You’re Making a Mistake if You’re Not Telling Your Friends to Start With Film

You’re Making a Mistake if You’re Not Telling Your Friends to Start With Film

Photography is a dream job for many, and everyone thinks we’re so lucky to do it. To that extent, they also all “would love to get more into photography.” While we get pretty good at sifting out which of our friends are actually serious about that goal, here are a few suggestions for how to get over the biggest barrier to entry by starting with film.

Sure, we’re well into the 21st century. As such, digital photography is something we all immediately assume. But getting a digital camera isn’t necessarily the easiest (i.e. cheapest) way to start, even if it’s cheaper in the long run. However, our friends don't often get to see the long run if they don't stick with photography, because they never get truly inspired. Many of us — myself included — recommend to friends to just go out and buy the cheapest camera they can and start shooting. Or even use their iPhone. But those options often set people up for failure.

Shot on Kodak Tri-X

The Problem With Digital

The biggest barrier to entry with actually getting into photography as a hobby (or more) is not the picture-taking itself. My public relations specialist sister takes more pictures in a single night out with her friends than I do all month. Photo-taking is not her problem. Her problem in getting truly inspired by her own photography is in the lack of quality (no offense to her: I'll explain soon). And this is where beginners struggle when it comes to digital photography.

Where digital photography shines is when you know how to edit. Digital sensors capture all this incredible detail in a raw file and let you pull out amazing color on demand. But to do this, you have to spend at least 10 minutes connecting your camera, importing your images to your computer, loading them into Lightroom (assuming you already know how to use it or are good with figuring out software on your own, which isn’t common with many photographers who are just starting out), and then have to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour editing a shoot (we’re working quickly, here), all while naturally knowing what your photos need — which you know because you’ve edited so many photos before, right? Not for your friends.

Shot on Kodak Ektar 100

Instead, beginners blow over $500 on a starter DSLR setup and publish the most flat, boring, tungsten-light-muddled images onto their Instagram feeds. Maybe they even wonder why their images don’t look so amazing and add filters on top of their images, bringing them down to the level they were already at with their phones anyway.

The Film Solution

Film has a multitude of advantages for anyone starting out. But first, let’s get the bad out of the way. Of course, you have to expose your photos pretty well. This isn’t that different than shooting digital for those just starting out, because you likely won’t have that much exposure latitude with a cheap digital camera anyway. But it’s still something to think about. Also, shooting film does require buying the film and processing and scanning services. But the pros outweigh this con for beginners (more on this later). And that’s about it.

The great thing about starting with film is that the color work is done for you. You choose a film based on what you think looks nice (there are countless examples online if you need them), and the processing and scanning work provides a file that needs all of zero minutes of work before you’re ready to post on the ol’ IG. Each and every time, as long as you have a decent exposure, your friends will be thrilled with the results — shocked, in fact. They will still need to train themselves in finding compositions that are interesting to the eye, but the color work — one of the hardest parts of photography — will be completely taken care of.

Shot on Kodak Ektar 100

Additionally, film photography is easier than people think. I see this all the time: so many people want to try film, but are afraid because “it’s hard.” However, this thinking is simply naive and stems from the feeling of actually messing up a tangible, finite resource: the film. But messing up a frame — or even an entire roll — just doesn’t happen that often. Will it happen more in the beginning? Sure. But this fear that you will mess up 90 percent of your first images on film is completely misguided. You and your friends will be absolutely fine — happier, in fact, since the images you do get will all be so much better than those your other friends get back from their digital cameras and don’t yet know how to edit. Be sure to get a camera kit that has some kind of built-in meter (it’s just easier to start with) or learn more about the Sunny 16 Rule. But that should be all you and your friends need to start shooting film successfully.

Amazingly, shooting film actually cuts down on waste. Forget about “slowing down” because you’re shooting film. Sure, you do slow down a bit. But the best part about this is that you are simply being more selective in your choice of captured images. You won’t rattle off six needless copies of the same shot that you end up hating because you’re testing your camera’s maximum rate of fire. And in the end, you’ll find those film shots are 90 percent keepers (likely up from 10 percent with digital).

Shot on Kodak Portra 800

Finally, while some are worried about the cost of film, film photography is actually cheaper for beginners. A $400-$600 digital camera setup is still a chunk to put down up front — and all for a starter APS-C camera and kit lens. A film camera, on the other hand, can be had for anywhere from $100 to absolutely free depending on what bargain hunting you do on Craigslist, at thrift shops, or through eBay. Odds are one of your friend’s grandparents even has an old camera they can use. Just $15 more gets you your first roll of film, processing, and scanning. So for an average of probably $50 or so, you can help your friend get amazing results that will entice them to get more into photography as opposed to mediocre results that will have them regretting their $500 DSLR purchase.

Yes, it might have seemed odd to present the idea of starting with film in 2019. But with better color, a more affordable barrier to entry, and the general satisfaction of doing it the “real way,” shooting film will give your friends the best chance of actually falling in love with photography, and not being intimidated by it if you can get them over the first hump.

Shot on Kodak Tri-X

Quick Film Gear Tips for Beginners

  1. Get a simple and affordable camera with a built-in meter to start. People talk about the popular Canon AE-1 or Nikon FG (which I started with in 7th Grade), but plenty of Pentax (like the K1000) and Minolta cameras out there are just as good and can often be had for less. But you can find a steal of a deal on any of these if you look around a bit.
  2. Don't worry about big zoom or telephoto lenses. Start with a simple 50mm lens with an f/1.8 or f/2 aperture. Even an f/2.8 aperture is fine, but all of these should be fairly affordable. You can likely get the best deal by going for a kit, where the body and lens are included together (in which case, don't worry so much about which lens to start with — just get out and shoot).
  3. If you want to get more into film and are looking to move beyond 35mm, look into buying an affordable medium-format camera such as the incredible Mamiya M645, or even rent one if you're not sure yet.
  4. Start with affordable film, but stay away from film that expired a long time ago if you're just starting, as you likely won't get consistent results. You can get a ton of deals on film on eBay (try for $3 per roll or less) for films like Kodak Ultramax, Kodak ColorPlus, Fujicolor C200, or even Lomography and black and white films.
  5. Find affordable processing, and don't be afraid to mail your film out. I run Film Objektiv, which also offers only high-quality scans, but at a good price. But we also have a Film Processing Price Comparison Chart for the U.S. that we highly recommend using to see what's in your area.

Have additional questions about getting started with film? Ask away below!

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Previous comments

How high are you?

John Tyson's picture

Give peace a chance, guy.

jacob kerns's picture

So where are they getting this film developed? In their bathroom? Are they buying all the darkroom equipment too?

John Tyson's picture

There are literally dozens of labs around the country you can send your film to. Quick Google search would have lessened the impact of the "dumb comment hammer" you just hit yourself with.

jacob kerns's picture

The closest one to me is a 4hr drive. So shove it.

As someone who shoots digital and film I personally disagree with this. You buy a cheap film camera you're more than likely going to end up with something that needs help or it's going to have light leaks, improper exposure, etc. On the other hand you can pickup a cheap but capable used digital camera for $200. No, it's not going to be the latest and greatest but it'll allow you to learn the basics.

I met up with another photographer who's work I admired on IG and he was shooting with a Canon Rebel XT and kit lens- he was using a ball of electrical tape to tape down the shutter button for long exposures. But his work was great. No editing or anything. And when it broke he picked up another one with lens for $100. For $100 you're lucky to shoot and develop six rolls of film.

Motti Bembaron's picture

A colleague of mine who passed away this past January, one of the best photographers I ever saw, claimed that there is no reason to start with film and that it is a waste of time. I always disagreed with him.

Nic was photographing for the past 35 years with 35mm, medium format, and large format cameras. His knowledge of colors and the way he was always so accurate with camera settings -no matter what the conditions were- is credited entirely to his film days. He also did endless black and white developing on his own (he had a darkroom).

He always maintained that B&W photos teach you a lot about composition, expression and overall mood, he was right. Developing and printing thousands of B&W film enriched his skill set tremendously.

He always put down his past and his rich experience claiming that today it's a lot easier to achieve the photos you want. He was right but only partly. His experience with film and different format cameras helped him (tremendously) to successfully create a vision without seeing the results right away, therefore, it was essential to be exact and patient, a skill many of us lack today.

I used to tell him that he reminds me of rich people saying money is not important. It's important when you do not have much of it. I never had that kind of experience and I wish I had started with film.

Logan Cressler's picture

Respect someone so much you disagree with what they say.... Hmmm.... Perhaps you just were not listening to what he was saying.

user-239119's picture

Respect and disagreement are not mutually exclusive. Mature adults practice nuance like this simultaneously. You should try it, rather than your little hissy fit outbursts on this comment section.

Motti Bembaron's picture

So respecting someone means never disagreeing with him/her? Seriously?

Motti Brother: You are peddling the same hocus-pocus potion that the author is. The most telling thing you said was that this film photographer is dead. And that is precisely my point: It's old (dying or dead) people, or hipsters, that hawk this attitude of "You must start in film before moving to digital".

No matter what anyone says there is simply no way that you have more control of color in film today as opposed to digital. Simply no way. I looked up your work. You could use some help. Start with not using so much softening filters. It's no wonder you are down on digital. Believe me, working in film won't make your work better. It may make it worse, if that were possible.

And where does it say that working in bw helps your composition? Even Ansel Adams didn't say that. Why is there any need to develop and print "thousands of bw film", as you say, so that you can move onto digital? You say: "B&W photos teach you a lot about composition, expression and overall mood." Really? Why does working in color retard your sense of composition, expression and overall mood.? You could argue the opposite, no?

Can you actually show me how you know that "being exact and patient" is "a skill many of us lack today." Sounds like an old guy talking about the good old days. That's all. I work with young people everyday and they amaze me with their exactitude and patience.

So what if "today it's a lot easier to achieve the photos you want. " Is that a bad thing? In fact this one thing upsets old people the most: What they worked so hard to do can now be done so very easily. No different than what a computer or an iPhone can do for you today. Simple as that. Old, graying photographers are bitter because even something as common as an iPhone can take better photos than their dear old film cameras, without any of the hassle they had to go through to yield just one usable shot with their rolls and rolls of film. The thing that these geezers hate is that this has messed up the whole financial end of things. They can no longer charge people the rates they used to, back in the film days. And that is what makes them the angriest. What's amazing is that when used well, an iPhone can sometimes outdo DSLRs--especially if the DSLR was being used by some second rater.

This idea that photography is some black art where one must work their way up through thousands of bw films before moving to digital is as old and dead as your friend. This new egalitarian world where photography is no longer a long path of apprenticeships--slaving away over negatives in darkroom for days, wasting chemicals and paper and waving your hands for hours in front of the enlarger and hurting to make one usable shot-- is all too much to handle.

In my decades of teaching photography I have found only one thing that improves anyone's photography: The amount of time you spend shooting and editing. Working in film is not any better at improving photography than working in digital. You can be lazy in digital and you can be lazy in film. In fact there is no equivalent of digital when teaching a newbie all about photography. Digital allows the student to learn all about photography and see the results immediately. And it is virtually free once you have a camera and a card. Film for a student is a blackhole of expense that just never ends. It is by far one of the most discouraging way for a newbie to start out.

And keep in mind that I am primarily an 8x10 photographer who has decades behind him in film and digital shooting. I say none of this lightly.

Motti Bembaron's picture

My colleague was not 100 but 60, not much older than me. His death or age has nothing to do with this argument.

The fact that you think my colleague's death is the most telling thing, I say this paragraph is the most telling about you.

You just proved my point no? This would *have* to come from a 60-year old. (Or a hipster.) His age has everything to do with this argument. You don't have to be 100 to be considered old. 60 is plenty old right now to be wishing for film. Work on your photography to improve it. Get beyond shooting events for the Indian community in Canada. Expand your horizons. That is a tall order for a 60-year old these days.

Dan Howell's picture

I would say that I have the same experience level as the person you revered though not quite as old. I have been shooting professionally for 30 years, half of that on film. I see no point in romanticizing film capture. Anyone with real experience in film recognizes its shortcomings and failings. Suggesting that film is a preferred medium for beginners is irresponsible.

Possibly you will just have to take our word for it.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I never said it is the prefered method for beginners, I say though, that when starting with photography using film camera you are forced to the learn basics that when using digital, you tend to skip because you can see the results instantly. You should use both.

I know professional photographers who still don't understand how to achieve bokeh even with a kit lens. They think you need an expensive prime. They do not understand the relation between open aperture, distance to subject and depth of field. Nor they understand the relation between ISO and ambient light etc. It is hard to believe that pro photographers have such limited knowledge.

I was very fortunate to learn from two amazing and very skilled professionals, both started their career with film. However, many beginners do not have that kind of mentoring and I do believe that using film every now and then can teach them a whole of a lot more.

I did it a few times and it was a pain. The camera I used was old and did not work as well, film is hard to find and labs to develop it are even harder to find (in Montreal).

I don't see film as nostalgic, it's a pain to use and people who use it on a regular basis are crazy (I take my hat off for them though). I see it as a tool to learn better basics because you have to use your head and imagination much more.


>I know professional photographers who still don't understand how to achieve bokeh even with a kit >lens. They think you need an expensive prime. They do not understand the relation between open >aperture, distance to subject and depth of field. Nor they understand the relation between ISO and >ambient light etc. It is hard to believe that pro photographers have such limited knowledge.

That has nothing to do with shooting with film vs digital. It's just laziness. You can learn all of those things in digital. And in many ways, learn them easier.

> I was very fortunate to learn from two amazing and very skilled professionals, both started their >career with film.

One would never know from looking at your work. It's entirely second-rate.

Film should be classified as an alternative process. I personally find the 'look' of film, when shot and processed properly, gorgeous. The problem is that it is a steep learning curve, with lots of potential for failure. I personally like to shoot film along-side my digital. Experiment with the digital and lock it in with film. I think everyone would benefit from trying film. But, I would never tell someone to start with it.

John Tyson's picture

When I transitioned away form digital, to film, I did just this. Bought a Nikon F100, popped my G glass on it mid-shoot, took notes, developed the film. Over time, it all made sense and I switched full time. Its fun!

Not sold on this argument.
1. If you're approaching it from a "Hey, the color balance is done for you" approach, then just shoot to JPEG and don't adjust the image. Some cameras like Fujis even have presets that emulate different film types.
2. If you really need the "finite resource" to make them slow down and think more about their shot, just give them an old 256MB SD card that a lot of us probably have littering the depths of our junk/cable/media drawers at home (I'm pretty sure we all have a desk or cabinet drawer like this), which would otherwise be thrown away.

Logan Cressler's picture

I have a pocket full of them in like every bag lol, I keep them around in fear that one day I will forget all my cards and they will save my neck :D

Hasnt happened, but still carry them around. Stashed in my car too.

Sure, why not? But why stop there; why not go all the way and start shooting using nitric acid and chalk like Johann Heinrich Schulze did.

I started with film, and am now back to shooting a lot of it. But there's no way I'd tell a friend to get an old film camera instead of a digital camera. What I tell them is, but any modern digital (I love my Lumix G7 for what it is, and often recommend MFT), some books, and go out and shoot as much as possible, with specific learning goals in mind. You get instant feedback with digital, and the iteration cycle is very fast. Film, on the other hand, is just plain frustrating when you're trying to learn basic things. I wouldn't be where I am today, making prints in the darkroom, without years of learning with a digital camera first. I likely would have given up. But maybe not :/

John Tyson's picture

Film is fun. Fun is good. How can that be bad?

FSTOPPERS EDITOR: Ok we need a new article with a great clickbait title to drive traffic to our site...any ideas?

UNDEREMPLOYED WRITER: How about an article about how women should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen and they don't have the capacity to use these complicated heavy modern cameras?

FSTOPPERS EDITOR: Nah, not controversial enough...

UNDEREMPLOYED WRITER: Okay, how about I do an article about how everyone should start learning photography with old film cameras?

FSTOPPERS EDITOR: Bingo! Get writing...

Dominik Vanyi's picture

Film look / colors is just 'another preset'. And every film is fixed for a particular white-balance. But in reality white balance is all over the place... therefore 'film colors' are almost always 'wrong'.
Yet, to some extent, I agree that film can be a good 'training ground'.

P K's picture

"Where digital photography shines is when you know how to edit." There is some truth to this but then the corollary is that where film photogrpahy shines is when you know how to print.

Having worked in a professional photo lab, I can assure you that shooting in film did not imbue photographers magically with the command of light and composition.

Dan Howell's picture

Absolutely Not. Film is not a solution to anything. Author has a vested interest in film developing. This might explain the factual errors both in the premise and the offered evidence in support of his theme. This is an irresponsible (and self-serving) article.

imajez .'s picture

What a poorly/misleadingly argued article. Take this part...

"But to do this, you have to spend at least 10 minutes connecting your camera, importing your images to your computer, loading them into Lightroom (assuming you already know how to use it or are good with figuring out software on your own, which isn’t common with many photographers who are just starting out), and then have to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour editing a shoot"

Still quicker than the two hours turnaround by a lab for my slides plus another hour travelling time and then it's only only between 9-5pm. And sooooo much quicker than developing work at home in a darkroom using toxic chemicals.

Beginners can also shoot JPEGs [and raws too] with a profile, maybe a film profile at that and can see results of their work the second they take it on back of camera. Which means they get instant feedback on what they are doing and can learn to correct mistakes as they are going along. Much easier than trying to recall what you did and settings you used the next day or whenever you get films back. No software developing/editing needed doing, that can come later.
They can also shoot raw and jpeg, so they can learn to take pics and get developed results instantly, then later on they can learn to work on the raws to get the best out of the same images.
Also digital cameras from a few years back are dirt cheap and will work out much cheaper than buying a film camera and then adding not inconsiderable processing costs.

Funny how at the end is an advert for the author to provide a paid service supporting film shooting.

Ansel Spear's picture

Before you buy your first car, I strongly suggest buying and old banger from the 80s - it will make you a much better, much more aware driver in the long run. Many young drivers today just drive and drive and drive for no reason, without getting any quality mileage under their belt.

Modern servo assisted brakes mean that you don't have to anticipate events ahead as much as the good old fashioned pump hard braking system. Power steering means that you never really know what it's like to manoeuvre one and a half tonnes of steel on a public highway. Computer control warning systems means that the car does a lot of the thinking for you, never giving you the opportunity to build your driver skills.

A fuel thirsty car also means that you'll have to think about your mileage in advance, so each journey will be a well planned out experience. Once you've mastered these skills in an outdated, fuel guzzling, polluting blast from the past, you will then understand and appreciate the sheer exhilaration of driving a modern car.

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