We are told that film is dead. Do not believe it. Film photography is alive and well. Here, we explore the joy of small film cameras for shooting films, and learn about some new films and where to process your beautiful film images. Are you feeling negative about film? If so, let me offer an easy, fun recipe below for getting into film photography.
Hurray For Hollywood
First, lets take a short detour to look at motion picture film. Hollywood still uses film for certain movies, like The Dark Knight Rises. It wasn’t until 2012 that at least half of Hollywood films were shot digitally. While costs are pushing directors to digital production, some use motion picture film stock particularly for historical and romance genres, as it makes actors look good. By the way, in 2011, there were 90 feet of film needed for every minute of movie, so every month, America needed enough film to encircle the world just to meet its demand for movies. Our earth is 24,900 miles in circumference at the equator.
- Konica Autoreflex T, Konica C35, Olympus Stylus film cameras.
35mm: Not the Last Roll
Kodak honored National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry by letting him process the final roll of Kodachrome slide film in 2010. The lab that processed his roll — Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas USA — runs 1000 rolls of film through their C41, E6 and D76 chemistry every day, including color negative, slide, and B/W film in 110, 120/220 and 135 formats. That’s right, 1000 rolls of film a day in March, 2011. That adds up to over 3 million film exposures developed every day just by customers of Dwayne’s Photo. It’s easy for some to think that because Kodachrome is gone, film is too. Not so.
A Hybrid World
Instead of seeing film as competition to digital, or pitting film against digital, consider that film and digital can co-exist. Film lovers can learn from digital and digital experts can embrace film. My favorite way to combine them is to shoot film and then have the negatives scanned.
- The Olympus XA2 has a clamshell design. This does away with a lens cover. It is a rangefinder. You preset focus with 3 distance icons.
While digital adds speed and flexibility, film is a vital way to experience photography at a slower pace and with the joy of mystery. The beauty of film becomes even clearer when you travel with a small, well-designed machine made for it.
There are many reasons to carry a small point-and-shoot film camera, even alongside your digital machine. It’s easy to fall in love with film when you have a camera you adore. One of the best cameras I bought this year cost me less than 5 dollars and is ideal for street and travel photography. When I was photographing a digital assignment in Florida, I found Olympus XA2 point-and-shoot film camera in a dusty box at a local Goodwill store. This little Olympus offered the promise of shooting some of my time-honored films.
The Joy of Mystery
If you have only used a larger camera, shooting with a small film camera also gives you a different tactile experience, in part because of the size difference between the two (photo below) . Grab your camera from purse or pocket, load film, raise the viewfinder to your eye, breathe, gently press the shutter, hear the soft click. Wind. Repeat. Rewind. Process yourself or send your rolls in. Now, wait and wonder: did I get the shot? Was it sharp? When the secrets on that roll of film are developed, if you are like me you may have forgotten what was even on the roll. Seeing your timeless shots can give you the urge to load more film into the camera.
Five Joys of the Small Film Camera
- A small, dark-bodied camera lets photographers be unobtrusive. We’ll explore this more below.
- Even when your subjects are aware of it, a small dull-looking camera takes away a barrier between you and your subject that a large expensive-looking camera can create.
- The small film camera can make instantaneous, natural-looking images easier to take.
- Anticipation is a key to creating spontaneous imagery. Because the focus, aperture and shutter are all preset on a small point-and-shoot camera, I find it easier to focus only on the scene. Paying attention to the scene, not the camera, and not the settings on the camera, improves my composition.
- The small film camera breaks two bad habits. First, photographers can not “spray and pray,” a method sometimes used for nature action imagery with fast auto-advance digital cameras. Second, since there is no LCD screen, there is no time wasted in habitually looking at every shot immediately after capture, or “chimping”.
Shutter on The Sly
Each moment I press the red shutter button on my Olympus to photograph, I’m secretly enthralled. Perhaps it has to do with the sheer physical joy of taking pictures with it, or maybe it is the mystery, simplicity or the anonymity it brings to the process. Featherlight, its clamshell design captures images more surreptitiously than digital SLR’s with noisier shutter volumes. The whisper quiet shutter sound is well below ambient noise levels. This makes the small Olympus ideal for making images on the sly.
But do not take my word for it. Try this recipe yourself to explore the pleasures of working with a small film camera and save some money in the process.
Film Photography Recipe
Start: Find a Camera
Start a search for a film camera online or in a second hand store. There are lots of inexpensive options. ( Money Saving Tips: I found the Olympus XA-2 for $4.23 in a Florida Goodwill store and an Agfa Isolette medium format camera for $7).
- The Agfa Isolette with a roll of 120 medium format film is an elegant travel solution. Sturdy, foldable and lightweight, this machine takes surprisingly good images.
Two: Tune up the Film Camera
Clean your camera. Change the batteries. If you have a classic camera and can’t locate film, check out www.filmforclassics.com .
Run a roll of slide film through to check the shutter speeds. Slide film is less forgiving of over and under exposure issues. Make sure at some point that sunlight hits all the outside of the camera so you can check the processed film to see if there are any light leaks that will ruin other rolls you shoot. With processed negatives, also look for scratches on the developed film. Get comfortable with how the camera focuses. Practice so you know the minimum focusing distance. Take high contrast, low contrast and back lit shots to check the lens.
Four: Process your Film at the Store
For processing in the US, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS are all good options. Arguably, the store you go to does not matter, but your relationship with the photo staff and how consistently they monitor and change the chemistry in the processors does matter. The C41 color chemistry process is popular, because it can be used to push-process film, and most labs have it. Get a CD/DVD when you order prints; jpegs on disk give you a valuable backup for your pictures, and you can print from the disk at any kiosk. Look at the prints and compare the sharpness at the edge to the sharpness in the center of your images.
In the UK, try DS Colour Labs and Timpson. In the US, consider joining Costco, which uses Fuji Frontier and Noritsu QSS printers. For 13 cents you get a 4″ x 6″ print, 8 x 10’s are $1.49, 12” x 18” prints at Costco are $2.99 each and 20 x 30 posters are only $9. You can take them your CD with digital files for printing.
Money Saving Tip: Sharp Photo and Arlington Camera in Texas charge about $2 and $2.99 to process/develop and scan 35 mm negatives, either 24 or 36 exposures.
Target Photo develops 35 mm negatives for only 94 cents when you get next day development. Get the Target Photo CD for $1.99. Skip the Kodak CD because their Easy Share software does not work well, in my experience. Target’s CD, with low and high resolution scans, has better quality and is less expensive than the Kodak CD.
Five: Share Your Joy
I relax when I hand my cheap, small camera to children whose language I cannot speak, if they have never seen a camera and want to try photography for the first time. Another way to share the joy is with prints. Share your beautiful pictures with your friends and clients by snail mail. Why? Consider that we save printed pictures for years, but often delete emailed images, either by not making time to view them or because we are emptying our email in box.
Not only are Fuji and Kodak keeping film alive, but new films just came onto the market. While the news of Kodachrome’s end is well known, the birth of 4 new film emulsions from Kodak have not received much press. Here’s a quick look at three new films:
NAME ISO SPEED FORMATS AVAILABLE
Kodak Ektar 100 35, 120, 220, 4 x 5, 8 x 10
Kodak Portra 160 35, 120, 220, 4 x 5, 8 x 10
Kodak Portra 800 35, 120 (120 & 220 are medium format).
- Portra is a widely used film by wedding and portrait professionals, at ISO 160, 400 and 800, and in formats from 35 mm to 8 x 10.
You Press the Button
With your film camera, you capture one mysterious moment at a time. When you have a lab process your film, in each soft click of your shutter is an echo of the Kodak ad motto: “You press the button, we do the rest.” This will let you concentrate on just the joy of doing photography. So, find that F5, nuzzle that n90, cradle that K-1000, clutch that Canon AE-1, grab that G-1, let loose that Leica. Film is alive, and will be around for a long time to come.
- From 1997 to 2017, my loud, heavy, blacked-out Nikon n90s film camera has been around the world and has never failed me.