Photos Dan Bracaglia

Film photography is alive and well. Though digital photography is by far the dominant medium, film is still around, and has been growing in popularity over the last decade as photographers discover (or re-discover) the joys of chemical, analog photography. There's also a healthy supply of good used film cameras and many of varieties of film still on the market.

So how does one take the plunge into analog photography? This edition of the 'Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography,' (our first) will cover the bare necessities – what you need to get started.

Film cameras

No surprise there! But what kind of a film camera should you get? We recommend starting with a camera that uses 35mm film, as it's the most common format and offers the broadest variety of equipment.

If you're eager to get that 'film look' with the least amount of fuss, we recommend a compact point-and-shoot camera, which is easy to load and makes most of the exposure decisions for you (and usually makes them correctly).

We recommend starting with a camera that uses 35mm film, as it's the most common format and offers the broadest variety of equipment

If you're a more experienced photographer, you'll perhaps want an SLR or rangefinder that allows you to take more creative control. Auto-focus SLRs offer an experience similar to DSLRs, while manual-focus, manual-wind cameras require more involvement and present an enjoyable challenge. We'll talk more about types of cameras in future articles.

What about lenses? For cameras made after 1990, a couple of general-purpose zooms in the range of 28-85mm and 70-200mm should get you started. For older cameras, prime (fixed focal length) lenses offer better optical quality. Most SLR cameras came with a 50mm lens in the F1.7 - F2 range, which is a good place to start, and a 28mm wide-angle is a common second purchase.

Where to find film cameras

There's plenty of film camera options out there, from very affordable to very pricey.

First, ask around! Chances are you have relatives or friends who have old film cameras sitting in a closet that they are happy to give away or sell cheap. If you're going to buy gear (in the US), dealers like KEH, Robert’s Camera, and B&H are the safest way to go. They grade their gear so you'll know what kind of condition it's in, and they usually offer a guarantee and carry a healthy inventory of compatible lenses. Prices will be a little higher than buying from an individual seller; you're paying for peace-of-mind. Your local camera store may have used gear as well.

Chances are you have relatives or friends who have old film cameras sitting in a closet that they are happy to give away or sell cheap

Estate and garage sales are great hunting grounds for cheap gear. Auction sites are a treasure trove, but the chances of getting a dud are much higher. Troll the sites to get an idea of prices, but buy with caution.

Remember, you don't need to spend a lot on a camera to get great pictures. You should be able to get a perfectly good camera for less than $100 (and sometimes less than $20). If you need help, ask in our Film Photography Talk forum.

Film

It's best to start out shooting with affordable films like Kodak Ultramax (bottom) and Ilford HP5 Plus (top), rather than pricer stocks like Kodak Portra or Fujifilm Natura.

Film is the medium on which analog cameras record their images. Basic film types include print and slide film, both of which come in color and black-white varieties. We'll be adding a guide in the future, diving into their differences.

For most folks, we recommend starting with color print (a.k.a. color negative) film, as it's the least expensive and easiest to get processed. Kodak ColorPlus 200 is cheap and has a nice vintage look. And while shooting film isn't much more difficult than shooting digital, beginner mistakes are always a possibility, so it's best to start with something low-cost.

For most folks, we recommend starting with color print (a.k.a. color negative) film, as it's the least expensive and easiest to get processed

A lot of film photography classes use B&W film, primarily because it's much easier to process by hand than color film. (Also, it looks really cool.) B&W film is often a bit cheaper than color print film, but processing may be more expensive. We don't recommend starting with color slide film as it requires perfect exposure to get good results.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Some cameras set film speed automatically, but others require you to set it manually. Be sure to set the ISO/ASA dial/switch to match the film speed, and don't change it mid-roll!

Where to find film

Most local camera stores still stock film, and you can mail-order it from online retailers like Freestyle and B&H. Film does have an expiration date, and we advise beginners to avoid expired film as it produces unpredictable results.

Batteries

Chances are your analog camera will need some type of battery. (Mechanical cameras can usually operate without batteries, but their built-in light meters can't – and you’ll want a working meter). Later model film cameras will likely take AAs or lithium batteries that are easy to find.

Older manual cameras often take button batteries (S76 or LR44) that will last years, if not decades. Very old cameras may take 1.35V mercury cells which are no longer available, but there are workarounds. WeinCell offers mercury-free batteries that put out the proper voltage, and voltage converters for modern 1.5V batteries are also available. In general, we'd advise first-timers to avoid older mercury cell cameras.

A place to get your film developed

Film has to be developed, so you'll need a lab to process it for you. If you live near a moderately-sized city, you should have no problem finding a place to process your film, and there are also several mail-order labs. Search in Google and be sure to check prices. Expect to pay $10-$20 to develop a roll (more if you want scans and prints).

Expect to pay $10-$20 to develop a roll (more if you want scans and prints)

Most labs will scan your film, make paper prints, or do both. Some labs offer cut-rate processing by tossing the negatives and having you download scans. Don't do it! Get those negatives back – you'll want them in case you want to get better scans or have the photos reprinted at a later date.

What about developing your own film? B&W is a pretty easy and affordable to process, and while we wouldn't recommend it for absolute beginners, it's an easy skill to learn. If you are curious, we recommend reading our guide: Developing at home: everything you need to know.

Color processing requires more precision and higher temperatures, and is best suited to those who already have experience with B&W processing.

Other accessories you might want to consider:

Having a second body (preferably in the same mount) is a handy way to shoot two different film stocks at the same time.

You don't need a lot of gear to get started in film, but there are a few accessories that can enhance the experience.

The owner’s manual

Film cameras are generally less complex than digitals, but the controls differ greatly. Paul Butkus' Orphan Camera site has manuals for over 5,000 different cameras, and we highly recommend getting yours. Paul doesn't charge anything, but please consider supporting him with a donation.

Tripod or monopod

Film cameras have no image stabilization and most films are in the ISO 100-400 range, with ultra-high ISO films (1600-3200) producing a grainier image. That means you'll need to stabilize your camera sooner than you might in digital. If you're shooting in conditions darker than an overcast day, a tripod will help.

One body with 100-speed film and another with 400 protects you if the clouds roll in, and running color film in one camera and B&W in another gives you more creative possibilities

Filters

Film can benefit from a simple UV filter, which cuts down on haze and also protects one's lens. If shooting B&W, a yellow or red filter can give you better sky tones.

Extra film

If you fill up your memory card, you can always delete a few photos – but you obviously can't do that with film, and it's inevitable you'll get to the end of a roll when there are still plenty of good photos to be taken. Always pack an extra roll of film or two. When you get back home, store unused rolls in the refrigerator or freezer.

A second camera body

This isn't a recommendation for absolute beginners, but at some point you may want to consider a second photo body (compatible with your first if you use an SLR). Why? With film, you can't change ISO on the fly, nor can you change from color to black-and-white – but you can have a second body loaded with a second type of film. One body with 100-speed film and another with 400 protects you if the clouds roll in, and running color film in one camera and B&W in another gives you more creative possibilities.

If the cameras use the same lens mount, you only need carry one set of lenses. And your second camera doesn't have to be the same model – a $50 Canon Rebel 2000 makes a great back-up body for your $200 Canon EOS 1N.

The wrap

That's it for the first edition of our 'Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography'. Hopefully you've found the information here useful. And we look forward to adding more guides in the near future, diving deeper into specific film photography topics. Until then, happy shooting!


About

Our 'Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography' is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more.