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Film Photography Crash Course

Shooting film is an incredible experience as a photographer. Lets face it, loading a roll of film into a camera is a lot more exciting than inserting a memory card! Film has an inherent romantic quality to it, from the variety of beautiful analog cameras, to the gorgeous aesthetic of different types of film, and even the process of shooting film itself.

I think one of the wonderful things about film are the constraints it provides. It forces you to work within it’s limits, which has the effect of simplifying photography.

Why Shoot Film?

Digital photography is certainly a lot more convenient than film. But film still has a ton of benefits! Here are a few reasons you might be interested in shooting film, or at least experimenting with it.

The look of film

Each type of film reproduces colours and tones slightly differently, giving each one a signature look. Different films also have different amounts/quality of grain to them which can be quite beautiful. The overall aesthetic quality of film can be difficult, or even impossible to simulate with digital processing (despite the efforts of many photoshop actions and preset developers!).

The process of shooting film

Each roll of film has a limited number of exposures on it. When you know you only have 12-30 shots on a roll of film you take the time to make sure each shot counts! The other half of the process can also be fun; developing your own film, and the excitement of getting prints or negatives back from a lab and seeing how they turned out. It’s almost like Christmas!!

Helps you learn photography

I envy the people who learned photography on film. Seriously. The point and click ease of digital photography seems like it should make it easier to learn photography but it actually enables you to skip learning a lot of the essential photography fundamentals! And you can definitely develop some really bad habits along the way. A lot of photography concepts became clear as I learned more about film.

A Crash Course

So, to help you learn a bit more about film, I put together a few videos to show you a few different types of cameras and the different formats of film they use! Let’s go!

Part 1 – 35mm Film

Cameras in the above video: Pentax K1000 SLR, Zeiss Ikon rangefinder. Both 35mm format.

A few examples of 35mm film. The color shots below are Fuji Provia color slide film.

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

The B&W shots below are Ilford Delta 400 film.

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

Part 2 – Medium Format & Large Format Film

Cameras in the above video: Medium format Hasselblad. Large format Horseman. 

The following are a couple large format shots: Kodak Ektachrome.

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

The following square shots are medium format (taken with a Holga, to be discussed in the next video). The color is Kodak Porta 160VC and the B&W is Fuji Neopan 100.

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

Part 3 – Instant Film and Toy Cameras

Cameras in the above video: Polaroid SX-70, Polaroid 600, Fuji Instax 210, Medium format Holga, 35mm Lomography Fisheye.

See the above medium format photos for examples of the Holga. Below are some shots taken with a Polaroid SX-70.

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

Below is an example of Artistic-Z polaroid film that allows you to move the emlusion around after the photo is taken. It’s discontinued now but it was a lot of fun to shoot!

Upload from November 08, 2011

Below are a couple examples taken with the Fuji Instax 210.

Upload from November 08, 2011

Upload from November 08, 2011

Where To Buy Film Cameras

Film cameras aren’t produced new at the same volume they once were, with digital being the new standard. But they are really great to purchase used! Many film cameras were really well built, and are still in fantastic shape.

  • Check your local classifieds (Kijiji, Craigslist, or eBay classifieds). Stuff pops up there all the time. Also keep an eye out at flea markets and thrift stores.
  • eBay – A great place to check prices, a huge market for used gear.
  • KEH – Their website is a pain to use (slow!), but they feature tons of used camera equipment. I also like that you can sign up to have a catalog mailed to you each month. Even though I don’t purchase gear from them often I enjoy leafing through the catalog and seeing the stock they have.
  • B&H Photo & Adorama – Both sites feature new and used camera gear

Where To Buy Film

  • B&H – I pick up most of my 35mm (also known as 135) and 120 medium format film from B&H. They have great selection and low prices. If you’re looking to start developing your own film you’ll also find the necessary developer / stopper / fixer / and clearing agent solutions here along with developing tanks (look for a Patterson developing tank).
  • UltraFine Online – I’ve purchased some cheap large format film from this store. They sometimes have specials on expired film.
  • The Impossible Project – If you’re looking for Polaroid film this is pretty much your only option (along with eBay of course).

Film Recommendations

I haven’t experimented with a ton of different of film but I can recommend a few that I like the look of.

  • Kodak Portra 160VC is a colour negative film that produces some great tones. Shadows seem a bit cooler and highlights warmer.
  • Fuji Pro 400H is another colour negative film that looks great for skin tones.
  • You can also try colour positive film like Fuji Provia.
  • For B&W I’ve tired Ilford HP5 which is a great general purpose B&W film but the grain seems a bit coarse.
  • Ilford Delta 400 is higher quality option with better grain and my film guru seems to be able to push (expose at a higher than rated ISO) and pull (expose at a lower than rated ISO) the film with ease.
  • Kodak Tri-X is also a popular B&W option.
  • I also like the higher contrast look of Fuji Neopan which seems popular among Japanese street photographers.
  • Ilford XP2 is a special type of B&W film that can be developed through colour processing (which can be convenient).

If you’re interested in seeing what a particular film looks like head to photosig.com and sign up for a free account. The site will let you search for images a variety of different ways, one being the type of film. There must be hundreds of different types of film listed there so make sure you using your browsers “Find” function to search within the page. You can also use Photosig to see what shots from different film cameras look like.

Flickr is another place to do a search for the particular type of film, or film camera, you’re interested in.

Where To Get Film Developed

Your local photography store will likely do developing and prints and is a great place to start. You could also experiment with cheaper photo labs (drugstores and super markets). And finally you can also use mail order labs. If you’re in the States then check out Richard Photo Lab. For Canada I’ve used ABC Photo based out of Vancouver. For development and medium resolution scans it will probably run you about $20-$30 per roll. Shooting film can get expensive!

You can also develop your film yourself at home, especially black and while film. They sell kits for colour development but from what I understand the necessity of strict temperature controls makes it a very difficult process. You can develop all formats of B&W film (35mm, medium & large) relatively easily. To develop your own film you’ll need a film tank, developer, stopper, fixer, and hypo clearing agent. You might also want to pick up a film changing bag so that you can load your film onto the developing spools. A good thermometer is also important.

Contrary to what many think you don’t need a darkroom in order to do the development. The film tanks are light tight so once the spool of film is loaded in the tank you’re good. You can hang the developed film to dry in your shower, or closet – something as dust free as possible is ideal. I bought a cheap hanging shoe organizer that I took the inserts out of to create a makeshift film closet.

Scanning and Printing

If you’re super old school you can create your own prints using an enlarger and photographic paper in a darkroom. I think thats pretty hardcore but not really a viable option for most people. The easier thing to do is scan your film and produce your prints the same way you would with digital. I mentioned that most labs can scan your film for you. If you’re looking to seriously get into film then you might want to buy yourself a scanner (or scanners!) as it will quickly save you a lot of money in scanning costs.

For 35mm film the highest quality and probably most economical option is the Nikon Coolscan 5000. The Coolscan is a discontinued scanner that you’ll need to find used (and at prices much greater than the original retail value!). It produces some of the best 35mm scans without moving up to a drum scanner and allows you to scan strips of 6 frames at once. My film guru is sitting on two of these scanners (one still in the box in case his main unit breaks down!). The medium format version of this scanner is the C
oolscan 8000, also discontinued.

For large format I use a Microtek M1 scanner that is special in that the film doesn’t rest on glass and is instead held by film holders and scanned directly by the scanner (this eliminates something called “newton rings”—an artefact that occurs when film is scanned through glass. I use this scanner to scan my medium format film as well which I feel it does a passable job of. It also comes with the film holders for 35mm film, but it does a terrible job of it. I understand the benefits of scanning your own film (money saved, and a greater level of control) but I find the process a bit tedious. None of the scanning software works well with Mac and I have to use VMware to load Windows XP. No one ever said shooting film was simple! But the results really do have a certain magic to them.

Film Resources

The Massive Dev Chart App - This website / app is super handy for developing film. The app features a cool timer that tells you exactly when to do what steps throughout the development.

Squarefrog – Tips on shooting Holga and basic instructions for film development 

Junku-newcleus on Flickr – Incrdible body of film work

TommyOshima on Flickr - More incredible film work!

Your Turn!

Have you shot film? Take a second to share your experience! What sort of camera / film do you like?

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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Discussion

20 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. I have a Diana f+ with an instant back that I have been using during my portrait sessions the same way as you! Its a nice little sneak peak for the clients :)

  2. Love this! Thanks guys :) I heart my AE-1!

  3. I am one of those people that learned photography the old school way – on film. I absolutely love it and still keep a couple rolls of film in my fridge for whenever I get the urge to leave my digital camera behind. If you want to develop your prints the "hardcore" way, a lot of photography stores or art schools often have dark rooms open to the public for a minimal fee (I haven't paid more than $5 an hour to use a dark room). It takes some time and you have to learn the right mix of chemicals, but it's very rewarding to see your prints develop right before your eyes. Plus, it's fun to play with the old school ways of post-processing rather than just going straight to PhotoShop for everything.

  4. Actually, I re-found my love for film only a while ago and been head over heels since. My main film camera right now is the Pentax K1000 and I also bought Diana Mini. Then my grandpa offered his old Flexaret VII (a camera that comes from my homeland – the Czech Republic) and also got a Zenit TTL from my mum's husband (but didn't try that one yet). Although it may seem like a lot, I crave more and more cameras and hopefully (fingers crossed) I will got my very own Instax Mini for Xmas :)

    Great post btw, thank you so much for making it!

  5. I was given a Canon AE-1 on Halloween, so this article is very timely. Although I took a film class many years ago, it was always bewildering to me to shoot an entire roll and only get one or two useable shots. Digital's instant gratification is hard to give up. But I am anxious to shoot my first few rolls.

  6. Oh, you guys. You've done it again. Despite being fairly well-versed in the ins and outs of film photography, you've reminded me of forgotten things and generally reinspired me to make sure I keep pulling out the ol' Mamiya and Fe and SX-70 from the closet. It's easy to work with only digital, or often these days, I shoot with the iPhone! I think the biggest thing shooting film taught me personally is to pace myself, be pickier about shooting, and invest every shot with true value and purpose. I also think that all photographers should learn to shoot manually focusing—what a difference that can make overall!

  7. Great article guys. Looking through Flickr, I love interesting shots you can get with the Holga. I was going through basement and found an old Minolta Freedom 50 35mm Film camera and an old fuji fun saver camera. I was playing around with them and your right, that it does make you learn photography better because each shot is IT, no 'trash can' to delete to. I'm going back out and finish shooting the rest of the roll and see what else was captured with it (there was a couple of exposures taken before). I love surprises. Thanks guys!

  8. 1. Portra 160vc has been discontinued , long live Portra 160. I also recommend Portra 400, which can be pushed to 1600!

    2. Precision Camera out of Austin Tx will do a process and scan for 11.99 for Rangefinderforum members (joining is free), and the scan is a high quality 30 mega pixels, they do 35mm-6×12, and even xpan.

  9. Even though it's a digital world I think beginners should learn how to use a film camera first. Whenever someone asks me about learning photography I tell them to start with a film camera. :)

  10. Thanks for sharing everyone!

    *@Jayme* – Good idea combining a Diana with an instant back for quick client proofs! I think there's a similar Holga mod. That's another neat thing about these cameras, they've been hacked for all sorts of special effects.

    *@Nina* – Glad you enjoyed it! The AE-1 is fun!

    *@Stephanie* – Thanks for the awesome tip about renting a darkroom! I can see how developing your own prints would be a rewarding (and educational!) experience. 

    *@Mirka* – Thanks for sharing! That's something special thing about film cameras, they can be passed on from friends and family. This makes them even more meaningful to shoot with! 

    *@Yolanda* – The instant feedback and gratification with digital is nice. The awesome thing is that you don't need to give up digital to shoot film. I think there's room today to really enjoy both mediums. Hope you have fun with that AE-1!

    *@Jasmine* – Thanks for commenting! We also go through phases where we forget about film and then come back to it. Film definitely has a way of forcing you to slow down and be more deliberate with shooting.

    *@Buntha* – Thanks for sharing! I bet there are a lot of people who have film cameras they've forgotten about or didn't even know they owned! It's great you're experimenting with your old cameras!

    *@Mark* – Wow, I didn't even notice it was discontinued. I have a box of 160VC that I'll have to savour. Thats one of the downsides of film. Your favourite film (or developer!) could be discontinued leaving you in a lurch to find a replacement. 

    Also thanks for the great tip on Precision Camera! That is incredibly affordable development and scanning!

    *@Aubria* – I know our local photography school used to start students on a 4×5 camera. I think it really breaks down the entire process and lets students see what's going on inside the camera. I think that basic understanding goes a long in improving your photography.

  11. I find this very informative ~ a great way to convince people to learn film photography. I love when you answered the question: Why Shoot Film? As I often encounter the same when teaching film photography. Thanks.

  12. Thanks for these great videos where you explain many things in terms all folks can understand. Super job! And very informative resources! I am off to pull out my Holga and my little turquoise Diana!

  13. I'm a fan of Dwayne's Photo for developing. It usually takes about 2 weeks door to door to get the film scans back, but they even take paypal for payment. High quality but very affordable.

  14. *@Jayson:* Thanks! Shooting film can definitely teach folks a LOT about photography!

    *@Nanette:* So glad you enjoyed it! Hope you're having fun with your Holga and Diana!!

    *@Rachel:* Thanks for the suggestion! Always great to hear of places that are still doing an awesome job of film processing!

  15. Dear Rob & Lauren,
    I am a 49 year old man living in New York City, currently taking a distance learning photography program. I stumbled upon your website while looking for large format film processes. Your website has been very helpful and informative, especially for someone older like myself. I agree photography is great, and I also wish to specialize in portraits. Please keep up the good work. THANK YOU.

  16. Cynthia Yang says:

    My first photography experience was using film. But that was a long long time ago. All of my childhood photos were taken in film, but it came at a time when I didn't really appreciate photography for what it was worth. Now at this day and age when digital photography make taking great photos so easy I really like the look of a developed film photo and am considering taking a dip back into the old school days :) However, isn't it difficult to find film nowadays?? LOL Kodak just recently field for bankruptcy. Anyways, I might go and buy myself one of those disposable cameras and play with it again :)

    Thanks for sharing this article! I do believe that learning film is a huge step into learning photography because this is how you can learn how lighting affects your photos. If you screwed up in film, you screwed up forever.

  17. I'm sending my first 5 rolls of 120 film from my Holga in to be developed. I (unwisely) picked up slide film. Hopefully they'll turn out… If not, that fateful decision to chose slide over negative will be rather costly..

    • B&W, or color? One big advantage of color slide film over color print film is that scanning is simpler — you don’t have to deal with different chemistry definitions of “negative” in your post-processing.

  18. Good writeup — but please allow me to expand a bit on your Polaroid section.

    Broadly speaking, there were/are two kinds of instant film — Integral film, and “pack” film. Integral film is what folks tend to think of as “Polaroid” film — spits out of an SX-70 (and others), develops while you watch. Instant “pack” film is the peel-apart kind — press the shutter release, pull the film out of the camera, wait some time (usually around 30-45 seconds), then peel its two sides apart.

    If you’re looking for integral film for an SX-70 or similar camera, your choices are the Impossible Project folks, or eBay (for expired Polaroid film). Instant pack film is still made by Fuji in both B/W and color.

    And recently, of course, there’s the Zink stuff — which isn’t really “film” in the usual sense, but temperature-sensitive printer paper.

  19. THANK YOU!! not as overwhelmed now =D

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