introduced by photographer Oskar Barnack back in the 1920s. Here's a great video summarising his invention:
As a beginner, 35 mm SLR camera is comparatively the easiest to shoot with besides disposable cameras which are single-use cameras with a much simpler interface that also gives the similar “film” looking aesthetic.
Depending on your budget, you can find a variety of film cameras ranging from anywhere between 2000 INR to 20,000 INR. The question of where to find them can vary depending on your location and preference. While there are very few brand new film cameras in the market, one can always ask around amongst family and friends who might have old cameras in the long forgotten storage rooms. If not, many local camera stores or places which sell vintage equipment also sell film cameras in great condition and are always happy to help find the perfect camera for you. If none of these work for you, you can always resort to online sites such as Ebay and Amazon to find one. Some of the most popular camera brands that you can look at are Leica, Kodak, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Fujifilm, and many others.
Once you have your camera sorted, the next step is to find a film. There are two types of basic films: coloured and black&white films. Starting with colour or colour negative film is ideal as they are cheaper to process. However, with B&W film there is less room for mistakes in terms of exposure but can tend to be more expensive to be processed.
Some of the best 35 mm films are: Kodak Portra 400, Kodak Ektar 100, Kodak ColorPlus 200 and more affordable options include Kodak Ultramax 400 and Ilford HP5 Plus. Some pictures taken in these films:
Know the Settings
Unlike digital cameras, with film photography you do not have the chance to retake another shot if the settings are not right. Hence, understanding the mechanics of your shot is crucial and central to becoming a good photographer. Below are the three main settings that you should master:
Shutter Speed: Shutter is the mechanism which quickly opens and closes when you take a picture. Shutter speed is how quickly the shutter opens and closes while aperture is how wide it opens. Depending on the speed of your shutter (from few to several seconds) the light entering will differ.
Fast shutter speed = less light entering = perfect for bright conditions to avoid chance of overexposure or to blur in motion when capturing faster moving objects like moving cars or birds.
Slower shutter speed = more light = perfect for nighttime shooting.
You can adjust the shutter speed by moving the dial found on top of the camera.
Aperture: As mentioned above, aperture is the size of shutter opening and is measured in f-stops (focal length / diameter of aperture). Larger the f-stop, the smaller the opening. It also plays a role when experimenting with depth of field.
Higher number = Larger openings = Shallower depth (more single plane looking picture)
Lower number = Smaller openings = Deep focus (close as well as distant objects are in focus)
To adjust the aperture on your camera, you can rotate the dial on the lens.
Automatic vs. Manual: There is a concept in photography known as the ‘Exposure Triangle’ — that depends on aperture, shutter speed and focus. This triangle is at the core of manual film cameras that require you to manually adjust the settings while in an automatic camera; the camera does the work for you. While as a beginner you might be more inclined to buy an automatic film camera, with practise you can get around to master the technicalities of a manual camera. The decision depends on your eagerness to learn, your budget, the time and effort you’re willing to put in.
The Final Steps
You’ve got the settings right, taken the pictures & finished your roll — now comes the most exciting part of getting it developed! There are two ways you can develop your films: the easy way and the tougher way. The easy route is to go to a camera studio and get the rolls developed by experts, they can send your downloadable scans or print the scans as well. The more time-consuming and meticulous route is developing the negatives on your own.
B&W films are easier to process as coloured scans require more precision in terms of temperature of the bath. While shooting film is a task in itself, developing them in the right way is another ball game altogether. As a beginner you might want to choose the easier route, however if you wish to develop your own film you can check out this video which in detail shares the necessary equipment and conditions:
Here’s another helpful video that shares the process of turning your negatives into scans:
What do these terms mean?
Here are few of the film jargons you should familiarise yourself with when starting out your photography journey:
Exposure: Exposure is the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor and it determines how light or dark an image is. The exposure of an image is determined by the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
ISO or ASA: Full form - International Organization for Standardisation, both mean the same thing, referring to the film’s sensitivity to light. The number on the film roll’s box usually mentions the ISO. When using a manual camera, remember to change the dial to set the appropriate ISO. The most common ISOs are 100 & 400, higher the ISO, more sensitive the film and hence greater is the noise visibility.
SLR: Stands for ‘Single lens reflex’ — the technological makeup of cameras. It is different from DSLR in the way that in film cameras, you look into the viewfinder to see what the lens is seeing and not through a rear LCD screen in digital cameras.
Noise: A standing difference between film and digital photography is the graininess in the former’s pictures. This graininess works to distort the picture and is usually achieved with higher ISO.
Depth of field: Briefly mentioned under aperture, depth of field is simply the distance between the foreground and background of the subject in focus. Shallow depth of field is when the foreground and background are blurred and only the subject is in focus, while deep focus allows foreground as well as background elements to be in focus. Desired depth of field can be achieved by adjusting the aperture.
Point-and-shoot: In the analogue camera category, point and shoot cameras are the lighter, more compact variant that have limited features and consequently, are easier to shoot with. The main difference in point-and-shoot cameras vs regular film cameras is that they have a fixed lens which are usually focus free or autofocus and have a compromised photo quality.
The Most Important Tip
You can master all the steps shared in this article and yet not be satisfied with your pictures, unless you choose to go out and experiment. Like any creative process, sticking by rules limits the wide array of possibilities you can achieve. The toughest step is to get started and once you’ve done that, it’s a world full of subjects waiting for you to take a picture!
“Some of the great pictures happen along the journey and not necessarily at your destination.” - Steve McCurry
Here’s some beautiful advice shared by one of the greatest film photographers of our generation, Steve McCurry: