Photography for Dummies
October 18, 2010 5:11 AM   Subscribe

Any advice for a beginner to film photography?

I know a little about photography, but not too much about film or film cameras. I have a couple of old film point and shoots but I never think much about exposure, etc. I have never used a film SLR so am eager to address that gap!

I'd be getting it off ebay, not looking to spend much, and wanted to go for one of the Canon EOS film cameras (e.g. this one) because I already have an EOS 450D (EOS Rebel Xsi) with the kit lens and an EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, and I was hoping to use those lenses, and any others I buy in the future, with the new camera as well.

Rightly or wrongly, it feels like a big shift in mindset to go from digital where taking a thousand bad shots doesn't really matter, to film where every bad shot is a shot wasted. It also seems a little difficult to get information on film SLRs because of the shift to digital. So I turn to the all-knowing hivemind. What things do you wish you knew back when you started out on film photography? I take mostly candid people pictures. I'm not specifically looking for camera recommendations but feel free to give me some if you like!
posted by Ziggy500 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a couple:

Firstly, get a decent light meter and use it. Don't rely on whatever is in the camera. Also, as a backup to your light meter and whatever is in the camera, tape the little exposure diagram out of the film pack to the back of the camera. Over time you'll get an almost intuitive sense of what can be done with what film. Then, when your light meters lie to you, you'll know.

Secondly, keep a notebook, and make an entry for every shot. Review those entries once you've printed your photos. Use it to actively learn what works and what doesn't. This will save you lots and lots and lots of film.
posted by Ahab at 5:25 AM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ooop. And another. If candid portraits are your thing, get yourself a portrait lens. They work wonders, both in terms of highlighting and flattering the subject, and in letting you keep a bit of distance and not be as intrusive to your subjects.
posted by Ahab at 5:34 AM on October 18, 2010

Find a shot that's easy to reproduce. Something inside, maybe at night where the lighting is easy to reproduce. Get some everyday film, like 400 ISO Kodak at CVS, etc. Then work your way through a roll, same shot, playing with the settings and write down what settings each shot was.

When it's time to develop the film, don't be afraid to go to the dedicated photography places rather than a drug store. They're more than happy to help beginners out and will talk you through things, usually.

Now you can repeat that process with different ISOs and see how the grain size increases or decreases with ISO, but also different brands. From there I went on to flowers because of the great colors and how still they usually are.

While you are doing these, getting the basics down, just run around and have fun too. This is your learning process after all. Here's where the first big issue pops up because you'll want to shoot things that are moving (damn people!) so now you can start playing with faster shutter speeds, but remember you'll need to compensate for that with a larger aperture (so more light can get in during that shorter time the shutter is open) or more sensitive film (aka faster, or higher ISO).

I'll close with the one thing that stumped me for a long while, and it's not directly film related but worth it anyway. Good shots of landscapes, with nice blue skies, are hard to get. For starters the weather has to be right, but after that you need to watch the Rayleigh Scattering from the sun. You want the sun behind you due to that.

Now, if you're trying to get a city it's even harder because of the haze and such, which shows up pretty early in the day but doesn't disappear till after sunset. You have to wake up when it's dark and get to your destination in time for sunrise and get your shot then, being sure to keep Rayleigh Scattering in mind as well. Sometimes that means taking the shot from the other side of the city.

I use my dad's old Nikon FG. Rugged, and the batteries can be dead and I can still take a shot, but with batteries it's a lot easier. It was also the only way I could get the black photo of the ion streams (3rd photo down) for my ion generator page. Digitals put too much blue and couldn't handle the low light levels.
posted by jwells at 5:47 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I still have a canon eos elan 7e body for when I feel like using film and it's a great camera that I would still recommend. it's going to work for you right off the bat given that you are familiar with the rebel and it will accept your EF lenses. the light meter is also good enough for your needs unless you found the one inside the rebel lacking.

consider learning about different film stock. get yourself some 400NC film and compare it to 100T or some agfa stock. consider developing and printing your photos yourself in a color lab and you will get a whole new idea of how colors works.
posted by krautland at 6:02 AM on October 18, 2010

If you want to learn more about exposure, there is no reason why it can't be learnt on the digital slr that you currently own. Get a good book like Bryan Peterson's Understanding Exposure, and you are all set, then get Light: Science and Magic for further studies with artificial light.

Still determined to go down the film route? Well then keep in mind that you will probably want to shoot slide film, that is the way know if your exposure is really spot on.

Negative film has too much range - back in the day my camera had only 1 fixed aperture and two shutter speeds (one of which is for when the flash is attached), no batteries required. And it always took reasonable pictures. Ilford XP2 super is great if you don't care about exposure, expose at EI50 to 800 and you will still get *very* reasonable prints.

Also: The Minolta Dynax 5 is an absolutely horrible camera to learn exposure from. My sis used that camera (mine) and her slides came in exposed very nicely, she didn't learn much and was a little annoyed at me since her classmates had exposures all over the place with their canons and nikons lol.
posted by TrinsicWS at 6:50 AM on October 18, 2010

Your EF-S 18-55 IS kit lens will not mount on a film camera - it is designed for cameras with crop sensors.

That said, the 50mm 1.8 should suffice for now.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:55 AM on October 18, 2010

Some tips from the enthusiastic amateur perspective (not a pro, so take with a grain of salt if you like):

As I learned when I started developing my own BW film, make sure your film is actually advancing. This tip from imjustsaying was very handy. I also now always watch the rewind knob when I advance film, to make sure it's actually moving.

Developing black & white film at home is easy and doesn't require a darkroom (just a changing bag or lightproof closet to load the film). A scanner with film attachments, like the Epson 4490, will save you money on prints and scans in the long run and give you more control over how your pictures turn out.

Get some small stickers and write down what type and speed of film is currently loaded, then stick them on the back of the camera. Otherwise you'll forget what camera has the color film, which has the black and white, and which the redscale.

And if the light meter on your camera is unreliable (like my Canon FTb, where the original mercury batteries are no longer available) and you have an iPhone 4, the "Light Meter" app is actually quite accurate. Or just stick to Sunny 16.
posted by Gortuk at 7:16 AM on October 18, 2010

The older film cameras are going cheaply these days, so are many of the lenses for them. You can pick up some quality gear at reasonable prices. Of course, the further you go back the cheaper. See if you can get some good prime lenses in large apertures. Good film is often slower than digital and these older cameras and lenses do not have image stabilization making a fast lens even more desirable than with digital.

A lot of the advice so far would apply to either digital or film photography. You have already identified one of the major differences, the expense of taking a bajillion photos to get the one gem. I think that is still one of the best tactics in film but perhaps you want to slow things down a bit. Carefully composing a scene and thinking about your shots so as not to waste film can lead to better skills in all areas of photography.

The EOS film cameras were very good at getting proper exposure in even difficult lighting conditions. You might not need to go crazy with additional meters etc. Since these also are going for reasonable prices used why not though.

One difference, especially if you shoot slides, is paying attention to color balance. You might want to do some research on color filters to adjust the scene tone, allow indoor shooting with outdoor film etc.

When it comes to portrait lenses I have a different opinion than the standard wisdom. I like a 200 mm lens for portrait work, especially candid portraits, assuming 35 mm film, maybe 135 or so for an APS size format like most current DSLRs. I like to get in close, get the face, and throw the background out of the frame and or out of focus, and a longer lens really helps here.

Film comes in different types, color, B&W, slide, print, pro grade, consumer grade, different color balances such as indoor, outdoor, portraiture, etc. This is something fun to explore. Lower ASA (do they still use that term?) usually means finer grain and higher resolution but longer exposure times. There was and is nothing quite like the now discontinued Kodachrome. You will see lots of different opinions on this but it is best to explore yourself. Just some caveats though, getting proper development of some films can be a bit more expensive and pro films usually have short shelf lives and do best under refrigeration.
posted by caddis at 7:29 AM on October 18, 2010

Your local school district may offer adult/continuing education photography classes. It is a great affordable way to get into a darkroom and meet folks who enjoy traditional photography.
posted by woodjockey at 7:52 AM on October 18, 2010

Expose for the shadows, not the highlights--unless you are using slide film. The dynamic range (difference between the highlights and shadows) of color and b&w film far surpasses digital, so if your exposure is a little off you might still be okay. Digital has the advantage of being able to change the ISO speed constantly, with film you will need to think about the lighting conditions beforehand to make sure you have the right speed film in your camera.

I don't see a need to get a light meter since the meter in those EOS cameras is pretty decent. That being said, try a bunch of different films, color negative, slide, and b&w. Developing your own black and white film is easy to do at home and is worth it. My favorite film right now is ados cms 20. And keep your film in the fridge!
posted by inertia at 8:12 AM on October 18, 2010

Read Ansel Adams series of books, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Buy them if you can. They are an indispensable guide written by a master photographer and will get you in the mindset of how the three operate together.
posted by JJ86 at 8:22 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Set the camera to manual metering and learn the relationships between film speed, aperture, and shutter speed. Take good notes regarding the settings you use with each shot, so you can reference the results with the settings.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the helpful comments everyone! I probably should have clarified that I do already shoot only in manual, but I'm used to it in a digital context where you shoot and shoot and it doesn't matter if you get a few hundred duds. Really useful stuff, thanks very much everyone.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:42 AM on October 18, 2010

Get a tripod if you don't have one; they open up new classes of photography that aren't possible handheld.

After that - shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. Spend your money on film and paper, not camera stuff.
posted by scose at 10:48 AM on October 18, 2010

If you want to digitize your film captures you're faced with two alternatives: get the lab to scan them for you when the film is developed (which ttends to be expensive), or scan them yourself (which can be laborious). Either way it will cost you time or money.

I've enjoyed trying out a bunch of different film types: unfortunately the variety of film on sale is likely to lessen further as demand continues to decrease - there's something to be said for just trying it out for size while you can still get it! Remember that film has a shelf-life (which can be extended by keeping it in the freezer).

All being well, you'll eventually want to think about how to store all the negatives you're accumulating: film-sleeves and folders and boxes are available for this. Remember to handle your negatives carefully, and keep dust off them if you can (always a losing battle for me).

Developing your own film at home may seem daunting: it's a whole new learning curve, so you may want to just hand it in to the lab at first. But it's very rewarding when you get the hang of it.

And as Gortuk says, make sure your film is actually advancing!
posted by misteraitch at 11:50 AM on October 18, 2010

but I'm used to it in a digital context where you shoot and shoot and it doesn't matter if you get a few hundred duds.

If you're looking to film for that limitation, I've also heard of people intentionally using a small memory card chosen to have about the same capacity as a roll of film. If you or a friend doesn't have one lying around from the days when memory cards were smaller and more expensive, you should be able to snag one on eBay for a few dollars.
posted by JiBB at 11:54 AM on October 18, 2010

One thing not mentioned yet - exposure bracketing. Modern digital cameras will do this automatically, as will I am sure the EOS you contemplate. You can also do it manually, take a shot one or one half stop below and above what your meter or whatever says is the proper exposure. It seems to be a lost art in digital as if the scene is tricky you can just check the shot after you take it. When you don't get to see the results for days a little insurance can help.
posted by caddis at 3:49 AM on October 19, 2010

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