The practicalities of shooting film

Holland Land Office Museum Canon

Holland Land Office Museum Canon

Reader Scott Atkinson left a comment a few days ago asking that I do a post on the “practicalities of shooting film.”

This post will answer his specific questions, plus a couple of others.

Why film?
The best place to start is asking first, why do you want to shoot film? Answering this question will help determine the direction you want to go with your photography.

For me, I saw film as an avenue to help me become a better photographer. Because digital frames are essentially an infinite supply, it’s easy to fall into a “spray and pray” approach, whereby you put her camera in burst mode and hope you get something good from the half-dozen frames or more you fire off.

With infinite digital frames, you can often take multiple shots of the same subject using various settings and then pick the one that works best. This limits the need to think ahead, or think much at all.

Now, both of these results from the infinite supply of frames can be (and were for me) great learning aids; however, I still felt in order to get my photography to the next level, I needed to learn to slow down. I realized film could help me to think ahead, to “pre-visualize,” as Ansel Adams learned to do.

Film offers a limited supply of frames. While film isn’t expensive (typically less than $5 per roll, plus another $7 for processing), it’s still an expense. There’s either 24 or 36 frames in a roll. If you take the same approach with film that you do with digital, you can run through a roll of film in minutes if not seconds. That gets expensive quickly.

The other advantage of film in helping you slow down and think is the lack of an LCD screen. You can’t “chimp” (the practice of constantly checking your LCD screen while shooting). With digital, the LCD screen will tell you if you got the shot and whether it’s properly exposed (check and trust the histogram). The screen isn’t a great aid in checking focus, but take enough shots, at least one of them should be sharp.

With film, you must think ahead.

In carpentry, the rule is “measure twice, cut once.” With film, everything needs to be measured twice: Exposure, depth of field, focus and composition all need to be thoroughly considered.

Exposure is a practical matter (any picture is ruined by under or over exposure, and unlike shooting digital RAW, there’s little latitude for post-process correction with film), but it’s also a creative decision, from choosing aperture for creative use of depth of field to how light and shadows will play with the subject.

With film, I check my exposure meter multiple times, thinking through my exposure options because my goal is to snap but one frame of the subject.

In slowing down, I must be very careful with focus (it turned out actually to be a blessing a few years ago that I needed cataract surgery, returning my right eye to 20/20 vision). On my older cameras, I’m working strictly with manual focus.

When it comes to composition, again, I slow down and “measure” two times or more. I look at every corner of the frame through the view finder before tripping the shutter.

Every element of the photograph, then, with film must go through a “measure twice, cut once” process.

This kind of practice can’t help but make you a better photographer.

You may have your own reasons for shooting film. It could be argued that film provides a visual appeal (no matter how many PhotoShop plugins you buy to simulate film) that you simply can’t get with digital. Some will argue as well that film is inherently sharper on your in-focus areas, that digital can never be truly “tack sharp.” You may think getting into film, especially larger format cameras, may be a better creative outlet for you.

Whatever your reason for shooting film, it will effect your decisions on what you buy and how you proceed.

Pumpkin on the Porch

Pumpkin on the Porch

Buying a camera
If you don’t already own a film camera, you will need to buy one.

You can still buy brand new film cameras. The advantage of new, of course, is you’re getting something under warranty that should work as expected right out of the box. New can be either more expensive or cheaper than used, depending on the used model you target.

Ebay is the first place that comes to mind for buying used equipment. On Ebay you’ll find the greatest selection at the greatest price variance. Other options include Craigslist and established Camera shops (both in your home town and online, such as Adorama). A camera shop can be a reliable place to buy used equipment. If you have time and patience to hunt, there are second-hand stores, garage sales, estate sales and local auction houses to consider. These are the same avenues Ebay dealers use to find their equipment, so if you know what you’re looking for, you can find some good bargains.

The most practical place to shop, get a good deal and have a good camera in your hands quickly is Ebay.

Whether you want Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta or some other brand, you can find an SLR to get you started.

If you have only $50 to spend, you can find a perfectly good starter film camera on Ebay for $50, with a lens.

Better cameras, such as pro-level (in their day) Nikons cost more.

But be careful. There are many dealers trying to get $500 to $3,000 for top-line Nikon cameras. You don’t need to spend that much for a working Nikon F, F2, F3, F4 or F5 (all the pro cameras of their day). I paid $180 for my Nikon F and $240 for my Nikon F4 (both, body only).

Before buying any camera on Ebay, read the product description well. Ethical sellers will tell you if they’ve tested the camera and what they found. Most dealers selling working cameras will offer money back if it turns out it doesn’t work.

There’s a wide range of Nikons available. I think if you have the $200+ to spend, get the Nikon F4. It was a break-through SLR when it was released and was hugely popular with pros back in the day. It has a great auto-focus motor, is well designed and all of the controls are tactile and easy to reach.

I’ve seen recommendations for the Nikon F100. These seem to go from $150 and up. They were the “enthusiasts” camera of their day (like the D90 or D7000 today).

If you want to go manual focus, the Nikon F (pro) or the Nikkormat (enthusiast) are great choices. Pricing is only slightly less than the F4 or F100.

The prices I quoted above are without lenses. Getting a camera with one or more lenses will drive up the price significantly, but you’re going to need to get at least one lens.

With Nikon, you definitely want to own a 50mm F1.4 (or thereabout). It’s a workhorse lens, generally great, great glass and is practical to get started with. If you want more lenses than what comes with your camera, or buy a camera without a lens, read this page from Ken Rockwell on Nikon lens compatibility. It’s critical to know what lenses work with your camera before making a lens purchase.

Mini Golf Benches

Mini Golf Benches

Where to buy film?
There are still drug stores around that sell film. In my town, both CVS (where I go) and Rite-Aid offer one-hour processing, so they sell film. As much as I dislike Walmart, Walmart also sells and processes film. From what I’ve read, though I haven’t tried it, Walmart also gets beyond mere C-41 processing (more on this in the next section). I’ve read, for example, that you can get 120 film (medium format) processed through Walmart (I imagine they also sell it).

Retail stores typically have a more limited selection. I love Kodak’s Ektar 100 color negative film, but I can only buy it online. There are about a half-dozen different C-41 films I’ve found in online shopping. I haven’t tried them all yet, but every film has its own characteristics and best uses. You will want to experiment with a variety of films and see what you like best.

Where to process film?
As mentioned above, there are still drug stores around that offer one-hour processing.

Typically, the one-hour shops are providing what’s called C-41 processing. C-41 refers to the chemicals used in the process. There are both color and black and white films that can be processed in C-41. When you buy online, check the specs for the film. It will tell you the kind of processing required. If it says C-41 and you’re going to a drug store, the film will be fine.

I’ve not checked to see if Walmart offers anything other than C-41. If they do, it probably requires the local store to send the film out.  This will mean you won’t see your pictures for a week (but slowing down is what film is all about).

The first time you go into your local one-hour shop with a roll of black and white, the staff there may tell you they can’t process it. Explain to them C-41 processing. In my local store, the first time I went in I didn’t know about C-41 and was initially turned away. Fortunately, a staff member came in later who knew everything about processing film in his store and he got it taken care of for me.

You will save a good chunk of change if you get your pictures back on CD without also paying for prints. Getting prints doubles the price of processing and you don’t need them. My one-hour place will provide a contact sheet (or what passes as a contact sheet — they call it an index card) at no additional cost. You want to play with your photos on your computer anyway. You should leave instructions that you don’t want your photos corrected for exposure or color before being transferred to CD. You’ll also get your negatives back, which is kind of cool. I also ask for TIFF rather than JPEG on the disk. TIFF isn’t quite like getting a RAW file, but it does give me a little more data to work with in post processing.

Broken Sidewalk

Broken Sidewalk

What about a darkroom?
I would love to have my own darkroom, but the expense isn’t something I can afford right now.

For a darkroom, you need an enclosed space that can be made completely and totally dark with running water and vents.

The advantages of a darkroom is you can process a wider variety of films (depending on what equipment and chemicals you want to buy and deal with). You can get beyond C-41, but you can also get beyond 35mm film.

It’s also still true in the art world that the photographs that command the highest prices are of prints made by the photographer.

If you or I want to continue shooting film for many years, a personal darkroom may become absolutely necessary. Eventually the one-hour processing shops are going to go away. It’s unavoidable and inevitable. I’m planning on installing a darkroom in our too-low-ceiling basement some day. The day will come where it’s either that or stop shooting film (well, mail order will be an option, probably, but that will likely be expensive).

So, for anybody thinking of making the jump from digital back to film, I hope the information here proves helpful.

And if you don’t know about my photoblog, it can be found at

Peeling Paint

Peeling Paint

4 thoughts on “The practicalities of shooting film

  1. Not much. Even though I may not need to, I apply a little unsharpen mask to most shots. I might play with levels a bit, or maybe curves. The most processed photo I can think of is of the green benches on the mini golf course. The back of the front bench was a little washed out and I wanted to boost the color a bit, so I used curves for that.

    The adjustments are minimal. You can simply do a lot more with a digital RAW file, so I tend to do a lot more post processing with digital.

  2. I can heartily recommend the Nikon F100. I’ve used quite a new Nikons and the F100 is by far my favourite. It’s particularly good for anyone moving from a Nikon DSLR as the operation and button placement is quite similar.

  3. Pingback: Chimping out « lenerslens

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