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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Previous comments
Ralph Hightower's picture

I'm on Flickr; there's a mix of film and digital. Here's a link to a panorama that I created from three frames of Ektar.

Alex Cooke's picture

Great article. Totally unrelated, but is that BTS photo in the Chagrin Metro Parks? It looks exactly like one of the paths by the river.

Austin Rogers's picture

Are you based in CLE, Alex? :) I'm in Columbus. This is actually a little park in Bexley.

Alex Cooke's picture

I sure am! Oh, awesome! I thought for sure that it was Chagrin. :)

Ralph Berrett's picture

I shot film from 1985-2002 from range finders to large format. I don't feel like I was limited in any way or form. What I did like about film it made pre-visualize a shot. If I was shooting in a classroom or office my camera setting would be f/2.8 at 1/250 with ISO 400. 2 of my favorite manual film cameras was the Nikon f2 with a motor drive weighed 6lbs, and the other was the Nikon FM2.

This shot of Johnny Cash was shot with an FM2 with a 180 f/2.8, the camera was set at f/2.8 at 1/250with Tri-X film rated at 800 ISO.

Austin Rogers's picture

Dude this picture has everything. Holy cow.

Hamish Gill's picture

It's not shooting film that is limiting. It's the type of camera. Compact p&s cameras limit you, make you think differently about your approach. That's the point

Ralph Berrett's picture

Well along those lines I had a class in college in which we did pinhole cameras. If you what the fully shackle yourself try the Canon D30 dslr it made Technicolor 126 cameras hi tech. ;)

Anonymous's picture

Great article.On way back from a holiday on Monday called into a country town to visit rellies. ended up visiting a local and bought 4 used film cameras. (Barely used).Also had 5 rolls of out of date film with the package.One of the cameras is a mint condition minolta maxxum 3 with 2 zoom lenses.It looks and feels so good! Basically a point and shoot SLR. Had to get new batteries for all the cameras and now starting to shoot.I have lots of point and shoot compact 35mm cameras that just keep coming to me.I probably have about 20 film cameras at the moment loaded up with half shot films.The emotion and back to grass roots idea of shooting film is what I like and also the quality is amazing most of the time.My approach is to get film developed in a lab then scan at home.The idea of being less manic in firing off heaps of digital mages and being more thoughtful about shot selection and composition is very much about using these cameras.I also like the challenge of using the very meagre adjustments on most of these cameras to deal with the subject before me.Having said all hat I think its great while the 2 mediums of digital and film can still sit side by side.I hope it continues indefinitely. Whenever I go on a holiday these days I always have a film camera or 2 with me.

Austin Rogers's picture

Couldn't agree more, Geoff! I'd love to see some images once you get them developed!

Anonymous's picture

Will work on that Austin.

Spy Black's picture

In the late 80s I started getting tired of lugging my Nikon gear around (and I would lug quite a bit of it), so I started experimenting with various simple compacts of the time, starting out with a cheap plastic Kodak 110 pocket camera I got in a yard sale for $5. You could still get Kodachrome 64 110 at the time, and I would experiment with that a bit. The sunset through the old-school GM bus window you see below is one such shot (that's a 4x5 Ektachrome duplicate transparency of the original that I digitized). The camera's flash illuminated the inside, I shot an an angle to avoid the flash in the window.

In the 90's I picked up an old Ricoh 500 G pocket rangefinder with a busted light meter for $25 that I would use in a lot of street night photography with pushed positive and negative stocks. The busted mirror and slow speed shots of lights in my old beloved Yaffa Cafe in NYC are samples of those adventures (these are 8x10 duplicate transparency films I digitized).

I recently went in opposite direction of what you're suggesting, picking up a Bronica GS-1 6x7 camera (although touted as the most compact 6x7, I suppose it's game for your compact camera suggestion LOL!). I will be shooting about with it, as well as my old Nikon FTN and F2SB bodies with a bunch of free 35mm and 120 film I picked up at the Photo Plus Expo last fall. :-)

I will add that one of the grandaddy of all compacts to toy with is the old Rollei 35T.

Austin Rogers's picture

Right on, Spy! That GS1 is a badass machine. Cool pictures dude, I particularly like the last one.

philippe thibault's picture

It isn't actually in the point and shoot but I use the rollei 35 recently. It is actually a scale focusing camera. So I put it in at either 2-3 meters or infinite and I dont worry about it. I just point and shoot. The fact that it can slide in my coat pockets is awesome. I don't stress about getting the shot or not. I shoot then I stop worrying. I shoot for fun walking in the city ( Montreal ) . Even the focusing mistakes are fun sometimes. They give results you sometimes would have deleted but after a while they seems to grow on you. Some of them make the image a certain look. Really awesome camera.

Ps: I don't know why but it cuts the link in two. You need to copy paste it. Sorry

Austin Rogers's picture

These rock, Philippe. That Rollei 35 is beautiful.

Ola Lindberg's picture

Great article and I agree. I think that using old cameras has made me more open when searching for subjects and also to try new angles. I also really like that there is more time between taking the picture and seeing it.

I found my first camera when I was cleaning out a drawer 2 years ago. An old Agfa 1035 that I got from my grandpa a summer when I was around five. I looked through the viewfinder and got such a lust to use it. At the time I wasn't happy with my digital pictures and I thought my digital camera was too advanced. So many buttons. I wanted something simpler.

I tried the camera and really liked using it and I also liked the result on some of the pictures.

My favourite camera is my Olympus XA. I upload some of pictures to flickr:


Austin Rogers's picture

Love this! That XA is an awesome little guy.

Vincent Sit's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you.

Mr Blah's picture

My friend bought a 35mm range finder for 2.50$ in a yard sale. Still working and everything.

2.50$. Think about that for a second. For the price of a starbuck coffe flavored sugary drink and muffin you can get a camera and 32 exposure on film.

What can you get for the same amount in the digital era of photography?

Joshua Mattox's picture

Some of the most fun I've had is shooting with a $6 Kodak Brownie. No post production involved and I am stuck with the "look" for at least 12 images.

David Geffin's picture

Austin are you kidding me??! Get with the times! You're like 21 aren't you, do you even know what film is?

PS ;) Nice article, enjoyed this one (i'ml still sticking with my m6 tho ;))

Austin Rogers's picture

It's the stuff all the hipsters use right? ;)

Dan Ostergren's picture

Great article! I have a shoot today and this has inspired me to see if I can pick up a disposable before the shoot.

Austin Rogers's picture

Right on! Drop me a line when you get the scans back!

Andrew Yianne's picture

I just bought a Canon AE-1 Program and 4 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 film. Where would you recommend getting the film developed? Right now I use Dwayne's Photo based out of Kansas.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

I found some useful info in this article. Now I will limit myself and will never ever put my cam in manual mode. Auto it is. Oh and when I travel I'll just leave it in auto mode and at home. I'll just throw some cheap shooter in my pocket and off I go! Can't wait to go on my next trip, shoot some shots and come back to view it month after!
Sounds like a downgrade, but I also traded my HD TV for a black and white bulb, my iMac for some old PC with windows 95 on it, my stereo for a cassette player - love it! Thanks a lot!

Sebastian Riquelme's picture

I am no photographer, but I do love to shoot film. It's just more... fun. It bores me to review the shots again and again, I prefer to surprise myself a few weeks after. I don't even use Instagram... why pick a filter if I can make it myself? I am sure digital is excellent for working with, but to me, as amateur, film is just superior. See some of my first pictures, all with plastic cameras. Rest of my pics are here or here

Owain Shaw's picture

Just popping by to say thanks for the article ... having a bit of a (major) creative funk right now but had been trying to get my hands on a film SLR for cheaps without success ... I found two living with friends but both had mechanical faults.

In the end, thanks partly to reading this article, I've just got on with it bought some film to run through my old Canonet 28 - a gift from my photography tutor at high school. It's a zone focus rangefinder/point and shoot, small and tough so I'm happy shoving it in my back pouches when I go cycling which has been motivating me more than photography lately ... so having a point and shoot camera is perfect.

First roll of film (in a few years) went through it in less than a weekend, partly because when I took it cycling the back kept popping slightly open causing me to have to wind on three exposures a couple times - this will also likely have leaked the hell out of the film, but that's all part of the fun! Not sure what I'll do with the results ...

Marco Vedana's picture

Very nice post. One year ago I had exactly that need which you described as: "then get back to enjoying myself. You're shooting the moment, not getting "the shot" and that's okay." I was always looking for THAT SHOT and so I couldn't really enjoying my surroundings. After buying a very nice RICOH GR1 I started a whole new level of development. I always take it with me and so I shot one of my favourite pictures in architecture photography at the ART BASEL last summer. Greez from Germany

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