Get Thee to a Goodwill: How Buying a 35mm Point and Shoot Will Change Your Photography

Get Thee to a Goodwill: How Buying a 35mm Point and Shoot Will Change Your Photography

I'm not one prone to hyperbole. I don't easily get caught up in gear hype. However, I can whole-heartedly say that my decision to purchase and shoot with a little army of film point and shoot cameras early last year was easily the best decision I made for both my personal work and my own growth as a photographer. When I say that picking up a $20 camera will change your life and your photographs, I mean it – and other photographers agree!

Whether you're using a thrift-store Canon compact or a posh Contax T3, shooting with a little film point and shoot will change the way you operate as a photographer, how you interact with your subjects or people around you, and how you create. Over the last year, I've replaced all my silly day-to-day iPhone shooting with more deliberate work with a Fuji compact and cheap drug store color film, and I'd highly encourage you to try the same.

See the World, Not the DOF

A while ago, Ryan Muirhead (easily one of my favorite photographers) posted this:

I get a lot of compliments on composition and a lot of questions about how to get better.

So here it is, the simple answer: stop shooting wide open when you don't need to be. It's a crutch. Shooting with deeper stops forces you to use all the elements in the frame to tell a more complex story.

Also shooting a rangefinder really helps as you aren't seeing through the lens and thus are forced to deal with all the elements of the frame regardless of stop. If you can't afford a rangefinder go buy a $5 point and shoot with a big viewfinder from a thrift store and practice composing pictures even if you aren't shooting.

Using a compact camera is an awesome tool to encourage better compositional habits. You'll notice your pictures having added depth, more careful layered compositions, and you'll find yourself relying on f/ 1.2 as a stylistic crutch. I know... shots fired! If, like me, you're too broke to pick up a new Leica, using a compact for your day-to-day shooting might be the next best thing.

Limit Yourself

In the same vein as the above, having limited (and in some cases no) manual controls gets you to focus on the things that matter. When I travel, I don't bring a SLR, bag of lenses, flashes, tripod, etc.; I bring my Fuji Klasse and a grab-bag of film. Imposing limits on yourself will make you more creative and you'll be forced to see beyond the abilities of your world-class gear to focus on the things in an image that really matter – namely what you put in front of the camera.

Capture the Moment, not the Shot

I'm a perfectionist. As the child of a pseudo-tigermom, I tend to err on the OCD side. This is most apparent when I shoot digital — I'm constantly chimping. Is there a hair in the wrong place and are some of the lines crooked? Better re-shoot! With all things film you don't really have this option. I find that when I shoot with my compacts in particular, I am much more inclined to quickly pick up my camera, take a quick picture, then get back to enjoying myself. You're shooting the moment, not getting "the shot" and that's okay.

It's a Time Capsule — Don't Post Right Away

Building off the last point, when you shoot a 135 compact, you're at least an hour out from posting on Instagram. It's not that it's a bad thing, but it can certainly be a distraction. One of the coolest (to me at least) results of shooting film is the idea of every roll being a time capsule. Depending on what you load up in your camera, it could take weeks, sometimes a month or two, to chew through the entire roll. When you do finally get your scans back, you get the opportunity to relive an experience or small moment you'd perhaps forgotten about.

Technical Features

One of my good buddies, Anthony Peter said this about his Contax T3:

It's like the mixture between your mom's camera, a bar of soap, and a sports car — with a Zeiss lens.

A lot of cameras are nothing to bat an eye at. Contax T2s and T3s feature titanium bodies, and stellar Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lenses; Leica MiniLuxes and CMs have a f/2.4 Summarit 40mm; my personal favorite, Fuji Klasse S, has a 38mm f/2.8 with Fuji's legendary Super EBC coating. From a technical perspective, there's a lot to love about these little guys and nothing with quite the same specs (full frame, awesome fixed lens, small form factor) really comes close (in my opinion) in the digital space.

Some Awesome Work All Done on 135 Compact Cameras

Below are the photographers in order of their appearance:

1. Kirk Mastin | 2. Dave Waddell | 3. Sandy Phimester | 4. Anthony Peter | 5. Andrew Jacona | 6. Jon Cu | 7. Rob Timko | 8. David Pexton | 9. Zane Yau | 10. Mike Murrow | 11. Will Yum | 12. Alpana Aras | 13. Jason Curescu | 14. Garrick Fujii | 15. Ignacio Woolfolk | 16.  Jack Chauvel  | 17. Ricardo Benavides| 18. Trent Brown | 19. Jonny Edwin Bennett | 20. Aaron Warthen | 21. Kornelio Mamic | 22. Thomas Tran | 23. Rachel Wells | 24. Austin Rogers | 25. Kristen Marin Papac | 26. Daniel Pellissier | 27. Jake Rhode | 28. Kyle Panis | 29. Brandy Jaggers

​Bonus Tip: BTS Re-Imagined

I always take one or two little Canon Sure Shot Max cameras (that I bought on eBay for under $20) to my shoots and give them to models, MUAs, stylist, etc to ask them to shoot all their behind-the-scenes work with it. This has a couple benefits, the first being that you get control over the images — having the BTS on film prevents people from releasing anything too important before you have a chance to process and edit the real photos. Second, you end up with much better quality, non-Instagram-filtered images that you'd actually be comfortable sharing and tagging yourself in.

Above is an image of yours-truly from last fall on Superia 400 X-Tra (cheap, drug store film).

Do any of you work with compact cameras, film or otherwise? I'd love to see your work in the comments below.

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Anonymous's picture

I'll caveat a bit and say that I shot the same shot with my X100T and a 1-click VSCO for Tri-X 400+1 and the results are pretty indistinguishable. So, for me, shooting film isn't about the look AT ALL, as it can easily be replicated by software. For me, it's just a fun learning tool and a fun challenge to take neat photos with cheap film cameras.

Austin Rogers's picture

Right on dude. Like I said earlier, it's awesome to see VSCO get this *so* right. From my experience the only thing that could get you so close to the real deal was Mastin Labs. *Shrugs* of course it's all about whatever floats your boat. I say shoot with whatever makes you happy, whatever lets you try new things. If that's a Phase1 that's cool, if it's a CVS disposable camera that's 'aight, too. :) Keep on keepin' on, Rob. Thanks for sharing your work in the post, BTW!

Joshua Boldt's picture

I like that with film I just have this picture in my hand that already has this "effect" on it. I don't even get most of my film scanned. I didn't have to do anything with a computer and I have this product in my hand. It just feels good. I don't add a film effect to my digital photos for the most part either, so the pictures in my hand feel special. I guess it's all about sentimentality or the emotional value, for me at least. And the benefit of slowing down and enjoying shooting and not having instant gratification, etc. I'd be genuinely sad if film ever got too expensive for me.

Lester Cannon's picture

I'm gonna have to stop you right there. You obviously don't shoot film. I have VSCO and use it all the time and though the results are nice, they pale in comparison. Your photos is nice but doesn't look like Tri-x buddy. Nice try though.

Hamish Gill's picture

Without wanting to sound too over excited... YES! To all of that! At the end of 2012 I bought a Yashica T5. By may 2013 I had set up A blog dedicated (at the time) to 35mm compact point and shoot cameras. I have since started writing more about rangefinders, but the core of the site remains about point and shoots.

My most recent, and one of the cheapest and indeed most crap camera discoveries was the Olympus AF-10 super. A camera that is so crap it manages to go all the way around to being brilliant again!
Here is the post I wrote about mastering its shortcomings -

And a shot I took with it

Austin Rogers's picture

Thanks for sharing dude, awesome to see you getting your Terry on with your T5. :) Keep up the excellent work!

Lester Cannon's picture

T5 FTW. Its the ultimate street photography camera

Hamish Gill's picture

Incidentally, if thine readers do get themselves to a charity shop and get themselves something fairly pants to run a roll of 35mm through ... They might consider entering one of the resultant images in a little competition I'm running to win my Leica iiic -
Shameless plug, but hopefully it is obvious my intentions are positive ;)

Andrew Janjigian's picture

Olympus XA, Fuji Superia 800.

I have a pile of point and shoots: mju ii, Hexar AF (maybe a bit more than a P&S, but still), and the XA, which might be my favorite, since not only is it pocketable and fast, it is a true rangefinder.

Austin Rogers's picture

Right on! I love all the Superia stocks (more than 400H!). I totally think the Af counts as a point n' shoot. Awesome stuff dude.

Anonymous's picture

I love my minilux! A client gave it to me as a gift years ago and I shoot many of my personal photos with it.

Austin Rogers's picture

Holy cow, Greg. You're a lucky man! Where can I get clients like that?

Anonymous's picture

It was back in my Wedding days. Sometimes I miss photographing Weddings & Engagements and having a personal connection with my clients.

Patryk M's picture

Love film. Keeps you sharp
NIkon FM3a | PRO 400

Sean Shimmel's picture

Not to stir the pot, because this is an intriguing article, Austin.

But I was quite let down by my own recent experimentation with film. Here's my findings:

Mike Murrow's picture

Yes film isn't for everyone. You can't pick up a film camera and expect it to be as easy as digital. It takes patience and time to master.

It's not a film vs digital debate.

Rather it's what medium suits you best and how you choose to work. Personally I enjoy bulk loading, developing and all the extras that come with film vs sitting in front of my computer. I also enjoy the cameras more than DSLRs.

Really in the end it's about what keeps you interested. And that's what this article is about, keeping it interesting.

Austin Rogers's picture

Heck yeah. For me it's all about the process of shooting. I'm not a bulk roll guy, I don't develop or scan my own work. I love how it slows me down while shooting and makes me embrace little quirky imperfections in my work.

Ralph Hightower's picture

Likewise, I don't develop my own film or scans. For traditional B&W developing, I've had to send my film out of state. Now, local pharmacies have dropped developing of C41 film, so that has to go out of state also for developing and scanning.

Ralph Hightower's picture

I also don't won't inflame the film vs. digital debate; but film cameras are simpler to operate.

Okay, so we have to manually focus the lens our self;; but there are fewer controls: On/Off/Timer, ISO, shutter speed, aperture. Film cameras can have a program mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual mode, and a stopped-down mode. My Canon EF 24-105 f4L lens doesn't have an aperture ring.

I've been shooting with my Canon A-1 since 1980 and I think I've mastered the controls. In 2013, I bought a used Canon F-1N with the AE Finder FN for aperture priority and AE Motor Drive FN for shutter priority. The majority of the time, I'll use manual exposure; for those situations requiring quicker response, I'll use either aperture priority or shutter priority.

DSLRs trumps film cameras with the ability to change ISO midstream without changing film and also the white balance since there are very few tungsten balanced films. Auto ISO is one benefit I didn't have when I photographed the final Space Shuttle landing. I dumped a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 in the pre-dawn hours so I could load Kodak BW400CN and exposed at ISO 1600.

I think that I've mastered the controls of my Canon A-1 and F-1N, but I haven't mastered the controls and menus of my Canon 5D Mk III.

Austin Rogers's picture

I couldn't agree more. You'll never hear me make the argument that film is better than digital, certainly not in the formats that I shoot. I'm all about the process. That F-1N is a solid camera, alot like my F100 (Nikon equivalent). There's something SO right about shooting film with modern glass.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Mike and Austin... well spoken. Reminds me of guys (like me) who love pipes and fountain pens... all the fuss that goes into using and maintaining is pleasure of itself.

Austin Rogers's picture

Stir the pot all you like, Sean! :) You're always welcome. I actually stumbled across your blog post a while ago if I remember correctly and found myself nodding along with a lot of it. To echo what Mike said, film is *so* not for everyone. It's time consuming, it's expensive, and it's imperfect. For some people the process just clicks. Beautiful images in the post man. If I can make one suggestion, check out an F100. See if your local camera store has one you can borrow. It'll operate just like your D800 (has a max shutter speed of 1/8000, flash sync of 1/200) — I think you may like that experience a lot more plus you can use your AWESOME Nikon glass with it. Keep coming back to it, it may surprise you one day.

Sean Shimmel's picture

I will tuck away your F100 suggestion. Thank you. In the meantime, anyone want to buy my Mamiya and lenses?!

Sam Bond's picture

Totally agree, and I was thinking about this subject a couple of weeks ago. My favourite camera I own is a £5 Pentax Espio 115m that I picked up at a charity shop, and it now goes everywhere with me. I bought it as I was going out to Hong Kong on an assisting job, and I didn't have space for anything else and I really wanted a camera with me, but it was great because wherever I went it went with me, and I got photos I wouldn't have been able to get otherwise! The lens isn't great, the autofocus is a bit funny sometimes and I'm sure it's going to break soon, but when It does, I'm going to get another one!

Sam Bond's picture

This is one of the photos I took with said camera!

Austin Rogers's picture

Right on dude! What city is that?

Ralph Hightower's picture

I haven't thought about getting a film Point and Shoot, but when I first flew into Iowa for seven months, I didn't have my Canon A-1 with me, so I used disposable film cameras
I have to find the film from 1994, but using a disposable camera, I got a great photo of the neon light show at Chicago O'Hare. Once I drove my van from South Carolina to Iowa, I used disposable cameras initially in my "drive-by" shootings; after that, I set my A-1 to program mode, focus on infinity, and put the camera near my eye for rough framing to shoot.
I bought my A-1 new in 1980 and I still use it; I bought a used F-1N in 2013 so I could capitalize on my Canon FD lenses. For the year 2012, I shot the entire year exclusively using B&W film; it was a learning experience to visualize in B&W and also use B&W contrast filters. With two film cameras, I'll keep one loaded with B&W film and the other with color.
December 2013, I bought a Canon DSLR; recently, I turned off image review since I haven't gotten into the habit of chimping my shots.

Austin Rogers's picture

I'd love to see some of the images, Ralph. :) I rarely look now when I shoot digital (for client work) — it's probably a bad habit at this point!

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