Have you heard about the romantic notions surrounding film photography and wondered if you should give it a shot? If that isn’t you, then you must be young enough to have never used analog (film) cameras yourself, and are now curious about what film photography actually is.

What is film photography?

Put simply, film photography is using film to capture an image. Okay, captain obvious, but what is film?? Before talking about modern day film we’re going to quickly go through the precursor to film. Why you ask? We can’t fully appreciate the brilliance of digital photography without looking back at the inventions that made digital possible.

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A quick history lesson

The first “fast”, and publicly available processing of pictures was called the Daguerre process, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1837. A sheet of silver plated copper is polished, treated with iodine vapor to make it light sensitive and then exposed to light through a camera. The length of exposure ranged from seconds for brightly lit scenes to several minutes for darker scenes. The copper sheet at this point does not show any image. The image is developed (brought into visibility) by exposing it to mercury vapor. The copper sheet then has its light sensitivity removed by soaking in hot salt solution, otherwise another exposure to light ruins the photograph. The resulting image was extremely delicate and could be destroyed accidentally by simply touching the copper sheet. Due to the easily damaged nature of the materials, the image could not be replicated unless rephotographed and redeveloped.

Join us on a deeper dive into photographic history

Copper plate photographs quickly lead to more durable glass plates photographs. Then in 1889 the first transparent plastic film roll was available to the public; commonly known as nitrate film. This film was highly flammable so in 1908 Kodak invented the “safety film” cellulose acetate. This is the film that eventually dominated the film photography industry, and was widely used by amateur and professional photographers.

Modern day film

The “safety film” is actually made up of eight different layers. A film base, a subbing layer, one layer each of red, green, and blue light sensitive material. Film also has a yellow filter layer, a UV filter layer, and a protective layer. The film is developed by taking the negatives and inverting the shades of color to their respective complimentary colors, then transferring it to paper. A second inversion restores the image to its normal color and shade into a final print.

A photo is made according to how long the film is exposed to light. However film is produced to have a certain sensitivity to light, which is measured by the ISO scale. The smaller the ISO number (i.e. ISO 100) the slower the film is, and the more light it needs to be exposed to in order to produce a usable image. The ISO scale of film ranges from 25 up to 6400, exactly like you see in modern day cameras. In fact, the ISO scale of digital cameras is based upon film speeds. In both film and digital, the higher the ISO the more noise you’ll potentially see in your images. You can correct the noise in digital photography.

How is film photography different from digital photography?

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As noted above, film photography requires the use of film in the camera which is removed and processed to create prints. The part of the film used to create the print is called the negative, which can be used to replicate the print many times over. In digital photography, the camera has an electronic sensor rather than a chemical sensor. As you very well know, the digital camera shows the image taken within seconds of pressing the shutter button. The result is immediate.

Want to learn more about digital photography?

Digital photographs can be edited quickly and in batches, whereas film editing is much slower and more complicated. Because of the complexity of the film editing process, each edit is much more deliberate and thought out. You can experiment with different looks in digital photo editing, which can be erased with the click of a button.

What cameras do film photographers use?

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There is still a market for analog cameras, so you can go out and buy one. Look into some of these cameras:

  • Pentax K1000 – fully manual, only basic settings, practically indestructible
  • Leica M6 – the best of the best in film cameras
  • Mamiya RZ67 Pro II – SLR camera with lenses and viewfinders that can be switched out
  • Hasselblad 500C/M – like the Mamiya, but with Carl Zeiss lenses producing the sharpest images

What lenses do film photographers use?

Just like digital photography, film camera lenses follow similar focal lengths. There are 50mm, 80mm, 150mm lenses and more. Depending on the camera and the size of film used, the same length of lens can give varying results. For example, to get an view as close to what you see with your eyes you would need a 50mm lens on a camera with 35mm film. But on a large format camera you would need 4*5 inch film and a 150mm lens to achieve the same look. Macro, zoom, and wide angle lenses are also available for film cameras, it all depends on what type of look you’re going for in your images.

Why do photographers still use film cameras?

Despite the convenience of digital cameras, some photographers end up coming back to film photography. Film photographers say that due to the expensive cost of the film and the processing, they will think extra hard before pressing the shutter. They visualize the image before they take it in their minds and are not afraid to scrap an idea if it isn’t perfect. With less time spent taking photos, they have more time to interact with their subjects. Film photographers also learn very quickly how to properly expose their images. Because there is no reviewing images after taking them, they don’t make mistakes twice. Film photography has a distinct look to it, and digital photography has not matched the color rendition of film.

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It’s all about preference

There are no definitives in photography. Just because one person likes digital doesn’t mean it’s better than film. Sure, each format has advantages and shortcomings. That’s the beautiful thing about photography. The photographer learns to work with the shortcomings to produce beautiful images. And you can too, as long as you take the time to learn about your camera.

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