So you’ve dug through your parents’ basement, pulled out their vinyl album of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and bought yourself an old record player. And for the last three weddings you’ve attended, you found the perfect outfit at that great vintage clothing shop downtown. Old is the new “new.”
These days you’re just as likely to find the freshest fashion statement in your grandparents’ closet as you are on the runways at Fashion Week in Paris. The same goes for your photography. Retro, vintage and old school chic are trying to revolutionize the digital revolution. Analogue gears are using their teeth to chop those chintzy computer chips to pieces. And this is your guide to it all… film that is. From what rolls to buy, what cameras to shoot with and what to do with it all when you’re done.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in September of 2009.
Film vs. Digital
You can look all over the internet and find hundreds of old timers and purists battling it out with the techies over whether film is better than digital. I’m not here to tell you that one way is better than the other, but I do think it’s important to know about some differences.
The first difference is latitude, or dynamic range. This can be defined in laymen terms as the detail in the highlights and shadows. Film generally has a greater dynamic range than digital, especially black and white film. Film also differs from digital in terms of resolution. Most 35mm films cannot compete against most modern digital cameras in terms of resolution, but I will talking about medium format or 120 film which can hold up to some of the best digital cameras. Which brings me to my last difference between the two mediums, the overall look.
Film looks different than digital, some say it’s “smoother,” some say it look less plastic, some say “richer.” But these terms are very vague, and to really understand them, you just need to get out there and shoot. The photo below shows the latitude of black and white film, if shot with digital you would have to chose to have a completely black interior of the car or to have a completely white subject, with black and white film you can get detail in both.
Why Shoot Film?
So why would anyone want to give up resolution, image preview, and almost instantaneous uploading to your favorite social network site? It’s true, shooting film can be a hassle, but in my opinion it’s worth it. You think harder about what you’re doing. Every frame can be assigned a physical cost, so you try a little harder to make each shot work.
Not only that, but you don’t get any feedback from a screen on your camera, so if the shot is important, you better double check to make sure all your settings are right. Also, in this age of instant gratification, it’s nice to surprised. You have to wait for film, sometimes just an hour, but it’s still a wait. Every time you shoot film, it’s like your birthday or Christmas – you’re not sure what you’re going to get, but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be awesome. And it will be. With a little practice, shooting film can be even easier than shooting digital.
Other benefits: your friends can’t delete those hilarious photos of themselves doing really stupid things, your girlfriend won’t stop you after each picture you take to make sure her hair looks right and then make you take the photo over again if it didn’t. And it’s really hard to come home from your bachelor party drunk, develop a roll of film, scan the negatives and then upload those photos to the web for your fiance and parents to see. That’s not so hard to do with your digital camera. Finally, there are happy accidents, like in the photo below where I had reached the end of the roll and the camera exposed two images on top of each other created a panoramic.
So in order to explore this side of photography, you’re going to need two things. Film and a camera that shoots film. I’ll get to the cameras later, but let’s talk about emulsions (and no that’s not something a magician does). Your choice of film has decreased over the last few years, but there are still more out there than you’ll ever need. Film can be categorized in many different ways.
The most common size of film is 35mm. This is the cassette that everyone thinks of when they think of film. But there is also medium format film, which is 6cm wide and sometimes comes with a paper backing. APS film which is smaller than 35mm. There is also sheet film which can be 4×5 inches or even larger and comes in sheets like paper instead of on a roll. The size of the film dictates the resolution of your final image.
35mm can be blown up to an 8×10 easily, but medium format and large pieces of sheet film can be blown up to poster size with little trouble. Most medium format cameras shoot a square that is close to four times the size of a 35mm negative. That’s four times the resolution, four times the detail. On a moderately priced scanner, I’ve produced files from medium format film that are over a 1 GB. For a single image, that is huge. Set on its highest resolution, my DSLR can fit over 70 photos in that amount of space. But alas, due to the developing costs, camera costs, and for the most part unneeded resolution, I don’t shoot much medium format film. My favorite film size is 35mm because of the vast number of cameras that use it.
The most common film type is color negative or C-41 film. But there is also black and white negative film which I mentioned earlier for its extreme latitude. And there is slide film (also called chrome or E6) which creates a positive color image. You might be familiar with this type of film if you’ve ever seen old slides that were shown with a projector. Slide film has a latitude similar to that of digital cameras, but it can produce a very high quality, high resolution image. It also reproduces vivid colors brilliantly.
My favorite type of color film is Kodak UC 100. This 100 speed color negative has been given the special designation of “Ultra Color” because the hues are so rich and saturated. I also love Kodak Tri-X for black and white work. It is extremely forgiving both in exposure and in developing.
Film speeds range from 100 to 3200 typically. Film speed is often expressed as an ISO setting and many advanced digital cameras allow you to change this setting in a digital way. Film speed really has nothing to do with speed – it would be more appropriate to call it film sensitivity. 100 speed film is “slow” or not very sensitive, it needs a lot of light to make an exposure. 3200 speed film is “fast” or very sensitive.
I’m reluctant to say that slow film speeds are best for bright outdoor situations and fast film speeds are best for action or low light, but that is a general guide line. That said, don’t be afraid to experiment with fast film outside during the day or slow speed films in low light. The important thing to remember is that the more sensitive a film is the more “grainy” your photos will be. Most of the time, 100 speed film will have greater detail and stronger, richer colors than 3200 speed film.
In my opinion, 800 speed is as high as I will go. If I’m shooting black and white, the film can be “pushed” to a higher speed during the developing process. For color, the quality of the image suffers too much at higher speeds. In the photo below, though taken with a digital camera, the quality differs between high and low ISO settings. The effect with film is similar.
There are literally tens of thousands of different film cameras that have been produced over the last 50 years. There is a camera out there for every budget and every skill level. Keep in mind that the most important part of your camera, the part that will most affect the quality of your images, is you! So don’t spend too much, don’t get caught up in a name. And for the sake of all things retro, buy used when you can.
In the following sections, I’ll be describing a type of camera and giving you two recommendations for that type. There will be a range of options, formats and prices. Keep in mind, these are not mainstream… these are conversation starters.
The Point-and-Shoot (Kind Of)
I’m using the term point-and-shoot very loosely to describe small pocket cameras that are relatively simple to use. These are the cameras you carry with you everywhere – to parties, on hikes, wherever. These cameras shoot 35mm film because if they shot anything bigger, they wouldn’t be portable.
In the film photography resurgence of the past five years or so, a company called the Lomographic Society has developed or reissued a ton of these little cameras. Going to their website is worth the trip, but I find most of their cameras a little overpriced. Do some research, and then if you decide you want a camera they sell, it might be worth it. They do a good job refurbishing cameras, so the quality guarantee may justify the price.
I’m going to focus on two cameras that they don’t sell and which are a little less common (and in my opinion, a little more interesting). The photo below was taken with the first camera, the Rollei 35 on the Kodak UC100 film I mentioned earlier.
The Rollei 35
This camera is fully packed, fully frustrating and fully fun. Rollei is an established, still operating and very well respected camera company. And yet, they produced this little gem. The Rollei 35 is arguably the smallest full frame 35mm camera ever made. It is also the quirkiest camera in the universe. The film advance lever is on the wrong side. The viewfinder is on the wrong side. The shutter speed dial is on the front of the camera, and wait… so is the aperture dial.
For many models, the hot shoe used for mounting your flash is on the bottom of the camera instead of the top where it should be. And to top everything off, it is a scale focus camera. This means that unless you are really fast with a tape measure, you’ll need to guess how far away things are.
Despite all of this, the camera is awesome. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket, so you’ll actually take it with you. It has a built-in lightmeter and it’s all metal. This camera is as small as some modern point-and-shoots, but it offers you full control over all of the camera functions with knobs instead of menus. It’s has sharp glass and unless the one you find has been run over by a truck, it will still be working 20 years from now.
The Minolta Prod 20′s
So now you’re scared, huh? You’re scared that I’m only going to talk about cameras that require an advanced degree to operate. Well, you’re wrong. This next beauty has classic styling, but is packed with auto-focus and auto-exposure. I stumbled across this camera a few years ago, and I was drawn to it because it looked like a great, old, small, solid looking, pocketable camera. I was right about all of those things except the old part. This camera is no longer made, but it is still available used in many places. All you need to do is pop in some batteries and some film, point and shoot. It’s that easy.
A rangefinder is a cousin of the SLR. Both terms (rangefinder and single-lens reflex) are used to describe how the camera is focused. With an SLR, a prism and a mirror allow you to see directly through the lens and a ground-glass allows you go focus. A rangefinder uses a small rotating mirror and two windows using triangulation to determine distance.
When focusing an SLR, things will usually just look in or out of focus. When focusing a rangefinder, everything will look in focus because you’re basically just looking through a window. But there will be a small patch which shows a ghost image on top of everything. By turning the focusing ring, the ghost image will move left and right. Just match up the images and shoot.
Rangefinders are typically a little easier to focus in low light and a little more compact than an SLR. Rangefinder like the famous Leica are treasured by hardcore photojournalists and have been used to cover almost every major news event in the world for the past 70 years. The photo below was taken with a Zorki 4K during the U.S. Presidential election in 2004.
The Zorki 4K
If you’ve never heard of Leica, just know that they are famous and expensive. The company has been around forever and their cameras basically become instant collectibles as soon as going on sale. Crazy stuff. But after World War II, German companies were forced to give up many of their patents. So Russian companies started producing cameras exact replicas of German cameras. Many of these are re-labled with the Leica name and sold as fakes. Though, the design was the same, the quality and craftsmanship wasn’t quite up to snuff.
Regardless, there were some Russian gems that were turned out during this era. The Zorki 4K is a tank, released with both Russian and English labeling. It is bare bones. No light meter, all manual settings. But it has interchangeable lenses using the common Leica Screwmount system. And it is cheap. I had mine shipped to me used from the Ukraine. It came a month later and the packaging literally involved twine. Total cost, 30 bucks. And who doesn’t love chrome. But there is a word of caution, advance the shutter and film before setting the shutter speed. If you do it backward, it WILL damage the shutter mechanism.
The Minolta Hi-Matic E
So you don’t have a light meter and really want a cool camera for this weekend’s retro disco party? No problem. This Minolta has a semi-auto exposure with an aperture priority system that works really well. There are other cameras in this Hi-Matic line, but I like this one the best for it’s size. It has a fast lens and is really compact.
The lens is not interchangeable, but this is more than made up for by the flash metering system. Many old cameras depended on sliding scales on the back of your external flash to get your exposure right. This camera has a special meter that allows the camera keep track of the light during the exposure, much like a certain cult camera sold by the Lomographic Society. The system which started with Yashica is called Electro, and it eats batteries but works great. Just toss a flash on there and go, the camera does the rest of the work. So with this little shooter, you get the chrome, the manual focus, an excellent indoor shooter with a flash, and (if you’re lucky) a nice faux-leather case.
As I described earlier, an SLR is a camera that allows you to look directly through the lens, giving you a very close approximation of what the photo will actually look like. SLRs are utilized in almost all forms of photography. They offer the most control and the priceless ability to interchange the lenses quickly. There are a ton of SLRs out there, but we’re going retro. So I’m sticking to manual focus, and manual controls. The photo below was shot with the Nikon F3HP.
The Pentax Spotmatic
I’m choosing this camera for it’s value. Built like a titanium Swiss watch, it just performs. It does have a odd metering system, requiring the aperture to be stopped down to get a proper reading. But this is made up for by the actual spot meter. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s very functional.
The lenses for this camera are called Pentax Screwmount or M42 mount. These are very easy to find and really cheap. There are tons of brands that made lenses in this mount. I have a 24mm lens with built-in color filters, and it’s the only lens I’ve ever heard of that has this. The cameras themselves have classic styling and, as I mentioned, are very reliable and easy to use. This is the predecessor to the Pentax K1000 which have been bought by the hundreds by photo students. I prefer the Spotmatic for it’s meter and the cheap lenses.
The Nikon F3HP
In my opinion, this is the best camera ever made. It is Nikon’s longest running production camera, made for close to 20 years. It’s a fully functional professional SLR camera. Like the Leica, it was the preference of many photojournalists. It’s extremely tough with modern weather sealing and has a range of accessories with multiple viewfinders and focusing screens.
It’s only downfall is a hard-to-read meter, especially troublesome in the dark. Being a Nikon, you’ll have access to hundreds and hundreds of different lenses. It will even mount and meter with many of the newer auto focus lenses. I can’t tell how many famous photos have been taken with this camera over the last two decades.
It is fairly widely available, usually for under $400 (and it’s worth every penny). This camera can be passed on to your children and probably even their children. It has taken pictures in the most extreme environments on the planet. One great feature of this camera is the ability to remove the viewfinder completely and shoot at waist level like a TLR. I can’t say enough about this camera. Unless auto-focus is a necessity for you, this camera doesn’t lack anything you’ll want.
So let me just preface this section by saying upfront that medium format film is expensive to buy and expensive to process. There are some really expensive and very impressive cameras out there like the classic Hasselblad. Rollei also still produces a wonderful Twin Lens Reflex camera that is built like a tank and costs about the same.
I’m going to focus on two cheaper cameras that are more entry-level, but can produce outstanding images and are really fun to shoot. The photo below was taken with the Holga Wide Pinhole, which required over five seconds to expose in broad daylight.
Holga Wide Pinhole (120WCP)
This camera is a beast, and it’s the only camera that I will mention that is made today. You can get one brand-new for around $50. Pinhole photography is really fun. The camera uses a very small hole instead of a lens. The hole focuses the light using some some crazy quantum physics magic and produces an image.
The exposure times are very long due to the tiny amount of light hitting the film. This means that anything that is moving will at least be blurry, but things moving quickly through your frame will probably not show up at all. You can make a busy street look completely empty. This camera is especially great because it can produce a negative 6cm x 12cm, which is huge. And it’s very wide-angle, giving you something like a 160 degree view.
Because it is a pinhole camera, everything (that’s not moving) will be in focus. Another little known fact about pinhole cameras is that they do not distort the image in the same way as a lens will. A very wide angle lens will warp straight lines, a pinhole camera will not. A great trick with this specific camera to determine your exposure is to figure out what the exposure is with a normal camera at f/5.6, then multiply the shutter speed by 1000. So if you exposure requires a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second then the time you’ll use with the Holga will be 16.6 seconds.
Zeiss Nettar 515-2
In terms of a usable, affordable, medium format camera, the Zeiss Nettar can be an everyday companion. These German cameras are built to last, and their ability to fold up makes them more practical that the huge Twin Lens Reflex cameras. This particular Nettar model shoots a 6cm x 9cm negative which is close to the proportions of 35mm cameras.
The viewfinder and shutter release button is set up for horizontal shooting, which makes it very natural to shoot for people who are used to standard point-and-shoots or SLRs. But be aware, this is an old camera. It has no light meter and is scale focus like the Rollei 35. But don’t underestimate it. The lens is sharp and more than anything, it is easy to use and carry. Break this out at your next family function for some pictures and everyone will be shocked. When people say classic camera, this is what they mean.
To finish up this tutorial, I want to speak briefly about scanning. If you plan on shooting a lot of film, buying a scanner will save you a ton of money in the long run. There are a lot of scanners out there, and the technology has come a long way.
Unless you’re only going to shoot 35mm film and you want really high resolution scans, I would avoid dedicated 35mm scanners. For general use and even for most publications, I would purchase a flatbed scanner with a backlight and carries for different sized negatives. As long as the resolution of the scanner is above 3000 dpi, you’ll have no trouble getting the high quality scans you want. Shop around and you should be able to find a scanner fitting these specifications for under $150.
Now less talking, more shooting. Get out there, be retro, be original, and make some great photos!