Are you looking to jump into film photography, but have no idea where to start? This is the guide that I wish I’d read when I first tried film photography.
Just like digital photography, there is so much information out there that you have to know to really understand how to get the most out of this medium. So I’m going to keep this one brief and give new film photographers the best head start possible.
1. Look for a camera in your parents’ or grandparents’ house
The best place to look for a good-condition film camera is at your grandparents’ house. Most families had at least one photographer who would take snapshots on vacation, or when the family gathered. And for the most part, people really valued these devices and kept them in good condition.
There are a lot of cameras that can be purchased online, at thrift stores, or even at flea markets and swap meets. But they can be of questionable quality. For example, I recently picked one up at a flea market, and because of the pressure, ended up buying one with a mold problem.
If you can’t find one in the family, your local camera store, eBay, or KEH.com are the safest places to purchase film cameras. The rating systems, and good descriptions often mean you’ll know exactly what you’re getting and can return it if it doesn’t meet your expectations.
Do these 5 tests as soon as you get a new (to you) camera in your hands to be sure it’s worth keeping.
Start with a 35mm camera
The best thing you can do is start with a 35mm camera, because they’re the most accessible. They’re small, lightweight, cheaper to buy, sharp as heck, and give you 36 exposures on a roll instead of 12.
I started out with medium format, and I think that was a mistake. Medium format 120 film only has enough space for 8 and 16 photos per roll depending on the camera. That means your developing costs when starting out are going to be astronomical, and it can be difficult to really explore what options are out there.
35mm film also gives you the option to shoot a larger variety of film, and typically with lower prices. Most niche manufacturers only produce film in 35mm format, since that is the most popular.
There are some major benefits to shooting medium format film — including that it can capture more detail than digital cameras. But the cost of the film and the cameras when you’re first starting out isn’t necessarily worth it.
The best cameras that I’d suggest for new photographers are usually the Pentax cameras (like the K1000, ME Super, or S3) since these are the cheapest fully-manual cameras with extremely underrated lenses.
But my favorite camera to use over the last year has been the Ilford Sprite 35-II. It’s a simple disposable camera that was made to be reusable, meaning it doesn’t take the sharpest images. But for some reason, that camera captures life and people in a way no other camera can. Read my full review on the Sprite 35-II here.
2. Buy the cheapest roll of film you can find
When you get your camera, the first thing you have to do is test it with a single roll of film. My advice is to purchase the cheapest roll of film that you can, and drop it off at a lab on the same day.
This will allow you to see if there’s anything wrong with the camera. There could be something as minor as light leaks, to as major as the shutter getting stuck mid roll. So the only way to know exactly how it will function will be to see the negatives. Take a look at this guide if you’d like to learn about, or diagnose a camera issue based on the negatives.
Usually that will mean purchasing a roll of Kodak ProImage 100, Fuji C200, or Kodak Gold depending where you are in the world. But even if Color film costs a bit more than B&W film to purchase, it might cost more to have developed.
The C41 process is standardized across films, meaning any lab can process it. But B&W may require them to process by hand, or to tune their machines to the film stock. Either way, B&W usually costs more in the end — unless you have a home developing setup.
3. Download a light meter app on your phone
Most light meters on film cameras are unreliable. If it doesn’t require a battery to operate, or requires a battery that you’re unable to find, chances are it won’t give an accurate reading.
The best way to ensure you’re getting an accurate exposure is to use a light meter application on your phone. I personally use the Light Meter App by WBPhoto, because it has a spot meter function, and is so far the most reliable meter I’ve ever used. It also comes with a ton of other, easy to use features that make it one of the best available apps.
You can find it for free on Android, but unfortunately, there’s only a paid version on iOS. Personally, I think it’s well worth the cost. Links to the iOS and Android versions of the app can be found on the developer’s website.
Meter for the shadows
The hardest lesson for digital photographers entering into film photography to learn is that film doesn’t like underexposure. Since it’s a physical medium, there’s no such thing as recovering lost shadows. But unlike digital, there is no bit limit for overexposure.
As a general rule, film can be overexposed by up to 2 stops without problem. Color film has more overexposure latitude than B&W film, but in the end, all film loves that extra light. And when you give it a bit more exposure than normal, it will reward you with luscious colors, gorgeous skin tones, and finer grain.
But if you meter for the highlights, the film will appear contrasty and will lack any recoverable detail in the shadows. Underexposing film typically creates disappointing negatives.
4. Get your first rolls developed professionally
Unless you’ve got some killer editing skills, you’ll get the best results with film photography when you hand over your rolls to a good lab. Modern print film is designed to be as flexible as possible, meaning the images need some good massaging before they really show their true colors.
This is one of the hardest lessons that I had to overcome when I started developing and scanning film myself. If you’re going for a certain ‘film look,’ it may be difficult to achieve until you know how to create that look in the first place.
The other benefit of a professional lab is that you’ll be able to get some feedback on your rolls. The technician can tell you if you’re underexposing, or if they noticed a subtle issue with your camera. Plus, they’ll be able to recommend good films for your style of shooting.
5. Shoot film fresh, or learn how to store it
The average roll of color film should be shot and developed within 6 months of purchasing. If you’re planning to keep it longer than that, store it in the freezer.
Color film will degrade if it’s left in the heat for too long, and should be stored in the fridge if you live in a hot, humid climate without air conditioning. Black and white film does fare better overall, but should be kept in relatively stable temperatures, no hotter than 75°F (24°C).
And don’t take it out of the plastic canister or foil wrapping until you’re putting the film in the camera. The packaging ensures that the film doesn’t get any moisture inside from condensation, which can ruin the emulsion.
6. Join a Facebook community, or go on photo walks
When you have questions about film photography, there’s no better place to go than Facebook communities. People in the groups are always willing to help review camera gear/film stocks, or even get into the nitty gritty about issues you’re facing.
I’ve also learned a lot from film photography groups on Facebook, where some questions are so specific that you’ll simply never see a blog post about them.
Check out the official Learn Film Photography Facebook group. It’s growing steadily, and we’ve built up a diverse group of photographers who are more than willing to share their thoughts and experiences with anyone interested in film.
Film-specific photo walks are another great place to meet photographers and learn about film. It’s always great to talk to a bunch of people and see how everyone else is composing their images. Plus, you’re guaranteed to get a new profile photo, and maybe even a print if you’re lucky!
7. Learn when black and white does it better
Color film is fantastic. It’s all-around very enjoyable to use and can make for some great images. But there’s a time and place where nothing captures it better than B&W film.
Black and white will be a challenge for users at first. The medium is notoriously tricky to understand, since our entire world revolves around color. But a good black and white image can say way more than color.
The best advice I can give to start is to put your subject in the highlights of the film, that way, the subject will be bright while everything else is dark. Since humans tend to focus on the brighter part of the image, this is a surefire way to make sure the viewer is at least looking where you intend for them to look.
If you’re having trouble deciding which film to choose, here’s a link to my guide on choosing a B&W film stock for your purpose.
8. Learn how to develop film at home
Once you find that you love film photography, you’ll want to find a way to shoot more without breaking the bank. My general rule is that if you shoot more than 20 rolls of film per year, then it’s worth it to develop them at home.
Developing film at home is surprisingly easy, and an extremely forgiving process. There are all kinds of people online who give rigid guidelines that you must follow to a tee or risk ruining everything and burning your house down. I’ve broken their rules many times and I still have my house, so joke’s on them, right?
But honestly, the freedom and the tactility of film only really comes alive when you start developing film yourself. If you want to rate your film at a different ISO than what’s on the box, you’ll have an easier time doing that at home than asking a lab to do it for you.
The 20 rolls per year rule comes from calculating the cost of the developing equipment and accounting for the amount of spoilage that you’re likely to come across. Most film development chemicals will expire if they’re not used within a certain period of time, so it’s important to use them within that time so that you don’t have to take it to a recycling depot unused.
If you’d like to learn more about developing film at home, here’s a simple guide that we’ve created on how to get started, including a handy list of the required items.
9. Find a community darkroom, or build one of your own
Once you’ve started developing your own film, the next move to make is to print your own images in the darkroom. The darkroom is where I’ve learned the most about film photography, and it’s one of my favorite places to spend time.
If you live in a big city, there will always be at least one organization that has a darkroom that’s open for public use. Learning how to print your images in analog format is one of the coolest experiences surrounding film. Especially when printing B&W images, where you actually get to see the image appearing before your eyes.
Over the last two years, I haven’t been able to attend the community darkroom because of renovations and Covid-19. It’s something that I’ve truly missed, and can’t wait to get back to asap.
Recommended reading for new photographers
Old School Photography by Kai Wong: This book has a ton of tips and is geared for new photographers who are just learning about film photography. It’s incredibly accessible, humorous, and filled with good advice on shooting film. The gear recommended is fairly pricey, though. See my review of this book, or find it for the best price on Amazon.
The Film Developing Cookbook by Bill Troop with Steve Anchell: This is the most complete and up-to-date guide to film photography on the market. It contains detailed information about everything, from developer recipes, to grain characteristics and archiving. The Film Developing Cookbook is designed for more advanced readers who want to learn the chemistry and science behind film. This book is the basis of many articles on this blog. Find it on Amazon here.
That pretty well covers all of the basics you’ll need to learn when getting started with film photography. Overall, film is the most fun photographic medium, and I truly recommend it for everyone who loves to take photos. The best way I’ve ever heard someone describe what it’s like to shoot film was that it’s like making your own ceramic mug: it may be somewhat ugly and imperfect, but you love it so much more because you made it with your hands.
If you have any questions about getting started, I’d love to hear them in the comments down below, or on the official Learn Film Photography Facebook page.
Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.