Film photography is where it all began. Before digital photography and the birth of the digital age, we all took photographs on strips of plastic.
These strips come with a coating of a silver halide solution, protected by a layer of gelatin. The photographs we took burned an imprint into the silver.
To get a negative out of this, chemicals and washes striped the plastic of all its coating, revealing a reversed image. Dark areas of the scene would show up as transparent on the negative.
The grain or ‘noise’ we see from higher ISOs comes from the size of the silver pieces. The bigger the pieces, the better they were at capturing light but that also meant they were big enough to see.
Film photography is all about having a physical element with the possibility of experimentation.
These days, film is making a huge come back and our article is here to take you through all things film.
From plenty of reasons why you should shoot film to composition and developing to digitalising film.
You don’t really need me to tell you the difference between analogue and digital. We see it all the time with money, music and film. Film came first, then the digital revolution followed.
The biggest advantage of film photography is that it offers you a way to learn. Most analogue film cameras are fully manual, meaning you have to change all the settings yourself.
There are many disadvantages, but these only make sense when comparing to the DSLRs of today. The quality of your negatives can surpass your DSLR if you have the right camera.
What is Film Photography
This cheat sheet is to help you get started with film photography. If you know the basics of film photography, you know the basics of digital too.
Film photography is much more difficult and challenging than digital photography. You need to know your camera inside out, the scenes’ abundance of light and what your film can do.
This cheat sheet runs through the film speed (ISO), aperture (f/stops) and how long you can open your shutter for (shutter speed). All three of these things work co-dependently.
Have a look at this article for all the help you need to get started.
Many people were born in a time where digital photography had already taken over. I am at a great advantage. My father dabbled in photography when he was younger and he passed on his first camera to me when I was old enough.
A Canon A1. Best camera of the 70s.
I used this camera until halfway through university. This is when the digital age kicked in.
Long story short, I started university using film and left using digital. I have the best of both worlds. I can safely say I prefer film photography.
For one, I use both. When I have the possibility to go out and shoot film, I give myself time. Every frame needs considering, so when I nail a shot, I am very proud of my work.
There are many people that believe film photography is better than digital. I am one of them, even though I use digital and need it in my day to day workings.
What film photography does offer you is a way to slow down. You need to work a tool that is mainly manual. This means you need to think about every little detail.
You can savour each and every moment that passes your way. You can’t use burst mode (without extra equipment) so that one shot needs to count.
That one shot will make you feel proud. Blanketing a scene with 20 frames in a few seconds using digital photography won’t.
Now, going analogue is a big step. Shooting digitally with a DSLR or mirrorless system is a great big step from film photography.
What analogue photography offers you is a plethora of great cameras to choose from. These cameras are specific to their time and their location.
A Japanese camera like the Mamiya is very different to the Russian camera Zenit. Different feel, different sound, different outputs.
Digital cameras don’t have a look about them, nor do they have a feel of a culture or a time. Read our article for the other 7 reasons to go analogue.
The benefits of film photography are what got people shooting in the first place. Back in the day, scientists and documenters used the camera as a tool.
Then, the cameras found their way into the hands of studio photographers, documenters and artists. Without film photography, digital photography would not have been born.
Likewise, Adobe Photoshop was born from struggles that Thomas Knoll found when dodging and burning in the darkroom.
Film photography still offers a lot of choices. Many different types of film give you different looks in the real world, opposite to splashing them over your Instagrams.
One area that digital photography can’t replicate thoroughly is the chance to experiment. Film photography itself was an experiment from older forms of photography.
Sure, you can have filters that give you an impression of sepia toning, but nothing beats doing it in the physical world.
The tones are different for each print as temperature, time and the amount of chemicals used all have an effect. You leave the process up to chance. This gives your images a unique quality.
For the other reasons why you should photograph on film, read here.
Ok, ok, so I can’t photograph solely on film. There are times when I need to have images completed very fast.
I work in low light conditions where time is a factor, so getting those shots is paramount.
There images are usually commissioned or paid for by a person or company, and not my own work.
For myself, I shoot on film. Street photography, portraits and architecture, captured on my Canon A1 or my Mamiya C330 TLR. They both have their advantages.
There are times where film photography is just too much hassle. Low light situations are one of these.
Film photography gives you too much grain to work with. Read here for the other reasons why you should shoot hybrid.
Film photography is different to its digital counterpart in many ways. One of the biggest differences comes in how we expose a scene.
With film photography, it is better to overexpose. It is difficult to blow out the highlights with film, and it is easier to bring the exposure down later.
In digital photography, the opposite works better. Underexposing a scene allows you to pull details out of the shadows.
This is just one tip we can offer you, the rest are in our article here.
Film is cool, so it needs to stay in a cool place. Film, due to its components, has an end date. What we see is that pro-level films are less robust and will expire faster.
This doesn’t mean you can no longer use the film, but colours will start to shift. The bigger the ISO, the bigger the shifts will be.
After a long enough timeline, the film will no longer be sensitive to light. Slide films expire in different ways than regular colour film.
Black and white doesn’t change as dramatically as colour film. Keeping them all cool extends their life expectancy.
You can read more about the effects and shelf lives of film here, in our article.
Film Photography Equipment
It is the at the intersection of a photographer’s skills and their camera’s ability that one can find a great image. Neither one can operate without the other.
Luckily for you, there are many cameras that you can buy cheaply. There are even cheaper second-hand options.
As the digital market came, photographers ran to the DSLRs. They up and left their analogue counterparts to sit on shelves.
Here is our list to help you choose the right camera for you and your style.
35mm is not the only choice you have when it comes to buying a film camera. Medium format is a viable choice for many different reasons.
First, they offer a different format than the 35mm small format. Medium formats come in 645 (6×4.5), 6×6 and 6×7.
There are even panoramic models like the Fuji GX617 that offer a whopping 6cm x 17cm negative. One of the most popular is the Rolleiflex TLR (Twin Lens Reflex). It uses two lenses, one to view find and the other to photograph.
Read our extensive article, covering many of the medium format options to help you find one to your liking.
Yeah yeah, we all would love a Leica M3 or M6. Any of them would do, but life is unfair. They are expensive as they are world renowned.
Not owning one shouldn’t stop us from buying and using other great cameras. The ones on our list had their time, and they need you for their revival.
What about the Canon AE1? The first affordable film camera with TTL (Through The Lens metering), It also came with autoexposure modes.
Have a look at the others and see which ones grab your fancy.
One of the challenges you might come across when shooting film is not having a light meter reading.
Some cameras have them inbuilt, others have no way of telling you if the scene is over- or underexposed. This is where a handheld light meter comes in very handy.
They work in two different ways. They operate as a reflected light meter or an incident light meter. Reflected looks at how much light becomes reflected from the subject.
An Incident light meter looks at how much light hits the subject. It tests the light between the camera and the subject. This also works with flash lighting.
Read here on all the information you need on light meters, and which type is better for you.
There are so many black and white 35mm films to choose from, it can be daunting. It would be impossible to give you the details and comparisons of them all.
A great image doesn’t just come from the film choice. It also comes from what you capture, if you prefer to under- or overexpose the film.
The developer also plays a huge part in how the final negative turns out. Then on top of that, you still have to print or scan the image in and post-process the images.
Here, you will find the comparisons of the top 5 most popular black and white 35mm films.
The great thing about film photography is that there are still so many different types of film to use. The downside of film photography is the overwhelming amount of choice in films.
And the choice can be daunting. The questions you first need to ask is 35mm or 120 (medium format film)? Colour or black and white? Low or high ISO?
Like anything else, your choice of film comes down to what you are photographing. The amount of light present at the scene will determine what ISO speed you will need. Use our article to help you get started in choosing a good film.
Your camera settings for film photography are going to be like what you would use for digital.
There is no difference in the tool you use to capture a scene. Both cameras come down to utilising the three fundamental basics of photography.
Aperture, ISO and shutter speed make up the exposure triangle, allowing you to capture a scene.
Knowing how to use these three elements manually will help your film photography.
Read our article here on the best camera settings to use.
We looked at handheld light meters in a previous topic, but if one isn’t available then there is another way. The other option you can use is adopting the sunny 16 rule.
This states that at noon, when the sun is at its highest, the first setting you should choose is f/16. The shutter speed should be set as close to your ISO as possible.
For example, f/16, ISO 200, gives you a shutter speed of 1/250.
The benefit of this system is that you don’t have to keep those settings. They are just a good base to work from.
If you wanted to move your aperture down 5 stops to f/2.8, then your shutter speed needs to go up 5 stops.
This is light compensation as the smaller aperture adds light, and the increase of the shutter speed takes it out again. Keep it sunny.
Darkroom And Developing
It’s not only easy to process your own negatives at home, it’s also a lot of fun. The anticipation builds as you follow a few easy steps.
First off, you need to find a way to get the film out of its canister and into a developing tank. This happens in pitch black as the film is still sensitive to light.
Once the film is in the developing tank, you need a developing chemical called ‘developer’. Then, water and another chemical called ‘fixer’.
The developing tank holds your film and allows the chemicals to work on it. By agitating the chemicals one by one, you turn the film into a negative.
A darkroom is where you process your negatives into prints. A negative is a reverse image of the scene you had captured.
The blacks are whites and vice versa. The negative acts as a template that allows light through it and onto light-sensitive paper.
These negatives are repeatedly used any number of times. Thank god, as you never get the exposure right the first time.
A dark room needs to consist of two areas; one for dry processes and the other for wet ones. The dry areas are where an enlarger exposes your negative on to the paper.
The wet area is where you process and wash your paper with chemicals. This article gives you all the information you need to know how to build and operate a darkroom.
Printing your first black and white image is an experience you can’t explain. All the hard work and training has lead right to this point.
The basic idea is that you take your negatives into the darkroom and place them into the enlarger. This expands the projected image that falls through the negative.
The light-sensitive paper picks up the different intensities of light and produces a positive print. You can see this after you process the print in the developer chemical.
All the information you need is right here, in our article.
Pushing and pulling film refers to up- and down-rating your film to a higher or lower ISO. This can happen during the photography stage or the printing stage.
When you push or up-rate your film, you are telling the camera that the film has a higher ISO that it actually does.
This allows your light meter to correctly expose for the faster film speed. This is helpful to photograph low light conditions.
Pulling your film works the opposite way. You’re telling your camera that the film is less sensitive to light than it is, thus exposing the film to more light.
Read all the information you need here, in our article.
Using expired film has become a very trendy and popular way to photograph for a few years now. This is because expired film presents colour shifts.
The effects of heat and background radiation cause gradual, inexorable damage. But extending their lives is as simple as sticking them in a fridge or, even better, a freezer.
Freezing a film extends its life by decades.
These colour shifts add those interesting filter-esque tints and colour tones. These are the ones that are more present on Instagram processed images.
The best thing about them is that there is no way of telling how much the colour has changed and shifted.
Also, each different film type presents you with a different shift in colour. It’s all experimental and very interesting.
Photographic film starts as a negative. This is the reverse of the captured scene. It becomes reversed again when printed from an enlarger. A negative creates a positive print.
Positive paper exists. This allows you to capture a scene as it is, where you skip the enlarging of the image. This is something that you can use with large format cameras and pinhole cameras.
Read here on how you can get hold of this paper, and how you can use it.
A double exposure is a process of layering two images on top of each other. This can happen either in the photographing, developing or even the printing stage.
Some cameras, such as the Mamiya C330 TLR (twin lens reflex) have an inbuilt option to create many exposures. The camera doesn’t roll the film onto the next negative.
The things you need to think of when creating a double exposure are all here, in our article.
DIY Film Photography
If you are one of those awesome photographers that still shoots on film, a light box is a necessary tool.
A lightbox will help you look at your negatives closely. This is great for the pre-selection process before printing or scanning. It will save you time.
IKEA is the place to go for this one, for reconditioning an inexpensive table. Maybe you already have one that needs a new purpose.
It also serves as a futuristic coffee table. Find out how to make one here. You’re welcome!
Filters through VSCO, Lightoom or even Instagram are some of the most popular ways to add interest to your images.
What if I told you there is a natural way to do this with your film, and not digital. It makes for more interesting photos.
Film soaking means placing your unused roll of film in a substance of your choosing. This material affects your film, creating fascinating effects.
Wine or coffee are favourites, but you will need to read our article to make sense of it all.
If the experimental side of things interests you, this post is for you. You will see a few photographers have taken it upon themselves to create their own cameras. They created their own cameras to fit their style.
They have created cameras that allow them to capture in a unique way. This is a great way to add interest to your work as no one has the same tools capturing the same things.
Read here on a few possibilities and hopefully, it gets your creative chemicals running.
Film photography is great because it is so experimental. There are all kinds of things you can do to your camera to create interesting, creative results.
Film has the largest capacity for experimentation. Before photographing, during the capture and processing stage. Even from digitalising the film, offers you many possibilities.
Creating large-scale panoramas is a great way to take advantage of the films’ physical form. Here, you create an image from many smaller images, using detail to show the whole.
Read here on how to make them, showing you some inspiration to get you started.
Even though you love the analogue aspect of film photography, you might still want to digitalise your negatives. This ensures that you have a copy of your negative.
It also allows you to post-process the negatives further. Working with programs such as Lightroom allows experimentation with layers and local adjustments.
A digital version of your image allows you to share your shot on social media. A scanner is your best bet into getting your images onto your computer.
Read here on how we recommend you digitalise your film photography.
You don’t have to scan the negatives yourself. Good scanners can be very expensive. It might not be worth your time unless you have a lot of free time and negatives to work with.
There are many businesses, online and otherwise, that will scan and print your images for you. But, this also has an expense and they might not be able to scan specific requirements.
If you decide to scan your own images, here is the information you crave. On resolution and scanning software, our article will give you the necessary information.
A contact sheet shows you a quick look at what images are on your roll of film. Having one is a great way to show you which images would be worth your time in the darkroom.
They are usually so small, you need a loupe or some magnification to see the picture clearly. They act as a guide to help you print your photographs better
Many of you might have seen contact sheets from famous photographers, complete with framing notes and markings.
If you don’t have a darkroom built, fret not. You can place your negatives on a light table, and photograph them. This allows you to turn them into positives for a closer look.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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