How to Use Almost Any 35mm Film Camera

Two Methods:PreparationShooting

In the age of digital cameras, it may seem odd to instruct you how to use "obsolete" 35mm cameras. Still, there are many people out there who choose to shoot film for artistic (and other) reasons. And with digital eating up market share for nearly everything but landscape photography, awesome 35mm camera gear is cheaper than it has ever been.

There may be many more of you out there who want to use film cameras but find them intimidating. Maybe you've acquired a film camera that someone was giving away and have no idea how to use one. This guide will help you through some of the the oddities of film cameras that modern point-and-shoot digital cameras either don't have or have automated away.

Method 1

  1. 1
    Look for some basic controls on the camera. Not all cameras will have all of these, and some might not even have any of them, so don't worry if you see something described that isn't on your camera. We'll be referring to these later in the article, so it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with them now.
    • The shutter speed dial sets the shutter speed, i.e. the time for which the film is exposed to light. More modern (1960s and onwards) cameras will show this in regular increments like 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, etc. Older cameras use weird and seemingly arbitrary values.
    • The aperture ring (closest to the body), set to f/2.8.
      The aperture ring controls the aperture, which is a small opening near the front of the lens.[1] These are usually marked in standard increments, and nearly any lens will have settings of f/8 and f/11. The aperture ring is usually on the lens itself, but not always; some later (1980s and onwards) SLRs will allow this to be controlled from the camera itself, for example. Some systems (like Canon EOS) don't have aperture rings at all.

      A larger aperture (smaller number, as the size of the aperture is expressed as a ratio against the focal length) means a shorter depth of field (i.e. less of your scene in focus), and more light being let onto the film. A smaller aperture will let less light onto the film, and give more depth of field. For example, with a 50mm focused to 8 feet (2.4 m), at an aperture of f/5.6, the portion of your scene from about 6.5 to 11 feet (2.0 to 3.4 m) would be in focus. At an aperture of f/16, the portion from about 4.5 to 60 feet (1.4 to 18.3 m) would be in focus.
    • The ISO dial, which may be marked as ASA, tells the camera the speed of your film. This may not be a dial at all; it might be a series of button presses. Either way, this is necessary for cameras that have automatic exposure mechanisms, as different films will require a different exposure; ISO 50 film will require an exposure twice as long as an ISO 100 film, for example.

      On some cameras, this is not necessary, and sometimes it's not even possible; many more recent cameras read the film speed from electrical contacts on the film cartridge itself. If your camera has electrical contacts inside the film chamber, then it's a DX-capable camera. This usually "just works", so don't worry about this too much.
    • The typical Canon mode dial.
      The mode dial sets various automatic exposure modes, if your camera has them available. This is common on fully-automatic electronic SLRs from the late 80s onwards. Sadly, all cameras call their modes different things; for example, Nikon call shutter-priority "S", and Canon inexplicably call it "Tv". We'll explore this later, but you want to keep it in "P" (meaning program automatic) most of the time.
    • The focusing ring focuses the lens to the distance to your subject. This will usually have distances in both feet and meters, as well as an ∞ marking (for focusing an infinite distance away). Some cameras (like the Olympus Trip 35) will, instead, have focusing zones, sometimes with cute little symbols marking what the zones are.
    • The rewind release button is usually on the underside of a camera.
      The rewind release allows you to rewind your film. Normally, while shooting the film is locked so that it can only move forwards and not backwards into the canister, for obvious reasons. The rewind release simply unlocks this safety mechanism. This is usually a small button located on the base of the camera, slightly recessed into the body, but some cameras are weird and have it elsewhere.
    • The rewind crank, usually on the left hand side of the camera. Note flip-out lever.
      The rewind crank lets you wind your film back into the canister. It's usually on the left-hand-side, and more often than not has a little flip-out lever to make it easier to turn. Some motorised cameras don't have this at all, and instead take care of rewinding your film all by itself, or have a switch to do it.
  2. 2
    Change your battery if your camera has one. Nearly all batteries for every 35mm camera ever made can be obtained very cheaply, since they don't use proprietary batteries like most digital cameras, and they last nearly forever; you can't afford to not change them.

    A few older cameras will expect 1.35v PX-625 mercury batteries, which are very difficult to obtain now and have no voltage regulation circuits to cope with the widely-available 1.5v PX625 batteries. You can get around this by either experiment (shoot a roll of film and see if your exposure is out, and compensate accordingly), or use a piece of wire to wedge a #675 cell into the battery compartment.[2]
  3. 3
    Check that a film isn't already loaded. It's an easy mistake to make: getting a hold of a camera, popping the back open, and finding a film already loaded (and, consequently, ruining a good part of the film). Try winding the camera on; push the shutter button first if it refuses to. If your camera has a rewind crank or knob on the left hand side, you will see it turning. (How to do this on motor-driven cameras without a rewind crank is left as an exercise for the reader.)
  4. 4
    Load your film. Even though 35mm film cartridges are meant to be light-proof, it's still a bad idea to do this in direct sunlight. Go indoors, or at least into the shade. There are two kinds of cameras you'll have to worry about, and only one that you're likely to encounter:
    • Rear-loading cameras are the most common, and the most straightforward to load.
      Rear-loading cameras are the easiest, and the most common; they have a hinged back which opens to expose the film chamber. Sometimes (especially on SLR cameras), you do this by lifting the rewind crank upwards. Other cameras will open by means of a designated lever. Slot the film canister into its chamber (typically, on the left hand side) and pull the film leader out. Sometimes you'll need to slide the leader into a slot in the take-up spool; on others, you simply pull the leader out until the tip lines up with a coloured mark.

      After you have done this, close the back of the camera. Some cameras will automatically wind on to the first frame; otherwise, take two or three shots of nothing in particular, wind the camera on. If you have a frame counter that reads upwards from 0, then wind on until the frame counter reaches 0. A few older cameras count down, and so will require that you set the frame counter manually to the number of exposures that your film has. Use the steps given earlier to verify that the film is properly loaded.
    • An early bottom-loading FED camera.
      Bottom-loading cameras, such as early Leica, Zorki, Fed and Zenit cameras, are somewhat less common, and also somewhat more difficult. For one, you'll need to physically cut your film so that it has a longer, thinner leader. Mark Tharp has an excellent web page describing the procedure.[3]
  5. 5
    Set the film speed. Usually, you should set it to the same as your film. Some cameras will consistently over- or under-expose by a certain amount; shoot a slide film to determine this experimentally.

Method 2

Once your camera is set up, you can go out into the big blue room and take some great photographs. Older cameras, however, will require that you set many (sometimes all) of the things that a modern film or digital camera would handle for you automatically.

  1. 1
    Focus your shot. We'll detail this first because some old SLR cameras need their apertures stopped down in order to meter; this makes the viewfinder much darker, and makes it harder to see when you're in focus or not.
    • The Canon EOS 650, an early auto-focus camera.
      Auto-focus cameras, common since the mid-1980s onwards, are the easiest. If you either have no focusing ring, or a manual/auto focus switch on either the lens or the camera, then you probably have an autofocus camera. Simply half-press the shutter very gently to focus. When focus is obtained (usually by some indication in the viewfinder, or possibly by an annoying beeping sound), then the camera is ready to take a shot. Fortunately, most (probably all) auto-focus cameras have automatic exposure as well, which means that you can safely ignore the next step about setting exposure.
    • Two common focusing aids in an SLR viewfinder: the split screen (center circle) and microprism ring (surrounding it). This is out of focus; note the "broken" lines in the center, and the defocus being made more obvious by the microprism ring.
      Manual-focus single-lens reflex cameras are slightly more awkward. SLRs are distinguishable by their large central "hump" housing the viewfinder and their pentaprism (or pentamirror). Turn your focusing ring until the image in the viewfinder is sharp. Most manual-focus cameras will have two focusing aids to make it easier to tell when you're in perfect focus. One is a split screen, right in the center, which splits the images into two pieces, which are aligned when the image is in focus. The other, a microprism ring around the outside of the the split screen, will cause any defocus to be far more obvious than it would be otherwise. A very few will have a focus confirmation indicator in the viewfinder when focus is obtained. Use these focusing aids if you have them.
    • The Leica M7, a very nice rangefinder camera.
      Manual-focus rangefinder cameras are nearly as easy. Coupled rangefinder cameras show two images of the same subject through the viewfinder, one of which moves as you turn the focusing ring. When the two images coincide and fuse into one, the image is in focus.[4]

      Some older rangefinder cameras do not have a coupled rangefinder of this kind. If this is what you have, then find the desired distance through the rangefinder, and then set that value on the focusing ring.
    • The Voigtlander Vito B, a viewfinder camera from the 1950s.
      Viewfinder cameras look much like rangefinder cameras, but offer little assistance in finding the distance to your subject. Either use an external rangefinder, or guess the distance and set that on your focusing ring.
  2. 2
    Set your exposure. Remember that older cameras have stupid meters; they only read a small area at the center of the screen. So if your subject is off-center, then point the camera at the subject, meter, and then reframe your shot. The specifics of getting a good exposure differ from camera to camera:
    • The Canon A-1, one of the first cameras with a fully-automatic Program mode.
      Fully automatic exposure cameras are the easiest. If your camera has no controls for shutter speed and aperture, then it's probably one of these cameras (like many compact cameras, most notably the Olympus Trip-35). Otherwise, the camera may have a "Program" or "Automatic" mode; if it does, save yourself a lot of hassle and use it. Modern Nikon and Canon SLRs, for example, will have a mode dial that you should turn to "P". If you have the option, set your metering mode to "Matrix", "Evaluative" or similar and have fun.
    • Cameras with aperture-priority automatic exposure (like the Canon AV-1) will allow you to set an aperture, and then choose a shutter speed for you. On most of these, just set an aperture according to the amount of light you have and/or your required depth of field, and let the camera do the rest. Naturally, don't choose an aperture that will require your camera to use a faster shutter or slower speed than it has available.

      If circumstances permit (and you don't want either an extremely shallow or extremely deep depth of field), then don't shoot your lens either at its largest aperture, and don't stop it down past f/11 or so. Nearly all lenses are slightly sharper stopped down than they are wide open, and all lenses are limited by diffraction at small apertures.
    • Cameras with shutter-priority automatic exposure, which is not necessarily a distinct class of camera from the above, will allow you to choose a shutter speed and then it will set an aperture automatically. Pick a shutter speed according to the amount of light you have and whether you want to freeze (or blur) motion.
      Of course, this has to be long enough to ensure that your lens actually has an aperture wide enough to match the shutter speed, but fast enough that your lens has an aperture small enough (and so that you're able to hand-hold the camera, if that's what you're doing, and you should be).
    • The Praktica MTL3, a very typical fully-manual SLR camera.
      Fully-manual cameras will require you to set both aperture and shutter speed yourself. Most of these will have a match-needle meter in the viewfinder which will indicate either over- or under-exposure; if the needle goes above the middle mark your photo will be over-exposed, and if it goes below it will be under-exposed. You normally meter by half-pressing the shutter; some cameras such as Praktica L-series bodies will have a dedicated metering key to do this (which also stops the lens down). Set either your aperture, shutter speed, or both, depending on the requirements for your scene, until the needle sits more or less at the half-way mark. If you're shooting negative film (rather than slide film), it doesn't hurt a bit for the needle to go slightly above the half-way mark; negative film has a huge tolerance for over-exposure.

      If you don't have a meter in the viewfinder, use an exposure table[5], your memory of one, or an external light meter--the best kind is a digital camera; an obsolete compact one is fine but you'll want it to show the exposure reading in the viewfinder.[6] (Remember that you can make offsetting adjustments in aperture and shutter speed). Or try a free light-metering program for a smartphone, such as Photography Assistant for Android.[7].
  3. 3
    Frame your shot and shoot. The artistic elements of composing a photograph is well outside the scope of this article, but you will find some useful pointers in How to Take Better Photographs and How to Develop Your Photography Skills.
  4. 4
    Shoot till you hit the end of the roll. You'll know when you're there when either the camera refuses to wind on (for those cameras with automatic winders), or otherwise when winding the film on becomes very difficult (if this is you, don't force it). It won't necessarily be when you've used up 24 or 36 exposures (or however many you have on your film); some cameras will allow you to milk up to an extra 4 frames above the rated number. When you get there, you'll need to rewind the film. Some motorised cameras do this automatically as soon as you hit the end of the roll; some other motorised ones will have a rewind switch.

    If you don't, don't worry. Press your rewind release button. Now turn your rewind crank in the direction indicated on the crank (usually clockwise). You'll notice that near to the end of the film the crank gets stiffer, and then becomes very easy to turn. When you hit this, stop winding and open the back.
  5. 5
    Get your film developed. If you're shooting negative film then fortunately you can still get this done nearly anywhere. Slide film and traditional black-and-white film requires very different processes; check with a local camera store if you need help finding someone to develop your film for you.
  6. 6
    Check your film for exposure problems. Look for obvious under- and over-exposure. All films tend to look horrible and murky when underexposed; slide films will blow highlights nearly as readily as digital cameras when overexposed. If these things do not indicate poor technique (such as metering on the wrong part of your scene), it means that your meter is wrong or that your shutter is inaccurate. Set your ISO speed manually, as described earlier. For example, if you're underexposing on ISO 400 film, set the ISO dial to 200 or so.
  7. 7
    Stick another roll of film in and go shoot some more. Practice makes perfect. Go out and take as many photos as you can afford to take. And don't forget to show your results off to the world.


  • If you're not using a tripod, try to avoid using shutter speeds much slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of your lens. For example, if you have a 50mm lens, then try not to use a shutter speed slower than 1/50 sec unless you really can't avoid it.
  • Don't force anything. If something won't move, you may be doing something wrong, or something may need a repair which will be much cheaper and easier if you don't aggravate the problem by breaking whatever is stuck. For instance, many shutters' speeds should not be adjusted until the shutters are cocked--often by advancing the film if the shutter is mounted in the camera body, or with a lever if it is mounted inside the lens without a mechanical connection to the body, as with a bellows.
  • There are undoubtedly weird cameras out there which have oddities not described here. Fortunately, you can find manuals for a huge number of old cameras at Michael Butkus' archive of camera manuals. You can also find people who know how to use old cameras at good brick-and-mortar camera shops, which makes their markups, if reasonable, well worth paying.

Sources and Citations

  1. Which is a horribly non-technical explanation; the Wikipedia article is a good place to start for a more details.
  2. See Cheap Easy Mercury Battery Replacement by Rick Oleson for more details on this hack, at
  3. See
Show more... (4)

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Film Cameras and Film Photography