The PhotoRant School of Film Photography

Starting with Film:
A Barebones Primer for Digital Shooters

True Story:

My celphone rings, I answer. The voice on the other end asks me: "I forget again, is a higher f-stop number for higher shutter speeds, or is it higher shutter speeds for higher f-stops?"

This isn't a call from a dummy, it's from a good, younger, photographer whose work has been done almost exclusively with automated equipment — mostly digital — and she's trying to shoot manually using my hardy old Canon Elan 7E.

"Think of them as balancing each other." I say, " higher shutter speed, lower f-stop. If you go for a lower shutter speed you get a higher f-stop. One goes up, the other goes down. Balance."

"I can never remember that."

"The camera can show you, too. Just put it in 'P' mode for a second, and tell me what the exposure says."

"Umm, 125 and 5.6"

"Okay, now while you're looking through the finder, turn the little wheel next to the shutter release — the one in front — back and forth."

"Oh, okay — hey that's weird. Now it's 60 and 8."

"That's right: lower shutter, higher f-stop. The overall amount of light is the same, but the way the camera reads it changes. A smaller lens opening, but open for twice as long..."

"Uh, yeah, whatever. Okay, bye" *click*


Film for Digital Shooters, in Five Minutes or Less

For whatever reason, occasionally photographers raised on digital want to try out the Old School Wet Stuff: film. So this entry is dedicated to help them get going. It assumes you already have some clue about how to use your digital camera, but you may never have been around a film camera. Ever.

I won't go on about why you might want to shoot on film. There are lots of possibilities, including the ability to get great, quiet, durable and lightweight equipment cheaply; simple curiosity; your uncle gave you his old camera; you feel a need to master the craft; you love the way it looks; you've realized that even today almost all high-end fine art photographers shoot film; you're a nostalgia freak. Whatever. All good enough reasons. Rather, this page is designed to help you get started ASAP.


Film comes in varying sizes Bigger film gives more detail but costs more and needs a larger camera. The most common film is 35mm film, found at drugstores and supermarkets everywhere, and that's what this page will focus on.

If you want to shoot 35mm, then your camera choices are excellent and very inexpensive these days because of the huge number of cameras sold over the years. The newest of 35mm SLRs can be had for a song (I bought my last mint Canon Elan 7E for $80 — even new 35mm SLRs are surprisingly inexpensive) and functionally, they're extremely similar to digital SLRs (that Elan and my 5D are surprisingly alike, right down to the placement of all major buttons). If you're not just borrowing your uncle's old Pentax, look at Craigslist or somewhere similar, you don't need to spend a fortune to get a fantastic camera.

Pretty much any camera made by any of the big makers will be very capable: Canon, Pentax, Nikon, Contax, Olympus, Minolta... If you have a DSLR, you might want to buy into the same system. But they're all pretty decent.

You might be delighted to realize that a 35mm SLR is almost always a lot lighter than a digital. Count it as a bonus: no big batteries or circuitry to lunk around.


B&W or color? Slide or print? In general, if you are shooting color film then slides will give you the Biggest Color, though they will be more expensive and take longer at most labs. B&W film is a favorite both for its unique look and because, if you have a mind to, it's the easiest and cheapest to process (and potentially print) by yourself.

Most drugstores sell rolls of film with 24 exposures to the roll. Some will sell 36-exposure varieties. I recommend the latter, it's cheaper (per-picture) and you won't hit the end of a roll as often.

Some film photographers (even pros) advocate buying whatever film is cheapest. If you make the mistake of asking on, you'll also find plenty of people who are super picky about exactly which brand of film does what. A good idea is to pick ONE film and stick with it, at least for a few rolls. Buy the same kind each time and then you'll be on your way to ensuring that your results are predictable. Some people like to buy lots of kinds and try everything. YMMV, but I think that's a lot of wasted effort.

Film has one ISO setting for the entire roll. It's set at the factory. Kodak "Tri-X" is ISO 400 and that's the speed you get for every shot (assuming you don't do anything weird in the developing). This can throw some digital photographers, who are used to changing the ISO in different lighting conditions. Not so with film! When you go outside or come inside, you don't change the ISO. You have one ISO, and you need to adjust the exposure setting to deal with that fact. This fact is why I recommend Kodak Tri-X (or the equivalent Ilford HP5+ or Fuji Neopan 400 (called "Presto" in Japan)) because they are ISO 400 which is a pretty good all-around ISO for both in and out (follow the links to see what the packages look like, if you're unsure).

If you know you won't process it yourself: Kodak and Ilford make B&W films specifically for processing at drugstore one-hour labs. Kodak B&W, aka 'BW400CN" and Ilford XP2 are identical to Tri-X and HP5+, in terms of basic exposure and so forth. Unlike those other films, you can get these two processed at the corner — they're actually color films with the color desaturated so that they make a B&W picture. "Traditional," Tri-X-style films use different chemicals that the corner drugstore won't have — those films will most likely have to be sent out, will take a week, and will cost more.

All of the kinds of film mentioned so far are black and white. If you want to shoot color, be aware that there is no auto white balance for film. The white balance of the entire roll, like the ISO, will be the same, and it will almost surely be daylight balance. Shooting in black and white avoids this initial pitfall.

Loading film into the camera is usually pretty simple. When you get your camera, have a roll of film with you and ask the seller or loaner to show you how it's done. Some cameras will do it automatically, others require you to thread the film onto a little plastic spool and wind the lever with your thumb. Do it once & you're unlikely to ever forget.

When you load the film, be sure to set the ISO on the camera! Some cameras can do this automatically but many cannnot. If you shoot a roll of ISO 400 film with the camera set to ISO 100, all your photos will be blown-out over-exposures. Likewise if you go the other way, your photos will be dark masses of under-exposure.


If you are using a newer camera, chances are that the exposure is just as automated as on your digital camera. Just set to "P" or "Av" etc and get on with shooting. No surprises here.

You can also set things manually. The shuftter speeds on older cameras are usually on the body, and the f-stops will be set by a ring on the lens itself. For newer SLRs like Canon EOS, the camera body will set both (just like the DSLRs). A few cameras (like older Canons or Contaxes) will also have a f-stop marked "A" which allows the camera to be used in auto-exposure mode. The lens may have a little safety button to keep you from inadvertently switching in and out of "A" — just press it while twisting the ring.

All but the very oldest SLRs have meters. Sometimes the batteries are hard to find. If your meter is good, skip forward. If your camera is older, or you want to be more self-reliant, use the manual settings and remember, first and foremost, the Sunny 16 rule:

The Sunny 16 Rule
For any given ISO, on a sunny day, set the shutter speed to the number closest to that ISO, and the f-stop to f/16.
On cloudy days, open two stops to f/8. For people and objects in "hard" shade on a sunny day, go down to f/5.6

As mentioned above, the shutter/f-stop combinations can be rearranged by balancing increase in one with decrease in the other — 1/500 at f/16 can be adjusted easily, say, to 1/1000 at f/11 (one click for most shutters and most lenses), or 1/250 at f22 (likewise) — all will deliver the same total amount of light to the film.

The cool thing about Sunny 16 is that you don't need a light meter. This actually works great for digital cameras, too. Camera companies put the light meter in to make sure people don't entirely screw up, but it's not necessary.

In fact, if you look inside the box of many film rolls (or sometimes on the outside of the box), those expsoures are printed right there.

Here's a little table. Indoor lighting varies, sunshine is always the same. And if you're always shooting in the same indoor location (say, at home), the exposure will always be the same, too. There are really only two key values to more-or-less remember: Sunny-16 (and open up for shade and clouds) and a genral "interior" value (offices and commercial lighting will be a bit brighter than that). Works for me, anyway.

Typical for ISO 400 films
Condition Shutter
Outside on a Sunny Day 500 16
In the shade on a Sunny Day 250 8
Cloudy Day, no Shadows 250 11
Heavy Overcast Day 250 8
Indoors, Most Homes 30 2.8
Indoors, Typical Office 60 2.8
Onstage, Rock Show 125 2.8


Got the idea? Go ahead and shoot your film!

When you reach the end of the roll: the exposed film needs to be wound back inside the little can. Some cameras will do this automatically. Others, of the hand-wound variety, need to have the film cranked-back by hand. There will be a little winder on one side of the camera, and a button to press (usually on the bottom of the camera) that will release the internal film gears so that you can rewind it into the can. Once the button is pressed the rewind crank will turn smoothly. Never force. If it's not turning easily, then there must be something awry. Check with someone who knows, rather than either tearing your film or worse, accidentally opening the camera without the film being rewound safely back into the can (an event which will destroy ALL your pictures from the roll). Never open the camera back until you're done rewinding!

When fully rewound, that little "tongue" of film that was showing when you first got the film will also be rewound into the can. This is as it should be. Unexposed rolls have a bit of film sticking out, but exposed ones do not.

For more on exposure than is humanly sensible to know, check out Wikipedia.


Once your film is safely rewound you can take the can out and have it processed.

If you want to do it yourself, I suggest looking at some tutorial sites like Roger & Frances or bw-photography. Processing B&W yourself is a satisfying passtime, it's lots cheaper than using a lab, and ulitimately it can give you more flexibility. You also need a little special equipment, some chemicals from the camera store, and a lot of patience with tiny specks of dust.

The lab is usually quick, clean, and very dependable. You may want to let them do your first rolls even if you plan to build a darkroom (you don't have to build a darkroom if you just want to process the film but print on computer, BTW -- you can do everything dark in a special black cloth bag, and process the film in your kitchen. But that's a whole extra web page).

If you shoot color prints, the average lab will most-likely auto-correct all the color for you at printing time. Modern print machines are actually elaborate scanners and printers attached to a hidden computer. They apply their own version of automatic white balance, and it can look very good. This automation helps two people: you, the photographer, and also the person at the drugstore who runs the machine, who probably knows a lot less about photography than you already do.

(If you want only the negatives (say, you have access to a film scanner), the turnaround can be faster than one-hour. Since there's no printing, your film can be ready in about 20 minutes and usually for a lot less than printing would cost.)

Your prints will be returned along with the negatives. Keep the negatives clean and dry, they scratch easily. You may notice that the pictures in your prints are slightly cropped-in from the negatives. This is typical for drugstore labs. If you go to a camera-store or pro lab, they'll crop or not crop any way you like to any size you please. They'll charge you, of course.

That's it! You've shot your first roll. Ready for another?


There are a few topics not touched at all here. Like shooting 120-format film (in a Holga, say, or a Rollei), SLR versus Rangefinder, large format view cameras, etc. Fortunately, all film cameras work in very similar ways. Start with 35mm and you'll quickly figure out anything else that might come along.

Follow-on Links: Want more info? Try the MediaJoy classic camera site for more photos of film cameras and their usage, and the Edwin Leong's CameraHobby for a more comprehensive film-camera photo course.

February 27, 2007





Comments on "The PhotoRant School of Film Photography"

February 28, 2007 03:50 AM

Nice write-up... funny to think that this is totally non-obvious to people nowadays.


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