While film photography tends to take a back seat to digital photography nowadays, many photography programs still teach film photography to help you gain a better understanding of how the basic photographic process works. Without computers and an LCD screen to fall back on, shooting with film helps to reinforce technique and make you learn, understand, and trust yourself while shooting.
The most obvious thing someone needs to begin his or her education in film photography is film. Unlike digital photography where the camera itself, among other tools, largely determines how your photographs will look, in film photography it is the film that provides the base layer of how your photographs will look. Each roll or sheet of film has a specific ISO rating, so there is no changing from ISO 100 to ISO 25600 in consecutive shots. Each film also largely determines the contrast, sharpness, and other details relating to the appearance of your photo. As such, film is a tool that cannot be overlooked or under-appreciated; it’s an integral component in the visual outcome of your photographs.
When taking introductory courses, you will most likely be learning with black-and-white roll film. This isn’t to say B&W photography is easier to master, but there is more room to learn, practice, and understand how to work with film with black-and-white. Temperature and timing aren't quite as crucial with black-and-white film development as they are with color, and when making your first prints in the darkroom, you’ll be able to work with a safelight, as opposed to working in complete darkness. There is also much more room to experiment with a variety of creative processing and printing techniques with B&W film, compared to the stringent process required to get usable images from color film.
In addition to simply working with B&W roll film, most introductory courses will usually promote the use of 35mm cameras, and thus, 35mm B&W roll film. One of my favorite professors from school once talked about how photographic education is backward, and that students should learn to use 4 x 5" view cameras and gradually step up to working with 35mm film cameras; however, due to the popularity, availability, and cost of 35mm, it tends to be the choice when taking your first steps into the film photography world. Additionally, it is also recommended to begin with a general-purpose 400 speed film, such as Kodak Tri-X 400 or Ilford HP5 Plus, as these are some of the most flexible, user-friendly films available. ISO 400 film is ideal for handheld shooting in most outdoor conditions, many indoor conditions, and is also the most common film speed to push or pull during development.
After gaining a basic understanding of B&W 35mm, don’t feel confined to the format as color negative, color transparency, 120 (medium format), sheet film (large format), and even some more obscure formats are available with which to experiment.
Additionally, while your syllabus will likely outline your expected needs, I feel it is always best to stay prepared and stock up on film. When I attended school, as a full-time photography student, I was told it was “very normal” for students to shoot upwards of 50 rolls of film per semester. Not believing this, because I had probably shot at most 10 rolls of film per year leading up to my studies, I proceeded to just order a few rolls here and there. Nearing the midterms, I suddenly had a last-minute assignment to use one roll of film per day to document my day-to-day life… for two weeks. Only having an extra roll of film on me, I scrambled to procure enough film to tide me over for the duration of the assignment, and my assignment eventually, and embarrassingly, became about my daily search for film.
A cost-effective alternative to stocking up on film is a process called bulk loading, or bulk rolling, your film. Rather than purchasing individual rolls of film, which contain pre-cut lengths, you can instead purchase a 100' roll of film yourself and spool out your own rolls of film. Using a specially designed machine, along with reloadable cartridges, you can produce approximately 17-20 36-exposure rolls of film per 100' length of film. Additionally, since you are spooling the film, you are not confined to 36-exposure rolls of film, and can roll shorter-length rolls for specific projects.
Camera and Lens
While the camera and its functions are often the focal point behind an intro to film-photography class, the specific model is rarely crucial. Unlike digital photography, a camera hardly affects the way the final image looks; it is more performing certain functions in easier-to-manipulate ways that separates model from model. Sometimes it allows you to achieve certain shutter speeds, continuous shooting speeds, metering modes, or autofocusing modes that other cameras do not. All film cameras, assuming they are in working order and have the same lens and film combination, will produce the same image as another with the same set of constants. However, not all film cameras can shoot in aperture priority mode, nor can all autofocus, shoot at 5 fps, or even automatically rewind your film once you’ve finished shooting a roll.
When you begin to learn about film photography, you are usually advised to use a fully manual 35mm SLR. Options are fairly limited when it comes to buying a new 35mm film camera; however, used options are plentiful and their availability is random at best. Most programs or classes call for a camera that can be operated manually, where you have complete control over the shutter speed and aperture settings. By having these two options, you are able to gain an understanding of how exposure works and how to adjust it using either control.
When comparing camera models, you’ll want to begin by thinking about lenses. If you already own a DSLR, it is likely you’ll be able to use its lens or lenses on a film SLR, as well. Some caveats: if your newer lens does not have an aperture ring, you’ll need to get a matching electronic film camera body to adjust your aperture. You will also need to get an autofocus-enabled camera body if you already have AF lenses; otherwise, some lenses cannot be accurately focused, if at all. If you’re starting from scratch when piecing together your film camera kit, you’re in luck because, as with camera bodies, there is a vast number of used options available.
Again, unlike digital cameras, the first lens to pair with a 35mm camera is usually a normal prime lens, somewhere around 35mm to 50mm. Where intro lenses for DSLRs tend to be 18-55mm or some other variant of a standard zoom, film photography is often best learned using a versatile prime. This isn’t to say that zoom lenses are not available, but prime lenses tend to simplify learning and allow you to focus more on developing your all-around skills relating to exposure, composition, and general handling of the camera.
Once you’ve found a lens or two, you should then begin looking for a camera body with a matching lens mount. Any bells and whistles a camera has contribute purely to function and efficiency, and will not have an impact on how easy it is to learn to use it, or the quality of photographs it is able to take. This is why it’s often best advised to learn using some of the simplest tools; the more you have to do with the camera, the more you will be able to learn.
Additional Equipment for Shooting
In addition to a camera and lens, some additional tools are often recommended to begin shooting:
• Light Meter – You might ask “why do I need a light meter if my camera already has one?” One of the easiest ways to answer this is that your camera’s light meter will not do nearly as good a job in helping you to learn how to make a correct exposure. By having a remote, handheld means to determine the correct exposure of different portions of your composition, you’ll be able to gain a better understanding of how light works, and how to accurately record it. Your first light meter can be a simple reflective or incident meter and does not necessarily have to be able to measure flash. A flash meter is something useful in the long run, though, especially if your studies will eventually cover studio shooting. The final type of meter that is especially useful for learning is a spot meter, which allows you to measure very small, specific areas without being affected by a bright sky or a dark shadow. These meters do involve a bit of a learning curve, but in time will help you learn how and where to meter—especially if the Zone System is part of your lesson plan.
• Tripod Legs and Tripod Head – A truly indispensable piece of kit, a tripod allows you to photograph with slower shutter speeds, smaller apertures, at night, and in any other condition where handheld shooting is likely to cause blur. A tripod and tripod head, which can be also be purchased together, should have a load capacity that can easily support the total weight of your camera and lens, which should be judged by the lower capacity of either the head or legs. You should also look at the maximum height to make sure it is just about at your eye level and check its folded length, to see how convenient it will be to carry. Other basic considerations include whether you want lighter-weight carbon fiber legs, as opposed to aluminum, and if you prefer a ball head to a pan-and-tilt head.
• Threaded Cable Release – Another “unlike digital” moment here, most film cameras do not accept electronic remote shutter releases, and use threaded cable releases to remotely trigger the shutter. These accessories go hand in hand with tripods as a must to prevent camera shake during long exposures.
• Notebook or Logbook – When learning to shoot film, it is important to take copious notes of your exposure settings and other details of the scene you are photographing, such as the lighting conditions. This will help you to identify any exposure mistakes you make later on, as well as recognize the instances where you successfully handled a difficult lighting situation.
• Contrast Filters – Whereas the use of filters in the digital age mainly relates to post-production concerns, with film photography you have to filter your shots in-camera. When shooting black-and-white film, this often means working with colored contrast filters to darken and lighten certain tones or colors. Warm-colored filters, such as yellow, orange, and red, will darken blue skies and lighten reds in the scene; cool-tone filters, such as green, will lighten foliage and darken skin tones.
• Gray Card – Arguably one of the sillier-seeming accessories, an 18% neutral gray card is something that can truly help you achieve consistently accurate exposures. Without getting too scientific, your light meter is designed to record at the same middle gray tone these cards represent, and by metering from them in the field, you are ensuring your light meter is reading the quality of the light as it relates to the tone of the subject. Without a gray card, or the knowledge to compensate for certain colored subjects, your meter will lead you to produce photos of black objects as gray, and photos of white objects also as gray.
The second part to becoming a well-rounded film photographer is processing your own film. While photo labs are available to develop your film, they take away a lot of the creativity afforded to you during the development stage. Just like working with raw digital files prior to opening them in your editing software, developing your own film gives you the ability to adjust your film’s contrast and tonality.
Most schools will provide the chemistry you need for developing your film, but if they do not, or if you’d like to begin experimenting with different developers or possibly start processing film in your bathroom between classes, B&H has a large assortment of different chemicals for film and paper. Just like film, there is a huge assortment of developers, and each lends its own distinct qualities to your final image. Some developers produce higher contrast than others, some help to soften the grain quality for a smoother appearance, and some accentuate the grain for greater acutance and apparent sharpness. In addition to just different developers, you can also use each developer in various dilutions, with different times, or different temperatures to further refine your results.
Beyond the chemicals themselves, there is a range of tools you will need to develop your film:
• Developing Tanks and Reels – The bane of many photo students’ existence; there is sometimes nothing worse than trying to thread your film onto a spiraled piece of metal or plastic in pitch-blackness. While difficult to learn, but easy to master, a tank and reels are required components for developing your film, and help to protect and hold your film in place during the development process. For roll film, you have two choices: plastic or stainless steel. While the design of the two systems seems similar enough, they work fairly differently. Plastic is usually the easier choice of the two; its reels are adjustable for different film formats and feature an auto-loading design on which you ratchet the film. Metal reels have a distinctly “sleeker” appearance, but are a bit trickier to load. You must also buy separate reels for different film formats. On the plus side, metal tanks require less chemistry than plastic tanks, and some say that metal tanks help to maintain more consistent temperatures during development.
• Changing Bags or Tents – If you do not have a darkened room to work in, or cannot achieve total darkness in your bathroom, you can always resort to loading your film in a changing bag or tent. These items are simply lightproof blackout bags, with sleeves into which you insert your hands, so you can remain in daylight while you handle your film in total darkness.
• Scissors and an Opener – Scissors are used to cut the leader of the film and the end of the film from the cassette post, and an opener is used to pry open the cassette in the darkness. Neither is necessarily required, but both will make loading your film much less stressful.
• Thermometer – The temperature of your developer can have a dramatic effect on how your film turns out: too hot and your film will develop more quickly or have increased contrast, too cold and you could under-develop your film.
• Timer or Clock – Another very simple item that can make a dramatic difference. In addition to temperature, the length of time you develop your film can have a huge impact on the final results. Besides a stopwatch, clock, or watch, a dedicated timer is a solid investment for both processing and printing.
• Negative Sleeves – These handy sleeves help to protect your developed film from dust, scratches, fingerprints, and more. Make sure to take into account the different formats and sizes available, some sheets will comfortably hold 35 frames of film, leaving you with an extra frame or two. Some will hold up to 40 or more frames, but will leave you with a wider page size and some excess, unused room.
• Binder – A specially designed binder that is fully enclosed and sized to fit oversized negative sleeves is your best option. This design further protects your film from dust or anything else during storage and travel and also has some spare room for keeping contact sheets or other small prints.
Printing and Paper
The final step in your introductory film photography education is printing. This is the time when all of the decisions you made, techniques you’ve learned, and mistakes that may have occurred will become immediately visible. Assuming you’re working in a wet darkroom, a large portion of the equipment will likely be provided for you, including the enlarger and all of its accessories, a grain focuser, an easel, chemistry, tongs, and more. Additionally, if not available, you may wish to have your own loupe or magnifier and a light box for identifying and inspecting your negatives, as well as a grease pencil for marking your frames to print on a contact sheet.
Beyond the darkroom equipment itself, the most important aspect of printing is the paper. Similar to how important film is in relation a camera, paper is equally more important than the equipment you are using to print. Continuing with the idea that you will be working with black-and-white film, you will then need to get black-and-white paper. Like film, paper is also a light-sensitive material that you expose in order to form an image. This is then developed much in the same way your film is, to create a final image. Also, like film, paper can have a large effect on how your final print looks. There are a variety of surface types, base types, tones, and other characteristics that should be taken into account when deciding on a paper.
One of the first decisions you have to make is which base type—fiber based or resin coated. Fiber-based paper, often called FB or just fiber, is the more traditional of the two types and is characterized by a deeper and more expansive tonal range, greater susceptibility to toners, and a noticeably more paper-like feeling. The latter is because this is really paper, whereas resin-coated paper is plastic. Fiber paper is also known to be more archivally stable than its resin-coated counterpart, and is usually the type of paper you will see in museum and gallery exhibitions. With all of this praise, you might be thinking, “why would there be a secondary type of paper if fiber paper is so great?”
In short, the answer is ease of use. Despite all of the positives, fiber paper can be trying to use. It takes substantially longer to dry after printing, it curls after drying, and there is the dreaded “dry-down effect” where prints darken slightly as they dry. With these drawbacks in mind, resin-coated paper is a fine alternative to fiber paper, especially when you’re learning to print. Resin coated, often just called RC, is characterized by a notably more plastic feel and, when compared to fiber, a slightly shorter range of tones. On the plus side, it is very easy handle, it can be dried incredibly quickly, wash times are short, it is more durable, and it is more affordable.
After base type, you then should consider the paper’s finish. Glossy and matte are the standard, self-explanatory finishes. However, do take note that a glossy fiber paper is much less glossy than a glossy RC paper, simply due to the makeup of the base type. Besides glossy and matte, there is a slew of in-between surface types that, conveniently, have different names, depending on the manufacturer. Luster, pearl, satin, semi-gloss, semi-matte, and velvet are all different variants of a surface type that is somewhere between matte and glossy, and these types are typically only available with an RC base.
One more choice you get to make in determining how your print will look is the tone of the paper. Neutral tone papers are the most common, and can be toned or tinted after developing to nearly any color you wish. These neutral papers strive to produce pure whites and blacks, without any other coloration. Cool tone papers, as the name would suggest, produce a cooler-looking image with deeper blacks and icy whites. Conversely, warm tone papers produce a much warmer image quality with creamier whites and less intense blacks.
Finally, besides size, the last decision you get to make with your paper is whether to choose a variable contrast paper or a graded paper. Variable contrast, also called VC or multigrade, is designed to allow you to adjust the contrast of the image through the use of filters. Much like the filters you might use in front of your camera’s lens during shooting, these filters help you to fine-tune the contrast of your final print when enlarging. Twelve standard grades are available, from #00 to #5, which covers very low contrast to very high contrast. VC papers respond to these filters during printing and, as such, you can adjust the print contrast from the same negative using the same type of paper. Graded papers, on the other hand, are fixed-contrast papers that do not respond to contrast filters. These papers are available in #2, #3, and #4 grades, resembling low, medium, and high contrast, and are paired with certain types of negatives to achieve your desired look. Generally speaking, graded papers are more difficult to work with and require very consistent exposures during shooting to be considered useful; variable contrast papers are more versatile and better suited for the beginning photographer.
While daunting at first, film photography is one of the most redeeming and fulfilling types of photography you can learn. Aside from the satisfaction that goes with watching a print develop or pulling your film out of the tank to see the images for the first time, the lessons involved in understanding the practice help you to become a better photographer, regardless of whether you are working with film or digital cameras.
What’s your experience with traditional film/darkroom-based photography? Do you have any other essential gear recommendations for newcomers and film photography students? Let us know in the Comments section, below.