One of the beautiful things about shooting film is that it’s simple. When you shoot digital, you take the photos first, then you decide how to edit them, and then you still have to actually do the editing work. But when you shoot film, the finished look of your photos depends on the film stock you choose and how you meter. So you take the photos first and then send the film to the lab for processing. When your prints are in your hand, they are finished and require no further editing. Because film stock has such a big influence on the look of your finished prints, choosing your film stock is one of the most important steps in this process! There are so many choices of film stock that I couldn’t even list them all here. I’m going to share some of my favorite film stocks later, but it’s important for you to find your own voice and look. My advice then is to experiment with several different film stocks.
Shooting film requires plenty of trial and error, but the best way to find your style is to try, try, try. Nix the film stocks you don’t love and slowly narrow your favorites over time. You might be tempted to use a certain film stock because someone else uses it and you like their work, but you’ll have the most success (and fun!) when you experiment, take notes, and make mistakes. This is how you learn. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a very rewarding process. I promise!
Choosing the right film stock is important, but how you meter also affects your finished prints. Film for the most part needs to be overexposed and by “rating” your film, you change your ISO to give a degree of overexposure to achieve the look you want. Film needs light, so if it’s underexposed, there is no saving it. Always err on the side of caution, and remember that overexposing is always better than underexposing.
Nikon FM3a - This camera is great for beginners and current Nikon shooters. If you already own Nikon lenses, they will work with the FM3a. It’s not a camera you’ll outgrow anytime soon. Production of this camera stopped in 2006, but you can still grab a used body for around $900.
Canon AE-1 - These cameras were made in the late 70’s/early 80’s, so you can only purchase them used. This a great starter film camera for Canon shooters or anyone on a tight budget. You can find this camera used for around $100.
Canon EOS-3 - Production ceased on this camera in 2007, but it’s still fairly easy to get your hands on one for under $300. This is a step up from the AE-1 as it does spot metering. It’s also great if you plan to really dive into film or shoot film for clients. It’s also a fantastic body for Canon shooters because you can use your Canon lenses with it.
Pentax 645n - This is a medium format camera that’s perfect for photographers who want to shoot medium format but don’t have a small fortune to invest in equipment or don’t want to make a huge commitment. You can purchase this camera used for around $900.
Contax 645 - This is an incredible medium format film camera that many pro photographers lust after. This camera requires a serious financial commitment.
Light meter recommendations
Sekonic L308-S - This is a good light meter for beginners and hobbyists. It meters incident, reflected, and flash light, all for under $200.
Sekonic L758-DR - This is the all-the-bells-and-whistles light meter. It’s perfect for pro photographers who have a solid handle on lighting and will use it often. This light meter is right around $600.
Ektar 100 – Great for landscapes, bright light. Very saturated color and sharp. Not always the best for portraits, produces a red skin tone. Rate at box speed.
Portra 160 – Superb for portraits. Very fine grain and also looks great indoors pushed. Rate it at 320 and push +1. If shooting outdoors, rate it at 100.
Portra 400 – Perfect if you like warmer images with color and contrast. Rate at box speed or overexpose 1 step. When I shoot Portra, I rate at 320. Looks good indoors too. Solid all purpose film. It does have a yellow tone to it, especially if you overexpose it, so be careful with that. Don’t shoot it like you do Fuji 400.
Portra 800 – Needs a good light source when used indoors. Looks good rated at 640 indoors. If you use this film as the sun is setting and your subjects are backlit, overexpose by 1 stop. I rate it at 400-640 when I shoot outdoors in good light.
Fuji 400H – This is my favorite although it needs lots of light. I usually rate my film at 200 and then expose for the shadows. Very soft colors with little contrast. Not my favorite for indoors if you don’t have great light. BUT, if you do have good light, it’s so pretty! I don’t like to push Fuji; there is just too much contrast for me.
Black and White
T-Max & Tri-x - I love these for the fine grain and the tones. Easy film to push even to +2. Rate at box speed. Meter for the highlights, not the shadows.
Ilford 3200 – I love this film for dark rooms, and I love to rate it at 800-1600 and shoot backlight indoors.
I recommend that you shoot each of these different stocks and experiment for yourselves. Take notes. Write down each stock, the conditions of the light (bright, overcast, open shade, backlight), the time of day you shoot it, and what your settings were. This is how you are going to be able to determine what you like and how you want to shoot it. Again, you can use another photographer’s work for a base, but you have to be the one to make the decision on what you like and how you like to shoot. Just with digital, I feel that you need to find your own voice. Practice will help you do that.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all the info I’ve just shared with you, remember that shooting film is a learning process, and you can start slowly with minimal gear. I want you to use this article to help guide you through the process. It’s a journey toward creating art with depth and love. I hope you’ll find as much joy in the journey itself as I have. And now friends, it’s time to get started.
HOW TO JUMP FROM DIGITAL TO FILM IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS
Not too long ago, everyone was making the jump from film to digital, and now it seems, many photographers are going back to film. Photography is about creating art that has feeling, and shooting film has a nostalgic feeling that brings a certain depth to our art. Making the switch from shooting digital to shooting film in your photography business takes time, so don’t be tempted to make the jump overnight! It took me two full years to make the transition, but it’s been one of the best decisions that I ever made.
Ready to make the switch?
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From a very early age I loved taking pictures and looking at them in magazines and books, but the art of photography captured my heart when I was a teenager, on my first overseas trip to Wales. From that point, I began shooting with a little film SLR and having my friend model for me. In college I took some digital photography and visual communication courses as part of my communication studies major, and decided to pursue a career in photography. I became a legal business and took my first paid client at age 20, and it's been quite a journey and adventure over the past nine years.
I secretly bought a mail-order 35mm camera when I was 15, and took lots of ordinary photos of animals and nature for several years. Although I majored in art and studied photography in college, my career started in marketing and advertising, from the client service end. Then I had the most beautiful baby, found my old camera and realized how much I love photographing people.