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Photostorie beginner's guide to film photography

I am always very surprised when someone gawks at the fact that I shoot film. Then again I get it. In the digital age, photography has never been more accessible than it is now. Every cell phone features a rather powerful camera, and those cameras, man are they becoming more advanced or what? Hell, every week a camera giant announces that they are about to release some affordable 50 megapixel-packing, wide color tonal range-offering contraption mounted with some serious glass. So, why am I using these old and dying clunks of metal that smell like a retirement home? Why are some people considering diving into film photography using these old techs?

For many starting out in photography in general, it can be daunting, especially when exposed to such a high influx of quality images on social media (many of which are achieved with these darn powerful cell phone cameras and some mobile editing app). It is even more so when thinking of reviving something that seems so outdated and makes one feel like only true masters handled that kind of stuff. Actually, I personally believe that understanding film photography and it’s basics truly develops a certain kind of photographer within.

Educate yourself.

Books

I know right, we are in 2018 after all, what am I talking about? That will put such a dead stop in your instant gratification momentum, you might just give up. If you are truly about that film life, trust me, the truth is in these books! I wish that was how I started, but since I learned my lesson, I’m passing it onto you. You cannot say photography without saying Ansel Adams.  Get yourself his series named The New Ansel Adams Photography Series divided into three parts, The Camera, The Negative, The Print.

Keep it simple

Camera

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on your first film camera. In fact, the only thing you need to worry about is that it works. Now, how could you possibly know, right? Okay okay, calm down. You have various options. Start by making sure you buy your camera somewhere reputable like KEH.com where they will tell you exactly the state of the camera. Another option is good old eBay, but if you are not used to buying on there and asking the right questions, Google it (lol). Avoid getting “scammed” by film camera hipsters. That Contax T3 is not for you yet. A simple 35mm SLR which usually comes with 50mm lens should do the job. In that alley, there are toooonnnns to chose from. Warning: some of these cameras are older than you.  The most popular ones are Canon AE-1, Nikon FM2, Pentax K1000, Minolta X700, and Olympus OM-1.

Film

Believe it or not, back then, there was a huge variety of films to choose from simply because experimenting with new film technologies was the sh*t! It was ridiculous. Some films were best for weddings, some for indoor portraits, others were great for landscapes or journalism. You will soon come face first with numbers. What the heck is 800 iso? why should I care? Well, if you followed my first tip (buying the Ansel Adams books or at least spent countless hours on Youtube), you’ll breeze right through the shopping cart with confidence (insert emoji with fuming nostrils here). For the sake of this write up though, I say start with a couple usual culprits: Black and whites such as Kodak Tri-X 400, Kodak Tmax100 and 400, and color negatives such as Kodak Color Plus 200 and The Kodak Portra lineup (160, 400, 800). Now, you really will have to experiment with various film manufacturers before settling on what really works for you, as in understanding why it works well for the type of shooting you prefer doing.

Make mistakes, tons of it

Good, you’ve made it this far! Remember what I wrote at the beginning of this write-up? “that understanding film photography and it’s basics truly develops a certain kind of photographer within”? Here is what I meant: You will develop instincts. Sure it can be argued that there are pros and cons to the whole “film vs digital” debate which honestly comes down to the photographer, but one cannot argue the fundamentals that get ingrained in your entire creative routine carry over to the digital realm. With film cameras, you are doing all the work. There is no checking the LCD for adjustments, there is no 250 frames shot checking the lighting conditions. So yes, be ready to come to negatives that are 90% bad when you’re first starting. We learn by repetition and by making mistakes and constantly correcting those mistakes. If you are like me and go shooting out of sheer excitement while skipping the initial details (such as reading the manual), well you are about to spend a lot of money on crappy shots (lol).

Experiment with everything, literally. Yes, I know, I am telling you to purposely make mistakes and waste that $5.00 36-exposure roll of film and your acrobatic skills. But film photography is not even about making that Instagram image, you have your phone for that. It is about seeing differently, thinking differently. It is about being disciplined, patient, adventurous and sensitive to the world around you. It is literally about experimenting with your imagination.

Developing. Yeah, your chemistry class is about to come in handy

Right, traditionally, developing was done in the dark, using several chemical baths to dunk your freshly shot film in. It still is, but we are in 2018 after all, the entire process has been upgraded to tank developing while watching Netflix and killing a bag of potato chips (don’t eat potato chips while developing…please). All you need are a couple film tanks, a film can opener, a thermometer, measuring cups (in ounces and milliliters), black film changing bag, chip clips, a squeegee, and obviously the right chemicals. Now if you are not confident about developing your rolls yourself, or maybe you cannot afford these aforementioned tools yet, you can always have them developed at your local lab or studio. But in my honest opinion, it is better to develop them yourself, simply because you have more control over the entire creative process, plus, you’ll really develop a bond with your work as you see it come to life right in front of you.

The shorter version

If you are lucky as I tend to be, find yourself a veteran, have him help you pick your very first 35mm Nikon Em, and live abroad with him in the same apartment. Live, eat, sleep, breath and poop film photography. Ask tons of questions and drive him nuts. Fly to Hong Kong and grab a taxi into town (while your next flight is in the following two hours) and go to Champagne court to pick up a Nikon Fe from legendary Mr. Chan and rush right back to the airport almost missing the flight, burn through tons of rolls of film shooting the same things, spend countless night inhaling fixer’s fumes. Get right back Stateside, only to realize that after buying yet 3 more 35mm’s, your very first Nikon Em was just fine.

 

Thank you DK.

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