Many photographers out there who have grown up on digital cameras want to try film photography, but are reluctant to do so because of the cost of buying a camera and getting film developed. Here, then, is a guide to shooting film on a budget.
- Buy a camera and lens cheaply. Check eBay or other online auction sites to find a used camera. There are several things you can do to find the best camera at a good price:
- Buy a cheap plastic autofocus SLR if you already have compatible lenses for it (if you have a digital SLR, for example). Plastic consumer cameras like the Nikon F55 and Canon EOS 300 sell for absurdly low prices. You may look silly shooting them, but the results you will get from these little cameras will be identical to those you would get from a much bigger and heavier professional SLR costing thirty times as much.Beware, however, of lenses that are specifically designed for digital SLRs, which usually have smaller sensors than 35mm film. They either won’t mount on your camera (like with Canon lenses marked EF-S), or they won’t cover the full 36x24mm frame (Nikon’s DX lenses).
- Basic autofocus zoom lenses a few years old are also inexpensive used. They are not good for low light, and not great in the moderately low light their maximum apertures permit, but about as good as any others at f/8 to f/16 (past that, diffraction limits the resolution of all lenses) except in trivial cases such as with brick walls. Autofocus lenses can help you save money from wasted pictures if you have trouble focusing manually, and are much better for moving subjects (which autofocus film SLRs can track and predict, though digital SLRs are much better for capturing single decisive moments reliably through bursts of photos, such as in sports).
- and 50mm f/1.8, sell for absurdly cheap prices.]] Buy into an obsolete system. Demand for lenses from obsolete camera systems, meaning those completely incompatible with today’s digital SLRs, is much lower, because nobody is buying them for use with digital. A couple of examples are Canon FD mount cameras (like the Canon A-1 and T90) and Minolta manual-focus cameras.
- Buy simple prime lenses. “Prime” means a lens of a fixed focal length (i.e. not a zoom). “Simple” means lenses that are easy to manufacture. Very wide, and/or very fast, lenses cost more because they need very complex optics; lenses of sensible speed in normal focal lengths don’t require complex optics and, consequently, are much cheaper. Best of all, these will permit you to shoot in less light and get sharper pictures than you would with a slower, more expensive, and heavier zoom lens. Look around for a 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8 (or f/2 if you’re looking at Pentax), and 135mm f/2.8.
- Alternatively, don’t buy a camera. You probably already know several people who have an old, unused film camera or two whom you might be able to convince to lend one to you, or even give it to you.
- Shoot colour negative film. Colour negative film can be developed very cheaply just about anywhere; slide film requires a very different process called E-6, which only a very small number of photo labs do. You won’t get the same punchy colours that you can get on slide film (though some negative films, like Kodak Ektar 100, come close), but then you won’t need to take out a bank loan to pay for each roll to be developed, either. On the other hand, the slides only need processing and then can be directly seen on a projector but with film you might want prints, which can be expensive. (If you intend to scan to digital, you only need the negatives.)If you like the look of black-and-white film, there are a couple of films that can be developed in the standard C-41 process used for colour negative films. Look for Kodak BW400CN (relatively low-contrast, great for people photos) and Ilford XP2 (high contrast).
- Slide film has a much smaller exposure latitude and thus a much greater failure rate than print film except where one is consistently very precise, which doesn’t suit many kinds of subjects. Projecting slide film destroys it in a matter of hours; regular slide shows do gradually consume the pictures’ longevity.
- Stick to 35mm. While other film formats will offer more surface area (and, consequently, more resolution, and less grain at a given enlargement), many minilabs will not be able to develop and/or scan it, which means you’ll have to go to a much more expensive lab to get it developed.
- Proper technique with a slow film such as Fuji Velvia or Kodak Ektar, correct exposure, a moderate aperture, and a moderate shutter speed or tripod, can produce very sharp, fine-grained photos with an old 35mm SLR or even a nice point-and-shoot (which should choose a moderate or small aperture and a moderate to high shutter speed on its own in bright light).
- Buy lots of film. Buy as much as you can afford. Like everything else, buying things in bulk works out muchcheaper. Also, if you buy film that is close to the expiration date it’s cheaper. Wrap it tight in plastic and throw it in the freezer. It will keep for years. Just make sure you defrost it in the plastic–otherwise you’ll get condensation on the film.
- Even kept in a freezer, film eventually deteriorates and high-speed film – ISO 400 and above — deteriorates faster. Long-expired film isn’t worth the trouble of shooting and the cost of developing unless one wants special effects technically poorer than a cheap digital camera’s photos.
- Don’t buy a scanner. Your lab owns some incredibly expensive equipment and nearly all of them will have a scanner built into their minilab. Most labs will get great results with their automated scans. Shop around.
- Shoot film for what it’s best at. Film is ill-suited to action (sports, moving wildlife, and so on) that require split-second timing and usually need several shots taken in a second. That gets expensive; get a digital SLR for that kind of thing. On the other hand, film is great for stills, like landscapes, statues, and plants.
- when the light is good. (Shot with a Pentax ZX-M on Fuji Sensia 400.]] Get out when the light is good. Meaning, don’t shoot in boring midday sunlight. Great light happens in the early morning and late evening, within about a one-hour window before and after sunset and sunrise. The better the light, the fewer mediocre pictures you’ll take, which means more winners per roll, which means you’re not blindly shooting tons of film in the hope of getting one or two good ones, which saves you money!
- Think before you shoot. Rather than blindly shooting, learn to see. Spend a few minutes refining and simplifying your composition. More winners per roll means you’ll be spending less on film.
- Shoot a frame at a time. If you’ve got a motor-driven camera, set it to its single-frame mode. If you’ve got an add-on motor drive, leave it at home (or keep it on your camera but turn it off, because they look seriously cool). You can easily find yourself taking several shots of the same thing if you have some film-burning motor-driven monster. Your roll won’t go as far, which means you’ll be wasting money.
- If you are unsure about exposure, such as with a backlit subject, err toward overexposure with color print film (unless the shutter speed would have to be so slow as to cause blur). If you want a darker picture you can adjust it on a computer, but you can’t add detail that isn’t there. Two or three stops over shouldn’t blow out most of the highlights badly. (You could bracket exposure, but this is an article about how to get decent results for cheap.)
- Don’t get prints. If you’re looking to show off your work on the Internet, the following process usually works out quite a bit cheaper: Just get your scans toasted to a CD, and if there are some you really like you can always get them printed later at a very reasonable price. The pharmacy CVS, the warehouse store Costco, and the mail-order processor Dwayne’s Photo will inexpensively process and scan film without printing it. Costco and Dwayne’s Photo tend to have multiple knowledgeable staff at any given time and use higher resolution.
- Go for a longer development time. Unless you’re terminally impatient, rather than go for one-hour developing, get it developed next-day, or maybe over a few days if you’re extremely patient.On the other hand, some labs will give you a free film if you go for one-hour developing. Sometimes these give superb results, so take one for a spin.
Sources and Citations
- Lewis Collard, How to get great results from film cameras, http://lewiscollard.com/cameras/shooting-a-real-camera/. Original source, shared with permission.
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