Analogue Photography - Where to Start?

A beginners guide

So, you've decided to take the plunge and give film photography a try? Good stuff. The question now is, where to start? There is a tonne of information available to help and the more of it you read the more likely you are to find yourself confused. I suggest keeping it simple and basic.

Let's start with a camera and lens. You are going to need to shop around for second hand gear, that means finding a used camera shop or eBay, Market Place, etc. Buying from a store, including online stores, can be safer as you will probably get a short warranty period - they can also be more expensive.

A lot of people will start out with a point and shoot camera. It's not a bad option and will give you the film look on an easy to shoot, automatic camera. You're not really going to get the full film experience though, also, most P&S cameras are not repairable. If anything goes wrong you have just bought a paperweight.

Buying a camera

A 35mm manual SLR body is an obvious choice for a first camera. It doesn't really matter which brand or model but stick to the more well known, such as: Pentax, Nikon, Minolta, Canon, or Olympus. It may be easier to get these brands serviced and repaired, parts will be easier to find and you will find a wider range of lenses available.

An alternative to the SLR is a rangefinder camera. The biggest difference between the two is that, in the case of the rangefinder, you are not looking through the lens. You will look through a window to frame your shot, the rangefinder is a contraption that measures the distance to the subject and helps you set focus to that distance.

If you are happy to spend a bit more money there is no reason to not jump right in to medium format. Medium format cameras use 120 film and come in a variety of types, including: SLR (Single Lens Reflex), TLR (Twin Lens Reflex), and rangefinders. These cameras are larger and heavier than 35mm versions but produce bigger and more detailed negatives.

Testing a camera

If you are testing a camera, check the outside of the body for dents or cracks or signs that the camera may have been dropped or otherwise damaged. The odd bit of cosmetic damage won't affect its use, some people actually like the worn look. Open the back and inspect inside the camera to make sure it is clean and free of scratches/marks. Check that the foam light seals are undamaged and not brittle. Check inside the battery compartment (if it has one) for signs of corrosion. Fire the shutter at several different shutter speeds to make sure it doesn't stick at any speed. If the camera has a light meter point it at both light and dark objects to make sure the needle or lights respond. None of these tests are going to be in any way accurate, you're just trying to confirm that the camera functions.

Remember, you are buying a mechanical device that is probably at least 25 years old, a certain amount of wear should be expected. A used camera may need a CLA (Clean, Lubricate, Adjust) service and may also need the light seals replaced.

Choosing a film camera

Choosing a film camera


Quite often you'll be able to pick up a lens with a camera body. I suggest starting with just one standard prime lens, I'll explain why later. So, for a 35mm camera look for something in the 35-50mm range or, for a medium format, 75-105mm. Generally, the larger the maximum aperture the better.

Testing a lens

Inspect the outside of the lens for any signs of damage, particularly chips or scratches in the front or rear glass elements or any damage around the filter thread. Turn the aperture ring, the aperture blades should be quite snappy in their movement, look for oil on the blades (oil on the blades is not good). Turn the focus ring, it should be smooth to operate. Open the aperture to its widest f-stop, point the lens at a light and look through it. A bit of dust in the lens is quite common and shouldn't be a problem. You don't want to see fungus, haze or balsam separation (dull or blurry patches) though. If possible, fit the lens to your body and confirm that it works as expected. Some of these issues can be fixed but don't bother, you will find a better one.



Choose a film

There are many different films on the market. Each film stock has its own look and, in time, you should try lots of different films to find the ones you like best. For now though, keep your decision to either colour or black and white. Rather than give you a long list of options, I'm just going to recommend two quality films for each. All of the options are negative films, there are others but we're keeping this simple and negative film is more forgiving.

For colour film try either Kodak Portra 400 (great skin tones) or Kodak Ektar 100 (more vibrant colours).

For black and white, Ilford HP5 Plus (400 ISO) would be my first choice or, Kodak Tmax 400 if you prefer more contrast. My personal favourite is Fujifilm Acros 100 but it's expensive so I don't use it often.

Film should be stored in the refrigerator, take it out and let it come to room temperature before you load it in your camera. If you buy a lot of film and aren't going to shoot it for some time, keep it in the freezer.

Developing and scanning

I absolutely recommend developing and scanning your own film at home, in time. In the short term I suggest using a film lab. If there are problems with your negatives you don't have to worry about development or scanning being the issue. It narrows the diagnosis to a camera fault or incorrect exposure. Most larger cities will have a lab otherwise most labs offer a mail service. You post them your film, they develop it and upload the scans to a website like Drop Box. Whichever lab you use make sure that they will return your negatives.

I will put together a post about home development in the near future.

Take a methodical approach

As someone starting out in film photography you need to be aware that there are many things that can go wrong. Cutting the variables down to the minimum is one way to help you achieve expected and repeatable results.

At the beginning, stick with one camera and one lens, only use one film stock, and have your films developed and scanned at the same lab. The more simple you keep your approach the easier it will be to produce consistent results.

When you are confident that you know what you are going to get after you click the shutter button it's time to change one of the variables. Add a new lens to your kit, try some different films, have a crack at developing your own. I'm sure that if you take your time and take a methodical approach, you'll be getting great results quickly.

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