Starting Film PhotographyFebruary 5, 2020
Around 2010, I started taking film photography more seriously, stealing my father’s camera from the 70s: the Olympus OM-2N. It had a fantastic set-up with a sharp lens, and seeing my developed film with naturally pronounced green hues and off focus hits provided a renewed sense of understanding with photography. Sadly, the body ran into some mechanical malfunctions after a few years. Instead of repairing it for upwards of $120, I bought an entirely new camera for $50 - the Canon AE-1. Since then, I have built a moderate film collection, led by the Nikon F3, and it is inspiring to see so many people asking questions to kickstart their own film photography journey. This might be a longer guide than some of you may have expected, with some convoluted aspects to it - hopefully it provides enough information to get you started.
This introduction to film photography completely focuses on SLR cameras - those with an interchangeable lens system and with manual aperture, shutter, and focus controls. There exists a massive selection of point and shoot film cameras, where you load the film and press the shutter - that’s all. The SLR system is built on customization, even if you use automatic settings - choosing exactly the type of lens you want to use and dictating the finished shot based off your precise choices.
The same cameras have been recommended for years: Canon AE-1, Nikon FE2, Pentax K1000, Olympus OM-2, Minolta X-700. If this was 2015, you could easily find any of these cameras for $50 - $75 on eBay in great, working condition. Now that film photography has hit a tremendous resurgence, prices have been inflated to a ludicrous degree - I recently found a Pentax K1000, a camera once easily purchased for $70, selling for $350. Unfortunately, this is what happens when dozens of blogs and photographers source the same models for years on end. If you do not want to do an ounce of research, pick the Canon AE-1 in good condition, with a 50mm lens, under $120. Find a reputable seller on eBay and cross your fingers - get the camera and start shooting. Anything too cheap will likely be a film camera that’s being sold for parts only with no working mechanisms, a broken light meter, or broken light seals. Anything priced higher will be due to the excellent, pristine condition of the camera, or because that model is riding the hype of modern trends.
If you do end up doing more research, here are some of the advancements film cameras made over time: (1) Better ergonomics and build materials(2) Semi-automatic aperture priority modes (3) Improved metering systems (4) Better battery handling (5) TTL flash metering. For the most part, as long as all the mechanical components are functioning properly, you might not immediately notice difference in photo quality. The lens you own is more of a variable for comparing photo quality across cameras. Most of these starter cameras will each come with a starter lens, and they’re all credible and functional. The base lens will often be 50mm at 1.8f. They’re great. They might not always be the default choice for professionals, but there is nothing intrinsically deficient about them. If you want to plan for the future, invest in a brand that has a wide variety of quality lenses available.
Here’s a list of ten starter cameras and the base lens they’re usually offered with. These are the most common to recommend for a few reasons - notably, they were the best SLR cameras forty years ago, and they are incredibly capable today, still, especially for a budget under $200. These cameras are also the most widely available cameras you can find - there are comparable models you may be able to find for $60, but they are hard to come by in working condition. If you can’t find these cameras (with lens) for under $200, wait a few weeks, or look elsewhere other then eBay (either depop, Facebook Marketplace, thrifting, or a local camera store).
Starter cameras have extremely limited auto functions. Setting the aperture, focus, and shutter speed is, for the most part, a completely manual experience. Your light meter is one of the most vital aspects to film photography, informing you what shutter speed is necessary to properly expose the scene in front of you. As a beginner to film photography, absolutely do not buy a camera with a broken light meter - you’re thrusting yourself into hard mode off the bat, trying to ascertain the best exposure settings by raw eye estimates or by using a light meter app on your phone. eBay listings will let you know if a light meter isn’t working, and it should one of the first things you should look for when buying a camera.
Hopefully this isn’t terribly shocking, but the specific film stock you choose will be the king of determining the baseline look of your photography. Film stocks are, generally, organized by sensitivity to light (its ISO, something you’re familiar with in digital photography) and its temperature setting. If you buy a roll of Kodak Portra 400 film, the film is locked at ISO 400 (Note: yes, for advanced shooters, you can “push ISO,” but that isn’t part of this guide). Great for daytime shots, but a little trickier to work with at night, if you don’t have flash. Higher ISOs - Fuji Superia 800, for one - will be more effective for darker settings, as it is locked to ISO 800. But, higher ISOs also run the risk of producing grainier photos.
For temperature, it’s safe to assume that your stock is set for warmer tones, unless stated otherwise. Shooting in sunlight should naturally produce properly white balanced photos. A stock like CineStill 800T adds the “T” to the end for Tungsten - combined with the high speed at ISO 800, the stock is marketed for creating dark, neo-noir city shots that create a mood based around harsh artificial blue lighting. And then, there are stocks that are purely black and white - Ilford HP5 400 being the most popular option, with other black and white stocks providing their own varying degrees of contrast and grain.
Where should you start with film stocks? For me, the entry stock is Kodak UltraMax 400. A single stock will run $10 with a pack of four running $25, and a pack of ten for $40. Film is meant to be bought in bulk, and I would only recommend buying a single roll if you wanted to experiment with something specific (such as CineStill 800T - which is stupidly expensive. As of this post, it is $25 for one roll because of high demand. Do not buy CineStill 800T to start with until the price drops by at least $10).
When it comes to my favorite film stock, it’s Kodak Portra 400. A five-pack runs for approximately $50. The colors, contrast, and overall feel of Portra 400 is exactly what I’m looking for with my film photography, and most of the photos you see throughout this post are shot on Portra 400. It’s known to be a favorite across the photography community, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest it’s the end-all stock for film photography. Creative photographers test out stocks that can shift green tones to purple, that intentionally oversaturate colors, or work better with landscapes. You’ll find the stock that fits your style the most as you test drive more and more. You can use The Darkroom’s Film Index as a resource to compare different brands, with price, color saturation, and grain measurements provided, as well as user reviews.
One last thing - you are purchasing 35mm film. Film stocks do come in medium format film, denoted as 120mm film - make sure you don’t accidentally purchase the wrong type of film. You can buy film on amazon, eBay, or at individual vendor sites, such as Lomography.
Don’t use Walgreens or CVS to develop your photos. It takes days, sometimes over a week to get your photos processed, mainly because they ship out your film to be developed and have no quality control over the processing. Hopefully, you live in a city with a local photo studio that will develop, scan, and print, with a roll averaging $6 to develop the negatives and $12 to develop and scan or print.
If you live in New York, develop your photos at Accurate Photoshop in Brooklyn. This is where I have been visiting for years with no worry over the reliability or promptness of their work. The store is run by a wonderful and tireless couple who are specifically dedicated to developing photos in an hour or less, with scans or prints ready on the same day. They are heavily experienced and will treat you with friendly attention and consideration instead of a cold, pretentious demeanor found at more modern development labs.
Online is always an option as well, in case you don’t have time to travel to Brooklyn, or if you don’t live in New York / anywhere with a convenient photo lab nearby. The Darkroom is the place I’m most familiar with, but I haven’t used them before. That being said, this is still a favorite place for YouTubers and professional shooters.
Starting film photography is also a measure of finding the right artists that compel you with their work. Here are a few photographers worth following due to their emphasis on film:
And a few youtube channels to bookmark to learn further tips, watch interviews, and generally follow the artists with their work:
That’s it. Hope this was helpful, and hit me up with any other questions.