Film Photography for Beginners

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I’ve been a big fan of shooting on film since purchasing my first analog camera in 2014. Though every photo is a part of our photography journey, using a film camera is easily the most significant choice I’ve made in learning how to become a better photographer. It’s by no means an inexpensive hobby so every single shot needs to be carefully considered and perfectly aligned, given that taken multiple images of the same moment is a costly option!

There’s the magic of film, too; without any knowledge of how exactly each photo will come out and with the delay between shooting and developing, seeing the final images is uniquely exciting. Add in the romantic quirks that only film can yield and it makes for an addictive process that I will always love.

A few of you have been asking about how I shoot film, so here is my guide to diving in; as always, please feel free to share your advice, ideas and suggestions in the comments; it would be wonderful to hear from you!

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HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR CAMERA

My film camera is a Canon AE-1, and it’s one I’m incredibly happy with. From what I can tell the AE-1 is pretty common, and it was important to me that I had a camera that was an SLR (one that allowed me to shoot on manual mode and with multiple lenses). I’d recommend spending some time thinking about what kind of camera would suit you best… It’s worth noting that for beginners at any kind of photography or those looking to find their feet, an automatic point-and-shoot might well be a much better fit for you.

Once you’ve got an idea of what you’d like, I would head to a secondhand site to shop around; I had a look at Ebay and Gumtree, but here are some links to search Etsy and Facebook Marketplace too. Don’t be afraid to shop around; my camera came with three lenses, a flash, the original manual and filters for £25; though I can’t guarantee you will find a deal that bonkers, it is definitely worth looking into!

I was also lucky in finding a camera that was just a quick train ride away from me, meaning I could see it in person before purchasing. If that’s possible for you and you feel safe enough to do so, it is worth considering; ring the seller ahead of time to see if you get non-weird-vibes, and always ensure you meet in a public place.

THE BASICS OF SHOOTING ON FILM

Though I only ever use manual mode on my DSLR, I tend to use Aperture Priority with my film camera, simply because it makes me feel a little safer. Many 35mm cameras have a light meter, just as DSLRs do, but don’t be afraid to shoot on automatic mode. It’s also worth remembering that film photos almost always come out underexposed (darker than you would expect), but as any photographer worth their salt can tell you, it’s better to underexpose an photo and lighten it rather than trying to darken a lighter image (when you’ll tend to lose details that are too bright).

As I mentioned above, film photography can be an expensive passion, meaning that carefully deciding on what you’d like to shoot and framing each shot perfectly is an essential part of the process. Shooting on 35mm forces you to focus and to rely on your eye in a way that is just not necessary with the handy technology that comes along with every camera that we use today… As with any form of limitation, it really drives your creativity and pushes you to learn from outside your comfort zone.

If your camera doesn’t come with its instruction manual (and these are incredibly rare, so don’t worry if this is the case for you!) there are so many tutorials about film cameras in general online, and often even ones that are specific to the camera model you own.

Finally, be wary of light leaks: these are when parts of the film are exposed to the light and mean that you’ll have pools of colour (often red or orange). These can add amazing drama, or distract from what you’re after; if they’re something you’d like to avoid, always ensure you wind back your film properly, remove and replace your film in a dark place, and change lenses away from light too.

EXPERIMENTING WITH FILM VARIETIES

Research and experiment with the films you shoot with, too. Choose the level of ISO you’d like to use: a higher number means you’ll need less light to correctly expose a photo but higher numbers also mean more grain, so it depends on what look you’d like most. I tend to shoot on 400 – 800, using 200 if I know I’m only planning to shoot in daylight. Higher ISOs tend to be more expensive too. Do please let me know if you’d like a series on photography basics, as I would love to explain exposure more in-depth!

I have mostly used Kodak film, preferring the Kodak GOLD 400*, as I found Fujifilm to be too green in tone for my liking. I’ve just shot three rolls of Kodak Portra, their higher end and more professional range, and honestly wasn’t that fussed – but I’d strongly recommend finding what you love. Black and white film is wonderful as well; I love it for portraits, high contrast images and shooting in winter most of all. Note that almost all black and white films need to be sent to a specialist lab, so always look for the versions that say “C41”, like this one*, which can be developed anywhere.

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GETTING YOUR FILM DEVELOPED

I would love to experiment with my own darkroom, in a quirky little shed in my dream home’s garden… Until that day, I rely on places that will develop my film for me. Currently I go for inexpensive options, such as Boots and Snappy Snaps, but I know there are some much more specialist sites online for whom film development is second nature; I’m looking at Digitalab and C41 Film Processing as potential places to try in the future.

I now always ask my film to be transferred digitally, rather than receiving prints. It saves me from having heaps of photo prints I didn’t like and means I can easily share my shots online; most places will give you a CD, but I’ve heard from friends that some will use WeTransfer too. Moving forward, I’d love to invest in my own film scanner as they’re better value over the long run, and you can create much larger scans of your shots in formats that suit you.

ACCEPT THE HITS, AND THE MISSES

It can be seriously disappointing when a roll of film comes back with heaps of duff shots. My roll from New York was an example of this; having not shot on my 35mm in a while, many of the shots weren’t focused on what I’d been wanting them to – a risk when using a low F-stop without autofocus and a screen to see how you’ve done. It can suck when you’ve paid a lot for the film and for the development of your film to get a series of photos that fall short of what you’d been hoping, and usually every roll has a number of photos that just didn’t work in the way you’d hoped… But this means that it’s all the more exciting when they do. As I said above, there really is a certain magic to shooting film; as well as the surprise of the process, there are the colourful quirks and details that can give a photo the depth that digital photography just can’t reach.

FINAL THOUGHTS…

Above all else, I love using film to capture moments that matter to me most. This could be trips away, time with family or simply days that feel too beautiful to ignore. I encourage you to experiment; pick up a disposable and see how you feel, borrow a friend’s film camera and see how you enjoy the process.

Also, this seems like a super, super obvious time to tell you that you can purchase some of my film shots through my online shop… I’ve currently got three shots in this post for you to take a look at with sizing and framing options for you too… I’d love it if you could take a look!

That’s me done: what do you think of shooting on film? are you a firm fan, or a curious convert waiting to happen? I’d love to know…

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PhotographyAnna Considine