If you’ve ever been looking for something new and fun to explore in photography, then perhaps one of the best things you can do is look at something from the past, namely film photography. Before digital photography was invented, and became mainstream, film photography was the only way you could take photographs.
35mm film photography has been around since the early 1900s and doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as using a disposable point and shoot camera, or as complicated as using a manual focus SLR with manual settings and a light-meter. But whatever option you go for, this guide to film photography will help get you started, so you can enjoy creative photography.
Often at a slower and more thoughtful pace analogue photography can be a magical experience, lacking the “digital” feel of modern cameras, some of the film cameras of the past exude “feel” and some might even say soul…
Welcome to the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB – This series is designed to take you from the beginnings of photography, introduce different shooting skills and styles, and teach you how to grow as a photographer, so you can enjoy producing amazing photography (and video), to take you to the next level, whether that’s making money or simply mastering your art form.
Each week you’ll find a new article so make sure to come back to continue your journey, and have fun along the way, creating great images. If you’ve found these articles helpful, don’t forget to share them with people you know who may be interested in learning new photography skills. You’ll find a whole range of further articles in this series.
In this introduction to analogue film photography for beginners, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to get started, as well as explain some of the jargon involved with film photography…
How does film photography work?
Film is a strip of plastic (or similar material) that is coated with light-sensitive emulsion and when this is exposed to light, there is a chemical reaction that records the image in the emulsion on the film. As long as this isn’t exposed to light again, this remains stable, and can then be developed (processed) and printed or scanned to show you the photo you’ve taken. It’s a bit like magic, but it’s actually been refined over 100+ years by people like Kodak, Fujifilm, Ilford and others.
Analog vs Digital photography
Digital photography makes taking photographs easy, with little worry about the cost per photo, in fact once you have the camera and memory card, photos cost you nothing. You can take as many photos as you possibly want, thousands upon thousands. But then you’re left with the arduous task of having to go through those photos to find the best ones.
Film photography changes this, because you have a limited number of shots (24 or 36), and each one costs you money, both for the film cost, and then the development of those photos. So with this in mind, knowing you have a limited number of shots, and knowing each one costs money, you’re forced to slow down, and make each shot count. Make each shot as good as it possibly can be, or capture the special moment in front of you. Moments you want to remember.
Why shoot film photographs?
Shooting with film is a slower process, with more time to think, especially if you’re using a manual camera, and remember how much film and film processing costs. However, shooting with a point and shoot can be a fun experience as you capture memorable moments that mean something, without having to worry about expensive camera kit.
If you’re looking for a fresh challenge, and want to learn how photography was done before digital cameras, it can be a useful experience, and also there’s an element of fun and excitement as you wait to see how your photos will turn out.
Getting started in film photography, you’ll need:
- A film camera
- Batteries (if the camera uses them)
- Once you’ve finished shooting, you’ll need to develop the film roll
The simplest way to start is with 35mm film. It’s the most widely available, and the most easily developed, processed and printed. It’s also the most cost effective, with cheap films available from around £4-6, as well as a wide range of 35mm film cameras from simple point and shoots, to more advanced options, from as little as £10-15 (used).
1. Finding a film camera
You’ll find film cameras in almost every charity shop you go past, sometimes with a neat carry case and additional lenses. There are also a wide range of places you can find them online, but before you start, here’s a quick look at some of the most popular choices to get you started.
New film cameras:
There are a small number of new film cameras available, and most of these are budget or “toy” cameras, where quality is not of paramount importance. They can be a good option if you just want a point and shoot camera, and don’t want a disposable camera, but most offer only one shutter speed, and a slow lens, and there are better second-hand options for less money (see below).
- Reto Ultra Wide and Slim (£35)
- Lomography Simple Use Film Camera (£35)
- Ilford Sprime 35-II (£39)
However, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get a taste for film photography, is to look at a cheap disposable camera, often these can be cheaper than buying some film, and if you just want to dip your toes in, then have a look at our guide to the best disposable film cameras.
Used film cameras:
For a high-quality 35mm film camera, you’ll need to look at second-hand and used options. With this there are several things to be aware of. The older the camera, the more likely it is to not work properly, or there may be light leaks, as seals degrade over time.
You’ll also need to decide if you’re going to go for a compact camera, a manual SLR camera, with manual focus and controls, or a more modern SLR with auto focus and controls.
Compact 35mm cameras:
You can go for a compact 35mm film camera, and there are plenty of point and shoot options, with either a fixed lens, or a zoom lens. Look for models with a large optical viewfinder, and built-in flash, as well as autofocus and you’ll most likely find a camera that’s easy to use. Zoom cameras tend to offer slower operation, and the lenses aren’t as bright as fixed focal length cameras.
Fixed focal length film cameras:
You can go for a classic film camera with a metal body, such as the Olympus 35 RC, shown above, or look for a budget point and shoot, such as the Pentax PC-550 (around £20+). Some models carry a premium due to the small size, and bright lens on offer, as is the case with the Olympus MJU II, with f/2.8 lens. As with any old camera, check everything is working as expected, and none of the fragile plastics are broken.
- Pentax PC-550 – around £20
- Olympus XA2 – around £50
- Olympus MJU-I – around £120
- Olympus MJU-II – around £300
- Olympus 35 RC – around £80
For more fixed lens film camera options, have a look at the best fixed lens 35mm film cameras.
Manual SLR cameras:
Manual SLRs have the advantage of being more compact than autofocus SLRs, and often use minimal battery power (some are even battery free), meaning you can go weeks or months without worrying about the battery running out.
They also offer great value for money, and solid metal build quality, but due to the age of these cameras, it’s a good idea to check if the built-in light meters still work, and whether they’ve been serviced.
Classic manual SLR options:
- Pentax K1000 – from £90
- Olympus OM-1 – from £70
- Nikon FM – from £75
These are some of our favourites, but you’ll find more options in our guide to manual SLR cameras.
Automatic SLR cameras:
Automatic cameras such as the Canon EOS 100 still give you manual controls if you want them, as well as the option to use manual focus, but the nice thing is that you can use them in a fully automatic mode making them easier to use for beginners, whilst still giving the high-quality images you’d expect from an SLR. Another nice feature is that they remain extremely good value-for-money, being less popular than manual SLRs.
Here are some great options for autofocus SLRs:
- Canon EOS 100 – from £15
- Minolta Dynax 7000 – from £25
- Minolta Dynax 7000i – from £20
- Nikon D90 – from £50
As with digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras, film SLR cameras let you change the lens you use, and it’s important to make sure you know what lens mount the camera has when looking for a new lens. There are lots of options available, often very affordable.
These are just some of the different types of 35mm film cameras, and there are a wider variety of options including panoramic, and stereo cameras – see our guide to 35mm film cameras.
Film cameras to avoid:
Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, then APS and 110 film cameras are generally best avoided as you’re likely to find it very difficult to find film, and processing services, for these.
If you do want to give 110 film a go, then Analogue Wonderland and Lomography still sell new film, and there are a still some companies that process 110 film. You’re extremely unlikely to be able to find any APS film new or in stock, although you can still get it processed. Because of this, you’ll often spot “bargain” priced APS and 110 film cameras, but unless you’re dedicated, we wouldn’t recommend it!
It’s worth pointing out that 110 film and APS film are much smaller than 35mm film and were never known to give particularly good results.
Where to buy?
You’ll find a wide variety of online retailers that sell new and second-hand film cameras, but it can also be worth checking out local stores to see if they have any in stock, as seeing them in person can give you a better idea of the size and condition of the items.
Once you do have a film camera, make sure you learn how to look after it in our guide on how to maintain your film camera, or if you already have an old camera that needs repairing, have a look at our guide to repairing cameras.
2. Buying 35mm film…
Film photography is continuing to grow in popularity, with Ilford, Kodak, and Fujifilm remaining the big players in terms of film production. In fact, Ilford are continuing to grow thanks to film sales.
Types of 35mm film… (also known as 135 film)
To keep things simple, we’ll keep this brief, and say that the main types of 35mm film camera are colour and black and white negative film. Each photo is 35mm wide, hence the name. This is also why a full-frame digital camera is called a “full-frame” camera, because the sensor matches the 35mm wide film in size.
With 35mm film you get the choice of whether you want 24 exposures (shots) or 36 exposures (shots), with the 36 exposure film being more expensive than 24.
You also need to pay attention to the ISO speed on offer – if you’re shooting in bright sunny conditions, then ISO100 is a good choice, but if you plan on shooting in low-light or want to use flash then ISO400 or higher would be a good choice.
Nb. Most common films are “negative” film (producing a negative image of the scene), but be aware that some film is known as “positive” or “slide” film, and these will need more professional film processing.
What is ISO / ASA in film photography?
ISO, previously known as ASA, is quite simply, the sensitivity of the film. ISO400 is more sensitive to light than ISO100, and will therefore need a shorter exposure for the same scene. You can get film with an ISO rating up to ISO800 or even ISO3200, but as is the case with digital cameras, the higher the ISO speed, the larger the grain on the film, and the more noise/grain will be visible in the image, and the “rougher” the image will look. If you’re shooting film at night, then a high ISO speed film is essential.
What is “Process” or C-41?
Most colour film is processed using the C-41 process, and this is what the majority of film processing labs support. It’s the chemical process used to develop the film, and turn it into processed negatives.
You’ll find some black and white film also uses C-41 process, and this makes it cheaper and easier to find places that will process black and white film. A common black and white film that uses the C-41 process is Ilford XP2. If you’re planning on developing your own black and white film, then traditional black and white film is what you want.
More on shooting black and white film: Why we still shoot black and white film.
3. Developing your film – do you want prints or digital scans?
If you live in a city, it’s likely there will be a camera shop that will develop photos for you, taking the film and processing it so you have negatives. From these negatives, it used to be the norm that you would get your photos back as 6x4inch or 7x5inch photos, with a choice of Matt or Gloss. Now you also get the choice of whether you want digital copies of these (often as JPEG images), which they will be able to provide on CD or as a digital download link, emailed directly to you.
You don’t even need to get prints these days, but we still think there’s something nice about getting all your photos back as printed photos, including the smell.
If you want to take more control over your scans, you can use professional film developing services which will allow you to give additional instructions regarding how you want the photos to be dealt with – find more on this here: Dan Rubin: film photography and scanning tips.
Do you want to scan your own negatives?
You could even scan your own negatives once they’ve been processed, and there are a variety of ways to do this:
- Using a dedicated film scanner, however premium film scanners are often hard to find, with better ones being very expensive, and new budget models lacking quality.
- Using a smartphone and adapter, such as the Lomography Smartphone Scanner, this is a quick and easy method, and gives good enough results for sharing on social media etc.
- Using a Mirrorless camera or DSLR to take photographs of the film – this method is relatively easy with the right kit, such as a light box, a camera, and a macro lens, and should give the best quality possible.
If you need more convincing on the magic of film photography, and want to know how it works in more detail, have a look at this great video from SmarterEveryDay:
Taking it to the next level – Advanced film photography:
For more advanced film photographers, you can look into processing your own film in our Essential Guide to Film Processing, and even printing your own photos in a darkroom in our Essential Guide to Darkroom Printing.
Article and lead image: Joshua Waller
More on film photography:
Tune in next week, for the next article in the series of the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB.
- Part 1: Beginners guide to different camera types.
- Part 2: Beginners guide to different lens types.
- Part 3: Beginners guide to using a camera taking photos.
- Part 4: Beginners guide to Exposure, aperture, shutter, ISO, and metering.
- Part 5: Understanding white balance settings and colour
- Part 6: 10 essential cameras accessories for beginners
- Part 7: Beginners guide to the Art of photography and composition
- Part 8: Beginners guide to Photoshop Elements and editing photos
- Part 9: Beginners guide to Portrait Photography
- Part 10: Beginners guide to Macro Photography
- Part 11: Beginners guide to Street Photography
- Part 12: Beginners guide to Landscape Photography
- Part 13: How to shoot Action and Sports Photography
- Part 14: How to shoot wildlife photography
- Part 15: Raw vs JPEG – Pros and cons
- Part 16: How to create stunning black and white images
- Part 17: How to photograph events and music
- Part 18: Pet photography – how to photograph pets
- Part 19: The ultimate guide to flash photography
- Part 20: The ultimate guide to tripods
- Part 21: Create awesome photos with light painting
- Part 22: Beginners guide to file and photo management
- Part 23: How to shoot food photography
- Part 24: Complete guide to outdoor light
- Part 25: Top tips for stunning car photography
- Part 26: How to master waterfall photography
- Part 27: How to use social media as a photographer
Find the latest Improve Your Photography articles here.