As the iPhone vs. Film trend took over short-form video last week, I decided to dive a little deeper to explore what makes film more exciting than digital iPhone photography.
Any knowledgeable photographer will probably scoff at an iPhone photographer’s misunderstanding of film, but if you’re like me and your first camera was a smartphone, there are a lot of differences to unpack.
- Sensor – Silicon chip that captures images in digital cameras. It can vary in size, but usually bigger is better.
- Film – It usually comes in rolls. Standard cameras use 35mm film, but it can be larger or smaller.
- ISO – This determines the sensitivity of your sensor or film to light. Shooting at higher ISOs allows you to shoot in dark areas, but it can also make your images look grainier.
- Opening – This number controls the aperture width of the lens. An aperture of F/2.8 is a very wide aperture, while F/11 is a small hole through which the camera can see. This can control the amount of light entering the sensor/film and the degree of blur desired in the background.
- SLR – it’s like DLSR without the D(igital). So basically the purest form of a mechanical camera and it’s all manual.
I want to get into film photography. Where should I start?
Film is very trendy right now, and editing apps like VSCO that can apply film-inspired presets to images have been popular for years. However, if you’re like me and started your photography journey digitally, you probably have a lot of film-related questions.
First question: I want to make a film. Where should I start? The answer to this question starts with making sure you have a lab near you that can develop films. Lots of big cities still do, but finding one in a small town might be a bit tricky in 2022.
After that, you have to decide how seriously you want to take it. If you want to get retro shots and not learn anything about photography, grab a disposable (yes, they still make those). If you want to have fun, a compact camera from the early 2000s is your best bet. These have lots of modern conveniences like autofocus, they’re small, easy to use, and you can load them with any cool 35mm film you can get your hands on. Plus, they’re easy to find online for less than $100.
If you want to take it to the next level, you can get a larger DSLR camera that will offer more lenses, better photos, and more of a learning curve. Depending on how modern the camera you are looking at in this category, it may also have many automatic features. For example, my Olympus SLR has a “program mode” which allows the camera to automatically set shutter speed and aperture. Yet I still have to focus manually
The last beginner tip I would give is to just get your film scans instead of the actual prints. While it’s nice to hold a stack of actual photos, nowadays all photo sharing is done online, so scans are far more useful. Also, if you’re just starting out and you’re like me, if you get prints, chances are they’re blurry. So seriously, stick with the scans.
Cinema is cool, but what are its limits?
Now that you have a film camera, you probably know its limitations. First, the movie. As unique as it looks, each film has a set ISO, making it harder to find a versatile night and day film. It can be done, but you will need to weigh the film you are going to shoot heavily before you start taking pictures.
Beyond simple ISO locking, movies are also locked in terms of white balance. This helps you get consistent shots throughout a roll, but if you shoot balanced film for tungsten lights like I did, you might get some interesting coloring.
The most common limitation (I like to think of it as a challenge) is that each roll only has a limited number of moves. Most 35mm film has 36, but if you buy a medium format camera and shoot the larger 120mm film, there are usually 10-15 shots per roll.
The last challenge is to wait and develop it. I use a lab in Toronto that usually does same-day processing of color films, but even then the wait makes it a little harder to learn when you’re just starting out. With a phone, you can see what a photo will look like before you take it and adjust accordingly. With a film camera, you won’t see if that photo turned out for hours at least and days or months at most. I can’t deny that getting a batch of photo scans in my email feels like my birthday every time, but the immediacy of digital is impossible to beat.
Other things I learned
Finding a movie you like is a long process of trial and error. Try not to be too picky and just try lots of different options. While there aren’t as many choices as before, there’s still plenty to experiment with. I started out with Fujifilm because that’s my mirrorless camera brand for work, but after about eight months of shooting I’m starting to like Kodak a lot more.
Cameras are great fun if you like gadgets because they are all unique. The point-and-shoot market from the 80s to the early 2000s was hyper-competitive, so there are a ton of options to choose from and learn from. For example, I found a Canon Sureshot in a Salvation Army, and it can even detect when it’s stationary and it will hold its shutter open longer as a kind of precursor to modern night modes in phone cameras. Others have weather resistance, smarter focus buttons and more.
You need to be much more stable with the film. I have a habit of whipping out my phone, snapping a photo, and stuffing it back into my jeans at lightning speed. But with film, the process involves a lot more concentration, even with my modern point-and-shoot cameras. So now whenever I shoot a movie, I make sure to plant my feet and maintain my position until I’m sure the image is captured.