While the photography landscape is dominated by digital cameras and phones, film is making a comeback. For decades, film photography was easy and cost-effective, and the quality of photos far exceeded that of early digital cameras.

But during the 2000s digital cameras soon surpassed their analogue rivals, and became widely adopted. Today, the most popular cameras are smartphones, with some having four or more cameras built-in. You can take dozens of high-resolution photos per second and photos that move when you press on them. You can instantly message them to friends and family, and apply digital filters and post them to social media in seconds. What then, is so appealing about film photography?

The limitation to 36 or fewer shots per roll of film makes you slow down and think about your composition — whether a photo is really worth taking. It’s easy to take for granted ‘unlimited’ photos on a digital camera, when there’s no real cost of taking unnecessary pictures. Digital photos can be riddled with noise: distorted and blown out pixels. Compare this to the grain in film, often a desirable characteristic. Film can also offer an artistic advantage — physical manipulation of film and experimentation with light and chemicals when developing can offer endless possibilities.

Photo by George Tuli

The gear

A 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera is the best starting point. Choose a model made by one of the big brands from the seventies: Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, or Minolta. This will ensure good build quality at a relatively cheap price. Make sure you choose a camera with a program mode which will help you get the right settings for your exposure.

You can find many old film cameras on eBay, but it’s also worth looking in charity shops or markets, especially if you want to see and get a feel for the camera before you buy it. Check all the mechanisms are functioning as intended — go through all the shutter speeds and make sure the shutter opens and closes without sticking.

When you’re choosing a lens for starting out, 50mm is the best option. The ‘nifty fifty’ gives a similar magnification as the human eye, so it’ll make framing your shots easy. Whether you’re shooting portraits, landscapes, or just taking snapshots at events, 50mm is a good starting point. Once you’ve learnt your camera and some film photography basics, you can buy additional lenses with shorter or longer focal lengths.

35mm film can still be bought cheaply online from Amazon and other retailers. Film is sold at different “speeds” or ISO numbers. Low ISO film (50-200) is suited to bright, sunny conditions, like a trip to the beach or a day in the snow, while high ISO film (over 400) is better for gloomy days and indoors. Kodak’s Portra 160 film is one of my favourites, offering fine grain, natural colours and warm skin tones.

Photo by George Tuli

Taking a photo

If the camera you chose has an automatic mode, this will choose the exposure settings for you — the image will be properly exposed, for the most part. Automatic mode often makes bright objects (like the sky) too dark, and dark objects (those in shadow) too bright. To get around this, you need to use a manual mode, and this requires understanding of shutter speed and aperture.

Shutter speed is how long the film is exposed to light coming in through the lens. Fast shutter speeds are used in bright conditions, and slow shutter speeds in darker conditions. For slower speeds (1/30 and slower) camera shake can become a problem, so you’ll need to rest the camera on a surface or use a tripod. 

The aperture controls the light let into the lens. A wide aperture (f/1.8) lets more light into the lens than a narrow aperture (f/16). Adjusting the aperture changes the depth of field in your photo — how much of the frame is in focus.

Different combinations of aperture and shutter speed are required for different types of photo. For example, in a landscape photo you want the foreground and background to be in focus, so you need a narrow aperture (f/11) but you’ll need to use a slower shutter speed so the film is exposed to this lower amount of light for longer. This will result in a properly exposed shot. Equally, for sports you want to freeze the action, so a fast shutter speed and wide aperture are necessary.

Many cameras come with a light meter to help you expose the shot correctly.

Photo by George Tuli

Developing your shots

Getting your film developed isn’t as cheap as it once was. One option is making your own dark room by blacking out the windows of your bathroom and buying the required chemicals and equipment. In the long run, this is cheaper and can often be fun, but it’s not always practical. When starting out, your best bet is to post your film to a lab that will do the hard work for you. They’ll post your negatives along with prints of your photos. You can usually get digital copies of your photos on a CD or have them emailed to you, to save you having to scan them in.


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