Film photography is gaining in popularity.
At the start of the digital revolution, film was the realm of those who did not want to move to the new way of working (and those folks were usually harassed on forums and message boards).
But these days, film photography has a much different reputation. While some photographers see film as the preserve of hipsters trying to look cool, for many, film is a more organic method of photography. It allows you to slow down, focus on getting the shot, and experience a wait before seeing the results.
In this article, I’ll guide you through the process, equipment, and reasons to start shooting film.
What is film photography?
Film photography is the process of using chemicals to create a photograph. Film in roll form has been around since 1885. The film roll was invented by Peter Houston, who then licensed it to George Eastman (of the Kodak company). Kodak still dominates film photography to this day.
Without getting too complicated, film photography works by exposing silver halide crystals to light. The more light that comes in contact with the crystals, the darker the crystals become. Afterward, the film can be processed to create a negative (the inverse of the final image), and this can be exposed onto light-sensitive paper to create a final print.
Slide film is also available, which works slightly differently – but let’s not overcomplicate things too much!
Film vs digital: Why should you consider shooting film?
As I explained above, the process of creating a photograph on film is a science. It involves chemicals, darkness, and all sorts of other cool stuff. Anyone who has ever processed their own film images will talk about the feeling they had when they first saw a print come to life in the developer. It is a magical experience, and one that takes a lot of time and effort. But it is this time and effort that makes film photography so rewarding.
Let’s take a closer look at the many reasons you should shoot film over digital:
1. Film stops you from being sloppy
Film photography is much more deliberate than digital photography. Each time you press the shutter, there is a cost attached. So you quickly learn to nail the technical elements and the composition. Shooting a 36-exposure roll of film will cost you roughly $1 per image. So if you go out and shoot 200-300 images, as many of us do on a digital shoot, you will suddenly see how cheap digital photography is.
Also, when you can shoot bursts of 100 images, you don’t really need to wait for the perfect moment to unfold. You just shoot until you get it. You don’t need to worry about exposure because you can check the LCD, adjust as needed, and fix it in editing.
Film photography, on the other hand, isn’t about shooting hundreds of images. It’s about shooting a roll of 36 pictures (possibly 2 rolls if you have a great photoshoot). It is about making each exposure count and getting everything right in-camera.
In other words: With digital, it’s easy to become a lazy photographer because there are rarely consequences. With film, you’ll always be on your toes.
2. Film saves you hours in post-processing
Film tends to look great straight out of the camera, whereas digital photos can require hours of post-processing.
In fact, most popular editing styles are film-based. So if you want the look and feel of a polished photo without spending tons of time editing, just shoot film!
Digital photographs edited to look like film are the photographic equivalent of laminate oak flooring. Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s more practical. But it just isn’t the same as the real thing!
I don’t mean to say that printing film photographs isn’t an absolute art. If you look at some of the notes of Magnum’s master printer, Pablo Inirio, you will see how the process of creating a print from a negative is something that takes a true mastery of the craft. There are definitely no auto buttons in the darkroom.
But overall, the “film” look is pretty stunning – and requires little-to-no actual editing.
3. Film makes you better at problem solving
In film photography, your ISO is fixed.
So you’re forced to think carefully when doing photography. If the light is dropping and you’re shooting ISO 100 film, you’ll have to figure out how to get more light into the camera, or you won’t get the shot. Should you slow the shutter? At what speed can you still handhold? Are you sure? Should you open the aperture and sacrifice depth of field? How can you still get a great shot in tough conditions?
Film photography throws up a lot of questions, and you only get the answers when you see the developed images.
4. Film is (potentially) cost effective
Here’s the thing:
As I mentioned above, it costs around $1 per shot to do film photography. And that seems like a lot.
But if you look at the cost of a high-end film camera compared to something like the Canon EOS R5 (which is around $5000 with a lens), you’ll quickly realize that film photography can be very budget friendly, depending on how frequently you shoot.
Even if you spend $1000 on a high-end film camera and lens, it leaves you with a $4000 film budget. Additionally, high-end film cameras will keep their value. In fact, many film cameras rise in value. So if you purchase a film camera and sell it 5 years later, you might make a nice little profit in the process. That definitely isn’t true of the latest and greatest digital cameras.
5. Film photography is enjoyable
Ask yourself: What do you enjoy most about photography? Is it taking photos, or is it wading through editing software to find the best image out of 100 almost identical files? Is your enjoyment in seeing the final image, or in spending hours of editing to make it look perfect?
Personally, I am not a fan of editing, especially when I compare it to the enjoyment of taking photos. For you, it may be different, but photographing film sharpens my skills. It helps me get more keepers and means I spend less time behind the computer.
The easiest analogy I can draw here is with music. I love my phone with thousands of songs on it. The ability to carry every record I ever wanted to in my pocket is amazing, and it is how I listen to 90% or more of my music. However, when I really want to listen to music, I make a coffee, turn on my hi-fi system, and put on a record. It isn’t as convenient, and you have to get up to turn the album over halfway through, but it sounds better. And because I have invested more, I focus more, and I always enjoy it more.
6. It makes you cooler
Let’s face it:
Shooting film just makes you look cooler.
What equipment do you need for film photos?
You need a camera and some film. You then need a place to develop it. Pretty simple, really.
Let’s take a closer look at cameras and film:
There are three main types of film cameras:
- Point and shoot
- Medium format
Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The easiest way to get into film photography is with a good-quality compact camera. It’s the analog equivalent of taking photos on an iPhone. The camera will work out the exposure, leaving you to work on the composition.
There are many compact film cameras out there, ranging from the cheap all the way up to the incredibly expensive. If you want to try shooting film, this is where I suggest you start. You can pick up a decent compact film camera on a well-known auction site for under $100.
A film SLR is a lot like a digital SLR except not as good. There are those with autofocus and those without. SLRs without autofocus will add another layer of complexity to taking photographs. Generally, you can find a manual focus SLR for cheaper. Manual focus cameras are also more reliable mechanically due to the smaller amount of internal electronics.
Even if you do use an autofocusing film camera, note that old autofocus systems are not anything like those we enjoy today (though they can make film less daunting). The right option is something only you can decide.
Finally, there’s medium format. Medium format cameras use much larger film, though with 12-16 exposures per roll. In the same way that a bigger digital sensor improves image quality and gives a shallower depth of field, medium format film creates ultra-stunning results. Many iconic photographs have been taken on medium format film, including shots of the NASA space missions.
Medium format cameras have some advantages (e.g., many are able to change film partway through a roll). But they also have many quirks, and these can be overwhelming for photographers new to film. Medium format cameras are bulky, heavy, and expensive compared to the other types mentioned here, so I’d hesitate to recommend them if you’re new to shooting film.
If you really want to try medium format film on a budget, you can get a Holga. It uses medium format film in a point and shoot style body with a plastic lens. Holga cameras have a very specific look; just don’t expect images like those shot by a “proper” medium format camera.
Your film will determine the look of your photography. It also fixes your ISO (i.e., if you put in ISO 100 film, you’ll be shooting at ISO 100 until the roll is finished). So make sure you carefully select your film’s ISO based on the day/time you’re shooting.
Now, each film has distinctive characteristics, such as color vividness and shadow softness. So the film you choose depends on the type of look you want to achieve. The main brands to check out are Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford.
Every film out there has an example photo or two on the internet, so get your Google on and see what looks good. I’d suggest buying a few different rolls of film and finding your own favorite. Trying a new film is part of the fun of film photography!
How to develop your film photos
The easiest way to develop your film photos is to send them off to a professional film lab. If you’re just starting out with film photography, this is the method I would definitely recommend.
However, many photographers (myself included) like the experience of developing their film at home. It’s a relatively simple process, and if you shoot a lot, it can be cost-effective. The main equipment and chemicals can be bought at many photography stores – some may even offer a discounted kit to get you started.
How to develop film at home is a whole different article. However, if you think you might want to try it, a basic equipment list is as follows:
- Film changing bag
- Film tank
- Distilled water
- Measuring cylinder
One quick tip for developing your film at home:
Dry it in the bathroom. The moisture from showering will decrease the amount of dust in the air, which will in turn decrease the amount of dust that will settle onto your negatives.
If you want to take things even further, you can set up your own darkroom for printing – but it’s more expensive and requires a dedicated space.
A guide to film photography: conclusion
Shooting film is a great way to learn more about photography. It gives you new methods of thinking about composition, exposure, and editing; it might even be the thing that can break you out of a creative rut.
As you now know, you can start film photography for cheap, and it may take your photography in a whole new direction!
Over to you:
What do you think of film photography? Have you tried it yet? If so, do you have any advice for beginners? And if you haven’t tried film, what camera and film do you plan to use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!