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Take up film photography in the digital age

Digital cameras may be easier to use, but many hobbyists still enjoy taking photos on film. Find out how, and why, you might want to try shooting on film.

Wayne Cunningham

Thanks to smartphones and digital cameras, people will shoot 1.2 trillion photos in 2017, according to estimates published by software maker Mylio. The advent of digital photography made it extremely easy to shoot, edit and share pictures, but a few of us still wander around with old school cameras, foregoing instant gratification in favor of the analog quality of film.

Shooting on film is difficult. Not only can it take days or weeks to see the results of photos shot on film, but the whole process of shooting is much more complicated than using a digital camera. First, you need to carefully load a roll of film in the camera, and wind it after every shot. After taking all the shots on a roll, which tends to max out at 36, the film must be taken out of the camera and developed in a chemical stew.

This photo was shot on Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film. (Note: As a digital reproduction, this photo lacks the full quality of the original.)

Wayne Cunningham

So why do I, and many others, still practice film photography?

Film yields a unique quality to photos, which becomes especially visible in prints. Where pixels, little individual points of color, make up a digital photograph, film relies on light-reactive chemicals, creating a wash of colors or greys. To my eye, pictures on film show greater depth, and look more natural than those captured on a digital camera's image sensor.

Also, each type of film delivers a slightly different look based on the chemical composition used by its manufacturer. Some black and white films create greater contrast than others, while color films may create more or less vibrant colors. With practice, you can find films that work well for a specific subject.

Finding a camera

Although there are many types of film cameras, the most popular is the 35mm single lens reflex, or SLR, which I will focus on here. The term single lens reflex means that a mirror transmits the image from the camera's lens directly to the viewfinder, so you can see exactly what you will be shooting. Older cameras used a separate lens for the viewfinder, so the picture lens would always be just a little off from what you see.

35mm SLR cameras use interchangeable lenses, and often can be fitted with accessories such as automatic winders and flashes. I use a Canon A1, a 35mm SLR introduced in 1978.

The Canon A1, a 35mm SLR, came out in 1978. It shoots slide and negative film in black and white or color, and can be fitted with a wide variety of lenses.

Josh Miller/CNET

Not too remarkable for analog equipment, there is nothing obsolete about my nearly 40-year old camera. Its photos still look as good as they did when it was new, and I would argue they look better than what you get from the majority of digital cameras on the market today.

Because of the pre-digital popularity of 35mm SLRs, used equipment in good working order comes fairly cheap today. Similarly, it is easy to find lenses for these cameras. eBay is a good place to search for equipment, as are camera stores that still deal in film equipment, such as KEH Camera and B&H Photo. Just make sure when buying equipment that it all works together, as different cameras use different lens mounts.

Learn about light

Most digital cameras, including smartphones, let you point and shoot, without regard for the lighting conditions. The camera's computer makes decisions about how to cope with the light. A film camera puts those decisions in your hands, making it essential to know how the camera works.

This landscape, shot at f16 on Kodak Ektar 100 film, shows how using a small aperture keeps most of the photo in focus. (Note: As a digital reproduction, this photo lacks the full quality of the original.)

Wayne Cunningham

The two most important settings on a camera are shutter speed, how quickly the camera's shutter opens and closes to expose the film, and aperture, the size of the lens opening. Opening the shutter for longer periods of time, and opening the lens aperture wider, lets in more light, making it possible to take photos in places with dim lighting.

However, leaving the shutter open longer also means that any movement of the camera or objects moving in front of the camera will result in a blurry photo. Generally, a person can hold a camera steady for just 1/60th of a second shutter speed or shorter. Quick shutter speeds work well for action scenes with lots of movement, while longer shutter speeds can be used for landscape shots, and in conjunction with a tripod.

Cameras and lenses represent aperture measurement as f-numbers, such as f2.8, f5.6 and f11. The lower the number, the wider the aperture, and the more light coming into expose the film. However, aperture size affects the depth of field, the amount of space in front of the camera that appears in focus.

A wide aperture, with a low f-number, creates a shallow depth of field. As an example, an area 30 feet from the camera may be in focus, but people or things in the foreground or background will not be in focus. A smaller aperture, with a high f-number, makes for more depth of field, so that more objects in the scene will be in focus.

Many portrait photographers prefer a wide aperture, so that only the subjects of the photo appear in focus, drawing the viewer's attention. A street photographer might opt for a medium aperture, at around f8, which offers a little more focal latitude when taking a quick shot. Landscape photographers often prefer a high f-number, putting more elements of a scene in focus.

Lighting conditions usually make shutter speed and aperture interdependent, so that if you use a wide aperture, you can also use a fast shutter speed, and vice-versa.

I tend to shoot as high an f-number as I can get away with, usually f16, as I like to shoot candid scenes and landscapes. A long depth of field puts the entire scene into focus, and lets the viewer choose where to look. However, many photographers prefer to use a shallow depth of field so as to put a single person or object in focus, directing the viewer's gaze.

Canal in Leyden, Netherlands, shot on Fomapan 100

This photo, shot in The Netherlands, shows the contrast achievable with Fomapan 100 black and white film. (Note: As a digital reproduction, this photo lacks the full quality of the original.)

Wayne Cunningham

The medium is the point

A major consideration with a film camera is what sort of film to use. For 35mm SLRs, the initial breakdown comes to slide or negative film, and color or black and white. Slide film lets you put the developed film in a projector, a fun way to share photos with friends. Negative film, which reverses dark and light areas in the picture, is more commonly used for prints, although prints can also be made from slide film. Negative film is easier to develop, and cheaper to have a shop develop. Black and white versus color comes down to an aesthetic choice.

Fujifilm Velvia slide film produces saturated colors in this shot of Golden Gate Park's Stow Lake. (Note: As a digital reproduction, this photo lacks the full quality of the original.)

Wayne Cunningham

Film also comes in different speeds, denoted by an ISO number. The film's speed determines how quickly it reacts to light. A lower speed film, with an ISO of 100, reacts slowly, so will require either bright lighting conditions, like a sunny day, or a long exposure from the camera. Films with a higher ISO rating, such as 1600, work in more dimly lit environments.

So why not always shoot with high ISO film? To achieve more light sensitivity, and a higher ISO number, the light-reactive chemicals that make up the film use larger particles. Those particles form images in response to light more quickly, but their size creates a more grainy look in the resulting photo. Films with lower ISO use smaller particles in their chemical emulsion, creating more finely detailed photos but requiring more time to form an image in response to light.

As with shutter speed and aperture, there are trade-offs in using higher or lower ISO films.

Getting results

Just as high-end digital cameras let you manually adjust settings to better get the photo you want, some film cameras include automatic features, which take over shutter speed and aperture settings. For example, my Canon A1 includes a fully automatic mode which sets both shutter speed and aperture, only requiring me to focus.

You won't find out how good or bad your photos are until you get them developed. (Note: As a digital reproduction, this photo lacks the full quality of the original.)

Wayne Cunningham

Most hobbyists, however, will likely want to control the camera's settings themselves. Unlike snapping a bunch of photos with a smartphone, film photographers should take their time with each shot, judging what settings work best for the subject. Exercising control over the camera based on an understanding of how its settings affect the results is kind of the point of the hobby.

Taking care with each shot is also a necessity, as film rolls are typically only good for 12 to 36 shots.

Once you've shot a roll or two, what to do with the film? While you can learn to develop and print film at home, there are plenty of shops still around that process film. Many shops let you mail in rolls of film, convenient if there isn't one geographically close. Of course, buying and developing film costs money, as opposed to the essentially free nature of shooting photos on digital and saving them to a computer.

Some photo shops offer many options for prints, including a variety of printing papers, which can really enhance a good photo. However, there is an important caveat to having a shop make prints from your film. Nearly all shops first make a digital scan of the film, and use that scan to make the print. Photographers who want purely analog prints will need to learn how to make prints themselves.

Shooting with film, I find that I'm much more likely to get prints made, as opposed to the thousands of digital photos sitting on my computer and phone. It becomes very gratifying seeing the results of my photographic endeavors hanging on a wall, rather than buried on a hard drive.

This story appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.