A Beginner’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Film Photography

film photography
Photo: Benjamin Combs

We’ve all heard the praises bestowed upon smartphone cameras. With each year comes more megapixels, more powerful sensors and soaring image quality. Add to that countless editing apps and filters to achieve that “real vintage” look, and why would you use anything else to capture memories?

Well, there’s something to be said about doing things old-school. Not worrying about instantly sharing your photo on Instagram Stories, but about reconnecting with the roots of photography. Having the patience to frame up a shot and get it right the first time. And that long-lost feeling of anticipation, as you wait to see your roll of film developed for the first time.

These cameras laugh in the face of rapid-fire modern cameras and reward the process, not just the end-result. So here’s an ode to the analog camera and a basic guide to get you started enjoying the simple pleasures of film.

The Basics

Trying to decide which analog camera is right for you can be a daunting task. Over the decades, thousands of different analog cameras have been developed and while we could get stuck in the weeds trying to explain the differences, let’s just boil it down to the three most popular film cameras out there: the SLR, point-and-shoot, and instant cameras (e.g. Polaroids).

Single-Lens Reflex (SLR)

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If you’re into photography, there’s a good chance you already own a DSLR – the digital version of this popular analog camera. These cameras allow you to look straight through the lens and see what the image will look like once it’s captured, which is much easier than more complicated analog cameras like the Rangefinder.

While SLRs typically have all manual controls, it makes the experience more rewarding and forces you to improve your skills as a photographer. Check out the Pentax K1000 or the Canon AE-1 Program for two entry-level SLRs that won’t be hard to find (or break the bank).


film camera
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The most user-friendly of all the film cameras, these cameras are great for when you just want to, well, point and shoot. They are essentially fully automatic so instead of worrying about exposure, you’ll just need to frame up the shot and click the button. They’re also compact and durable, so they can generally survive your rougher expeditions.

Unfortunately, many of these cameras produce less-than-stellar image quality, while the nicer ones can cost you some serious cash. For a decent middle-of-the-road option, check Ebay for a Nikon L35AF, you should be able to nab one for under $100. Or if quality isn’t your top priority, go for the cheapest option and grab a disposable camera for about $10.

Instant Cameras (Polaroids)

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One of the most popular film cameras you’ll find, the instant camera is a staple for hipsters and serious photographers alike. As you probably know, these cameras print images instantaneously on self-developing film – a major asset for those who require instant gratification.

Of course, it’s that timeless weathered look of an instant photograph that summons feelings of nostalgia. And while older versions of these cameras – the first one came out in 1948 – can be found at estate sales and swap meets, they are still making new ones today. Fujifilm makes a few good ones, as well even Leica (who joined the instant camera game not too long ago with the Sofort).

Choosing the Right Film

In a world where photos are now saved in a “cloud” instead of a photo album, physical film sounds like an ancient relic. However, real film offers an incredible range and color palette that produces vibrant, more natural-looking shots that digital cameras can only imitate.

While there are many different types of film, beginners will primarily stick with the two most common: 35mm and instant film.

film photography

For most SLR and point-and-shoot cameras, 35mm film is the standard. For color, Kodak Gold and Fuji Superia are good options that won’t set you back too much. We found you could get about 100 exposures for under $15 on many sites. Meanwhile, the Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 are both excellent film options for those looking to shoot in black and white.

Don’t forget you’ll still need to get these developed, which normally costs about $10 per roll. First, check to see if a local photography store offers this service, otherwise, send your roll into The Darkroom for an online service that does a good job at a reasonable price.

Dogukan Sahin/Unsplash

For those that can’t stand the thought of waiting to see what photo they just captured, instant film develops within minutes – just remember to shield it from the light while it develops. While there are few things as classic as an instant photo, they aren’t exactly cheap. Eight instant photos of Color 600 film can set you back nearly 20 bucks, but keep your eye on Ebay or photo sites like Adorama, B&H, and Polaroid Originals.

The Blessings

film photos
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Leave Your Phone in the Car: While listening to the sounds of a forest is soothing to the soul, few things are more jarring to that natural serenity than the bing, ding or buzz of your phone. While not being able to instantly share your nature shot with your Snapchat audience may give you anxiety, leaving your device behind for a few hours is scientifically proven to be beneficial to our mental wellness.

Embrace the nostalgia of hiking through the wilderness – or even a city – with nothing but an old film camera and a sense of wonder. You may miss out on “likes,” but you’ll make up for that with the satisfaction of being able to enjoy your natural surroundings without the constant pestering from the outside world.

Slow Down, Frame It Up: Smartphone photography is lazy photography. You can take hundreds of photos of the same subject and just hope to stumble upon the right composition and lighting. You may get a decent photo, but it was more luck than skill.

film photography
Ethan Hoover/Unplash

Shooting on film is a different experience because with each press of the shutter button, there is a real financial cost associated with that and you can’t just delete it and try again. This forces the photographer to slow down and actually think about what they are shooting. You constantly ask yourself things like: “Is that a good subject? What about the lighting? Is it properly framed?” These are all questions that will make you a better photographer.

You’ll be taking far fewer shots than you would on a smartphone or digital camera, but the photos you do take will not only be better thought out, but they’ll be more special. The best part? You don’t even get to see how you did until your film roll gets developed. And in our opinion, that’s half the fun.

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