How to get great results from film cameras

I have been shooting film cameras since I was about 8 years old. The first camera I ever used was a Canon AE-1 that I borrowed from my dad. I went digital a few years ago and then I returned to film, because film is fucking awesome.

Anyway, I get quite a lot of questions from people who are young enough to have never shot film seriously in their lives (and doesn't that shit make me feel old), asking how I get some great results from film. Here's how I roll:

Don't shoot film.

Wait, what? As much as I make fun of digital cameras, they have their place. For anything that moves, I'm about six million percent more likely to grab my D2H than I am to grab a film camera. Film is great for well-thought-out photographs of still subjects, but it sucks and get seriously pricey for anything that moves, or that otherwise might require you to immediately make sure you got it right.

Liana with a fucking huge Nikon D2H
The colourful haired one hiding behind a pretend camera. Canon T90, Canon FD 135mm f/3.5 wide-open on Kodak Porta 400VC. I burned through probably £30 of film and developing to get a couple of mediocre shots like this. On the other hand, Liana is pretty, so that makes the shots worth half a damn. :)

There's another thing here: If you're not getting great results on digital, then keep shooting digital. Digital is an amazing learning tool, and I love it for that reason (I might have taken two decent shots in the whole time I shot film before I got my D30). This isn't elitism; film is not a magic bullet that will immediately make crappy shots into great ones. With that said, though...

Get yourself a film camera.

Updated: I have a whole article of ideas for cheap film cameras. Have fun!

This is the easy part. Go to Fleabay and people are nearly giving stuff away. If you're lucky and awesome like me, people literally give stuff away. My awesome plastic miracle was sent to me by a friend in the US, and my Nikon FG (thanks Mark) and Sears M35 (thanks Laura) were free, too.

If you're not already committed to a camera system and you don't already own several full-frame lenses (your Canon EF-S lenses and Nikon DX lenses won't cover the full 36x24mm frame of a real camera, since digital cameras usually have smaller sensors), then you should head for an obsolete camera system like the Canon FD system. The Canon A-1 is still the best camera in the world, but you might want to look at non-autofocus Minolta cameras, or even M42-based systems like Prakticas. Whatever you do, start with an SLR camera with a meter (at the very least; I'd recommend something with aperture priority automation instead).

My awesome friend Alan gets consistently great results from his little Canonet GIII QL17 rangefinder camera, so I suppose that's another camera recommendation. Thing is, cameras don't matter all that much with film; if it has a sharp lens (nearly all non-zoom lenses are) and a working meter (more on that later) then your results will be as amazing as your photography skills.

Of course, if you own full-frame lenses for your digital SLR, then go buy a film SLR for that system. It's great; you can pick up plastic autofocus SLRs for almost nothing. I paid £7 for a Nikon F55, woot. As I write this there are several Canon EOS bodies on the Bay of E selling for much less than £20, shipped. Isn't the digital era awesome?

Stick with 35mm.

Yup, large formats are awesome, but you're going to run into all kinds of expense getting it developed. Expense is a disincentive to getting out there and shooting. I'm sticking with 35mm, too, though I do have a 1938 Ensign Selfix 320 folding camera that I'm going to take out for a spin some time. 35mm looks great, anyway.

Lomography sucks.

I'll just leave that here.


Leave the crap at home.

Film is a liberating experience. No more looking at your LCD to second-guess yourself, no fucking around with white balance, no pissing around with your film in post. Just compose, take one shot, and move on to the next beautiful thing you see. The worst thing you could possibly do, is to pretend you're back in the bad old days of digital and load yourself down with a bunch of heavy stuff that you don't need.

I'd recommend getting yourself a smaller camera bag if you have a big one already, or be a 1337 h4x0r and don't bother with a camera bag at all. Just like we build motorways and bypasses and then act surprised when they end up being used right away to their full capacity within a few months, Ken has commented that [s]tuff always expands to fill the space you have in your bag. Carry a big bag, and you'll carry lots of shit. Carry a tiny one, or no bag, and you'll be forced to reduce your gear to the bare minimum.

Want to see a typical film-shooting loadout for me? Check it out kids:

Canon T50, 50mm f/1.8 and 28mm f/2.8 in a LowePro Nova 1 bag

That's a tiny, tiny LowePro Nova 1 shoulder bag. The camera is a Canon T90, with a 28mm f/2.8 attached to it. The lens next to it is a Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 (ignore the Tamron lens cap; I'm terrible for losing lens caps so I borrowed it from another lens, that one being a Pentacon 29mm f/2.8). Plus a couple of spare films because I was planning on shooting all day long; I could have made do with one if I hadn't planned on shooting all day. I could have even done without either the 50mm or 28mm if I was shooting in daylight and didn't have to worry about the 28mm sucking in way too much of the boring parts of an evening sky.

There's also a lens cloth in there somewhere. Not that I need it for cleaning cameras while I'm out shooting; it's just that I'll lose it if I don't put it in some obvious place, like a camera bag. It did come in handy one time. I was bored of carrying my digital brick and decided to shoot a plastic SLR instead, yanked the D2H off my neck too fast and smacked the hotshoe into my lip (some kind of revenge going on there). I was bleeding and nobody had a tissue handy, so you know, you gotta do what you gotta do. True story.

Were it not for the fact that a good bag is much more comfortable than a camera strap, I wouldn't even bother with a bag at all. I spend countless hours at a time on my feet, so comfort is quite important to me.

Try a slide film.

Slide film is fucking awesome and there is no comparison to it. The real reason to shoot a slide film at least once, though, is to make sure your meter is working properly (ain't no guarantees on old film cameras). Shoot some fairly low-contrast subjects (no bright daylight skies behind buildings, mmk?).

Window, revisited
Window, revisited. Olympus Trip 35 shooting Fuji Velvia 50, a slide film. My little Trip quite consistently underexposed shots; I just got seriously lucky with this one.

I almost didn't explain this before I published this, but correspondence with friends new to film photography made me realise I should explain the difference between slide and negative film. You've probably seen a negative film in the flesh. The colour is all fucky when you look at it and all orange-brown shifted:

What a negative looks like
Picture cropped by a photo by Brett, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Meanwhile, if you look at a slide, it looks exactly as you took the picture, and you can stick it through a projector or whatever:

Slide film test
A very quick and dirty test I made to see if the people who were scanning my stuff got my slide film's colours right; this was with an EOS D30, improvised macro lens and a Nisson 360 TW flash gun.

ANYWAY. With that explained. Slide film is notoriously intolerant to overexposure (it's probably as bad as digital is -- hello, blown highlights!), whereas negative film can tolerate a ton of it. If there's any problem with your camera, you'll notice it as soon as you get your slides back just by looking at them (or the scans).

Then don't shoot a slide film.

Okay, that's controversial, and I didn't really mean that. If you've got the talent and the money to get consistently awesome results out of a slide film, then you go girl. I'm not that talented, and I'm a fucking huge cheapskate, so I shoot negative film all the time. The moment the price of developing and scanning slide film became a barrier to getting out there and shooting, was the moment I stopped shooting slide film.

Try everything.

Every film has its own look, far more than different digital cameras do. Your style might be best suited to the muted colours of a portrait film, or you might be all about texture and want to shoot a black-and-white film. Perhaps you'll find yourself liking the beautiful colours and saturation of Kodak Ektar 100, or the screwy colours and contrast of expired film, or maybe you like your colours to jump off of the film then slap the shit out of you like Velvia's do.

Whatever your style, shoot lots of different films to find it. If you've never done serious shooting on film before, then it might take you a while and a bunch of different films to work it out. For my part, I'm utterly in love with Kodak Ektar 100, and Ilford XP2 for black-and-white (which I use for snapshots of my family and friends), plus the occasional free film.

If I had to make a recommendation, I'd suggest that you start out with a decent, cheap, moderately-saturated film like Fuji Superia (ASA 200 or 400 will do you just fine, though I'm slowly working through a roll of ASA 1600 through my plastic miracle as I write this).

Watch your shadows, ignore the highlights.

If you're used to shooting digital, then you're used to having boatloads of detail in the darker parts of your picture. Film has very little. I love film's dark, murky shadows; I instinctively compose in a way that I wouldn't want detail there to get a great shot.

Ignoring the highlights only applies to negative film; slide film hates this as much as digital does.

Don't scan yourself.

For the simple reason that your favourite photo lab has bought a lot of very, very expensive equipment which you probably cannot afford (or justify the cost even if you can).

Does scanning yourself work out cheaper? Absolutely not. My local lab does scans to CD for, as I recall, £2 a roll from negative film (it might even be less than that). That'll get you roughly 100 rolls of film scanned for the price of an Epson V500, or probably in excess of a thousand for the price of a good Nikon film scanner. I've probably not shot this many rolls of film in my life. Even if you splash out and shoot a slide film, that only costs me £7 a roll from Fuji's very own lab.

(Before anyone thinks about saying it: yes, you might get higher resolution by scanning yourself. But how important is this to you? If you're putting stuff on the web or printing 6x4s, it's not. If you do get some winning shot that someone wants to print at billboard size, you can always go and get it drum scanned.)

Laziness, as we computer programmers say, is an economic virtue. Time not spent scanning stuff yourself is time you can spend taking photographs, or playing with your dog. And there's no greater disincentive to shooting than knowing that you'll have to spend several, very tedious hours scanning stuff in. Don't do it.

Support small labs!

The great thing about small labs is that they're staffed by people who really care about their work, and yours. Many will be manned by people who are professional photographers (like my homies at Wolfy's in King's Lynn, run by a chap who is a professional wedding and portrait photographer when he's not developing film).

Other than the fact that I support small businesses whereever I possibly can just because I like them, the great thing about labs like these is that you can totally, 100% count on them to not fuck up your film, and to get the best possible scans from it.

Nobody around me does E-6 processing, so my slide films go off to Fuji's very own lab in Leeds.

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