It's easy to learn to shoot film. I promise! If something is made too complicated, it becomes a turnoff.
I could start with the minutiae of film photography and get into numbers, numbers, numbers. But instead I am going to show you that it's easy to learn to shoot film by giving you ONE lesson that will make you a film photographer TODAY. If you follow this guide, you will fall in love with film.
So, Why Shoot Film At All?
What would make a sane digital photographer decide to go back in time and shoot with an analog film camera that doesn’t have an LCD screen to show you if you got the shot? Or the latest autofocus system that lets you shoot razor sharp pictures of your kids running around the house at top speed? It makes no sense on paper, no matter how you slice it.
The answer—for me, at least—is that film is magic. Shooting film, the process of it, the results, feels like something that is timeless and authentic. When you get your first scans back from the lab, you will understand this down to your core.
I see better when I have to slow down. I compose better. I don’t shoot just because I am nervous. I don’t just shoot until I see an acceptable image on the back of my DSLR. With film, I know when I got ‘the’ shot. It’s a great feeling.
Instead, how and what I shoot is tied to the moment, and how I feel. Because I am not checking the back of my digital camera after every shot I remain engaged in the moment or with my subject, and allow the visualization part of my brain work with my emotions to create images that are meaningful to me. Would you believe my keeper rate went from 2 out of 10 photos with digital to 8 out of 10 photos with film? It did. And it will for you too.
Film looks amazing. Even when I make mistakes. Even when I have a light leak, or I underexpose a tiny bit. When I am confident in my metering and use of light, film is not amazing, it is extraordinary. It is transcendent. It is magic. The tones of film, how it renders color and light, can only be compared to painting. It is organic, it has a human touch, it feels real. Nothing compares to film, even if you can emulate it better than anyone else.
Lastly, I just really really enjoy the film shooting process itself. The fact that I am using my brain and hands to make a beautiful photo and not relying on a computer algorithm or even electricity (some film cameras don’t even need a battery) make me feel like I am CRAFTING a photo rather than taking a lot of photos with the hope that one of them is the one I really want. Shooting film is not only about the end result, but very much about the process.
“The absolute hardest part in learning to shoot film is, without a doubt, shooting your first roll and sending it to the lab.” - Kirk Mastin
This $50 camera was in my parent's attic and belonged to my grandfather. It still works perfectly!
Lesson 1: The Basics of Shooting Film
When in Doubt, Overexpose
The first lesson that will show you it's easy to learn to shoot film—and most important film lesson over this series—is to err on the side of overexposure.
I’m going to give you the settings you will use for this assignment and these settings will show you two things:
1. Overexposure is great! Not a big deal at all. You will use one setting across a wide variety of light and get great results. These settings will most likely be incorrect for the light you are shooting in. You will be shooting overexposed on purpose because of these settings.
2. You will learn that color negative film is very very very forgiving if you overexpose. People talk about the dynamic range of film all the time, and how it is better than digital. Not entirely true. But in basic terms: digital has extreme dynamic range for the shadows, but little range in the highlights. Film has extreme dynamic range in the highlights and very little for the shadows. Digital and film are opposite of each other in this way.
Borrow or Buy a Film Camera
Ask your family. I’m almost 100% certain you have a family member with an old film camera in their closet or garage who would be over the moon to have you use it! Ask and you shall receive.
Ok, so no one in your family has a film camera?
Ask your friends on Facebook! Again, there are people out there dying for someone to use an old film camera they no longer use.
Or you can buy a film camera body on eBay that will fit your current lenses!
- If you own Nikon DSLR: buy a Nikon F100 or Nikon N90
- If you own a Canon DSLR: buy a Canon EOS 3 or Canon Elan 7
Buy the Film
Go to your local drugstore and buy some Fuji Superia or Kodak Gold. Both films are still sold in packs in drugstores and are very affordable.
Or buy film on Amazon. Yes, Amazon really does carry everything!
(I recommend starting with Portra 400 film if you can afford the extra few dollars per roll, as it is almost foolproof with the widest exposure latitude of any color negative film.)
Load your film.
Loading film will vary a bit from camera to camera, but in this example, I will load a typical low cost 35mm SLR camera.
Set your camera to f4 at 1/125th of a second.
Don’t worry about why. Just trust me. We can get into all the numbers etc. later, but let’s keep it simple for now.
And it doesn’t matter which color negative film you load as long as the speed on the box is from 200 to 400.
Set your aperture to f4.
This setting is usually found on the lens itself. This number is a measurement of how much light is entering the lens. It also determines how deep your focus will be. We will get to that much later in this course. Using a lens aperture of f4 is nice because it gives you some room for error when focusing, while still giving you that nice background blur.
Set your shutter speed to 1/125.
This control is almost always on the camera body itself. 1/125 is a relatively slow shutter speed, but fast enough that your shots will not be blurry even if you move a tiny bit when you take the photo.
Shooting at f4 at 1/125 will allow you to shoot in outdoor light from overcast to full sun and get good results.
Don’t even THINK about shooting indoors at this point, or after sunset. If you do with these settings you will fail. We will cover low light shooting techniques later in following lessons.
Shoot the Whole Damn Roll in One Go
The biggest threat to your film education at this point is to treat your first roll of film like it’s made of gold, a precious commodity where every shot has to be a masterpiece. I’m here to tell you it’s NOT precious. I mean it IS precious in the sense that I am trying to get you to shoot film so that more film is purchased and we can keep film alive.
But for your first roll? Don’t put ANY pressure on it. Just go outside, walk around the block and take pictures of THINGS. Trees, fire hydrants, buildings, other people if you can, dogs, cats, garbage cans, anything.
This is not art, this is all about shooting THAT FIRST ROLL SUCCESSFULLY. The funny thing is, whatever you shoot will look totally amazing to you once you get the film scans back. It’s a funny side effect of film.
Quick Tip: Just as in digital photography, look for nice even light. Try to avoid side light or dappled light. This has nothing to do with shooting film, but just advice for photography in general.
Rewind and Unload Your Roll of Film
Rewinding will vary between cameras, but this video is a great starting point for most manual SLRs.
Put Your Roll in a Padded Envelope and Mail it to The FIND Lab for Developing and Scanning
You don’t know it now, but you will thank me later for sending you to The FIND Lab for your first roll.
All the fine people at The FIND Lab shoot film and are huge advocates for film. They are artists when it comes to SCANNING film and you will get results that are far better than anything you could get at a drugstore where they put your film through OLD chemicals and scan on AUTO without even adjusting your scans.
Complete this order form, and put the form and your film roll in a Ziploc baggie and put that in a padded envelope and mail it to them. In a few days they will send you a zip file via email with your film scans!
I recommend Basic+ scans. These scans come with feedback from the scanner technician to provide purposeful feedback in terms of film choice, lighting, exposure and gear. They focus solely on the technical aspects of the images made. The FIND Lab’s scanners offer this feedback, in the hope that the client becomes more knowledgeable, successful and confident in all shooting situations.
Film Photography Examples
These are images I shot in Hawaii last year using Kodak Gold 200 and an f4 aperture at 1/125 second shutter speed:
Want to Learn More About Shooting Film?
- Overcoming your fears when shooting film
- Which camera and why: choosing the right gear for YOU
Using a Light Meter
- Why do I need a light meter?
- The simplest foolproof way to meter any scene
- Shooting film without a handheld meter (it’s a trick I learned as a photojournalist!)
- Bulb in vs bulb out
- Ambient metering vs spot metering
- Handheld meters vs. mobile light meter apps vs. DSLR as light meter
- Metering for a light/airy look
- Metering for a moody look
- Where to meter in the frame?
- Things that throw off your meter
- Which light meter to buy?
- Manual focusing
- Rangefinder focusing
- Focusing at F2
- Maxwell screens (why you MUST get one if you shoot medium format.)
- Split screen focusing
Working with Light
- Working with available light
- Low light and film
- Backlight and film
- Shooting for the look you want
Advanced Film Techniques
- Which film to use and why
- Difference between exposure compensation dial and rating film
- Rating film
- Overexposure vs. underexposure
- Can you change ISO mid-roll?
- Pushing film
- Pulling film
Labs & Home Scanning
- Developing and scanning 101
- Which lab and why?
- Noritsu vs. Frontier
- How to work with your lab
- Lab Lingo
- What do I do with the negatives?
- Home scanning vs lab scanning
- Epson V600 vs Pakon vs Frontier
- Editing film images
- Traveling with film
- What is hybrid photography
- Advantages of hybrid photography
- When to shoot film vs when to shoot digital
- Getting a consistent look across film and digital in the same shoot