Everything You Need to Get Started with Film Photography

There are still great — and even practical — reasons to shoot film in the modern age. 

Here's how to get started.

Smartphones have put a spectacular digital point and shoot in virtually every pocket, but film photography still has its charm -- and distinct advantages. Whether you're getting into it for the retro equipment or the uniquely good cost-proposition of shooting medium format photography on film, we've got you covered. Here's everything you need to know, from what camera to buy, to what film to shoot with it, to how to develop it at home.

Great Reasons You Should Be Shooting Film

Film photography tends to get romanticized these days. Aspiring Jurgen Tellers and Lomographers will wax poetic about the “transcendent experience of shooting film” and the “joy of just shooting.”

As an avid digital photographer I couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about, but I was willing to give it a shot. After about 72 rolls of film split 50/50 between 35mm and medium format over the past year (for those keeping track at home that’s about a DSLR in film and development costs) it’s safe to say that I’ve been won over. I’ll save you the metaphysics and poetry and get right into why I’m in love.
It's cost effective.

I know this sounds like a joke but bear with me. Medium-format film in particular has a bunch of really interesting advantages over puny 35mm roll film (and digital DSLRs). The depth of field is better because of the larger film area, images are sharper because they’re usually scaled up less than 35mm (which also allows them to be enlarged way more). And thanks to some optical trickery, they more closely emulate what the world looks like to the human eye. A roll of medium-format film has 12 frames and costs about $10 to buy and develop. Shelling out nearly a dollar per picture might seem unbelievably expensive until you consider the digital alternative.

If you want to shoot medium format digitally, get ready for some sticker shock. A mid-range digital medium-format camera will run somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000; an excellent one will be closer to $30,000. That’s the cost equivalent of a film-based Hasselblad 500C/M and 2,800 rolls of film. In fairness, you’ll need to buy a good scanner to get the best of your film shots, but even including that it’s still a significant savings unless you’re shooting a lot and getting compensated well for it. So concrete reason number one why I’m in love with film? I can get the amazing results of medium-format photography without auctioning off naming rights to my first-born.
It's a learning experience.

Every DSLR has a manual mode and manual focus, but — be honest — how many times have you used it while shooting day to day? Picking up a fully manual camera got me back to high school photo classes and reminded me of rules of thumb like “Sunny 16” and guide number flash distance. Stuff that I had completely forgotten came back quickly as I tried not to throw away money on muffed exposures. These days when I pick up a DSLR I still use autofocus and auto exposure, but I feel more aware of what the camera is doing and why — plus I’m able to change it if it’s wrong.

It was hard to not be stoked when I got to use two iconic cameras that both cost less than a quality Canon DSLR lens. As far as quality per dollar, you can’t beat a lot of old film cameras. Hell, a good-condition Leica M6 body can be had for $1,500 and that’s one of the most legendary cameras you’ll ever find. Look no further than our vintage camera buying guide if you want to know what I’m talking about.

It saves you from the post-processing rabbit hole.

One of the best parts about film is that things look so great right out of the camera. Fuji and Kodak have spent years and millions of dollars perfecting their films for beautiful levels of contrast, grain and color so all you have to do is focus and expose. Sure, you can edit your scans in Photoshop like everything else, but you really just don’t need to (save for some exposure stuff here and there). Compare this to shooting in digital RAW — where the whole point is that images look like shit out of the camera and absolutely need post processing — and you can see why it’s so relieving not to spend hours in Photoshop adjusting color balances and tone curves.

It's thrilling. Really!

This, like describing why you should do a kale juice cleanse, is the one that gets the most eye rolls when I try and describe why film’s great. And maybe I just have to concede and sound like a dick for a second. It’s really fun to shoot a roll of film, and that’s half because you have no idea what you’re going to come out with (if anything). The black box magic of photography is back. It isn’t a staid combination of ones and zeros that can be checked and adjusted ad infinitum, but rather light coming in and freezing little chunks of silver halide. You won’t get to see the results until the moment has long passed — and that’s pretty scary if it’s something important. It’s a little bit random and a little bit terrifying, but so rewarding when you get it right. And that’s the thing about film: you can talk about it endlessly and rationalize it with however many hundreds of words, but until you load a roll and give in to the haphazardness of this 200-year-old chemical process, you’ll never quite know what everybody else is on about.