With the evolution of technology, especially with mobile devices and Internet everywhere, it’s not a surprise that we’re starting to appreciate the beauty of certain things that were replaced by their digital equivalents, and one of those things is film photography.
By the early 90’s, digital photography started to appear as a tool in newspapers and certain magazines, but it was until the mid 2000’s when it became the standard for pretty much all the industries that involved photography in different ways, as the sensors got even better. By the end of the 2000’s, everyone pretty much thought that film was going to be dead soon, until Instagram appeared.
I’m not entirely sure if Instagram is to blame for the resurgence of film photography, but for me, it was the reason that made me feel interested in it. I was curious about the meaning of those filters and the codes (like RVP100) around those weird looking square images. I really wanted to know what they meant because they looked quite interesting, and the images with those filters had funny looks but my question always was: why?
This was my very first film camera in 2010.
Fast forward three months later, I ended up purchasing my very first film camera: a Nikon N60 that back in 2010 cost around $10 and that’s how this fun adventure of film photography begun.
If you have been interested in shooting film but you don’t know where to start, I’m going to explain a little bit how the whole thing works so you get a basic idea of what is film photography.
The camera is pretty much the most important part of film photography, because it’s not actually necessary to own a camera to shoot images on film (hey, you can even build yourself a pinhole camera!) but if we want convenience, let’s stick to the most common film cameras available right now: 35mm cameras and medium format film cameras (as known as 120).
35mm film has its origins in the early days of cinema, and it was generally called miniature format because of its small size. It was pretty much the standard for many movies and TV shows for quite a few years and it’s still used for many big productions. When it was launched, it was THE success because cameras back then used to be quite bulky and not easy to carry around, until Leica brought 35mm film to the general public so people could capture still images with the same type of film used for movies.
The most popular 35mm film cameras are definitely point and shoot ones. They’re easy to carry around and make film photography super easy: if it’s sunny just press the button but if it’s a little dark use flash. They tend to be cheap as long as you’re not going for models that are generally more expensive, like the Contax T2. I think it’s totally worth it to take a look online and see which point-and-shoot camera suits your needs and budget.
Point and shoots are super compact and easy to use!
Another popular type of 35mm film camera is the SLR (Single-Lens Reflex). These cameras were generally marketed to the prosumer and professional market that wanted to get the most out of film. The main advantage of these cameras is that they use a mirror and prism system that lets photographers see exactly what they will capture. Most of these cameras also offer the possibility to use different lenses and a manual mode, so you can have total and absolute control of the exposure triangle: exposure time, lens aperture and ISO sensitivity. If you would like to learn how to play with the different variables of a camera in manual mode, the exposure triangle and the zone system are definitely a great place to start.
Most recent 35mm SLR cameras have some sort built-in exposure metering, so if you’re still not very comfortable with manual mode yet, you can use aperture priority or shutter priority, or even automatic mode so the camera can decide what’s the best setting for your specific circumstance. I’d personally try to learn how to shoot in manual mode, as it’s incredible the amount of things you can do with it.
A nice mechanical SLR.
Another camera format that is almost as widely available as 135 (another name for the 35mm film camera format) is medium format or 120 film. It’s important to note that even though it’s called 120 film, it’s not 120mm wide. 120 and 135 are product codes used to differentiate multiple types of film products.
Medium format used to be the to-go format for amateurs until 135 appeared, but 120 has survived because it offers quite a few technical advantages over 35mm film and a very distinct look. In fact, medium format has been pretty much standard for many fashion photogs and magazine, including Vanity Teen.
The most widely available types of medium format cameras are TLR (twin-lens reflex ones) and SLRs. TLR cameras are incredibly fun to look at but even more fun to use. These cameras basically have two lenses: one for viewing and one for capturing. This means that the lens you’re using to view what you’ll capture is not the same capturing the image onto the film, however, both lenses are equal and you’re basically seeing just what you’ll capture, unless objects get too close, that’s when you’ll get the parallax error. Some popular brands for reliable TLR cameras are Rollei Rolleiflex and Rolleicord, Yashica Mat and Yashica D, Minolta Autocord and Mamiya C3, C220 and C330.
Another type of medium format camera that is also common is the SLR; just as the one in the 135 film format, it uses a mirror system with the same flexibility and possibilities of multiple lenses for a wide variety of purposes. Some of the most popular SLR cameras in medium format have been made by Mamiya, Pentax, Bronica, Rollei and Hasselblad.
I’ve not gone into detail about other types of cameras such as rangefinders because I’ve not used them that much, but they provide a reliable system for photographers with plenty of possibilities on their own.
Now that I’ve mentioned a little bit which cameras are the most widely available for people who are just starting to shoot film, it’s time for me to talk about the film.
Kodak Gold 200, good stuff.
There are three main types of film in 35mm and 120 film formats: black and white film, color negative film and color slide film. Black and white film is very special because it’s incredibly flexible when it comes to creative and technical purposes as you can use different types of resources (even coffee!) to develop it, unlike color negative film and slide film, which were developed later and require very precise industrial standards.
Film stocks are photosensitive, this means that they only work when they’re exposed to a certain amount of light. The amount of light projected onto the film is controlled by the exposure time and the aperture, but it’s also important to note that film can be more or less sensitive to light, and that’s defined by the ISO. These three factors of the exposure triangle define whether we’re getting good pics or not.
In order to get pictures from those rolls of film, the rolls need to go through some magic substances (magic substances = years of photochemical engineering innovation) in a process called film development, which involves a very precise and careful handling of chemicals; if you use the wrong one first, you may end up with a blank roll of film but if you take the whole roll of film out of the canister when there’s light everywhere, you’re pretty much going to ruin the film (as I mentioned earlier, it’s incredibly sensitive to light!). When the rolls of film were already developed, they’re safe to check and handle as long as you don’t scratch them or damage them by storing them in an inappropriate place.
Many people take their rolls of film to a lab so the lab takes care of the whole process and you don’t need to deal with the inconvenience of handling chemicals and spending time developing the film, but people like me enjoy to do it at home.
This dog literally looks like me when I mix chemistry for color film.
Professional film laboratories like Dale Labs in Hollywood Florida, The Darkroom and Richard Photo Lab in California, Indie Film Lab in Alabama, Carmencita Lab in Valencia, Spain and IKIGAI Camera in Australia are just a few names of professional places where you can get your film developed and scanned with the peace of mind that they’ll give you great prints and scans with a professional service.
Now, it’s important to note that developing a roll of film and scanning it are two different processes: developing is a wet process that involves the use of special chemistry and scanning is something done once they’re dry. Some people who are too finicky like to get their rolls developed, but not scanned, lowering the cost of the process as it’s something less that the lab wouldn’t need to do, but in order to do this by yourself, you need to have your own scanner at home or any other system that scans film.
This what scanning film looks like (Kendall Masolva, The One Agency – Shot with Kodak Portra 160).
Have you ever seen those TV shows like “13 reasons why?” and “Stranger Things” that feature a red room with pictures hanging everywhere? Well, that’s another thing you can do with your negatives: you can print them in a darkroom!
Darkroom printing is a fun thing to do.
In order to do this, you would need to have access to an enlarger and some chemistry, and of course, a place dark enough that would not fog the paper as it is light sensitive as well, just like the rolls of film. I’m going to be honest, I love doing darkroom prints because it’s magic to see the results. It looks so different from what you get with a digital workflow, but it takes some practice to get great prints. You can do darkroom prints with black and white film and color film, but color can be more challenging as you need to work in total darkness (no red light) and getting the balance can be tricky, but it’s still fun to do and super rewarding.
This is a collage with test strips done in color in my darkroom before I printed the final images (Kendall Ocon, The Aegency – Shot with Kodak ColorPlus 200)
Now, which film stock should I use? I generally recommend starting with the cheapest one you can find, especially in 35mm film which is more common. In my opinion, Fujicolor C200 and Kodak ColorPlus 200 are some fun stocks to start with. They’re reasonably priced and you’re not going to pay more than USD$4 for a roll of 36 exposures. It’s also useful to shoot a cheap roll first if you’re not familiar with a camera, as you can diagnose if there’s a problem with it or if you’re not exposing a picture correctly (or even if it was not properly developed by the lab).
The thing with color film is that every single type of film looks different (this also happens with black and white & slide film!). Each type of film has characteristics that will give you different results, this means that you’re going to get something very different if you shoot the same scene with Kodak Ultramax 400 and Fuji Superia 400.
There are two types of color film: those for the general public (the ones who tend to be cheaper) and those for professionals. The professional film stocks generally have newer formulas that provide great sharpness and a finer grain structure, like Kodak Portra and Ektar or Fuji Pro 400H. I love to shoot portraits with Kodak Portra as it renders skins in a super natural way, but Ektar 100 has incredibly vibrant colors. Fuji Pro 400H has softer contrast and a very dreamy look! Right now, the only three companies who sell fresh color film are Fuji, Kodak and Lomography.
This is what a contact sheet looks like next to the darkroom prints from the same roll. This is how people review all the images of a roll without a scanner (Sebastián Villegas, The Aegency – Shot with Kodak ProImage 100).
If you would like to shoot black and white film, there’s a lot of variety. Ilford is a british company that has been around since 1879 and they sell a huge variety of black and white products: film, chemistry, paper and even accessories that you can find useful if you’re considering to have your own darkroom at home. Ilford is my brand of choice when it comes to black and white chemistry.
Kodak also has black and white film stocks such as the classic Kodak Tri-X and the newer T-MAX family, and a wide variety of chemicals just like Ilford. Fuji doesn’t have any black and white film available right now, but they recently announced they’ll be releasing their classic Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 which was way different to any other film available. Other brands that you can trust in the black and white category are: Arista, ADOX, Fomapan, Rollei, Ultrafine and Kentmere, but there are some new brands appearing lately that are definitely worth shooting as well!
And now it’s time to talk about slide film. Slide film was pretty much the pick of choice of professional photographers and the standard in publishing back in the day, but it became less and less common as digital photography started to become mainstream and more affordable. The fun thing about slides is that you can actually see the pictures with a decent light source, but it’s amazing to see them projected with a slide projector!
This is what a slide projector looks like.
Slide film tends to be a little bit pricier, but it has a very distinct look when you compare it with color negative film, especially for its very fine grain and sharpness, but you must be very careful when you shoot with it as you can get blown highlights if you don’t meter your scene correctly.
The only slide film stocks available right now are from Fuji and Kodak. Fuji is currently selling Velvia 50, Velvia 100 and Provia 100, while Kodak recently relaunched their Ektachrome 100 film, so the options in slide are not as big as you have with color and black and white negative film, but still nice to try if you have the opportunity.
Shooting film is a very different experience and it has helped me to think more before I shoot, because I have less frames available and I cannot review the image immediately after I press the shutter button. I know I can get the same “experience” by covering the screen of my DSLR with electrical tape so I cannot see it… But I love to shoot film, the way I can get different results with different stocks, the possibility to use so many impressive cameras in any format, the possibility to do darkroom prints but most importantly, that I’ve learnt how to be more efficient when I shoot digital, as I meter the scenes more carefully and take less pictures (I’m going to be honest, reviewing 3000 pictures from a photoshoot is not super convenient).
Shooting film can be this fun!
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or someone who’s snapped shutters for quite a few years, try film sometime. At least with a disposable film camera, I’m sure it’s going to be fun!