Analog Photography: The Beginner’s Guide to Film Cameras

Which film camera should you get? Which films are the best? We demystify the world of analog photography to help you get started.
Bottom 3 film cameras on top of scattered photos and film strips. Top Back view of an opened film camera beside film...
Photograph: Scott Gilbertson; Getty Images

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Film is like the indestructible black knight in Monty Python's The Holy Grail: It's not dead yet.

Digital photography is well into its third decade, yet film keeps hanging on, lying there shouting, “It's just a flesh wound!” I'd argue that film photography will never die. In the postapocalyptic future, long after the grid has collapsed and all our digital images are gone, someone will pop up with a Nikon FM2T and carry on documenting the world with expired Tri-X.

If you want to shoot film, fear not, it's easier than ever to shoot, develop, and print film. We've put together this guide to help you learn, or re-learn, the joys of film photography, whether you're a newcomer or an expert, but haven't shot film in a few years.

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First, Get a Film Camera

Photograph: Scott Gilbertson

If you want to get started with analog photography, you'll need a film camera. This could be an entire guide on its own, but in the interests of simplicity, I'll suggest a couple of capable, reasonably priced 35-mm film cameras.

  • Kodak Ektar H35 for $44: This half-frame Kodak camera is ideal for beginners with film. It's affordable and dead simple to use—it has no controls, just point and shoot. It captures half a frame of 35-mm film for each exposure, which means you get double the shots out of a roll of film. This is my favorite camera for anyone who wants to try film without spending a fortune.
  • Olympus Stylus (Used) for Around $100: The Olympus Stylus came in many variations, but they're all solid point-and-shoot cameras. There's not much in the way of manual controls here either, but the exposure meter is generally accurate and the resulting photos are great considering this is a plastic camera from the 1990s that fits in your pocket. (See below for more advice on buying used cameras.)
  • Canon AE-1 (Used) for Around $150: The Canon AE-1 is a fantastic SLR camera, and it's affordable on the used market. It's built like a tank, has a good built-in exposure meter, and can take just about any lens Canon ever made, meaning you can expand your lens options down the road. Not a Canon fan? Grab a Nikon FE2, Pentax ME, or a Minolta SRT 303b, all of which are similar to the AE-1: solid, all-metal SLR cameras for less than $200.

Naturally, there are hundreds of other film cameras out there to choose from, ranging from brand-new offerings by manufacturers like Lomography, to venerable Leicas that still sell for many thousands of dollars without a lens (which will set you back several more thousands of dollars). If you're new to buying used camera gear on eBay, have a look at our guide to buying used on eBay to stay safe and get the best bang for your buck.

There are also medium- and large-format cameras, often for very cheap (also often not, the Hasselblad 501cm continues to sell for many thousands). Future updates to this guide will include more options for these larger formats, but for now, I've kept it simple with 35-mm cameras.


Get Some Film

Photograph: Scott Gilbertson

Once you've got the camera, it's time to grab some film. But which type of film? If you're old enough to have shot film earlier in life, this is where you'll notice some big changes. Some popular old film stock is no more. In its place are a staggering number of new, cottage industry films out there, some good, some not. I am testing as many of these as I can get my hands on, but for those just getting started, I suggest sticking with some of the bigger-name films.

We'll start with color film, which comes in two flavors, positive and negative.

Positive Film vs. Negative Film

Positive film records the image as you saw it when you pushed the shutter. It produces rich, saturated colors and tends to have strong contrast. It's much less forgiving in my experience. You need to get the exposure right and there's not much you can do about it after the fact if you don't. I tend to avoid high-contrast scenes with positive film (or use graduated neutral-density filters to reduce contrast). Positive film is usually mounted as slides when you have it professionally developed.

Negative film records the opposite of what you saw. In black and white, everything is reversed, blacks are white, and whites are black so that when you shine light through it to print, the black areas hold back the light, making them lighter in the print, and light areas let more light through, rendering them dark in the print. The same is true of color negative film, but it tends to look more like a yellow-orange mess as a negative. Negative color film often has a softer look than color positive, with lower contrast, and higher dynamic range.

Which should you use? I suggest experimenting to see which you like the best. Below are a few film recommendations based on the type of images you want to make.


Best Film for Landscapes

Best Overall

Fujifilm's Fujichrome Velvia 50 is ridiculously expensive at $30 per roll, but I've still yet to find any other color-positive film that looks as good as Velvia. Its color saturation is legendary (tending toward the red/magenta), and its neutral gray balance means you almost never get weird colors in shadows and highlights. The price means I don't shoot it very often, but when I'm heading out into the wilderness, this is what I bring.

Runner-Up
Kodak Professional Ektachrome E100 Color Transparency Film

Kodak's E100 is a new film for me, but I've shot a few rolls now, and I can say that it is very different from Velvia. There's none of the Velvia warmth; colors are rather neutral with a mild green cast to the highlights. If you're looking to shoot landscapes with a different look than the past 50 years of Velvia-influenced images, this is the film I'd recommend.

Budget Pick

This is another new one for me; I have shot only two rolls of this color-negative film, but so far, my overwhelming impression is that this is film stock that replicates what you get with a digital camera. Grain is very fine, and colors are extremely close to what my Sony digital sensor records: natural-looking color tending toward the cooler side. I'll confess I didn't like it the first time I saw the results, but it's growing on me, and the price is difficult to beat.


Best Film for Portraits

Portrait films need to handle skin tones well. My favorite, Fujifilm's 160 Pro, has been discontinued, which leaves the ever-popular Kodak alternative. At $14 a roll, this is probably the best value in film, period. Porta 160 is a great film for portraits, rendering skin pretty much as it is most of the time. If you need something faster for shooting in low light, there's also a 400-speed version and even an 800-speed version. I find that one to have too much grain for color portraits, but if that's the look you want, it's available.


Best Black-and-White Films

There's a seemingly endless array of black-and-white films out there, including reissued versions of some of the most popular films from previous decades. This is a very biased list since “best” in this case is purely subjective. Again, experiment to figure out which you like.

Best Overall
Kodak Professional Tri-X 400 Black and White Negative Film

Tri-X was launched in the 1940s and has been in continuous production ever since. It's gone through a few changes over the years, the latest being a reengineering in 2011 that reduced the grain (which is when it got the TX designation). A favorite of photographers as diverse as Sebastiao Salgado, Vivian Maier, and Gary Winogrand, Tri-X is beloved for its versatility, with just the right amount of grain and contrast that give images a certain look and texture that nothing else matches. There are rich black shadows, great contrast, and enough grain without being too much. Tri-X is also dead simple to process if you do it yourself. If I could only shoot one film, this would be it.

Runner-Up

Another versatile film, Ilford's HP5 has a wide exposure latitude, meaning it'll do well in mixed and difficult lighting. It has less overall contrast than Tri-X, giving it a smoother look. It also pushes very well, without becoming overly grainy like Tri-X tends to when you push it. If you want a good all-around film with a smooth, even tonality, this is a good pick.

Best for Low Light
Kodak Professional T-Max P3200 Black and White Negative Film

Let's get something out of the way first. Kodak calls this a “multispeed” film; there's no need to shoot it at 3200. I like to shoot it at 800 and process it at 1600. It took me a few years to realize what I was doing there was making my T-Max look more like Tri-X, but the point is, the T-Max 3200 is more versatile than the speed implies. That said, I tend to reach for this when shooting in the evenings or out at night.


Developing Film

There used to be a film development lab on every street corner. Or at least in those little kiosks in parking lots, but those days are gone. That said, there are plenty of professional labs out there with mail-order businesses and quick turnaround times. Most of them will be happy to scan your negatives as well, though this does add to the cost.

There are hundreds of good labs out there, and your best bet is to go to the photography store nearest you and talk to them. Building a relationship at your local photo shop will help you get better results, because they'll know what you like and what you don't and can help you push and pull and communicate with the lab as needed. That said, many camera stores have outsourced their development to big online services (the store nearest me sends film off to Nation's lab), so make sure you ask where they're developing.

Here are a few labs I've tried and had excellent results from:

  • Richard Photo Lab: This is the lab I used back in the 1990s when I was living in Los Angeles. It was a fantastic lab then, and it's been just as good in my recent testing. I've developed B&W, color negative, and color slide in 35-mm and 120-mm and have had nothing but outstanding results. It's not the cheapest, but if you want quality, this is my top pick. The scanning services are also excellent and include some nice extras, like feedback on your images to help you understand why your images look like they do and identify issues with your film or camera. (Richard's was able to diagnose what turned out to be a light leak in one of my cameras.) Film processing starts at $10 per roll.
  • Dwayne's Photo Lab: Dwayne's is probably best known as the last place you could process Kodachrome, but it's a fine lab for everything else too (and no, no one can process Kodachrome anymore). I've processed 35-mm B&W, color, and slide film with Dwayne's and had excellent results. Color starts at $6 per roll; black-and-white starts at $7 per roll.
  • The Darkroom: San Francisco's The Darkroom is another film institution that is still there, cranking out images. I like the online form that generates a mailing label for you. Richard Photo Lab can do this as well, but The Darkroom's website makes the process a bit nicer. I have not yet developed any color with the Darkroom, but I've been very happy with the results. You get a low-res scan with each roll, which is nice if you want to see your images before your film arrives back in the mail. Development starts at $13 per roll.

I know what you're thinking right now, $7 to $13 development costs per roll; no wonder digital photography took off. Well, there is an alternative—you can always develop the film yourself.

The development process for black-and-white film is not too difficult these days, thanks to light-tight bags and readily available chemicals. I'm still in the testing process, but future updates to this guide will include tools and techniques for developing your film at home. Color film is much more complex and requires more chemicals. Having done a bit of self-developing back when that was the only way a poor college student could afford to develop film, I am happy to pay for color film development now.

Printing Film Images
Photograph: Scott Gilbertson

Most film photographers are drawn to the medium for love of the tangible, which means printing. Printing your images directly from film still requires a darkroom with an enlarger. If you have the space to build yourself a darkroom, by all means, do it.

The alternative, for those of us who don't have space for a dedicated darkroom, is to scan our film to digital and then print. While I love printing in the darkroom, I don't currently have one, so I rely on “scanning” my film with a digital camera and printing the result at a professional printer. To do this, I use the Valoi Easy35 Film-Scanning Kit ($245) (8/10, WIRED Recommends). If you have a DSLR or mirrorless digital camera, this is the method I recommend if you want to digitize your film images.

The Easy35 consists of a light box, with brightness and temperature controls for the backlight and slots on each side to feed your film through. Inside, there’s a film holder that helps your film slide through and line up. A series of tubes forms a light-tight tunnel between the film you're photographing and the sensor in your digital camera. The result is consistently excellent digital images of your film with little effort and no ongoing costs.

Once your image is digitized, you can print it like any digital image. I use Printique and Mpix, but there are tons of good printers out there. See my Best Online Printing Services guide for more options.


Learn to Shoot Film

This could be an entire book, but I don't have that kind of time. Fortunately for you, these people did. Here are some of our favorite guides to film photography.

  • The Craft of Photography, by David Vestal: A classic that will teach you everything you need to know about using a camera, shooting film, and even printing it if you decide to go that route. While I prefer to buy paper books, this one is available for free via the Internet Archive.
  • The Manual of Photography, by Elizabeth Allen and Sophie Triantaphillidou: Once called the Ilford Manual of Photography, this guide first appeared in 1890. It's now in its 10th edition, and the Ilford is gone from the name, but it remains one of the best overall guides to photography you can buy. Highly recommended.
  • The Camera/The Negative/The Print, by Ansel Adams: This three-book series is slightly out of date, even if you're in it for film photography, but I still find Adams' zone system extremely helpful in figuring out exposures. I also find all three very readable and easy to understand, but opinions on that differ, so it might be worth skimming these at the library before investing.
  • Genesis, by Sebastiao Salgado: This won't teach you how to use a camera, but it might help you learn how to see, how to sequence, and how to tell a story with images. Other photographers to explore: Robert Frank, Diana Arbus, Sally Mann, Robert Doisneau, Todd Hido … this list could go on and on, but those should get you started.
Photograph: Michael Calor
Terms to Know

Read our How to Buy a Camera guide for more details on these terms.

  • ISO: ISO is a standardized way of indicating how sensitive a film is to light. The lower the ISO, the less light-sensitive a film is. This usually means less grain, but you'll need to shoot in brighter light. A faster ISO, say 800, will have more grain, but is capable of rendering darker, evening, and nighttime scenes. The less light you have, the higher the ISO you'll want to use.
  • Aperture: The size of the opening inside your lens. The wider the aperture the more light will enter the lens. Small apertures are sometimes called “fast” as in, an f/1.2 lens is fast. Aperture also affects depth of field (how much of the picture is in focus); the wider the aperture, the less of the image that will be in focus.
  • Shutter speed: This is how long your film is exposed to light. It's written in fractions of a second, like 1/125s, up to whole seconds, depending on your camera. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is let in. This means that anything moving while the shutter is open will become blurry—for example, water flowing over rocks takes on a smooth appearance.
  • Exposure: Exposure is how light or dark your image is. If your image is too dark, the photo is called underexposed. If it's too bright, it's overexposed. Exposure is controlled by using the previous three tools—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed—to get the exposure you want.
  • Emulsion: The emulsion is the light-sensitive particle mixture that, when exposed to light, fixes some of those particles in place. When later soaked in a developing agent, some particles in the colloid mixture are removed, while others remain. The result is the image you captured.
  • Film grain: Film grain refers to the size of the particles in the emulsion. The smaller the particles, the less visible they'll be in the final print.
  • Focal length: The length of the lens. Technically, the distance in millimeters between the lens and the film. This determines the field of view, and zoom amount, and will affect how much distortion is in the image.
  • Depth of field: How much of the image is in focus. You can put the point of focus anywhere, but regardless of where you put it, a certain amount of the image behind and in front of that point will also be in focus. This is the depth of field. A better term would be depth of focus, but it's called field. The depth of field is influenced by the interplay of the aperture, the focal length of the lens, and the position of the subjects within the scene.

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