I have been photographing for a few years, well, since 1997 to be exact. Though I can say that the time I started my photography coincided with the convergence of digital photography and the end of traditional film photography. Well, film is by no means dead but only the devoted fews now use it professionally and only a hand full of amateurs are willing to shoot with this rather fun but inflexible medium.
However, if you are serious about starting your photographic journey, then you should start with film. There are few good reasons for it. First it’s cheap. Ok, buying and developing films aren’t exactly cheap but I will get to that later. To buy something decent in digital these days will cost you a bomb. People always talk about full frame, large sensor DLSR blah blah blah. The fact is, all film SLRs are full frame. In fact I only hear this term “Full Frame” ever since DSLR was introduced. So, that’s a good start right? You bet! Also getting a film SLR only costs a fraction of a DSLR, really. For £50 or £60, you can pick up something quite decent and often comes with a standard fast prime, like a 50mm f/1.8.
Camera Choice – You will have plenty of choices on the secondhand market these days. You can either choose the good old full manual camera with or without light meter or a semi-auto SLR, pretty much like the DSLRs that you are seeing today. But if you are the most dedicated photographer, then you should start virtually from scratch. Most older SLRs from the 60’s and 70’s are full mechanical and it means it’s reliable and most likely you can do DIY repairs. If you want something in between, with a mechanical gut with some electronic aids, something like the Nikon FM series is good. It isn’t exactly cheap but for £100, you can get a very solidly build SLR that will last a life time. I am using one of the Nikon’s last manual camera, the FM3a which is an exceptional camera. It’s solid metal body is reassuring to hold and the dials are all very large and clear. Canon AE-1 is similar and great for starting photography too.
Do-it-youself way – Because these cameras are relatively primitive, you are not spoiled with automation. You will have to set the camera and learn about the relationship of film speed (ISO), aperture and shutter speed, even advance and wind the film yourself!. It is also because each film has a limited frames and is expensive (relatively), you WILL think before you shoot, which is a very good practice under ANY circumstances. You will look at the meter needle in the viewfinder, compose and make final exposure adjustment if needed, all before pressing the shutter button, unlike the DLSR-TRIGGER-HAPPY-MACHINEGUN snappers.
Film Characteristic – Understanding the characters of different films is always challenging. You will have to take tons of photos with each film type before knowing its special characters. Yes they are all different. One will present more contrasty, saturated, great for landscape, while another will have more neutral tones and flatter colours, better for portrait. Slower film will have finer grains, which translates to sharper images, if taken with a sharp lens of course. Faster film are grainy but more characterful. These relationships are being mimic by digital ISO sensitivity that people associate today. As film only have grains, only their sizes will affect picture appearances. In digital these days, the sensor is so advance that they are now overtake film in terms of high ISO quality. If you are used to shooting ISO 1600 or above with a DSLR, you will be really shocked when you seen the quality produced by ISO 1600 film. In fact, you don’t find many photographers using film faster than ISO 800.
Choice of film – Just as digital photography these days, you get what you pay for. You can spend a couple of quids on some cheapo films from your local pharmacy or supermarket but they are just no good in anyway. Snap shots perhaps but your iPhone would probably do a much better job. So, for good results, you may want to stick with the good ‘brand’ like Kodak or Fuji. Unfortunately, there are not many choices these days. Sadly, Kodak is already starting to disappear from the consumer photographic world but luckily they are still committed to the professional stuff, hopefully for sometime to come. Fuji is going strong and for black and white fans, Ilford isn’t going anyway, yet. For quality purposes, I always shoot with the professional range of films.
Film formats – There are many different formats in the film world, pretty much like the digital counterparts (different sensor sizes). There are large format, bigger than a piece of A4 paper or the more commonly used medium format – 120, 220 or the very common 135 format (which the size of the frame is what people associate as full frame these days). There are smaller format like 110 too!
Thanks to the new hype of Lomography. The popularity they bring to the world has revitalised film industry. Even Agfa is coming back to life by bring back their famous APX Pro black and white film. LOMO also brings back the 110 format too! So I guess film is not truly dead yet.
Type of film – Overall, there are three main types in film, negative (what you will normally find in shops), positive or slide film and black and white negative. The cost of development varies between them. Negatives being the cheapest as they are the most common, then positive (if unmount) and most expensive is black and white. Funny though because the solution to develop black and white is the most simple and low cost. It’s the rarity that costs these days. The demand for consumer black and white is so low that it costs more to clean the development machine for one roll of black and white. But if you have a spare room, why not try developing yourself?
Negative is the easiest to shoot, it’s wide dynamic range allows you to shoot under or over exposure for upto 2 stops without affecting too much of the quality. However positive is the most challenging to shoot, only pros prefer them due to it’s sharpness and colours. There’s absolutely no tolerance in exposure and you will have to get it right the first time. Therefore, even pros sometime manually under expose a shot by half a stop to avoid the highlight gets overblown.
In black and white, you just don’t have to worry too much about exposure… so to speak.
Reading the light – Learn to read light is any photographer’s biggest challenge and probably the most fun. We will never be as accurate as a meter but I can certainly read light better than some modern photographers. Because when you load a film in your camera, you are pretty much fixed by that speed until you finish the film or unless you wind it up prematurely. If you are a LOMO shooter, then reading light is probably something that they learn straight away because many of their manual cameras do not feature any type of meter. Therefore, I actually think LOMO is a way into photography. If you don’t want to go the hyped up LOMO thing, you can try going down your local market and get an ancient camera, well, a working one of course, I picked up a 120 medium format Lubitel and a folding camera for nothing and you can just try snapping away as soon as you dump a film in it. There’s no battery needed because it’s all mechanical. Another good start would be a old Leica rangefinder or a Russian copy like FED. Just in case you want to know… using the Sunny 16 rule is a very good start. You need to practice on the film speed and type and slowly, you can just read light fluently. You will be more happy and confident in obtaining the correct exposure every time.
Final words – By learning all these relationships patiently: aperture, shutter speed and film (type and speed), you are guaranteed to improve your picture quality, whether it is digital or film. Remember, picture quality doesn’t necessary mean great photograph but it is a start. So, start with the basic. Then you need to work on composition, which a separate subject which I will cover in the future. Have a good day.