A Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography
Why shoot film when digital is so easy? For me, it’s all about mindfulness. Film forces you to be more selective with what you shoot, so it challenges you to stay in touch with your subject. There’s no looking at the back of the camera to check our photos as you go, so you are more likely to be present in your environment and in that moment. Plus, I think there’s something to be said for the practice of delayed gratification. In the following paragraphs, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started. And remember, up until a few years ago literally everyone shot film, so it can’t be that difficult.
(To hone your photography skills with Huckberry Ambassadors Forrest Mankins and Alex Strohl, check out their Creating the Moment virtual photography workshop—you’ll be shooting like a Huckberry Ambassador in no time.)
Once you start paying attention, you’ll see a lot of different terms and formats being thrown around: 35mm, 120, 6x7, 645, medium format, large format, and on and on. 35mm is the standard film roll we’re used to, and modern digital cameras have a sensor that is roughly the same size, so that’s a good place to start. With a 35mm, you’ll have cheaper access to more cameras that are often easier to use, the film is cheaper per shot, and you’ll get more photos back per roll which speeds up learning.
I remember how daunting it felt when I started looking for my first film camera. Nothing was currently being manufactured, so I was researching products made a decade or more ago. My first camera was the classic Canon AE-1 Program. It turned out to be a joy to use, and easy to learn on. The Pentax K1000 is also another great option. Both are 35mm SLR, which is what I’d recommend for beginners. SLRs are super simple, allow you to choose your lens, and have light meters inside like a digital camera.
Whatever you choose, when shopping on Ebay, look for sellers who accept returns and have great ratings. Buying anything used is a gamble, so choose a seller that makes you feel comfortable. And be sure to Google your camera manual to help get you started.
There are different kinds of film: slide film, black and white film, and color negative film. Color negative (c41) is the most common. To start, I recommend getting a handful of 400-speed color negative rolls (like Kodak Portra, Fuji 400h, Fuji Superia, and Kodak Gold) and a traditional black and white. Shoot them and send them in all at once. You’ll most likely have some botched shots in each roll, but when you’re able to compare, you’ll probably find you have an automatic preference of one look over the other. Once you’ve picked your favorite, stick with it until you get to know how it will handle in every situation.
Here are some recommended films:
• Kodak Portra 160: least light sensitive, good for daytime
• Kodak Portra 400: medium sensitivity to light, most functional for all purpose shooting
• Kodak Portra 800: higher light sensitivity, higher grain, my favorite Portra
• Fuji 400H: beautiful skin tones, vibrant colors, my favorite 35mm film
• Kodak Ektar: 100 speed, extremely fine grain, great for photographing objects and darker skin tones (can make paler skin look red)
Black and White
• Kodak TRI-X
• Kodak T-MAX
• Ilford HP5
You’ll often hear film shooters talk about shooting things at “box speed.” All this means is that if you’re matching your camera’s ISO/ASA to your film speed. If you are already shooting on a digital camera, you’ve probably already heard of ISO (formerly known as ASA). It’s the camera setting that determines light sensitivity (and consequently, graininess). With film, you’ll want to set your ISO based on the film speed. Lower film speeds (100, 200) mean lower light sensitivity and less grain in your photos, but you’ll need longer shutter speeds (which indicates how long the shutter is open) and bigger apertures (which indicates the size of the opening in your camera lens). Higher film speeds (800, 1600, 3200) mean higher sensitivity and more grain in your photos. For most people, I recommend starting out with a do-all 400-speed film.
Once you choose your film speed, conventional wisdom is to set the camera’s ISO/ASA to the same number. On older cameras you’ll have to do this manually, but newer cameras should do it for you. This is a great way to start out and a lot of people’s preferred method. On the other hand, overexposing your film by shooting at half of the ISO can also give you great results. (I.e. if the film you put in your camera is 400 speed, set your camera’s ISO/ASA to 200.) With digital, overexposure can wash out detail, but with film, it’ll give your images a brighter look. I do it routinely.
Don’t be timid, be thoughtful.
Even though shooting film doesn’t need to cost a lot, the fact that each picture costs SOMETHING will definitely be on your mind when you’re shooting. We’re not creating some digital file that may or may not ever be looked at a second time, but something that is going to exist in a negative and a print (you’re going to want prints). I love that shooting film makes us thoughtful, but don’t let it make you timid. I often wish I would have taken 1, 2, or sometimes 10 more frames of something that really caught me. You’re not going to be taking a million mindless shots like you would on digital, but don’t be afraid to give yourself a few chances to capture something.
After 6 years of sending film to different labs across the country—from drugstores, to places recommendations from friends, to the most highly rated labs out there—and I’ve finally found my lab. Even though many labs have the same equipment, your results can vary from location to location and from employee to employee, so it’s important to find a place you like and work with them to get your scans how you want them.
I send all of my film to State Film Lab in Louisville, and to everyone else—pro or prospective shooter—I recommend doing the same. And lucky for you, we’ve got a 15% off discount code to get you started: HB15.
For more photography advice from Forrest (both film and digital), check out the workshop he created with Huckberry Ambassador Alex Strohl. The Creating the Moment workshop includes 18 video lessons, four Adobe Lightroom presets, and a downloadable workshop manual from two of the best adventure photographers out there.
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