Capturing Time: The Beginner's Journey Through Film Photography

Film is a tiny, diminishing mote in an ever-expanding digital universe that threatens to drown it out. But its renaissance heart still beats – like a knight from a Monty Python sketch. It’s just a flesh wound! The appeal of analogue lives on. This guide is for anyone curious to try this game-old means of capturing light and turning it in to picture, vinyl-style. If you seized up the first time you held a vintage camera, here’s a gentle grasp of the basics. If you’re a discerning photographer who used to shoot film but feels queasy around advanced digital models, this signals the path back home.

Choosing Your Time Capsule: Selecting a Film Camera

The way into the analog world is through a film camera – the simplest, most organic and utterly unique analog machines we use to record light. For newcomers to film:

  • KODAK EKTAR H35 ($44) Let your introduction to film photography be with this little half-frame number, which allows you to squeeze double the memories onto every roll. You needn’t even read the stickers on the buttons, since this camera is so simple to operate.
  • OLYMPUS STYLUS (About $100 used): simple, sturdy, barely workable at all. In the Stylus series, everything gets in the way so you can get nothing in.
  • CANON AE-1 (From $150 used): For those who enjoy the satisfying, meaty function of manual controls, the AE-1 is a solid bridge between user input and photographic output, its lenses often serving as a starting point for exploration.

The Choices in Your Palette: Selecting Film Stocks

Armed with a camera, the next step is loading film – your canvas – and the options have never been greater:

  • Colour Film: split into positive (slide) and negative with a different view of the world to show. Positive film, with its bright saturation is unforgiving, while negative film, with its broad dynamic range, forgives and flatters.
  • – Black-and-White Film: If it’s the drama of light and dark you’re after, your options for classic black-and-white film will likely be endless: stocks such as Tri-X and Ilford’s HP5 offer a mix of grain, contrast and versatility.

Composing Landscapes and Portraits: Film Types for Every Subject

The choice of film is something you will want to pick for yourself, but some stocks have earned their fame for particular subjects:

  • Landscapes: Fujifilm’s Fujichrome Velvia 50 has the most vivid colour saturation, making it a classic nature shooter. Subjects feel less cool in Kodak’s E100, but with more nuance.
  • Portraits: The end of Fujifilm 160 Pro will force portrait photographers toward Kodak Portra 160, which renders skin tones beautifully in a number of ISOs, which correspond to different light levels.

Navigating the Development Maze

Something lost when the neighbourhood darkroom was replaced by the mail-order lab: if you can find a few that you like, you can deepen your relationship with the work, and help move the process in a direction you want. Photographers I respect use labs such Richard Photo Lab, or Dwayne’s Photo in the US; or The Darkroom in the UK. The results have that quality you hope for, and often get, in the work of a professional lab, with the addition of a sense that the development is part of the process, a means, not an end with its own set of hurdles to surmount.

Embracing the Analog Process: Learning to Shoot Film

it is an enormous unit of learning, and each time you move the lever to click the shutter, you’re learning how to take a picture, and you will keep learning and growing, all the way through the last frame of film you ever shoot. There are obviously lots of books and guides out there for anyone wanting to learn more about film photography. I greatly admire David Vestal’s easy-to-read and reliable guides, starting with The Shutter Speed Guide, on how to take pictures of moving subjects, to The Photographers’s Tricks of the Trade for just about any trick or technique you might want to know about. The two classics of photography theory and technique are Ansel Adams’ The Negative and The Print and The Camera, both written in the 1940s. But a significant part of why film photography is still exciting and alive today is that it is a hands-on experience. You learn to take a photograph by actually taking photographs, and to develop a photograph you actually develop it, and to think about a photograph, you actually look at it.

Understanding the Language of Film Photography

It isn’t just about learning a series of mechanical processes, but connecting with a more sensory, more tactile way of making images. It’s a world where terms such as ISO, aperture and shutter speed are the language of imagemaking, where concepts such as emulsion and grain texture inform our visual sensibilities.

In Conclusion: The Timeless Appeal of Film Cameras

There is nothing to suggest that the analogue resurgence is about backward-looking, retro narcissism: on the contrary, it’s a love letter to the grace of error and the structure of reactivity, a reminder that the second-panel analogy is never fully completed – the things we ‘take’ to the sauna always return disfigured, bet on colour film, black-and-white. The film camera is a conduit to the finitude of hand-labour, an imperfect mechanical box for the manipulation of light in the material world. It might be a simple machine with real, bodily parts, but it has a lot to teach us about how we see, and how we might slow down, think, look and take the world.

Jun 17, 2024
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