Getting Started in Film Photography

Many many decades ago, the arrival of film photography had changed our world. For the first time in history, people were finally able to document what they see, what they experience, and what they feel. There truths were soon twisted, and, like any other form of art, film photography took an abstract turn. At the same time, the cameras found their way into our ancestors living rooms. A feeling of nostalgia hits most of us when thinking or talking about film cameras.

In today’s digital world, photography is everywhere. People have fully working and fully able cameras in their pockets. And within seconds, you can have the whole world see your photograph. It’s never been easier, quicker, and more fun to take photographs. But with the digital age, the feeling of nostalgia, of being challenged in uncommon ways, has never been stronger.

I aimed to write up a starter’s guide, which will hopefully help some trying to get a foot in the marvellous world of film photography.

It will cover the choice of format and camera, and hopefully make the decision of where to start somewhat easier. This is not meant to be the only and definitive to start into photography, but hopefully it can help some of you make up their minds.

Enjoying the view


1. Why Film Photography?

So why analog photography? Are the costs, fuss, and work worth the result?

An escape from the digital age. As the digital age takes over every aspect of today’s life, many people are looking for an escape into something more personal, more intricate. Vinyl music has reached a peak popularity for the past 20 years, rising higher every year. As in today’s world everyone seems to be a photographer, the number of people intrigued by the challenge of analog, or film photography is rising. The myriad of guides, how-to videos, and available equipment on the internet – used or new – are overwhelming and can intimidate the most curious.

A heron in the distance, Athuruga Maldives

You will mature as a photographer. How many images are stored on your SD card? For many of us, a trip or event with a digital camera ends up with hundreds and hundreds of images, many of which end up with the same fate: They land on a harddrive, or CD, and are hardly ever touched again. And let’s not even start with smart phone photography. The flood of images produced by handheld devices has reached a ridiculous level.
When I switched to film photography, I had to take less photos, and think more economical. Only 36 or 12 shots per film, depending on the format. So these few photos caught things that really mattered to me, personally. It wasn’t an unmanagable mess anymore. Also, I had to get better. The aim and the eye improved. Instead of using 30 images for a single subject I wanted to catch it in 3, or 4, at the most. And with that, my images improved. Even when I pick up my digital camera nowadays for a certain event, instead of a mess of 1200 photographs, I end up with 200, most of which will matter and be useable.
Furthermore, the fact that you spend more time with the camera, the medium, and the development will mean that you will appreciate photography as a whole more. Your learning curve gets a new boost.

The Glass Pyramid

It’s cheaper than you think. Contrary to most thoughts, film photography is not expensive. You can get a really good used camera for a tenth or 20th of the price for an equivalent quality digital camera. Around 150 bucks can get you a superb device. Excellent quality film will cost you $5-7 / £4-5 or € per roll. Remember that I said you will shoot less? On a weekend trip away, I shoot 3 or 4 rolls. Labs for development and prints also cost far less than you think. Also: Don’t forget that you’d need someone to print your digital photographs too.

Portra in Snow – Hotel Wildstrubel

“The film look”. The semiprofessional and professional digital photo world is full of images trying to simulate a film look. Just look at wedding or travel photography. Smart phone applications offer you a myriad of choice regarding film-emulating filters. But you can get the real deal. No more fake presets. No more filters. Every film has its character, and there’s the right film type for every moment. It’s an endless discovery. And in the end, it will look better than any damn filter out there.


2. Pick your format

Before looking for a camera, you should decide the format, as this will result in many irreversible choices regarding shooting, availability of film, and flexibility when shooting.

Basically, there is two starting points for a beginner: 35mm or 120, aka ‘Medium format’ film. There is also large format photography, but as a beginner, you should stick to one of those two.

35mm

The format. Small format, or 35mm, film is what in digital photography would be considered ‘full frame’. It’s the classic film that (most of) our parents used on their travels, and if you look closely, you will realise: 35mm film is widely available. Almost every camera shop I’ve been to had a few rolls of 35mm film available for purchase. It’s cheap, and the results are great.

The cameras. Used 35mm cameras are available in an abundance. Very little investment can give you a camera model that was used by professionals and artists some decades ago. Also, many 35mm cameras come with a huge help for the beginner: built-in light meters. The cameras are small, portable, light to carry, easy to use, and due to the numbers available you should easily find one in very decent condition for little money. Furthermore, like modern cameras, each brand comes with their vast choice of lenses, which, again, will cost far less than an equivalent quality lens nowadays.
There are also semi- to fully-automatic SLRs, of course, but I personally recommend starting with an all-manual camera straight away.

El camión

Why 35mm? It’s the ultimate street photographer’s tool. They’re made for travel. Aim, shoot and advance. There’s no other sound like it. You get 36 images per roll. Development is easy, and needs almost half of the material that Medium format does. Alternatively, most local camera shops will process your film.

120 film (Medium Format)

The format. Depending on camera, and photographer, images taken on Medium format film come in either 6×6, 6×4, or 6×7 inch size. However, most images taken on 120 film are square. The square format will give your images an artistic touch, no matter what the subject or the occasion. Landscapes look incredible, and so do people’s portraits. And, if you’re patient, they can be a fantastic street photography tool.

Medium Format (Lake Cuber)

The cameras. A good quality Medium format camera will cost you more than a 35mm, mainly because they are mechanical wonder machines, and built in fewer numbers. There is, however, one brand of cameras that, in the medium format world, offers fantastic value for money, and incredible results: The Lubitels. More on them later.
120 cameras are far less versatile than 35mm. They are heavier, bulkier, and those with interchangable lenses or other accessoires are rare, their price skyrockets. You will also probably need a separate light meter. Still, my entry to the world of film photography came with a 120 film camera. It made me appreciate the delicacy of film while at the same time filling me with joy due to the incredible results. I still love shooting with my cheapo Lubitel, even though there’s a Leica sitting next to it on the shelf.

More Smoke Beyond

Why Medium format? You will be slow, no doubt. It’s a challenge, but the results speak for themselves. There’s nothing like it. The huge negatives catch so much beautiful detail that can’t be compared to 35mm or full- to small format digital cameras. Development is, apart from using a bit more material, identical to 35mm film. It’s a joy working with those huge square pictures, and, if you go for a Lubitel, it’s probably the cheapest value-for-money entry into film photography.


3. Pick your camera

The great thing about film photography is the availability of fantastic cameras at incredibly good prices. Go to thrift stores, camera shops selling used gear, read ads in the papers, or just go to eBay. They’re everywhere. I bought lots of used gear online and it all arrived in great condition. Don’t be scared. The longer you hesitate, the more you miss out. I will go through a couple of camera models to recommend for a beginner for both formats.

The great thing about film cameras is that there are no pixel wars, no menus or shutter delays to compare, no firmwares to update, no sensors to ruin. The camera is your tool, a mechanical wonder, it’s the lenses that decide sharpness (together with film), but the character of your images will be decided by your film alone. Therefore, pick a model that suits your level of flexibility, comfort, and looks.

Buying your first analog camera will be your first step into a fantastic world, which will change your perception of photography forever, so choose wisely. Forget those overpriced and overhyped modern-day Lomo cameras – they’re crap, not more than a gimmick. For almost the same amount of money, you can get a camera that’s respectable, flexible, and which will deliver what you want.

35mm

You don’t need a Leica to get fantastic results with a 35mm camera. Those built in the 70-80s were incredible machines. There’s one mistake you can make: Don’t buy last-generation automatic SLRs. They will never give you the same joy and satisfaction as a classic manual SLR would. It’s a challenge, but the results will speak for themselves.

Canon AE-1

Canon AE-1. The war between Canon’s and Nikon’s existed even back in the age of film. The Canon AE-1 was produced from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, and it was a huge market success. Over a million were produced. And therefore, there’s tons of them available everywhere. They’re robust, look fantastic, and even come with a light meter. They’re incredibly cheap to find – you can get them online for under $100 including lenses and accessoires.

Nikon FM-2

Nikon FM-2. A fantastic camera, which stayed on the market for almost 30 years. It was the first fully mechanical camera with a shutter speed of 1/4000th. The build quality, and smooth mechanics speak for themselves – this is a camera to last a lifetime. Also featuring a light meter, and countless lenses available, this baby will set you back a little more than the AE-1, but you really get a beast of a camera.

1280px-My_Olympus_OM-1_MD_(4336326712)-2

Olympus OM-1 or OM-10. Heavily influenced by the design of Leicas, the OM-1 was a high-end tool with a fantastic viewfinder, probably the best on the market. It was all mechanical, and almost unbreakable. It’s mid-level cousin, the OM-10, offers automatic Aperture-priority automatic exposure setting, a helpful addition if you’re still too unsure to go all-in into the manual world.

There’s a myriad of other manufacturers; Pentax, Minolta, Mamiya. You name them. But I would recommend you to stick to one of the big three to start with, also due to the availability of lenses, robustness and build quality. These cameras, if found in decent condition, and taken care of, will outlive the user in many cases.

Medium Format

The price of medium format cameras will make a huge jump if you want a good brand or great build quality. Many Eastern European and USSR manufacturers tried to replicate the models of famous medium format cameras. Many can be truly horrible, but nevertheless, there’s one that you should give a go before spending several hundred bucks on a proper camera. Therefore, I will start with I consider a must-have for any beginner in medium format photography.

Lubitel 166u

Lubitel 166u. The Lubitel 166u, a camera manufactured by the USSR-based company Lomo (not the same as today’s hipster Lomography brand), was my first film camera. I bought it new, delivered directly from St. Petersburg, and it was so cheap that I ended up paying more for shipping + customs than the camera itself (100 bucks in total). It’s a TLR (twin lens reflex) camera, which means that there’s two lenses – one for focusing, and one that sends the image onto the negative. These are fantastic plastic cameras, and they prove that in most cases it’s the film you use, not the camera, that makes the result. Sure, they’re built cheaply, they’re clumsy, and they will not last a life time, but not meant to. They will deliver. I love the Lubitel, so much I have two (a Lubitel 2 aswell).

Rolleiflex

Rolleiflex Tessar 75/3.5F. Holding a Rolleiflex in your hands for the first time, is a unique and memorable moment. The weight, the mechanics, and the intricate design, all speak for the true king of TLR cameras. The Tessar 3.5 (or Automat A/B) is a model built in the 1950s. In good condition, this is a camera that will outlive many. The lens, even for these entry price models ($300-400) is fantastic. While super sharp, the soft, yet vivid tones will give your images a gorgeous look. Make sure the lenses are free of fungus or scratches, with smooth mechanics and a good focusing screen (they can get foggy with time), and you will have a true masterpiece of a camera. There’s still plenty of them out there at a formidable price.

Yashica 635

Yashica 635. If you can’t afford a Rolleiflex, and want something better than a Lubitel, the Yashica might be a smart choice. The Yashica 635 is a highly versatile camera – you might even be able to find the optional 35mm adaptor, which makes it a very interesting choice for a beginner. On the downside – it doesn’t have a built in light meter, but then again, hardly any Medium format camera does.

There’s obviously many many more cameras, and you might say: He didn’t even mention Hasselblads! What about Leica? And don’t forget Mamiya! That’s all true, but these I would not consider suitable for a beginner. The steps into the world of analog camera should be baby steps, so you can pick up as much as you can along the way. Go too fast, and you’ll miss out.

Feel free to comment on this post to share your suggestions


All photographs except cameras are my own. Camera image credits: click images for source.

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