Everything You Need to Get Into Film Photography, According to Two Pros
There's always a risk your cell phone could die while you're out in nature or exploring a new city. A Kodak FunSaver would never do such a thing.
"Just pick up a disposable."
This was not the answer I was hoping for after asking a photographer friend what I needed to get back into film photography. However it was the answer I was given, and in the spirit of honoring my friend's advice, I went out and picked up a Kodak FunSaver. Since then, I've gone through at least 15 of them.
I've also shot a few rolls with an old Pentax I've had since high school, a camera that's at least 30 years old and will always surprise me with two or three pictures I never intended to be so saturated. Anecdotes aside, the purpose of this article is to get you excited to shoot film—whether you're brand new to the medium or could use a quick refresher.
To accomplish this, I talked to two voracious picture-takers: Cole Saladino, a New York-based food, drink, and travel photographer (and senior photographer for Thrillist) who's worked with more cameras than I can name, and Max Barna, a travel writer and photographer who will probably tell you he's been shooting film since you were in diapers (it doesn't matter that he might be younger than you either). Together, they'll demystify some misconceptions about film photography (like that it's a very expensive hobby), give you their recommendations for cameras & film, and help guide you along the path to a new hobby you'll likely stick with the rest of your life—in a snapshot, so to speak.
Step 1: Secure a camera. This is the most important step.
Saladino: Start with disposables. Shooting film can get expensive, so trying out disposable cameras lets you test the waters without any major cost upfront. They’re also super easy to tuck away and carry them on any adventure. The Kodak FunSaver is the most straightforward, with mostly automatic functions aside from the flash. It also comes with the benefits of ISO 800 films, which is much more versatile for lower light settings than most disposable cameras.
Barna: Until you understand that magic Pythagorean's Theorem of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, find something with a full auto setting. Something that'll give you a solid photo in indeterminable circumstances.
Ok, let's talk about that. What should a total beginner look for after they've moved past the disposable?
Saladino: All the original big camera brands sell used 35mm cameras, each with their own merits (i.e. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax). As a first-film SLR I’d suggest the Olympus OM-1 with a 50mm lens. It's got a great price point, all the manual settings to really work on your camera knowledge, plus it looks super cool and vintage. A close runner up with a slightly higher price point i’d go with is the Nikon FM2. If you don’t mind a higher price tag, and want to go with one of the few 35mm cameras still in production, I’d recommend the Lomography LC-Wide 35mm. This is a great little camera that gives excellent results, has some automatic features, and allows you to pick different formats (square, wide, ultra wide).
Barna: What you'll need is a camera with a lightmeter that works and a prime lens with a smaller focal length (35mm and 50mm are the gold standards—stick to these until you figure out what you're doing). That's it. I know it's unorthodox, but I really mean this—spend less time looking at brands and more time looking for a camera that's functional and fits your budget. Ask whoever you're buying it from when the last time it was CLA'd (Cleaned, Lubricated & Adjusted), make sure all the shutter speeds sound good, and make sure the lightmeter is accurate. You can learn the Sunny 16 Rule when you're competent with the camera in your hand, but until then, if you're trying to step out of the "Auto" function on your camera, your lightmeter is going to be your lifeblood. If you find out your lightmeter is shot out (it's common on older cameras, unfortunately), you can buy a stand-alone meter, too. The point is, pay no mind to brands. Get something that works and fits within your budget.
My primary shooter is a Leica M6. I've spilt more beer & blood on it than I'd like to admit, and it's never let me down. It has a mechanical shutter, so It'll work without a battery, but also has one of the best built-in lightmeters anyone has ever put inside a camera. It cost me a pretty penny, but it's worth its weight in gold. I'll die with this camera in my hands. But if you can find something like a Canon AE-1 Program for around $100-$125, grab that.
Step 2: Figure out what kind of film you want to shoot with.
Saladino: Film comes in several different speeds, though you’ll most likely be working with one of three: 160, 400, 800. As with digital, the higher the ISO speed, the better it will be for low light. If you’re going on a trip to a sunny beach, pack 160. Conversely, if you'll be shooting out of direct sunlight, go for a more versatile higher speed, like 400 or 800. Lomography’s Color Negative 400 film is a great starter film. If you want to step it up, I highly recommend switching to Kodak Portra. It’s a tried and true industry staple with sharp detail and rich colors.
Barna: First, get a few rolls of the cheapest film you can find—I may be mistaken at this point, but I remember Kodak ColorPlus and Ultramax being pretty inexpensive. As for what I shoot, for color, I use Kodak Ektar when it's warm and sunny and I want my photos to feel warm and saturated, and Kodak Portra 800 for pretty much everything else. If I'm shooting black and white, I use Kodak Tri-X. It's very contrasty and you can really get some nice grain out of it if you push it a couple stops. Another option for black and white (once you figure out how to do the damn thing) is Ilford Delta 3200 (but shoot it at 1600) and tell your developer what you're doing. The grain is really beautiful and gritty.
Saladino: Polaroid and Fuji Instax are another fun way to get into film. While I’m not a huge fan of the “minis” that have risen in popularity, there are still a lot of square and wide format instant camera options that maintain the classic feel of old polaroid without feeling gimmicky. Polaroid Originals OneStep+ Black is your best buy for classic and quality Polaroid results, with a ton of modern day features. You’re even able to control some features via Bluetooth. I’ve also always loved the Wide 300 camera from the Fujifilm instax line. It's a bit clunky to carry around but very affordable and will give you some very old school camera vibes.
Barna: Well, [expletives deleted].
Barna is not a fan of the Instant Camera.
Saladino: Digital cameras have come a long way in recent years, leading to a huge drop in film usage. However, the process of shooting film is freeing and worthwhile, having to conserve shots, waiting see the final results, and embracing the occasional “happy accident” in development. It forces you to stay in the moment, just click and keep on moving.
Barna: The only piece of advice I ever give people who ask me what to look for in a nice camera is to get something small enough where you'll never have to compel yourself to grab it on your way out the door. Buy something durable, portable, and discreet—something reliable and easy to use.