LESSON 24: FILM PHOTOGRAPHY

Film photography has seen somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. After a decrease in popularity with the advent of digital cameras and the proliferation of camera phones, film fell by the wayside. Thankfully, the form hasn’t become a lost art, and hashtags like #filmsnotdead and #shootfilm reveal a collection of distinct images showcasing the fascinating beauty of imperfection.

It’s not hard to see why digital dominates, though. Digital cameras are designed to be easy to use. Most models are equipped with an array of functions, sensors, and stabilizers to help give even the most inexperienced users a firm base to learn photography basics. But even while film photography is less forgiving, more expensive, and without the instant feedback that is ubiquitous in modern digital cameras, it’s certainly worth the learning curve.

A film photograph of a man sitting at the edge of a swimming hole
Photo by Hello America

Why Shoot Film?

It’s hard to argue that film photography is better than digital formats when it comes to resolution, noise, speed, range, and overall convenience, but lovers of film will happily tell you that this isn’t the point. Analog shooters attest to a certain je ne sais quoi that film possesses. Random light leaks and speckled texturing produced by grain are natural byproducts of film photography. What might ruin a digital photograph is exactly what makes a film image stand out.

If you’re after consistency, film probably isn’t for you. But if you revel in the unpredictable, this might just be your medium.

THE BASICS

Want to pick up an SLR but don’t know quite where to get started? This section will give you some pointers to better inform your camera — and film — selection.

Starter Cameras

Starting with an SLR camera (Single-Lens Reflex) is a good way to learn the basics of film photography — plus, an SLR is much cheaper than many alternatives you might find on the market. The convenience and the better-than-expected quality of point-and-shoot SLRs make them great to have as a daily carry, but a lot of the best models have gone up in price due to limited supply and increased demand (though you can still get lucky at the occasional thrift store, there’s no way of testing them out first). Rangefinder SLRs, however, occupy a whole different world of learning, including technical skills like zone focus, (which companies like Leica have built devoted followings around) but this type of mastery is something you should tackle only after you feel confident in your film basics. Some great starter cameras include the Canon AE-1 and the Pentax K1000. Those who shoot manually on a DSLR should have little issue trading for a less tech-friendly option, but if you do get stuck, YouTube provides great resources for step-by-step instructions on loading, advancing, and maneuvering film cameras (see below).

A film photograph of two people sitting in the desert
Photo by Hello America

Film Selection

Before you start shopping around for cameras, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the different qualities of film, such as film speed, which measures the material’s sensitivity to light. If you’re familiar with your DSLR’s ISO rating, the principle is basically identical. The only difference is that film speed will dictate what and how you photograph for an entire roll. Film with a speed of 100 to 400 best serves outdoor photography in bright light, while “faster” films with a rating of 400 to 800 or higher are best for low-light settings and fast-action sports.

In the beginning, using more budget-friendly film stock will enable you to develop your skills without breaking the bank. Films like Kodak Gold 200 and Kodak ColorPlus 200 still produce great quality photos for a relatively modest price.

As you get more familiar with the medium, you’ll want to look into higher-quality material. As far as nicer stock goes, there are some serious heavy hitters: the Portra Series 160, 400, and 800. They’re amazing and are known for their distinct looks and high quality. Other classics include the Fuji Pro 400H and Extra 100. If you’re inclined, you can watch a few comparison videos of these film stocks here.

Some of our favorite tools to help you learn more about the basics and take a deep dive into the world of film are YouTube channels like NegativeFeedback, Willem Verbeek, and Matt Day.

A film photograph of a person canoeing in a lake
Photo by Hello America

Shooting on Film

Now that you understand the allure of a film camera, let’s talk about how you can elevate your analog shots with the help of certain methods and techniques.

Start by photographing nature

While film’s various hues, light leaks, and grain quality are well-suited to many subjects, they’re best paired with nature itself. As we stated earlier, when starting out, it’s best to use budget-friendly film stock, as it allows for experimentation at a fraction of the cost. But if you’re ready to upgrade your film, we’d suggest dedicating each of your rolls to a specific type of light. So, whether you’re wanting to shoot during Blue or Golden Hour, or under the midday sun, be sure you relegate your rolls beforehand — otherwise, your photos may not expose and develop evenly.

A film photograph of a woman sitting in a field of flowers
Photo by Hello America

Explore Other Subjects

Nature’s variability is a great first assignment, but photographers looking to hone their skills should experiment with film-based portraits, still lifes, and even macro shots. These varying subjects will give you the opportunity to experiment with a camera that doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles you may be used to. It can also give you an opportunity to reconnect to your subject through a grittier medium. To create compelling shots, experiment with different film brands, black-and-white stock, shadows and lighting, and varying perspectives.

On a technical note, when shooting still lifes, portraits, or even macro shots, pay close attention to lighting, ISO settings, and camera metering, which will control the aperture and suggest a shutter speed. (Note: if your camera doesn’t have an internal meter, consider downloading one of these handy tools.) While some SLR cameras have more automated settings, part of the beauty of film is the simultaneous control you have over the gear’s settings — and the complete loss of it once you click the shutter. In essence, you can set up your shot perfectly and still not know what you’re going to end up with. But when you become comfortable with film’s unknowns, you’ll come to truly appreciate the format.

A film photograph of an abstract underwater scene
Photo by Hello America

Experiment with Your Film

As a rule, try to protect unused film from the elements by storing it in a cool, dry, and optimally dark place. Also, remember to take care of your film when flying to a destination. Ask TSA or other security agents to hold onto your canisters instead of allowing them to travel through the X-ray machines, which can damage both used and unused rolls. You won’t be able to check the viability of the film until after it’s developed, and it would be a shame to end up with disappointing (or non) results.

However… if light leaks, double exposure, chemical burns, or rips and tears appeal to you aesthetically, then you can ignore our cautions above and, by all means, destroy your film. (Yes, you read that correctly.) An accidental X-ray at TSA, some grit and dust, or even errant scratches can actually add unpolished character to film. “Destroying” your film simply means altering it, chemically, before you shoot. This can be as simple as leaving a roll in the pocket of your pants while you wash them or as absurd as soaking an unused capsule in urine (don’t knock it till you try it). No matter what you choose to experiment with, all methods can yield interesting and unique results.

If you’re after a more vintage effect, @helloamerica recommends combining boiled water, lemon juice, and a roll of film in a canister, and shaking it every quarter-hour for 45 minutes. Then, let the roll sit to dry for two weeks, after which you can shoot to your heart’s content. Once you get the film developed, you’ll notice subtle light leaks that are actually acidic burns from the citrus juice.

But beware — using creative chemistry to alter your images may yield a passel of unusable film, so make sure you experiment with the cheap stuff!

A film photograph of a woman walking through the desert
Photo by Hello America

Play around with double exposure

While double exposure is an effect that occasionally occurs as a lucky accident, you can actually manipulate the technique to create compelling images. To achieve this look, first check online to see if your camera can shoot multiple exposures (shooting double is a breeze if your SLR is already formatted for this function). If it isn’t, there are still ways to achieve this unique look, though it will take patience and perseverance. First, you’ll have to shoot through a roll, then wind it up, reload it, and start shooting to expose again. Keep in mind that you’ll have to pay very close attention to the order of your original images to achieve your desired look as images from the first roll will be layered under anything you choose to shoot the second time around.

Note: issues related to exposure and highlights often arise during double exposures. Because of this, it’s easiest to practice this process with black-and-white film to rule out the intricacies of double metering (which is necessary to balance exposure and ensure your image isn’t completely blown out). If you do decide to use black-and-white film, simply shoot and meter normally, and don’t worry too much about an influx of light — the medium is very forgiving.

A film photograph of a couple looking at their reflections in a still river
Photo by Hello America

Key Takeaways:

  • Familiarize yourself with SLR cameras and decide on a manageable starting model.
  • Remember that film speed corresponds to the material’s sensitivity to light. For bright, outdoor shots, look for speeds between 100 and 400; for dimmer settings or sports photos, consider “faster” films that range from 400 to 800 and beyond.
  • Choose subjects that will allow the medium to shine — start with nature shots and then delve into portraiture, still lifes, and macro shots to practice your technique.
  • Play with interesting elements, such as light and pattern to create visual intrigue.
  • Experiment with the chemical composition of your film to see what interesting effects you can create.
  • Test out differing techniques like double exposure.

Looking to take your shots to the next level? Peruse our collection of photography (and videography) lessons. Happy snapping!

Header image by Hello America
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