Film is alive and kicking – tips, cameras, beginners advice.

For over a hundred years film was the only option. The greatest names in photography all shot film; I’m sure you’ve heard of Ansel Adams.

Some of the most inspiring, well-known photographs ever produced were shot by famous photographers—so why do all the modern-day pros shoot digital if all the greats shot film? The answer is quite simple: convenience and cost.


If Film Is So Great, Why Do We Shoot Digital?

I would like to preface this tutorial by saying that I make the majority of my income from shooting digital. Film versus digital is a very controversial subject and the point of this tutorial is not to claim that one is better than the other, but rather to provide the reader a better understanding of film, and what it can do for them today, even in a digital world.

The digital format…

  1. Allows you to review your work after every single shot, from the camera, without having to wait for film to be developed.
  2. Is easily transferable in digital format from one computer to the next, or from one mobile phone to another, or from one email box to another.
  3. Costs less in the long run to print because there are no developing costs.
  4. Is more versatile because the digital sensor is able to change ISO on the fly.
  5. Does not expire like film does.

I could go on. The simple fact is that digital simply makes sense for the modern 35mm photographer and certainly for the weekend hobbyist. There are no messy chemicals to deal with, you’re not required to sit in a dark room for hours on end to see if your film [properly] developed, and you only need a memory card or two instead of roll after roll of film.


If Digital Is King, Why Are You Recommending Film?

If you are interested in becoming a photographer, starting out can be very expensive. Granted, if you buy used equipment you can save a lot of money. But even used, a digital SLR (DSLR) can run you a few hundred dollars whereas a mint condition film SLR will cost less than $100.

Even the most expensive, top of the line, professional film SLR’s on the used market go for a couple hundred bucks. On the other hand, top of the line DSLR’s go for thousands, even well used. Start-up cost is one of the toughest hurdles to overcome when getting into photography and this is where film can save you a bundle while getting your feet wet in the world of photography.

The second reason I recommend film to beginners is that it’s a more immersive way to learn about the relationship between aperture, ISO and shutter speed. You also have to be more cognizant of your surroundings and available light when shooting film. I have to admit, I’m a little grumpy knowing that many modern photographers never touched or even wanted to try their hand at film; they’re robbing themselves of a truly wonderful experience that I believe can take them to a whole other level.

The digital format allows one to be very sloppy, especially if you’re shooting in digital RAW format. You’re able to over or underexpose and fix it in post rather than doing it right in the first place. Heck, worrying about white-balance seems to be a thing of the past; a simple eye-dropper tool fixes everything for you in post! Learning on film teaches you to truly care about your surroundings while getting intimately familiar with your camera and all of its little quirks.

If you thought my reasons for shooting film were subjective, my final reasons are even more so; but hear me out. In my opinion, black and white photography has yet to be reproduced in digital format to echo the beautiful black and white film formats that are still available today.

It’s hard to explain; maybe it’s the film grain versus digital grain, maybe it’s the seemingly infinite tones that black and white film can produce or maybe it’s a combination of a lot of different elements aligning to “make it happen”. All I know is that I have yet to see consistent results from digital black and white prints that are as astoundingly gorgeous as examples from countless black and white prints that I have seen throughout my life. Obviously, this is subjective, but there you have it.

Canon EOS 630 – Kodak T-MAX400 B&W Film


Okay Fine, Where Do I Start?

Where else? The camera! There have been so many makes, models and formats of cameras over the years that it would be silly to try and review them all. And I don’t want to “fake it”, I’m not going to scour the internet looking for info on camera systems that I know nothing about. I believe that would only dilute my information and rob you of truly useful, real-world experience. My goal is to provide some of what I know so that you can make an informed decision when you go on the hunt for your own film camera.

In this article, I will not address medium or large format film cameras since I could write a book on that topic alone. Not to mention, I wouldn’t be saving you any money by recommending the medium/large format route anyway. Instead, I’ll start with Canon’s EOS systems, I’ll continue with a short glimpse into rangefinders and finish up with film recommendations.

I apologize ahead of time for those interested in Nikon or other manufacturers. I have far more experience with Canon, but some of these same principles should apply to other systems and the film recommendations should work across the board.

Let’s get started!


Canon EOS Elan

Models Include:

Elan
Elan II(e)
Elan 7(e)(n)(ne)

Up For Review: Elan IIe

The Canon EOS Elan IIe is a steal when you compare the price to performance ratio. While a 1v is a wonderful (and legendary) film SLR, even now a good copy is being sold for several hundred dollars and that might be a bit much to invest on a used film camera when you’re first starting out, especially since the Elan is so cheap and provides many of the same functions.

The Elan is also very easy to find in online auctions. It uses typical 35mm film and has the modern EF lens mount (versus the older, discontinued FD lens mount). I would highly recommend buying one that comes with a battery grip if you want to use AA batteries, the body itself will only take the more expensive 2CR5 batteries.

Why?

  1. Cost. ($20-$50)
  2. Performance and Features
  3. Ergonomics
  4. Pro Features

Where?

  1. eBay
  2. Buy/Sell sections on Camera Forums
  3. Local Camera Shops
  4. Yard Sales

Features

  1. Silent Film Operation (Elan was the first SLR with near-silent operation)
  2. Simultaneous AF/MF with USM lenses
  3. A large thumb wheel for control
  4. High speed flash sync
  5. Basically the first “auto everything” SLR with just about every professional control you could ask for in a film SLR

Notes

  1. No AE Lock
  2. Not weather sealed (although I’ve had mine in the rain plenty of times)
  3. Known for underexposing when in difficult, mixed lighting situations if using lower ISO film (50,100)
  4. Make sure to buy one that comes with the grip so you can use AA batteries

Photo Sample


Canon EOS 600-Series

Models Include:

EOS 650
EOS 620
EOS 630

Up For Review: EOS 630

The reason I’m recommending the 600 series of cameras is that they’re extremely cheap, built like tanks, and can still be found quite easily. This series was among the first to rely on electronic focusing by communication between the on-board microprocessor and auto-focusing motors in EF lenses. The AF system out-performed anything else at the time.

The EOS 630 was the latest from the 600 line. It had the fastest processor which resulted in faster AF, had interchangeable viewing screens, had an illuminated LCD and could use databacks. It was also all metal construction; it has held up amazingly well over the years.

If I had a gripe, the biggest would be that it’s a pain to do manual metering because of the multiple button operations required to accomplish it. The camera is also not the most comfortable to hold in your hands in comparison with other EOS systems.

Why?

  1. Cost. ($5-$50)
  2. Performance and Features
  3. Build Quality
  4. Pro Features

Where?

  1. eBay
  2. Buy/Sell sections on Camera Forums
  3. Local Camera Shops
  4. Yard Sales

Features

  1. Modern AF
  2. Interchangeable viewing screens
  3. Illuminated LCD
  4. Databack Compatible
  5. Metal construction

Notes

  1. Ergonomics not the best
  2. Multiple button presses for some operations

Photo Sample


Canon EOS Rebel Series

Models Include:

Rebel SII
Rebel X/XS
Rebel G
Rebel 2000
Rebel K2
Rebel Ti/T2

Up For Review: Rebel G

The Rebel series is probably the one you know as the “Andre Agassi camera”. The famous tennis player was hired by Canon to market their line of Rebel cameras throughout the 90′s and 2000′s. It was one of the most successful, mass-produced lines that Canon ever made (and continues that course with the digital Rebel today).

I’m recommending this camera because it costs next to nothing; I’ve seriously witnessed people give them away. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them, on the contrary! They’re quite capable with some pro-level features in a very light and compact package.

The reason they’re so cheap is that there were so many of them made and since they were never a “professional” camera, they were not that expensive, even when new. Don’t expect a lot of pro-features and amazing build quality, however.

If you want to spend next to nothing on a body just to get the experience of shooting and developing film, this is your camera.

Why?

  1. Cost. ($5-$30)
  2. Size and Weight
  3. Easy to find

Where?

  1. eBay
  2. Buy/Sell sections on Camera Forums
  3. Local Camera Shops
  4. Yard Sales

Features

  1. Very compact and lightweight (half the weight of the Elan II and 630)
  2. Accepts all modern EF lenses
  3. Full meter scale in the viewfinder at all times, even in metered-manual mode

Notes

  1. Lacks DOF preview
  2. Viewfinder is cramped
  3. Built-in flash is weak
  4. Plastic lens mount rather than metal
  5. You only have one control to set both shutter speed and aperture, so manual mode metering is more difficult than it should be.

Photo Sample


The Rangefinder

What the heck is a rangefinder? It’s a camera fitted with a rangefinder, duh! For all intents and purposes, a rangefinder is a method of focusing. Most rangefinders show two images of a subject; when you turn a focus wheel, one of the images moves until it is lined up with the other image and that’s how you know it’s in focus. Personally, I really enjoy this method of focusing. Rangefinders are popular because of the following:

  1. Very compact
  2. No moving mirror
  3. Quiet operation
  4. “Both eyes open” shooting

Rangefinders offer a unique shooting experience in that you’re not looking through the lens like you do with an SLR. It’s sort of like shooting through a modern point-n-shoot. Because the viewfinder is off to the side, you can leave both eyes open while looking through the viewfinder to survey your scene as you’re shooting. This makes the rangefinder very popular amongst urban and photojournalist photographers.

If you’ve researched rangefinders at any level, you’ve probably run across mention of Leica, they are the bad boys in the realm of rangefinders, the top of the pack. Unfortunately, that means they’re also insanely expensive.

I’ve had experience with several rangefinders over the years, but I always go back to my Canon QL-17 GIII. I love the photos that come out of this thing, especially black and whites. It is often referred to as the “poor man’s Leica” because the lens quality was able to produce incredible photos for the price.

Canon Canonet QL-17 GIII

You can find them on used camera forums and eBay for $20-$30. The reason you can find them so cheap is that the light seals are often shot, sometimes the aperture blades are frozen and the shutter speed may be off.

If you are lucky enough to find one that only needs the light seals replaced, it’s a relatively easy and cheap fix (we’re talking $12-$15 for the new seals) if you do the repair yourself.

Light Seal Replacement on my Canon Canonet QL-17 GIII

Photo Sample

Canon Canonet QL-17 GII – Kodak B&W T-MAX400


You’ve Convinced Me, So What About Film?

First and foremost, find a reputable local camera lab and give them a call. They’ll tell you what kind of film they’re able to handle as well as what they can print and what sort of print medium they can print on.

Don’t be shy about admitting you’re a film beginner. In fact, I encourage it. Otherwise, they’ll assume you know what you’re doing and you may miss out on some very important lessons while working with your photo lab. After you’ve developed your first couple of rolls, feel free to see if there are other services that are cheaper (including online) if you’re so inclined.

I recommend your local camera shop because I’m a believer in supporting your local industry. And, as I eluded to, you can learn a lot by asking questions and dealing with your lab in person.

Negative and Slide Film

Generally speaking, there are two types of film; slide film and negative film. I’m going to focus on negative film, it’s the easiest (and cheapest) to work with. As you progress, you may want to dabble with slide film as it can technically produce better prints than negatives can and slide longevity is much greater than negatives (which start to deteriorate well within a decade).

Film Speed

Next up is film speed. ISO speeds in digital cameras came from the ISO film rating system and the same principles apply. The larger the ISO number, the less light you’ll need to expose your scene on the film negative.

What I would recommend is starting with an ISO400 film (or thereabouts) so that you have a little more latitude with available light. Any higher and you’ll really start to see a lot of film grain and any lower will require sunlight or lots of interior light, more than a typically lit room in your house will provide.

Storage

You may have heard that some people store batteries in their refrigerator. Well, I have no idea if that does anything for batteries or not, but it certainly does for film. I store all of my film in the fridge. Why? Film is made of chemicals that start to break down as heat is introduced. The warmer it gets, the faster it deteriorates.

If you keep your film cold, the process is slowed, although never completely stopped. It doesn’t matter whether you keep your film in the fridge or the freezer, there are no ill effects to film if you freeze and defrost it. However, I keep mine in the fridge so that I can use it immediately instead of waiting for it to thaw.

Types

Here’s some film that I’ve used over the years. I shoot B&W Kodak T-MAX400 almost exclusively these days, although I do pop in a roll of T-MAX100 once in a while. As for color, I can’t remember the last time I used a color negative film slower than 400. I would probably recommend starting with TMX400 if you’re interested in B&W, I find it to be very versatile. Again, call up your local shop and make sure there will be no problems developing whatever film you decide to use.

Black & White

Slow: Ilford Pan F50
Mid/Fast: Plus-X, FP4,Tri-X, T-MAX400

Color

Slow: Kodak Gold 100, Fuji Super G 100
Mid/Fast: Kodak Professional Portra / Royal Gold 400, Fuji NPH

Important Note

When you buy your first used film camera, make sure to put a roll of cheap color film through it and have your photo lab develop straight to a CD so that you can check for possible issues with the camera. You’ll be able to see if there are light leaks, if the shutter is off or the aperture blades are malfunctioning.

I also recommend getting yourself a light meter or using your digital camera to meter (if you have one, of course). Write down the readings and compare them with the photos you get back to determine if your film camera has a metering problem.


Wrap Up

I know you’ll have many questions when you buy that first film camera and run that first roll through it, and a lot of it will be trial and error. But I hope this article will be enough to get you started and I encourage each of you to at least try shooting a couple rolls of film.

I’ve provided some options that cost next-to-nothing, so even if you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re not out that much cash. I’m betting you’ll have a blast!

Just be careful, it can become very addicting very quickly. Before you know it, you’ll be buying developer chemicals and trying to figure out which room in your house you can get away with turning into a darkroom!

All photos © Shane Parker Photography

Source.

23 responses to “Film is alive and kicking – tips, cameras, beginners advice.

  1. I run with a Canon 30D dslr and a suite of L lenses – simplest thing in the world to buy a used EOS 30 film camera and slap the Ls on that.
    My advice is have a word with Aunty June or Uncle Bill and see if they have an old film camera that they’ll let you have, most people have something kicking about doing nothing.

  2. Pingback: Film is alive and kicking – tips, cameras, beginners advice. « Reflexio.com

  3. Good stuff, thanks for sharing! I agree with the author 100% with regards to learning the fundamentals of photography on a film camera. The best digital photographers I’ve seen (including your work, Ricardo) have mastered the film format.

  4. Great recommendations I’m sure. I have an old Canon T90 kit that I was given some years ago. I especially enjoy film for very long exposure photography. OK there’s film reciprocity to consider but no waiting around between shots whilst the digital camera removes noise or resorting to stacking a series of shorter exposures to get around this.

    • Thank You for the comment.
      Of course with digital cameras You’ve more maneuver to have a greatfinal results with edits and more edits and spend a lot of time in one editor program, but try to compare one print from a digital camera with a another print with a film camera and tell me after anithing. 😉
      If You’re familiar with film cameras, I’ll bet You can take awesome shots and phenomenal prints. 🙂

      Regards.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      Hard to teach photography but not impossible. The basics are really simple to teach, now that depends the skills who are learning, isn’t it? 🙂

      Regards.

  5. Very cool. Maybe it’s time to haul out that cannon off the shelf and fool around with it….maybe actually learn how to use it better. (We alway stored batteries and film in the fridge,too – never thought about the freezer)
    Well written. Thanks

  6. Honestly, your last reason for shooting film—that the digital format has not yet replicated the look of black and white film—is probably the most compelling (and least “subjective”) reason you’ve given.

    Every digital camera (except for the Foveon X3 and the Leica M-Monochrom, Kodak’s early B&W cameras, and converted cameras from maxmax.com) has a Bayer-pattern color filter so that each “photosite” detects only either red, blue, or green light. That is: each photosite detects one color and throws the rest of the information away. To get a proper picture, you have to “interpolate” the information from the photosites to make the image. This results in a smudgy looking picture at 100%, no matter how nice the camera is.

    The problem gets worse when you convert to black and white. You can see all of those interpolation artifacts, you lose details, you lose contrast. If you throw enough pixels at the problem (or, in this case, megapixels), the problem goes away…but ugg. The pictures I converted to B&W from a 6.1MP dSLR look like Frankenstein pictures in comparison to my B&W film shots. It sucks!

    Also… when a digital sensor produces noise, that noise has it own color to it. When you convert to black and white color noise makes it way harder to pick how much of each color gets used in the conversion! The result is: harsh contrasted noise that you don’t have much control over.

    See? Pretty “objective,” but of course you could prefer that Frankenstein look…

  7. Pingback: My Six Favorite Photographic Films « CyberKen Blog

  8. This article is a real goldmine! I wish I came across something like that last year when I started out with photography! You are so right, shooting film is a cheap and funny way to begin, with a ridiculous amount of money you can get lots of gear, and in the end you become addicted. I’m having the time of my life with my old SLR, and your post really made me curious to try out a rangefinder camera… I didn’t know they focused that way, it looks like something magical… 🙂
    I also own a digital compact camera and I like it because it has lots of manual settings, but I prefer my old SLR. I’ve tried out a couple of DSLRs in a store (Canon and Nikon entry-levels) but… well, I’m a simple mind, and I find my old camera much more practical to use.

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