Author: Ray Goodwin
In this digital age, physical media has had a resurgence. Despite the odds, film photography has stood the test of time and somehow lives alongside our digital equipment. Our strange hauntological times are a mix of brand new 50 megapixel mirrorless cameras and ageing analogue folders from yesteryear. Yet now is a fantastic time to give it a go, and to see if film photography is for you. We now have a generation of young people who were born into the digital age and didn’t get to experience analogue equipment first hand. With this, many people are now rejecting digital image production and moving over to an analogue workflow: But how does one start with film photography?
There are numerous options when it comes to film photography, and there are so many flavours of film to use. Film can be rather daunting with all of the expensive equipment and sometimes opinionated and polarising views, but it doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive or prejudiced. There are a number of cameras, lenses and film stocks which are a fantastic starting point for someone who is new to this way of image making. This post serves as - hopefully - information for someone who wants to start out with film, but doesn’t really know where to go, including cameras, lenses and film stocks.
In my opinion, manual SLRs are one of the best ways to learn film photography. Film is very unforgiving and it takes no prisoners, and one way to learn is by failure. The strips of developed film can act as a reminder of a potentially failed shoot, urging you to try again. With a manual SLR, you have to be the smart arse and make the decisions with the exposure, which includes selecting your aperture, shutter speed and film speed. The majority of these cameras feature a basic needle meter which will give the user a meter reading depending on the settings and the exposure value. These cameras are as basic as you can get and offer a no frills gateway into 35mm photography. Some of the more advanced Manual SLRs offer a programme mode with aperture priority or fully automatic modes.
Canon AE1/AE1 Program
Manual focus not doing it for you? Already have some autofocus lenses from a DSLR? Good news, you can get autofocus film bodies that can use your lovely new glass. AF SLRs offer up a more modern approach to film photography, with manual modes and a full set of automatic modes such as aperture, shutter priority and programme. The autofocus boom in the 1980’s killed off manual SLR production (mostly), with manufacturers shifting over to AF bodies which only got better with time. AF bodies made in the 1990’s are often plasticky and odd looking, but they’re cheap and plentiful.
Canon EOS 500N
You want something small to carry around. SLRs are too bulky and you want to travel light, what should you do? Thankfully there are such things as compact cameras, also known as point and shoots. These are cameras that need little to no interaction apart from aiming and shooting. They’re great travel companions for people travelling light, or just to have in your bag for those times when you need a camera, but don’t fancy acting as a photographic Sherpa. There are so many totally automatic compacts which can cost absolute peanuts, but there are also some that somehow warrant an extreme price tag due to its branding or celebrity interaction*.
Olympus Trip 35
Another Olympus? Rightly so. Olympus are undoubtedly the king of compacts, with a vast array of models to choose from which does certainly include the highly coveted MJU-ii. But, what if you wanted something smaller? The XA series of cameras are an amazingly small collection of 35mm compacts, with the XA being one of the smallest rangefinders ever made alongside the Contax T. The XA2 is a distilled version of the XA, with a slightly slower lens and zone focusing. This includes a Zuiko 35mm F3.5 lens, which is only ⅔ of a stop slower than the F2.8 variant found on the XA. It also features a similar focusing system to the Trip 35, but the distances can’t be seen within the viewfinder. However, it is a robust little camera which is always in my bag and ready to go at any time. They are often paired with the A11 flash unit which makes it less pocketable, but more versatile. Expect to pay around £60-70 for a decent condition XA2 with the A11 flash and a display box.
Now that you have a camera, you’ll need some film to shoot with! Thankfully, there are many options to choose from with whatever you are wanting to shoot, with more and more film stocks being produced and introduced. It is also still plentiful, with many photographic retailers still selling film (despite people thinking it's a dead medium). The cost of film can vary in price depending on how many exposures, brand and type of film one has chosen. Along with the above camera recommendations, here are some film recommendations that should get you started.
Kodak Colour Plus/Gold
Colour Plus and Gold are Kodak’s cheaper offerings with 35mm film. But, just because they’re cheaper doesn’t mean they are not any good compared to the more expensive Ektar and Portra offerings that your favourite Instagram photographer always uses. Colour Plus and Gold are still amazingly fantastic films to use on a budget, and still give the user those nice gold and red tones that Kodak is famous for. Colour Plus and Gold comes in 200 iso, With Ultramax being a stop faster at 400 iso if you are in some darker areas. These films are affordable for most photographers, with Colour Plus being around £6 for a 36 exposure roll, or £19.99 for five rolls on Amazon.
Fujifilm C200/Superia 400
The other big player with colour film is Fujifilm, and they're annoyingly notorious for discontinuing beloved film stock such as Superia Premium 400. C200 is the Fujifilm counterpart to Colour Plus, which is aimed towards the everyday film user as a budget friendly film. Fujifilm has more pronounced green and blue tones, which does juxtapose Kodak's general aesthetic. Yet C200 is a good budget focused film (which is also rumoured to be what lies beneath Agfa Vista 200 which was available in Poundland a number of years ago). Superia 400 is a stop faster than C200, but still a decently budget friendly film option. Sadly, Fujifilm has discounted 400 Premium, but 400 X-TRA is still being produced alongside C200, as well as the professional stock, Pro 400H. C200 is more expensive at £29.99 for five rolls of 36 exposures on Amazon, and £31.99 for three rolls of Superia X-TRA 400.
Does everything have to be in colour? Ilford are quite possibly the kings of black and white film. Ilford offers up a wide range of film stocks which are all black and white, with Pan 50 being a slow speed and fine grained film, and Delta 3200 acting as a fast and grainy option. HP5+ is the most versatile of Ilford’s films, with the ability to be pushed and pulled rather well. Unlike color film, HP5+ can’t be developed in any normal photo lab as it isn’t a C41 process. This means that one will have to send it off to Ilford, a professional lab or you can try to develop the film yourself. If you can’t be bothered to do any of those, you can use Ilford XP2. This is still a black and white film, but it can be processed in a normal photo lab as it can be developed with the C41 process. This is a good option for those who want to shoot black and white, but don’t want to develop their own film. Both HP5+ and XP2 can be found for around £6 per roll, with the added benefit of both of these stocks being available in medium format too.
Honourable MentionsThere are some cameras on here that I didn’t include, purely because this post is long enough. But there are some cameras out there that are cheaper and accessible compared to some of the cameras featured above. But here is a small list of other avenues to explore.
- Zenit E, EM, 11, 12XP, 122, 3M - Literally any Zenit
- Chinon CE4, CE4s
- Praktica MTL, Super TL 1000
- Olympus OM10
- NIkkormat FTn
- Nikon EM
Well, those are my picks for those wanting to begin their analogue photographic journey. Saying that, there are plenty of very very cheap options out that I mentioned within the honourable mentions. By all means, you can pick these up and make a start on photography, the cameras on the list will last you a long time and are a lot more forgiving than a Zenit E for instance. Colour negative film is also on this list as it is forgiving, despite film not being very forgiving. The exposure latitude of negative film is a lot better than positive film, so even if you mess up quite badly and over expose your images by a few stops, you’ll be fine. Whilst these cameras aren’t necessarily the cheapest options, they are certainly solid options from respected brands that are plentiful and repairable if all goes wrong. These are also cameras that are appreciating in value, and once you’re a film master, you can sell it to fund your next dream camera purchase. Of course, this is what I consider to be good starter cameras, but there are so many more options that I could have chosen, but this is already quite a long post. There are cameras out there to suit everyone’s requirements and shooting styles at all price points. The only way to start is to get stuck in and enjoy film!
Thank you for reading this blog post. If you would like to see my photographic work, you can find me on Instagram, and my writing can be found via my Linktree.