Film Cameras Forever!

Want to go against the grain? Here's a guide to choosing and using traditional cameras and film in the digital age

Why use a traditional film camera in the midst of the brave new digital age? There are many good reasons for doing so, some practical, some emotional or even (dare I say it?) philosophical.

For starters, film is an analog medium with known permanence characteristics that will be able to be optically printed in the foreseeable future and beyond. Film can deliver extremely high image quality. Color negative films can provide impressive exposure latitude (from about 1-1/2 stops under to 3-1/2 stops over), slide films offer a selection of distinctive color palettes, and black-and-white films each have their own unique tonal characteristics. And while the gap is narrowing, many high-end wedding and portrait photographers insist that film still gives more pleasing and subtle skin tones and highlight details than digital. When you shoot film, you are creating a permanent record for the ages, not something you can erase by pressing a few buttons.

In the initial phase of the digital revolution, film shooters were treated condescendingly as old fogies, but nowadays photographers using film are often accorded an extra measure of respect--like traditional artists or craftspeople.

What's available now? Read The Best Film Camera Bargains Right Now! and  Used 35mm SLR Bargains to keep up with the latest availability and (falling) prices. Also be sure to read My five favorite films.  

On the practical side, if you have a treasured film camera that has served you well, it makes sense to use it, and film cameras are now available new and used at astoundingly low prices. Finally, while shooting on film is inherently more exacting than shooting digital because you're paying for each frame (and you can record far fewer images on a roll of film than you can on a high-capacity memory card), shooting film is a heck of a lot of fun, precisely because it is more challenging, demanding, and maybe a bit contrarian.

Film camera tips and techniques

Handling film

The light-sensitive, image-capturing layer of film is composed of silver-halide grains that are subject to aging, fogging and heat damage. Film should therefore be stored in a cool, dry place (refrigeration and freezing can prolong its life) and never in a hot place such as the glove compartment of a car. To prevent possible light fogging, film should never be handled or loaded into a camera in bright sunlight, but in the shade or, as a last resort, in the shadow of your body.

Always try to use film well before its expiration date, but be aware that properly stored black-and-white film will give good results up to about two years after its expiration date, color films about one year past expiration. Film stored in a refrigerator at about 45 degrees F can be used immediately. If you store film in the freezer (about 0 degrees F), do so before the expiration date if possible, and thaw it out at room temperature for at least 12 hours before use.

Loading film

When loading manual 35mm cameras, make sure to attach the film leader securely and squarely to the take up spool, then wind the film (firing the shutter if necessary) until you can see that sprocket holes at the top and bottom of the film are properly engaged by the sprocket wheel teeth. Make sure the film is lying flat across the film guide rails, close the camera back and turn the rewind know in the direction of the rewind arrow (usually clockwise) until you feel slight tension. Now wind the film to frame number 1--as you do the rewind knob will turn counterclockwise to verify that the film is being transported properly.

With roll film cameras, make sure the paper leader is firmly attached to the take-up spool (crimp it if necessary), that the paper leader is passing correctly under or over any film-guide or film-counter rollers, or under any film guide devices (e.g. Hasselblad V-series)--check the manual for the proper procedure. With cameras having manual first-frame positioning, wind the film until the arrows on the paper backing coincide with the loading marks (typically red dots on the film guide rails). Now close the camera, and wind to frame 1. Important: Make sure the pressure plate and film counter are properly set for the film type you are using (120 or 220) on cameras having this feature.

With 35mm cameras that feature auto-wind and easy loading, pull the leader end out to the loading mark (usually a red or orange line to the right of the film aperture, make sure the film is lying flat, and close the camera back. If the film has been properly loaded a ????will be displayed on the frame counter LCD. If loading was not successful, you will see a flashing cartridge icon. Auto-loading roll film cameras have similar features--check your manual for details.

Rewinding film

With manual 35mm cameras, make sure to rewind the film before opening the camera! This is by far the most common cause of ruined pictures with manual, mechanical 35mm cameras.

With manual cameras, stop winding the film as soon as you feel tension on the film-wind lever or knob--do not attempt to wind to the next frame or you can tear the film. Now push in the rewind button or push the rewind lever to rewind (R) position, and turn the rewind crank (usually clockwise) as indicated by the rewind direction arrow. Note, with some cameras, you can press the rewind button in and it will stay in until the film is rewound. With other cameras, you must hold the rewind button in as you rewind.

When rewinding is nearly completed, you will feel some tension on the rewind knob as the film disengages from the take-up spool. If you now turn the rewind knob an additional 1/2 to 1 full turn before opening the camera, a small amount of film leader will remain outside the cartridge--a convenience in reloading a partially exposed roll. To rewind the leader all the way in, just continue rewinding for a few more turns after you feel tension on the rewind knob.

Using the rewind button for multiple exposures

With most manual 35mm cameras lacking a specific multiple exposure feature, you can shoot double or multiple exposures by taking the first shot, then pushing in the rewind button, stroking the film-wind lever to cock the shutter, and taking additional pictures on the same frame. Pressing in the rewind button disengages the sprocket shaft so you can cock the shutter and take additional exposures without advancing the film. With some cameras (e,g, rangefinder Leicas) , you must flip the lever to rewind position, return it to advance position, and then wind to cock the shutter. Obviously, if your camera has provision for multiple exposures it's more convenient to use this feature than any of the above.

Shutters and how they work

Focal-plane shutters, as their name implies, use curtains or metal blades that move horizontally or vertically across the focal plane. They are not, of course actually in the focal plane, where the film is located, but usually a millimeter or two in front of it. Basically, focal-plane shutters operate by forming a slit in between the first (opening) and second (closing) shutter curtains that scans across the film to expose it sequentially. Only at slow speeds (1/30 sec or slower) is the entire shutter open for a finite period.

An advantage of focal-plane shutters is that they can provide very fast speeds--up to 1/12,000 sec in some cases. A disadvantage is that their top flash sync speed is often pretty slow--1/30-160 sec with some medium-format cameras, 1/125 sec or so with many 35mm cameras. This can lead to ghost images when shooting flash pictures in bright light. However, many modern focal-plane-shutter 35mm SLRs, manual, automatic, and autofocus, provide a top X-sync speed of 1/250 sec and some use pulsed flash systems allowing sync speeds up to 1/4000 sec, albeit only at close shooting distances.

Leaf shutters, also known as inter-lens shutters because their blades are usually located in between the lens elements, are found on some vintage 35mm rangefinder cameras, many medium-format SLRs, and most twin-lens reflex cameras. Their blades move radially (their paths are like curved spokes of a wheel) with respect to the lens axis, an imaginary line passing through the center of the lens. The advantages of leaf shutters include flash sync at all speeds (typically to 1/500 sec) and very quiet operation. Their disadvantages: Relatively modest top speeds of 1/500 sec, rarely 1/800 sec, and the fact that a separate leaf shutter must be fitted to the lenses of most interchangeable-lens leaf-shutter cameras.


Proper exposure is particularly important with film cameras because you can't check the results instantly on the LCD as you can with a digital camera. As mentioned, exposure is less critical with color negative films, which have a wide exposure latitude, but some black-and-white films will yield grainy results when overexposed more than about 1 stop, and color slide films generally have less than 1/2 stop of latitude on the overexposure side, and less than one stop on the underexposure side.

Film cameras with basic through-the lens (TTL) center-weighted metering systems deliver a reasonable percentage of accurate exposures when metered from shooting position providing the lighting contrast is not too high or the lighting conditions unusual. However, you will achieve a higher percentage of accurate exposures if you take a close-up reading of an important subject area (such as a face), set the camera or hold the reading, then recompose and take the shot.

Using your camera's partial (limited area) or spot metering feature will let you do this from camera position. Many modern film cameras, especially autoexposure and autofocus SLRs, provide multi-pattern or evaluative metering options that can greatly improve your chances of getting accurate exposures in difficult lighting conditions. Also, don't overlook separate handheld exposure meters, which often provide true 1-degree spot readings, incident light metering capability, and the ability to average multiple spot readings.

Bracketing is way to get the perfect exposure used by many pros, Basically bracketing entails taking a series of exposures, one at the "proper" metered exposure and additional ones at 1/2, 1 or 1-1/2 stops over and under that central point. With slide films bracketing at 1/2-stops or even 1/3-stops from about 1-1/2 stops under to 1 stop over the metered exposure will almost always get you one perfectly exposed slide. With negative films, bracketing at 1- stop intervals from 1 or 2 stops under to 1 or s stops over is more efficicient. Many modern cameras feature built-in auto-bracketing which lest you set both the intervals and range of the bracket, a great convenience.

Filter tips

Filters are light modifiers, usually made of glass or acetate, that are placed in front of the camera lens to accomplish a range of different tasks. The three most popular and essential filter types are protective filters, polarizing filters, and special-effects filters. Protective filters such as UV or Skylight filters protect your expensive lenses from physical damage and help remove a touch of bluishness from some scenic pictures with an expanse of sky or pictures made over water. Polarizing filters, probably the single most useful filter type, minimize or eliminate reflections on water or glass, intensify colors and bring out clouds, and you can observe their effects directly in the viewfinder of your 35mm or medium-format SLR and control the effect by turning the front ring of this two-piece filter.

Special effects filters come in a huge range of effects--starbursts, various degrees of soft focus, warming, cooling, color intensifying, etc.--all predictable effects that can be pre-visualized in your SLR's viewfinder. When buying a polarizing filter, spend the extra money to get a circular polarizer which (unlike a linear polarizer) will not affect the accuracy of through-lens metering and autofocus systems. For more about filters, see our guide to optical filters.

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