10 Tips to Start in Film Photography
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Film's allure is its intertwined beauty and challenge. But the truth is that its mystery doesn't have to be mastered to garner its magic. And while there are many reasons to shoot film, today, I want to share what I believe to be tips for starting in film photography.
1 - Shoot on cheap film first
Everybody raves about Portra 400 and they expect the world to wane in the wake of showing/saying they shoot only Portra. However, the rising cost of film makes it a pain to have to learn how to shoot film at Portra 400 prices. I'd say shoot Kodak Ultramax or Fujifilm Superia which you can buy 3 for the price of a single Portra 400 roll. Another point is that there's a texture from the chemical reaction that takes place in film that we all love called grain. Cheaper films also tend to be more grainy and professional films like Portra tend to be a fine grain film. Now all three aforementioned films are color negative. I'd recommend shooting black and white too which tends to also be much cheaper. And lastly, shoot 35mm instead of medium format. All this is to help you learn without paying top dollar when you don't need to. So the first tip is save the money, shoot cheap film while you learn how to improve your film photography.
2 - Shoot an SLR camera first
There are 3 major types of film cameras: Point-and-shoot, Rangefinder, and SLR. Now all of these have their advantages, however, my argument for an SLR is this. An SLR allows you to interact with what's in frame and see what the image will be. While a point-and-shoot camera is quick, fun, and easy to use, it automates too many parts of taking an image. A rangefinder is the next best thing, but the viewfinder is not exactly what your image will render. My reason for proposing to start with an SLR is that it is geared toward showing you what your image will be when you are composing it. This is due to what an SLR is in its nature. According to my latest google search and Wikipedia, it is a "single-lens reflex camera (SLR) is a camera that typically uses a mirror and prism system (hence "reflex" from the mirror's reflection) that permits the photographer to view through the lens and see exactly what will be captured." For this reason, I believe an SLR is the best way to learn. (If I had to recommend a starter camera specifically, I would promote the Canon AE-1 Program)
3 - Buy your cameras locally if you can
eBay will be overpriced. I would scour over Facebook Marketplace for cameras. If you cant buy within your community, I've also had luck joining Facebook Groups where they buy and sell film cameras. Either way, do your research and be patient to find cameras that are in good condition and at a good price. Easy to say, hard to do I know, but if you can accept not having the camera of your favorite celebrity, then you can find some good deals.
4 - Do a little research on exposure
There is something called the exposure triangle. It's a diagram of the influence of the three facets that affect how an image is captured. Numerous articles on the exposure triangle have been written that are better than anything I can muster. So briefly look over it and get the general idea before going out and shooting film.
5 - Shoot an entire study roll of film
This might be the dullest roll of film you ever shoot, but I found it vital to get to know your camera, your lenses, and how to shoot film. Take a notepad, your camera, a roll of 400 iso film, and take an hour to shoot manual the entire roll. Write down the exposure, the lens, and what kind of light it was shot in (e.g. sunlight, shadows, indoors, etc). After you have shot it, had the roll developed, and returned, look at the photos and notes and mark what could be improved. Guaranteed the quickest way to make changes to exposure and composition to achieve better results.
6 - Use Adobe Bridge for photo management
Everyone knows Adobe Lightroom is the industry standard for photo editing, but its unsung hero partner is Adobe Bridge. Bridge is free to use. It allows you to view, catalog, archive, label, rate, copyright, and add keywords to your photos. If you pay for Lightroom, you can use Adobe Camera Raw within Bridge. It's a game-changer for managing your database of photos. I might write a post about this in the future.
7 - Overexpose
This is a simple one. The nature of film allows for more room for error if you overexpose rather than underexpose. So if you're second-guessing the exposure of an image, give it an extra stop of light because in post it will always be easier to pull down the highlights than raise the shadows.
8 - Shoot what interests you, let the camera take you places
Of all the tips, this is the most existential, but it's an essential tip. There is a lot of projected stereotypical film content out there. However, film isn't cheap. It forces you to slow down, choose your moment, and choose it with care. Make your shots count by shooting what is important to you. What makes film special is its ability to make a photo seem like a memory and to add meaning where no one else saw meaning. So let the camera take you places, explore, make a memory doing it, and then capture it.
9 - Pay attention to the film scan size
When you need to get your film developed and scanned, it can run you a check. A lot of places won't just charge a lot, they don't even get you a decent scan of your image. I am located in Washington D.C. and I use Photo 60 Studio, a local film processing company that offers a larger scan at a cheaper price compared to places like the darkroom. A decent scan resolution is around 4k (also see the large size below for rough target pixel dimensions). Another benefit of having a local place develop is that you don't have to pay for shipping.
10 - Find a project / focus
Once you have begun to feel comfortable with your camera(s) and taking photos, it's time to create something bigger than a single photo. A body of work can be larger than the sums of its parts. It can also push you to think about composition larger than one photo. It will give you purpose in the hunt for your next photo and provide a chance to create an impact that is more substantial than a thousand words. And, at the end, put it in a zine or book and preserve it for time.
Bonus Quick Tips
Light meter on your phone - it's the last gasp to find proper exposure. I use both the Light Meter and the Viewfinder apps.
Refrigerate film - it helps the film last longer.
Put a clip of the film box on the back of the camera - on some cameras, there will be a slot to put a cutout from the box of film you are using. This helps you remember what film you have inside you camera.
Carry an extra battery for your camera - If you can, bring one
Prime Lenses over Zoom - Sure zoom lense are sexy and can do it all in one thing, but prime lenses tend to be sharper, built better, and more suited toward low light
Don't use Sunny 16, learn to expose - a lot of articles preach the Sunny 16 rule. While the rule's heart is in the right place, I've never used it and don't think its a solution instead of knowing how to properly expose an image.
Buy some film photography books - nothing like supporting other photographers and getting inspiration for your own work. I've bought from Baltimore Photo Space before and would definitely recommend.
I don't really care how cliche I am, but the truth is who gives a care. Do what you want, have fun, make memories, and capture them on film. Just make learning film photography interesting in your own way and you'll be just fine.