How to Shoot Film

Why would anyone bother shooting obsolete film cameras in the current digital era? Simple: film looks great, it's a boatload of fun and can be an incredibly liberating experience. Perhaps you feel like returning to film after a hiatus with digital, or perhaps you might be young enough that you've never even shot a film camera. Either way, you might feel like partying like it's 1985, and need some pointers on how to get the most of your camera.


  1. 1
    Get yourself a camera. This is the easy part; people are literally giving them away in the digital era. If you can't scavenge one for free, and don't have the time and inclination to research the many different kinds of film cameras, look for any 35mm film SLR from one of the major manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Pentax and friends). Read the manual for the very basics of operation, like how to load and unload the film, how to focus, and so on.
  2. 2
    Get yourself some film. There's little point in economizing here by using the very-cheap-and-less-than-cheerful consumer films (even though these can get great results if you know what you're doing). Treat yourself to expensive professional film; if you feel bad about doing this, cheer yourself up by calculating how much film you could buy and process for the cost of a professional digital SLR.

    • Colour negative films, like the Fujicolor C200 used here, can be developed and scanned almost anywhere.
      Get a color negative (print) film if you are concerned about the availability and cost of developing and scanning. Even in the digital era, nearly every town of some size will have at least one place you can get this done. Also, colour negative film has enormous latitude for overexposure.
    • This was shot on Fuji Velvia, a film renowned for its vivid colours.
      Get a slide (reversal) film if you care about colour, and don't care too much about the cost and availability of developing and scanning. Slide films have much better and accurate colour rendition (if only because there is only one accurate way of rendering the colour in a particular slide). On the other hand, professional labs that run the E-6 process used for nearly all slide films are much less common, and tend to be more expensive. You'll also find that it's much, much easier to screw up exposure on a slide film.
    • Black-and-white film, like this Tri-X 400, has a look all its own.
      Go for black and white if you like the look of it. Traditional black-and-white film is, again, more difficult and expensive to get developed than colour negative film (but is easier to scan than slide film). On the other hand, you can develop it yourself if playing with fun chemicals is your thing.

      There's a special subset of black-and-white films: those that can be developed in the same C-41 process used for color negatives. Alford XP2 and Kodak BW400CN are two of them.
    • Try as many films as you can until you find one that fits your style.
      Try as many different films as you can until you find one, or a few, that fit your style, and the kinds of pictures you take. You might even find yourself liking the cheaper films better than the expensive ones. This is fine.
  3. 3
    Get out there into the big blue room. Shooting film should be liberating; a break from playing with digital camera settings and constantly second-guessing yourself by looking at your LCD all the time. Don't put yourself back in chains again by taking a whole lot of junk you don't need. This is the biggest disincentive to getting out there, and a huge disincentive to moving around if you do. Strip your kit down to the very bare essentials:

    • A single, fast fixed 50mm lens like this 50mm f/1.8 is about the only lens you'll need most of the time.
      Take a single lens with you. Even if you own many more, it's good practice to take a single lens and make the best of it. It doesn't even matter which lens you take, though a fixed, fast 50mm lens is about the only one you'll need most of the time.
    • Take a spare film in your pocket. Or don't bother if you're already loaded up with a fresh one. Put more thought into your shots rather than burning through your film as quickly as possible.
    • Leave everything else at home. Don't bother with other junk, like a bag (other than for drinks and snacks), or a tripod, or flash guns, or add-on motor winders, or a digital camera. If you've got your gear down to what fits over your shoulder and in your pockets, you've got the perfect setup.
  4. 4
    Take photographs. This is art, and nobody can tell you what to do here. You can, however, take a few steps to make your photographs less snapshot-ish and more like things other people would like to see. (for more, see How to Take Better Photographs and How to Develop Your Photography Skills).

    • Shot with an Olympus Trip 35, a fully-automatic point-and shoot camera, loaded with Velvia.
      Stick your camera in a fully-automatic mode, if you have one. Automate everything you can if you don't. Automation exists for a reason: it lets you concentrate on getting the important parts of your shot right rather than concentrating on technical trivia like exposure that cameras can guess more accurately than you can most of the time.
    • Move around all the time. Don't take boring pictures at your normal eye level. If you have to crawl on the ground to make it interesting, do that (it's what washing machines were made for). Always get as low and close to your subject as you can.
    • Simplify your shot as much as you can.
      Think before you shoot. Ask yourself: what can I remove from this shot to simplify it? What am I conveying here? (Think colour, texture, repetition, contrasts, etc.) "Is this shot just a boring snapshot of nothing that anyone else would take?"
    • Don't second guess yourself. Don't worry about whether the shot you just took is exposed and focused properly. If it looked good through the viewfinder, and your camera thought your exposure was about right, move on to the next shot. You've got no LCD to nag you after each shot (although you may find yourself looking at the back of the camera out of habit). Chances are good that you got it right.
  5. 5
    Go home. Unload your film and stick it in the fridge, then kick back and relax. There's nothing else you need to do; that is another of the joys of shooting film.
  6. 6
    Get your film developed and scanned. Nearly all labs will toast a CD for you with high-quality scans of your pictures for a small additional charge. Do this. There's no reason for you to scan them yourself. Not only does this put additional effort into the process (which is bad); it's also likely that their scans will be much better than what you could do with all but the most expensive of dedicated film scanners.
  7. 7
    Pick out the best of your photos and put them online. Owing to the extra effort that you put in to making each shot worth the developing cost, you'll likely have many more great photographs than you did shooting digital, so show them off to the world!


  • Be comfortable shooting both film and digital. Don't get the impression from this article that film is the be-all and end-all of photography. It isn't. Both can be a huge pile of fun, and both can get you incredible results if you know what you are doing.
  • If you do shoot slide film, and don't plan to project it, you can still easily get prints. Find a photo lab with a Noritsu 3001 or higher series printer. Have the slide film developed, but not cut and mounted. A Noritsu can scan the positive film in an uncut roll, just like it can scan negative film. Keep in mind, optical printing labs (with machines that use a light/lens system to make pictures) are few and far between. Even negative film is now digitally scanned to make photos, thus compromising the overexposure latitude of film. Also, any film can be scanned and printed into B&W, whether it is color film or B&W film. One benefit of this is that underexposed (not enough light made it into the camera) negatives can now make decent prints.
  • Fuji Velvia 50 shines well in the purples and reds not with cool colours. Velvia is good for darker, slightly under-developed shots. It's not for people, portraits, or a wide variety of light shades.[1][2]


  • Although this warning may seem subtle, it is very important. Do not "Fix it in post". Should you run into any issues in the filming process, you must assume that they cannot be fixed in post. Otherwise, you will end up like most people--unable to fix your mistakes in post OR in-camera after your actors have gone home.

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