How to shoot film

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Recently I was turned down for a job because I didn't shoot film. Yes, recently. 2017.

It wasn't a magazine or billboard shoot. It was a pretty, styled shoot for a wedding planner to use on her Instagram and website.

I had to ask a couple of times if I was hearing right - she wanted me to shoot film? Actual film like we used to back in the day? Yes, that's right. Why? Because that's the look she wanted. 

What look? Faded, yellow Kodak from the 1970s? Overblown colours from the 1980s? Super-saturated Velvia? Grainy X-Pro? No, none of these. Not actual film. Just a kind of idealised, slightly faded, "film look". 

I explained I could create this in editing for half the price and with twice the quality, but no. Not good enough. Not authentic.

Why shoot film?

I took my first photograph around about 1980. I got my first camera in 1983. I saved every penny of pocket money for film and processing. I wept in frustration when I realised I had made mistakes when it was too late to go back and reshoot. It took me months, years, to master exposure because of the feedback delay. I rationed my roll of 36 shots carefully throughout a holiday, sometimes not shooting at all so I would have a couple of shots left for the last day.

If I had had a digital camera back then I would not have believed it - you can actually see what the photo looks like straight after you've taken it? You can delete it and try again? It doesn't cost anything at all to take another photo? Nothing? No more money at all? You can fit HOW MANY photos on a card? 500? WHAT? 

So why - why would you want to go back to shooting film?

Since that request for a throwback film shoot, a few people have asked me to teach them how to shoot film. 35mm film, on 35mm cameras. I'm delighted to be asked, and I can explain how to do it in less than 5 minutes (see below). I've noticed film is having a weird come-back, and I'm still trying to get to the bottom of why. I think there are 2 main reasons, one is (in my opinion) misguided, and the other is not:

1. People think it's better or more authentic

Better quality? Sharper images? Not unless you're shooting for a billboard or a magazine. And they'll have to be converted to digital anyway for digital print so you're better off just using a better quality digital camera. In my opinion. The only truly authentic images in this sense are where it is analogue end to end: actual negative to fine art print, with no digital conversion in between.

2. People fancy a challenge

This is a great reason to try it, as long as you know your analogue images are not going to be magically "better" than digital. I still knit the old fashioned way because it's more satisfying than a perfect machine knit. I write letters with a pen because it's more personal than the typewriter that is quicker and neater. If you want to try shooting film because you want to try it the old-fashioned way, then jump right in.

How to shoot film

Don't hate me, but there's absolutely no difference between shooting film and shooting digital, except for loading the film into the camera.

The camera is mechanically exactly the same. Exactly. You use shutter speed, aperture and ISO to control the exposure, the only difference being you can't check on your LCD that you've got it right. You have to send your film off for processing and wait to see if you got it right.

How to load film

If you have a 35mm camera in front of you, and a roll of film, and you have no clue what to do, this is the step by step:

1. Check there is no film in the camera already. If there is, rewind it (check the manual), and take it out. Send it for processing. Wait. Forget what you had taken photos of. Be surprised when they come back - who are these people? Why did you take this shot?

2. Load your film. Check the manual - depending how automatic your camera is, you will either pull a bit of the film out, close the back and the camera does the rest, or you have to wind it on by hand, carefully counting frames as you go.

3. Work out what exposure you need. Just the same as with a digital camera. If you have a 35mm camera with a built in light meter (auto exposure), it will do this for you - you just have to know whether to override the auto exposure. The same as with a digital camera. If you don't have a built in light meter, you'll need to use a hand held meter, or fall back on your years of experience.

If you need help with the exposure part, or the manual settings, join my free beginner's photography workshop here and I'll get you started:

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4. Take your shot. Bracket if you're nervous. Get used to not being able to chimp each shot (checking it on the LCD). Remember you can't change the ISO until you change your film. Gradually start to enjoy the way you find yourself focussing all your attention on the shot in hand, because you only have 36 shots on your roll and you don't want to waste them. 

5. Finish your film, rewind it. Send it off for processing. Wait by the letterbox for that magic packet of photos to drop through. Allow yourself a little smugness for having done it the hard way.


If you enjoy the process of making a photograph, if you want to be disciplined about exposure, if you want to focus your attention, I think you will enjoy film photography. 

For me, I could've dug out my Hassleblad, or my Canon AE-1, and taken the styled shoot commission. But I just didn't fancy it. I've done my time shooting film, and I would not go back to it for anything. 

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