I want to take photos on film - where do I even start?
Film and film cameras may or may not be familiar to you. But you’re here because you want to start shooting. Perhaps you understand that film produces images of incomparably superior depth, subtle tones and high quality. Maybe you’re thirteen and saw a rapper with a Contax T2. Whatever. You’re here.
And if you’re earning your own money, chances are you’ll want to spend it wisely. In a way that differs from digital, film cameras have an initial cost and film has a running cost. You may also want to start your journey with a cheap compact and then move on to a 35mm SLR, a rangefinder or one of many medium format options. No idea what I’m talking about? Don’t know your C41 from your F1.4? I’ve got you. Every photographer started from frame one - and the film community is, for the most part, a supportive one.
How to choose?
You’ll likely want to choose your first camera based on ease of use as well as affordability. The type of image you create will depend on the kind of camera you start with. Do you want to shoot portraits? Landscape? Fast-paced nightlife or street scenes? If you’re not sure at this point, do some research or pick up the cheapest camera available and shoot until you figure it out.
After this introductory post, part 1 of this series focuses solely on compact cameras - small, pocket sized point and shoot types. Part 2 will cover SLR and rangefinder types and part 3 is an introduction to all kinds of medium format cameras. To start the ascent of this perhaps insurmountable mountain, you have to decide what kinds of photos you’re most interested in taking first off - street, landscape, portrait, night shots - and do some research on what other photographers have to say about their choice of camera. Don’t get too hung up on the world of ‘people who spend a lot of time on the internet’ though - the best camera is the one you always have to hand. Not sure if you’d casually carry a Pentax 67 around in your bag every single day? Best start off with something smaller.
Before you buy
Although all three of the ‘which film camera’ posts will be extensive, they will not be exhaustive, and not the place to turn for advice on buying Leica, Hasselblad and other premium cameras that no beginner has any real need for.
As you progress in your film shooting, camera purchases will require more and more research; don’t skip this stage.
Before I purchase any camera at all, I will google the camera’s model name and the word ‘Flickr’ in the same search - old goats such as myself use Flickr’s ‘groups’ as a huge library of sample images for film cameras. You can get an idea of how the camera you want will work in the hands of both skilled and unskilled users, with a variety of lenses and using multiple different films. Having a glance at the forums of the groups created for certain types of cameras can be vitally important if you’re on the spend - Mamiya or Makina? Both will destroy your savings - but one of them is far more breakable and far more costly to repair.
Purchasing cameras is another minefield. I see countless sellers online and with shopfronts selling cheap cameras at a huge markup to people who just don’t know any better. This is sometimes because they have to travel to places like Hong Kong or Japan to buy stock. If your pockets are jingling and don’t mind the premium, go ahead and spend the extra. You may wish to buy directly from sellers on auction sites to save the middle-man fees - now that I no longer live in Japan, this is how I have to do things. Be sure to check how the items will be sent to you - you may have to pay extra taxes when your camera arrives in your country. Be doubly sure to check that sellers offer refunds or the auction site you use has very strong buyer protection in place.
The most important thing to remember when you start shooting film is that it’s about fun. Not technical ability or expensive toys, or how much hype credential you can garner from social media. If you want to really use your camera, get a cheaper one that you’ll be less precious about. I don’t stress about shooting an Olympus XA, but I’m always sweating over the safety of having a bottle of water in the same bag as a T2. As a result, I’ve often caught more interesting, messy and chaotic moments on cheaper cameras. Wear it around your neck, keep it in your pocket, shoot first and worry after it breaks.
When you finish your roll of film, store it in the fridge until you take it to a lab for developing. If, like me, you live in the middle of nowhere you can mail your rolls directly to labs who will develop them and send them back to you. Ask your lab for a ‘develop and scan’ - your images will be scanned onto a CD or other storage device for you, meaning you have digitals for sharing immediately. I import mine onto an old iPhone to access and post easily. Want prints? There are countless companies that let you upload photos from your smartphone directly to their printing services via their apps; they deliver straight to your home address in under a week, meaning you can choose to print only the photos you want physical copies of.
And do print those photos. Don’t just post tiny, digital versions of them to Instagram. Put them in an envelope and mail them to your friends. Stick them to your wall. Have the good ones printed on matte, bordered paper and put them in a frame. Glue them into a journal and look at them 20 years from now. Invite your friends over and order a pizza, pass your photos around and get everyone else to share their shots too - one by one, held by hand and not scrolled past on a phone screen.
A very nice Tokyo-based photographer (Instagram: @tokyocamerastyle) once told me that ’it isn’t a photo until it’s printed.’ In the decade plus that I’ve been a photographer, I’ve never been given better advice.
What else would you like to read about? A slide film masterclass? Pulled developing? Drop me a comment below.