Film Photography: The Ultimate Guide (with Tips)

(Last updated on July 4th, 2022)

Film photography is growing in popularity, particularly among young people. Film photography is different from digital photography. It has a look and feel to it that separates it from digital image-making. It does cost more to take photos, but for many people, the expense is outweighed by the experience of getting that film look.

The main differences between digital and film photography are the cameras and means of capturing images. Digital cameras capture images using an electronic sensor. These images are then stored on a memory card. Film photography requires a different type of camera and images are captured on an emulsion-covered film or plate.

In this article, we’ll take a look at different types of film and how they affect the look of photos. We’ll also dive into choosing a film camera, how they work, and how film photography differs from digital photography. There are also some tips and tricks for capturing great images on film.

Roll film camera. The classic Zeiss Ikon 120 roll film camera This was the first camera I used to take a whole roll of film © Kevin Landwer Johan
Roll film camera. The classic Zeiss Ikon 120 roll film camera This was the first camera I used to take a whole roll of film © Kevin Landwer Johan

What Is Film Photography and How Does It Work?

Film photography is the original form of photography. An image is captured when silver halide crystals are exposed to light. These light-sensitive crystals are infused in a gelatin emulsion that coats an acetate or sheet of glass. Most commonly the emulsion is on a strip of film housed in a canister.

You load film into a camera in a light-proof housing. This keeps the film from exposure to light until you open the camera shutter. Once you expose the film it must be kept in a dark environment until it is processed. Film processing converts the silver halides into metallic silver and is no longer light-sensitive. You can learn more about this process here.

There are two main types of film. Negative and positive. When you process a negative film, the dark parts of the image look light, and the light parts look dark. With color negatives, the colors are also inverted. Slide film and transparency film are other names for positive film.

Each type of film must be processed in the correct chemicals to create the intended look. For alternative-looking images, more advanced techniques are used. These techniques make the images on film look different from what the film manufacturers intended.

35mm film. A section of unprocessed 35mm film
35mm film. A section of unprocessed 35mm film

What are the Main Differences Between Film and Digital Photography?

With film photography, you need to use a film camera and load a film into the camera. The type of film you load determines a lot about how the photos will look. The most common film options are color negative, color positive, and black and white negative.

Once you load a particular type of film into your camera the medium remains constant until you change the film. The ISO must remain constant for the whole roll of film also otherwise the film will not be evenly exposed.

The exception to this is when you use some types of medium format cameras that have interchangeable film backs. This allows you to use the same camera to take both color and black and white images of the same subjects on the same occasion.

Digital cameras capture images as positives. These can then be digitally converted to color negative, black and whites, or kept as color positive images. With digital cameras, you can change the ISO between each image you make if you like.

When you take photos with a digital camera, it records metadata. This is information about:

  • What camera settings you used,
  • The date and time,
  • What lens you used,
  • And other helpful data.

Film cameras do not record this information, so you must record it yourself for later reference.

The other key difference between film and digital photography is that you have to have the film processed before you can see your pictures. With digital, it’s quick and easy to review each photo you take on your camera’s monitor. Film cameras do not have monitors.

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A Summary of Differences Between Film and Digital Photography

Film Photography:

  • Requires a film camera
  • You must load film into the camera
  • Color or black and white film
  • Positive or negative film
  • Cannot change ISO mid-film
  • No metadata gets recorded
  • No image review capability

Digital Photography:

  • Records images digitally
  • A memory card is required
  • Color is always recorded
  • Images can be changed to monochrome
  • Can change ISO between images
  • Metadata is recorded for every image
  • Can review images on the camera monitor
Take notes. Film cameras do not record metadata so you need to take notes about your camera settings
Take notes. Film cameras do not record metadata so you need to take notes about your camera settings

Types of Film Cameras

There are three main types of film cameras based on the type and size of film they take.

  • 35mm
  • Medium format
  • Large format

35mm Cameras

35mm film cameras come in similar styles to digital cameras. Compact cameras are very small and simple. SLR cameras are larger and you have more control over the settings. Range finder cameras are similar looking to mirrorless cameras. Range finder cameras also have no mirror.

A roll of 35mm film that comes in light-proof canister loads into this type of camera. Films come in 12, 24, and 36 exposure rolls. Each frame size is 24mm x 36mm. This is the same size as a full-frame sensor on a digital camera and is the origin of this sensor size.

Medium Format Cameras

Medium format cameras take a film that produces a larger image. This type of film also comes in rolls but these are not encased in a canister. The film is in a foil wrapping until the photographer is ready to load it into the camera or camera film back. The film is a standard size, but the image size is determined by the camera you load it into.

Some medium format cameras, like the Pentax 67, are designed like 35mm SLR cameras. Others, like the Bronica S2 or Hasselblad 500 Series, have interchangeable film backs that house the film.

Large Format Cameras

Large format cameras, like those made by Linhof and Sinar, take a variety of different sizes of sheet film. Each sheet of film is enough for a single photograph. Currently, available sheet film sizes range from 4×5 inches up to 14×20 inches.

Large format camera. An old style large format film camera
Large format camera. An old style large format film camera

Choosing and Using a Film Camera

If you’re transitioning from digital or want to start experimenting with film, I recommend beginning with a 35mm SLR camera. This style of camera is closest to using a DSLR or mirrorless digital. My experience was the opposite. I spent years using SLR film cameras before I ever used a digital camera.

I learned photography using a very simple, manually controlled SLR camera. The only reason it had a battery was to operate the very basic exposure meter. This was simply a + and a – symbol with a needle. When the needle was between the two symbols, a correct exposure was indicated. This was a great way to learn photography because it was slow and I had to be deliberate with my settings.

FTN. This is the first 35mm film camera I bought. It is a Nikkormat FTN © Kevin Landwer Johan
FTN. This is the first 35mm film camera I bought. It is a Nikkormat FTN © Kevin Landwer Johan

By nature, film photography tends to be a slower process. This can be because some film cameras are much more basic. It’s also because it costs more money to take photos using film and you have to keep changing the film.

Recently I went out with my digital camera and took a series of photos of our bamboo. In a ten-minute period, I took about 200 photos. This would be equivalent to taking five and a half rolls of 36 exposure film. Or about 13 rolls of film on the Bronica S2 I used to own. The cost of this would have been around $200 for the 35mm film and processing. I reflected on how my approach to photography has changed as I came back inside to review my photos.

Bamboo. One of the 200 photos I took of my bamboo © Kevin Landwer Johan
Bamboo. One of the 200 photos I took of my bamboo © Kevin Landwer Johan

My process of taking photos is much different now that I mainly use a digital camera. With a film camera, I may have only taken five or six pictures of the bamboo. I would have been more deliberate each time I pressed the shutter button.

When you start taking photos on film, it’s good to slow down and be more decisive about each image you take. This will help you have a richer digital photography experience too.

Using a film camera involves a great deal of uncertainty, especially when you first start. You cannot immediately see the photos you take, as you can with digital cameras. Therefore you must be more confident that you have your exposure and focus settings set to get the best results. You also need to be more sure of your composition and timing.

If you are not sure about this, take a look at some photos from some of the great film photographers. Check out the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and many others.

Film roll. A roll of 35mm in its canister
Film roll. A roll of 35mm in its canister

Processing Your Film

Once you have taken photos and filled a roll of film, you’ll need to process it before you can see the results. The easiest way to do this is to take it to a film lab or send it to one. Many film processing labs have mail-in services.

In the past, it was easy to find places to process your films. There was at least one in every mall and shopping center. Many of these are now closed because digital photography is so much more popular.

With every film, you need to have it processed. You then have the option of getting prints made or having the film scanned and digitized. Labs offer various options for having prints made and also on the quality of scans they can produce.

Another choice you have is to process and print the film yourself. Processing and printing color film, both positives and negatives, is complicated. Black and white processing and printing are much more straightforward. To process any film you need to set up a darkroom.

Darkrooms for processing color require more equipment and many different chemicals than for black and white. Setting up a black and white darkroom is relatively easy. You only need a few different chemicals and the whole process is much simpler than with color film. Processing and printing your own black and white films is a fantastic part of the creative process.

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Film Photography Tips and Tricks

Film photography produces a different look than digital photography. Experimenting with different ways of working with a film camera and a variety of film types is the best way to learn.

Take Your Time

Film photography costs more and requires processing. You can either send the film to a lab or process it yourself. Black and white film processing and printing is much easier and requires less setup and equipment than color film processing. Most color film photographers have specialist film labs process their films.

The more you plan and take care before taking photos when using film, the less film you need. It’s not only more expensive to take photos, but you also have to carry a whole lot more film. The introduction of digital cameras made traveling as a photographer much easier. I never had the hassle of having to unload all my films at the airport customs scanners. These machines can destroy photographic film if it passes through them.

Be Deliberate With Exposure Settings

Film is less forgiving than digital if you don’t get your exposure settings right. Slide film is the least forgiving. If your exposure is over or under by even one stop, the film will not look right. Both color and black and white negative films have a little more exposure latitude, but not nearly as much as modern digital cameras do.

Remember too, that with film you cannot alter the ISO setting. Once you have set the ISO and taken some photos, you cannot change it. If you do change the ISO setting, some of the photos will not be correctly exposed.

Learn to Process and Print Film

Learn about film processing and how different ways of processing film help to determine the outcome.

You might load a roll of 100 ISO film into your camera and set your ISO to 400. The camera’s exposure meter then calculates the exposures based on this. When you process the film or have the lab do it, the film must be developed differently to achieve correct exposures. This is called push processing a film.

There are many techniques for processing and printing film that affect the look of the photos. Using different film stock and chemicals can produce a variety of results. As can the chemical temperature, length of development time, and the amount of agitation the film receives during the process.

Darkroom. Learning to process and print your own black and white film is lots of fun
Darkroom. Learning to process and print your own black and white film is lots of fun

Cross Process Film

Processing a color negative film in chemicals used for developing color positive film produces some interesting shift in how colors render. The same goes for processing color positive film in negative processing chemicals.

The results vary greatly depending on the combination of film and chemical. There’s a lot of creative fun to be had with film cross-processing.

Keep Film In Your Refrigerator

Storing your film in the fridge keeps it at a stable temperature and it will last for longer. Refrigerated film that has passed its expiration date can even be okay to use.

Negative film. A section of exposed and processed color negative film
Negative film. A section of exposed and processed color negative film

Conclusion

Don’t be intimidated by the thought of using film. It is more challenging in many ways than digital photography, but it will help you grow. I appreciate having learned photography using film. It makes me a more deliberate photographer, no matter what camera I am using.

Film photography helps you to slow down and think more about what you are seeing and doing with your camera. With film, your style will evolve differently than it has with digital photography.

Twin lens. A twin lens reflex film camera
Twin lens. A twin lens reflex film camera

Frequently Asked Questions

What is film photography called?

Film photography is also called analog photography. This is a broader term covering non-digital photography that includes Roll film, Sheet film, or Glass plate. Any form of photography that involves a chemical process to capture an image comes under analog photography.

Why is film photography so popular?

Film photography produces a different-looking type of image than digital photography. This distinctive look has contributed to the rise in the popularity of film photography. Each type, brand, and size of the film has a unique look to it. Loading a certain type of film into a camera means you’ll get a certain look to the photos you take.

How do you become a film photographer?

You can become a film photographer by buying a film camera and some film and learning how to use it. You will also want to learn about film processing and how this affects the look of photographic images made with film.

How do I learn film photography?

Taking photos with a film camera is much the same as taking digital photos. You can learn the basics of exposure, composition, timing, etc., and then go on to study using different types of film and processing techniques.

Is film photography hard?

Using film is more difficult than digital photography because you cannot see the results immediately. With a digital camera you can check each photo you take to ensure you have a good exposure and composition. With film photography, you have to be more sure of your light reading and exposure settings. This is because there is not usually any way of checking them until you process the film.


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