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Film Photography: A Guide for Beginners and Enthusiasts

Updated: Feb 21

Film photography is the art of capturing images on light-sensitive film. The film is then developed and printed in a darkroom or a lab, or scanned and digitally manipulated before being shared online or printed digitally. Film photography has a long and rich history, dating back to the 19th century, and it offers a unique aesthetic and creative experience that many photographers still prefer over digital photography.


In this article, we will explore the basics of film photography, including the types of film, cameras, and a few of the techniques that you can use to create stunning images. There is a brief comparison of film photography with digital photography, with the advantages and disadvantages of each medium. Finally, we will provide some tips and resources for learning more about film photography and finding inspiration for your own projects.


A black and white photograph on film of a cloudscape with the sun shining towards the top of the frame.
The highlight preservation of film is just one of its many attractions. Photo credit: Michael Elliott
 

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What is Film Photography?

Film photography is a method of capturing images using light-sensitive film. It is the middle of the three eras of photography in camera history, sandwiched between plate photography (which uses glass or metal plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion) and digital photography (which uses a light-sensitive electronic sensor).


The process of film photography typically involves using a camera that holds a roll of film, which is advanced after each exposure. The film is then developed in a dark room or sent to a lab to be processed and printed.


Film photography is often considered a more traditional and artistic form of photography, as the process requires a deeper understanding of the medium and its limitations. Unlike digital cameras, which have instant previews, film photography requires the photographer to wait until the film is developed to see the final results (although with instant film photography this process takes seconds to minutes, rather than potentially days), adding to the excitement and surprise in the final outcome.


Film photography also offers a variety of choices and possibilities that can affect the style and quality of the image. From different types of film, such as black and white, colour negative, colour positive, infrared - each with its own characteristics and effects - through different formats of film, for example 35mm, 120 (medium format) and sheet film (large format) - coming with specific resolution and aspect ratio considerations - to different types of cameras, like SLRs, TLRs, rangefinders, point-and-shoot cameras, and instant cameras - all with their particular features and functions, there is myriad choice available. The photographer can even experiment with different techniques, for instance double exposure, long exposure, cross processing, and so on, to achieve different effects and explore their creative potential.


A photograph of 3 medium format film cameras.
A trio of medium format cameras from the author's collection. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Film photography is not only a way of creating images, but also a way of preserving memories and history. Film negatives and prints can last for decades or even centuries if stored properly, while digital files can be easily corrupted, deleted, or lost over time. Film also has a nostalgic and historical value that digital files lack.


Film photography is a fascinating and rewarding medium that can challenge and inspire photographers of all levels and backgrounds. It is a medium that can capture the beauty and complexity of life in a unique and authentic way.


 

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Types of Film

One of the first things you need to know about film photography is the different types of film that are available. Film is a thin strip of plastic - typically triacetate or PET - or other material (sometimes paper, as with some of boutique brand Washi's films) that is coated with a light-sensitive emulsion, which contains tiny crystals of silver halide. When the film is exposed to light, the silver halide crystals react and form a latent image, which can be developed into a negative or a positive.


There are many factors that affect the characteristics and quality of film - size, format, speed, colour, and grain:

  • Size: The size of the film refers to the physical dimensions of the film strip. The most popular size for film photography is 35mm, which measures 24 x 36mm per frame. 35mm film is widely available, affordable, and compatible with most film cameras. Other sizes include medium format (120 or 220), which ranges from 6 x 4.5cm to 6 x 17cm per frame, and large format (4 x 5 inches or larger), which offers the highest resolution and detail.

  • Format: The format of the film refers to the shape and aspect ratio of the frame. The most common format for 35mm film is 3:2, which matches the standard print size of 4 x 6 inches. Other formats include square (1:1), panoramic (2:1 or wider), and half-frame (18 x 24mm), which allows you to take twice as many photos on a single roll of film.

  • Speed: The speed of the film refers to its sensitivity to light, measured by its ISO or ASA rating. The higher the speed, the more sensitive the film is, and the less light it needs to produce an image. However, higher speed also means more grain and less sharpness. The most common speeds for film photography are ISO 100, 200, 400, and 800.

  • Colour: There are two main types of colour film: colour negative and colour reversal (also known as slide or positive). Colour negative film produces a negative image that needs to be inverted and corrected in order to obtain a positive print. Colour negative film has a wide exposure latitude and can handle mixed lighting well. Colour reversal film produces a positive image that can be viewed directly or projected onto a screen. Colour positive film has a narrow exposure latitude and requires precise exposure and colour balance.

  • Grain: The grain of the film refers to the visible texture or pattern of the silver halide crystals on the emulsion. Grain affects the sharpness, contrast, and tonality of the image. Generally, lower speed films have finer grain and higher resolution, while higher speed films have coarser grain and lower resolution. However, some photographers prefer grainy images for their artistic effect.

  • Style: The aesthetic look and feel of the film. Different brands and variants of film have different styles that can affect the mood and tone of the image. For example, some films have warmer or cooler tones, some have more or less contrast, some have finer or coarser grain, some have more or less saturation, and so on. Some films are also designed for specific purposes or effects, for instance infrared film.


A photograph of 35mm and roll film in a box.
A selection of 35mm film and roll film.

Some examples of popular films are:

  • Kodak Portra: A colour negative film that is known for its natural skin tones, fine grain, and wide exposure latitude. It is ideal for portraits, weddings, and fashion photography.

  • Fujichrome Velvia: A colour positive film that is known for its vivid colours, high contrast, and sharpness. It is ideal for landscapes, nature, and macro photography.

  • Ilford HP5 Plus: A black and white negative film that is known for its versatility, high speed, and classic grain. It is ideal for street, documentary, and low-light photography.

  • Kodak Tri-X: A black and white negative film that is known for its high contrast, rich tonality, and expressive grain. It is ideal for photojournalism, art, and creative photography.

  • Lomography LomoChrome Purple: A colour negative film that is known for its surreal colour shifts that mimic infrared photography. It turns green into purple, blue into green, yellow into pink, etc. It is ideal for experimental and artistic photography.

These are just some of the many types of film that you can choose from to suit your style and preference. You can also mix and match different types of film with different types of cameras and techniques to create your own unique images.


Types of Cameras

There are also many types of cameras that can be used for film photography, each with its own features and functions. The main types of cameras are:

  • Single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras: These cameras use a mirror and prism system to allow the photographer to see through the lens exactly what will be captured on the film. SLR cameras offer precise control over focus, exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and other settings. They also allow interchangeable lenses for different focal lengths and effects. The Olympus OM-1 is an example of a 35mm SLR, and the Kiev 60 is an example of a medium format SLR.

  • Twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras: These older, more traditional cameras use a second viewing lens to allow the photographer to see through the lens a closer approximation of what will be captured on the film than rangefinder cameras. TLR cameras offer precise control over focus through the viewfinder, however typically are meterless, and so exposure is more difficult to control. They are also typically fixed lens, apart from examples like the Mamiya C330, which has a range of lens pairs that can be swapped in. The Rolleiflex 2.8E is an example of a TLR.

  • Rangefinder cameras: These cameras use a separate viewfinder that shows a slightly different view from what will be captured on the film. Rangefinder cameras have a focusing mechanism that uses two images that need to be aligned to achieve focus. Rangefinder cameras are usually smaller and quieter than SLR cameras, but they have less accurate framing and focusing, especially for close-up or telephoto shots. The Voigtlander Bessa R is an example of a 35mm rangefinder and the Fujica GL690 is an example of a medium format rangefinder.

  • Point-and-shoot cameras: These cameras are simple and easy to use, as they have automatic or preset functions for focus, exposure, flash, etc. Point-and-shoot cameras are usually compact and lightweight, but they have less control and quality than SLR or rangefinder cameras. They also have fixed or zoom lenses that may not be very sharp or fast.

  • Instant cameras: These cameras use self-developing film that produces a print immediately after the exposure. Instant cameras are fun and convenient, but they have limited control and quality, and the film is relatively expensive - and scarce, in the case of pack film, which has been discontinued and is manufactured only in small quantities by a boutique producer now.

  • Large format cameras: These cameras use sheet film, which is larger than medium format - usually 4x5 inches or 8x10 inches. Large format cameras offer the highest resolution and quality possible in film photography, but they are also the most expensive and cumbersome. Large format cameras are usually view cameras or field cameras that have a flexible bellows between the lens and the film plane. The photographer can adjust the position and angle of the lens and film plane independently to control focus, perspective, depth of field, etc. Large format field cameras typically would require a tripod and a dark cloth to operate properly, while press cameras like the Speed Graphic can be used handheld.


A photograph of an Olympus OM-1.
The author's Olympus OM-1. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


Techniques of Film Photography

Film photography offers a range of techniques that can enhance the creativity and expression of the photographer. Some of the most popular techniques are:

  • Double exposure: This technique involves exposing the same frame of film twice or more, creating a layered image that combines two or more scenes. Double exposure can be done in camera by not advancing the film after the first exposure, or by rewinding and reshooting the whole roll. Double exposure can create surreal, dreamy, or artistic effects that can convey a message or a mood.

  • Long exposure: This technique involves using a slow shutter speed to capture a long period of time in a single frame, creating a blurred or streaked effect of moving objects or light sources. Long exposure can be used to create light trails, star trails, waterfalls, etc. It can also be used to capture low-light scenes or to create intentional camera movement effects. Long exposure requires a tripod or a stable surface to avoid camera shake, and may also require a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. Long exposure on film is typically more smoothly rendered than on a digital sensor because of the tendency for film to hold onto highlights better than digital, which clips highlights quite sharply.

  • Cross processing: This technique involves developing film in a different type of chemical than it was intended for, creating unpredictable and often dramatic colour shifts and contrasts. Cross processing can be done by using slide film and developing it as colour negative film, or vice versa. Cross processing can create vintage, psychedelic, or experimental effects that can add interest and character to the image. It's very difficult to achieve the same effect digitally.

  • Push/pull processing: Push/pull processing is a technique that involves changing the development time of film to compensate for under- or over-exposure. For example, you can push a film by increasing the development time to make it appear faster and brighter, or pull a film by decreasing the development time to make it appear slower and darker. Push/pull processing can affect the contrast, grain, and colour of the image. Pushing film will rarely bring much more of the shadows out, but will allow you to maintain highlight detail when under-exposing, and so overall contrast is increased; while pulling film compresses the shadows and highlights, such that the shadows are developed normally while the highlights are underdeveloped.


A multiple exposure photograph in black and white of Lower Portobello Road in West London
Multiple exposure is simple with a camera like the Rolleiflex 2.8E, which allows you to re-cock the shutter without advancing. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


Film Photography vs Digital Photography

Film photography and digital photography are two different mediums that have their own advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the main points of comparison:

  • Cost: Film photography is generally more expensive than digital photography in the long run, as it requires buying and developing film, which can add up over time. Digital photography has a higher initial cost for buying a camera and accessories, but it has lower ongoing costs, as it does not require any consumables or processing fees.

  • Convenience: Digital photography is generally more convenient than film photography, as it allows instant feedback, editing, sharing, and storage of images. Film photography requires waiting for the film to be developed and printed, which can take days or weeks, and it also requires physical space and care for storing the negatives and prints.

  • Quality: Film and digital photography have different qualities that depend on various factors, like the type and size of the film or sensor, the lens, the lighting, the processing, etc. In general, film photography has more natural colour and can produce sharper images with more detail. Digital photography offers more flexibility and control over image quality, as it allows adjusting various parameters such as white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, etc.

  • Creativity: Film photography and digital photography both offer creative possibilities that depend on the skill and vision of the photographer. Using film can challenge the photographer to think more carefully about each shot, as it has limited frames and no previews. It can also inspire you to experiment with different types of film, cameras, and techniques. Digital photography can enable you to take more shots and try different angles, compositions, and settings. It can also allow you to edit and enhance the images using various software tools.


Pros and Cons of Film Photography

Film has many positives that make it a distinct and appealing medium for some photographers, and likewise, it has many negatives that deter other photographers:

  • Pros:

    • Film has a unique aesthetic that is hard to replicate with digital photography. Film images have more natural colours, more dynamic range, more depth, and more texture than digital images. Film also has a characteristic grain that adds to the mood and character of the image.

    • Film photography is a more challenging and rewarding process that requires more skill and patience than digital photography. Film photographers have to think more carefully about each shot, as they have limited frames and no previews. They also have to develop and print their own images, which can be a fun and satisfying experience.

    • Film is a more durable and archival medium than digital photography. Film negatives and prints can last for decades or even centuries if stored properly, while digital files can be corrupted, deleted, or lost over time. Film also has a nostalgic and historical value that digital files lack.

  • Cons:

    • Film is a more expensive and time-consuming medium than digital photography. Film photographers have to buy and develop film, which can cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. They also have to scan their images if they want to share them online or edit them digitally, which can reduce the quality and authenticity of the image.

    • Film is a less convenient and flexible medium than digital photography. Film photographers have to deal with the limitations of film like the fixed ISO, the limited exposure latitude, the colour cast, and so on. They cannot change these settings on the fly like digital photographers can, although they can compensate for the colour cast e.g. when using a daylight film under tungsten light, using an 80A or 80B filter.

    • Film is a less consistent and reliable medium than digital photography. Film photographers have to deal with the unpredictability of film, for instance the variation in quality, the risk of damage, and the possibility of error. They also have to rely on their own judgment and experience to get the right exposure, focus or composition, as they cannot check their results until later.


Pros and Cons of Digital Photography

Digital photography has a vast array of advantages that make it the dominant and most popular medium for most photographers, but for others, its disadvantages push them towards film instead:

  • Pros:

    • Digital photography is a more affordable and efficient medium than film. Digital photographers do not have to buy or develop film, saving money and time.

    • Digital photography is a more convenient and flexible medium than film photography. Digital photographers can carry compact and lightweight equipment. Memory cards take up less space than film rolls, and store many more images; cameras and lenses also tend to be smaller, especially for smaller format sensors. Settings are flexible which allows you to switch on the fly, and you get instant feedback.

    • Digital photography is a more consistent and reliable medium than film. Digital photographers can rely on the accuracy and precision of their camera's metering, focusing, stabilizing, etc., to get the best possible shot. They can also review their images on their camera immediately and adjust and re-take any shots that are incorrectly exposed.

  • Cons:

    • Digital photography has a less unique aesthetic than film. Digital images tend to look more artificial, flat and harsh than film images. Digital also lacks the characteristic grain that film has. Digital images can be edited or manipulated to look like film images, but they may lose some of their originality and charm.

    • Digital photography is a less challenging and rewarding process than film photography. Digital photographers can take hundreds or thousands of shots without worrying about wasting film or money. They can also check their results instantly and correct their mistakes easily. This can make digital photography less exciting and satisfying than film.

    • Digital photography is a less durable and archival medium than film photography. Digital files can be easily corrupted, deleted, or lost due to various factors, such as hardware failure, software error, human error, etc. Digital files also need constant backup and maintenance to ensure their safety and accessibility. Digital files also have less nostalgic and historical value than film negatives and prints.


A black and white photograph of a pair of Vespa mopeds locked up.
Film lends a nostalgic feel to otherwise mundane everyday scenes. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Tips and Resources for Learning More About Film Photography

If you are interested in learning more about film photography, here are some tips and resources that can help you:

  • Read books and magazines about film photography. There are many books and magazines that cover various aspects of film photography, such as history, theory, technique, equipment, etc. Some examples are The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum, The Negative by Ansel Adams, Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, Black & White Photography by Michael Freeman, Amateur Photographer⁵, and so on.

  • Watch videos and tutorials about film photography. A vast array of video tutorials demonstrate how to use film cameras, how to develop and print film and how to use different photographic techniques, for instance The Art of Photography YouTube channel, Ilford Photo YouTube channel and Matt Day's YouTube channel.

  • Join online communities and forums about film photography. Online communities and forums allow you to talk with other film photographers, ask questions, share tips and get feedback. Some good examples are r/analog on Reddit, Photrio.com and Lomography.com.

  • Take a course or workshop on film photography. Workshops and courses that offer hands-on learning on film photography are a great way to dive deeper. Courses exists from beginner to advanced levels, and you will meet other aspiring photographers in person and can make great contacts, and even friendships!

  • Visit exhibitions and galleries of film photography. There are many exhibitions and galleries that showcase the work of film photographers, both contemporary and historical. You can admire the beauty and diversity of film photography, learn from the masters, and get inspired by their vision. Some examples in London alone are The Photographers' Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum and The National Portrait Gallery. There is also the The Royal Photographic Society in Bristol.

  • Experiment and have fun with film photography. The best way to learn more about film photography is to practice it yourself. You can try different types of film, cameras, and techniques, and see what works for you. You can also challenge yourself with different projects, themes, or genres, and express your creativity and personality. Film photography is a medium that allows you to explore the world and yourself in a unique and authentic way.


Conclusion

Film photography is a wonderful and rewarding hobby that can enrich your life and creativity. It is a medium that allows you to capture the world and yourself in a unique and authentic way, which challenges you to learn and improve your skills and knowledge.


In this article, I have covered the basics of film photography, including the types of film, cameras, and techniques that you can use to create stunning images. I have also compared film photography with digital photography, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each medium. Finally, I have provided some tips and resources for learning more about film photography and finding inspiration for your own projects.


I hope that this article has helped you to understand and appreciate film photography better, and that it has motivated you to give it a try or continue your journey with it. Film photography is not only a way of creating images, but also a way of preserving memories and history. Film photography is not dead, it is alive and thriving.


Thank you for reading this article. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them below. Happy shooting!

 

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