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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128 Comments

Previous comments
Edmund Devereaux's picture

The inconvenient truth, people learn photography now with a phone for the most part so while film is nice it will never be the way most people learn ever again.

Sean Sauer's picture

I disagree. Digital offers immediate feedback so new photographers can self correct and learn faster. No waiting for development and then realizing the 12 images they took were all crap and then wondering what they did wrong. With digital they can fix/troubleshoot any problems in seconds. It also allows for fast experimentation or critiques from an instructor. As for a lot of people not taking good images I'd attribute that to the tech being easier to use so there's a lot of bad or medocre photographers picking up cameras that probably should stick with their iPhones. Film is a nice hobby if people want to get into it but it's not a starting point.

Uhhhh. The author runs a film processing lab??? Could it be that he likes film for monetary reasons? Just asking.

Other than that, remember, if you want to do multi-track audio recording, start off with a Teac 8-track Reel-to-Reel tape machine. I am sure recording to analog tape and having 8 tracks will make it better, because who doesn't like ping-ponging their mix?

Steven Rice's picture

Film vs Digital is the perfect click-bait comment thread flame war topic for a photography website but overall a pretty bad conversation to have with any real living people and I recommend you just don't do it because it is always just this:

-Film guys like shooting film. They will tell you why they like it and sometimes their reasons are pretentious but ultimately whether they state it or not, they are just telling you, "I like film and it works for me and if you feel like your photography is stuck you may want to give it a shot because you might like it" which is a totally banal and fine opinion to have. Telling someone that they can only become a great photographer by using film is obviously false and I'm not sure how many people actually take that position.

-Then there are the digital guys that come in and get defensive when the subject of film comes up because they feel looked down on or something and they tell you all kinds of reasons why you should never try film but again it all basically boils down to a statement like, "I like digital and it works for me so I don't feel a need to try film and you shouldn't feel obligated to do so either" which is again like a totally banal and fine opinion to have. Like no one is forcing anyone to shoot film, my dude.

As for my stake in this, similarly to what I'm sure is at least 70% of enthusiast photographers, I shoot both digital and film with varying frequency and own several of both types of camera. I like to use film cameras for personal and artistic photography and I use my digital cameras for work. If you want to try film, feel free to take the advice in the article. If you don't want to try film feel free not to take the advice in the article.

It's not that serious, guys.

I love photography. I don't love film. Film is just a means to an end, and happily no longer the only means to that end. I shot film in from 1970s to the early 2000s. I would never go back to film. I've even tried going back. No way. It does nothing for me. I would not recommend it to anyone except as a fun project to try once. Contrary to the article, film does zero "color work". Film color is often wrong, just as digital color is often wrong. When I shot film, I had about 10% keepers, same as with digital. Never 90%.

Daniel Medley's picture

Man, I could not disagree more with the gist of this article. Most of the "benefits" that are touched on in the first part regarding film can be had by shooting JPEG instead of raw. Learning photography is always going to have a learning curve. The learning curve is hugely shorter with digital than film. And hugely less expensive. Shoot a pic, look at the back of the camera, see where it went wrong vs buying film, shooting 12 or 24 exposures, sending it away and paying for processing, waiting for it to come back and seeing where you may have gone wrong.

Oy.

And with a cheap card reader you don't have to hook anything up to your computer other than the reader itself. Pop the card out, put it in a reader, load of the JPEGS in ANY image program. What, 10 seconds? Windows Photo Viewer would do just fine, and it's free. In fact many laptops and desktops already have a card reader built in.

No, unless someone specifically wants to get into film photography, the best thing is to have them buy a decent older generation camera; hell, you can find D5200s all day long on eBay for $200 or less, buy a card reader for $15, DON'T buy any special software and just shoot in JPEG only while branching out into different manual modes. It's at this point that the new shooter will determine if they want to go "all in" as it were. Then they can start experimenting with shooting raw and taking the next steps to acquire software to process raw files. Or, if they're perfectly happy, simply stick with JPEG.

Phill Holland's picture

Instant feedback to see what you've done is perhaps too valuable a commodity to give up as a learning tool. Why didn't this photo come out how I expected it to?

F-stops, shutter speed and ISO freak out newbies and I'd say it's more important to create a safe space for experimentation that doesn't cost X per click. Overloading them with technical details too soon tends to squash the creative reasons why they wanted to try photography in the first place.

I love and miss the film process, but I'm an odd sort of puppy who loves sitting alone in a dark room getting high on chemicals.