Smartphones and digital cameras may have dominated the past 20 years, but film cameras are making a comeback—not as much as the inspiration for retro mirrorless cameras like the legendary Nikon Z fc.
Open Instagram, search for the tag #filmisnotdead and you’ll find over 20 million posts showing that, yes, the movie is still alive. It’s always held a place in the hearts of traditionalists and hobbyists who grew up with analog shooting, but the film is also rocking young photographers thanks to social media and YouTube.
There seems to be something about the tactile juxtaposition of film cameras to photographers, which is no surprise when the rest of the world is largely driven by swipes and impersonal video chats.
In the age of instant gratification we’ve developed the habit of “chimping” (checking photos on the back screen as soon as we’ve taken a shot) with our digital cameras, and it takes us out of the moment. Shoot film, however, and there are no image reviews, so we must connect to our subject and surroundings.
In this introduction to film cameras, we’ll first explore the reasons they can help you with digital photography – then show you how to get started and choose the best film camera for you.
Why film cameras are good for your photography
Go to any college or university to study photography and you will see a common thread through all the courses: the first year is all about film. OK, maybe not completely, but there is a lot of emphasis on film photography which includes ways to deal with and develop negatives, transparency and more.
There are a few reasons why this happens, and they are all beneficial to our photographic experience – even as we continue to shoot digitally on phones and mirrorless cameras.
1. Living in the Moment
Probably the biggest feature of digital photography is that you can’t review images during the shooting process. The inability to deconstruct composition and exposure value means there’s a lot of emphasis placed on getting things right in camera first before capturing the moment.
Keeping your eye on the landscape can help reveal details that you would otherwise ignore and this intense concentration should allow you to develop a better ‘eye’ for structure and composition in photographs.
It can also help improve your portraits by providing plenty of opportunities to chat and make eye contact with subjects, which means they can feel more comfortable in front of the camera for a smoother, more comfortable experience.
By staying in the moment you can really pay attention to what makes a photograph work. For example, by truly feeling the hot sun on your face you may want to expose the shot a bit more to reflect heat, something that will help add meaning to your photo beyond simple precision.
2. Improving Your Discipline
Let’s take the gold standard of film shooting as our example here: 35mm film rolls. A typical roll of 35mm film provides only 36 exposures. You have 36 single photos to capture what you need before you change the roll and develop it.
Depending on the film you buy, this can be quite expensive – so it’s important to make every shot count. It is a discipline that sharpens the primal nature of photographers. Digital photography seems to work in the opposite direction, with photographers sharpening shots to get the right exposure, without ever looking at the light meter or paying attention to available light or changes in the weather.
For example, I recently took out my Olympus pen-ee and captured some lifestyle images of my home and surrounding area, more for posterity than anything else. But knowing that I couldn’t review the images and I only had 36 attempts to capture what I wanted, I began planning how to include as much information as possible for my future self. Where to put the shots to do. A skill that I automatically brought back to my digital photography and helped my work grow almost immediately.
3. Full Immersion
Talk to any photographer who loves film and when asked why they still love to shoot film, you’ll hear similar responses: It’s all about the sensory experience.
This could be a preference for a certain ‘clunk’ from the shutter release, the look of the film rests, the feel of the metal body, or simply the pure sublime aesthetics of the camera.
Film cameras seem to engage so tightly with all of our senses in a way that digital often fails to do. This is especially the case if you’re shooting on a completely mechanical film camera, as you can see, hear and feel every vibration the camera makes as you make your shot.
There is a physical intimacy inherent in film photography, I believe, largely because of the close proximity you have to spend with cameras. There’s no back screen, no analysis stills, so the camera must be held close to the eye, pressed against the nose, and watch yourself to determine how many more frames you have left on the roll.
4. Creative Restrictions
Once you’ve selected your movie and loaded it, you’re locked in. White balance and ISO sensitivity is decided and there’s no switching without destroying your other frames partly because light leakage can lead to film destruction.
At the time of purchasing that roll of film, you have to think long beforehand what you are going to shoot. where are you going to shoot? Will it be inside with tungsten light, or outside in bright sunlight? Perhaps you’re expecting some low-light scenarios, so a balanced but high ISO roll in daylight might be handy?
Of course, you can take more than one roll of film, but you’re locked in for 36 exposures before converting again, so it helps to refine thought patterns before shooting. This can be especially beneficial for those who are quite flighty and dream-like in their approach to photography, as it will help to complement that spontaneity with some extra discipline.
5. Improve Your Eye
There are limits to how far you can film—and the fact that you need to measure your lighting and be aware of camera settings. before this When you press the shutter button, it means you are forced to engage with your environment first.
Look at the exposure values of different areas around your scene – you can use Ansel Adams and Fred Archer’s Zone System if that helps. You need to be aware of the specific filtration needed for good exposure and to avoid overexposed highlights or underexposed shadows.
There’s limited fixing you can do after you’ve captured shots, and those who used to edit 3-5 stops up or down in Lightroom will need attention here. Do you need a UV filter to reduce glare in your scene? Or perhaps a graduated neutral density filter is needed for the ocean scenes you want to capture?
You’ll have to watch the scene (or go over it ahead of time) and make notes on what equipment you’ll need to capture those details.
How to get started with film photography
So you’ve decided to get started in film photography and want to get into it, but where do you start? There are many different cameras to choose from, and you can visit our separate guide on the best film cameras for more details on them. But what about choosing a lens, and where do you get film rolls these days? Luckily, we have answers.
1. Choose a Camera
There are many types of film cameras to choose from and each has its own merits and advantages.
The best instant cameras are lightweight, portable, and produce a picture there and then, without the need for further development. Medium and large format cameras, meanwhile, tend to be much larger and more bulky, so they require longer preparation and setup times. Point-and-shoot cameras are perfect for those who want to capture memories and vacation snaps with little interest in the subtleties of manual settings. However, when it comes to film cameras the gold standard is 35mm film.
That’s because they’re relatively small and portable, like instant cameras, but offer a pretty large frame for capturing details on film. There are plenty of models to choose from, and some new 35mm film cameras are still being produced today.
For those wishing to get into film photography, there’s mainly the Canon AE-1 (whose shutter sound shows up as the photo capture sound on all iPhones) or the Pentax K1000. Both are affordable and reliable. Their simple design makes it easy for newcomers to film, but also gives more experienced photographers enough controls and manual settings to give them what they really need. They are fairly easy to find on eBay or through second-hand camera stores such as Park Camera (in the UK) or Adorama (in the US).
2. Choose a Movie
There are three main options when it comes to choosing film: color reversal, black and white reversal, and print film. The most common type of film that many of us must have seen before is print film, which produces negatives.
Negatives capture the colors inverted and therefore need to be developed in order to provide the correct colors. These are the cheapest and most abundant in stores. Kodak, Fuji and Ilford are the main manufacturers of 35mm print film and offer a range of color or black and white options in a variety of ISO sensitivities and white balance. The cheapest of all 35mm film options, single rolls can be purchased for anywhere between $7-13 (£5-£10), or can be bought cheaply in bulk.
The second most common type of film is color inversion, otherwise known as transparency. These have a normal color spectrum and can be viewed relatively accurately with a magnifying glass or loupe. Put them in a small plastic cover and we call them slides, the same slides that can be seen after some relatives come back from vacation.
There are currently two major manufacturers of slide film – Kodak and Fujifilm – each with…