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I've been toying with the thought of starting analog (film) photography for a while. Buying a film SLR and the equipment to develop and print the photos doesn't seem to be too expensive.

Now my question: Does it make sense to do this? Did anyone of you do this, too?

I don't really have a clue about the film equipment, as well as the development and printing processes. So if you have any concrete tips or know any tutorials that could help me, please post them!

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1  
+1 for this question, because of the quality of the answers it has inspired! –  Benjol Mar 16 '11 at 6:34
    
Thanks to everybody for your responses! :) –  eWolf Mar 30 '11 at 7:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 27 down vote accepted

It depends on what you are after from the experience. Are you playing with it just to see what wacko images you can get that are 'different' or 'alternate' to digital? In other words, are you exploring film like you would a Holga, a pinhole, or a lensbaby? then don't bother reading on. If, on the other hand, you are exploring film because you want to understand the history of photographic processes, or you want a deeper understanding of how photons end up making images, then this answer might interest you.

To me, it only makes sense to even start doing film photography today (outside of simple curiosity) if you plan on going all the way: hand developing and printing. Else, it doesn't seem anywhere close to the bother. I'd actually advocate for the truly strong of stomach to go rent a 4x5 view camera and shoot a box of film and tray-develop it (maybe don't do this until you have done some 35mm or 120 film first).

35mm film is just about the worst of all worlds these days as far as actually doing real photographs, just about the only reason to do 35mm film is for the learning experience of how film behaves and what the photochemical process do. For this didactic reason, there's a lot you can learn from film. But I'd argue that you won't get it by just shooting the roll and sending it out--you gotta hand develop. Again, with 35mm, it doesn't seem at all worth it just to shoot a roll and send it out. The processing that 99.5% of all labs are going to do to that film is like D-76 or some other crappy film dev. That's just going to give you crappy film results so what would you learn from that? Then they will print it on some crappy paper and you won't get any understanding of the printing process either (else they send back scanned neg files). Doesn't make any sense to me--nowhere worth the hassle.

Now, if you take the time to learn what the old masters did (i.e. developing in ABC pyro film developer and printing on something like Elite Fine Art or better yet to hand-coated platinum), THEN you are making it worth your while. You get to experience the mercurial and arcane world of film at it's finest. This is NOT easy, but you actually get something for your troubles.

So, in short, I'm suggesting that if you are interested in film photography, that you go all the way.If you are on a monastic quest to 'get' film photography so you can become an overall better photographer or simply have a fuller appreciation for the medium, I'd suggest the following progression. Call it a auto-didactic degree curriculum in old skool photochemical techniques. Note, I'd suggest NOT stopping at 101 if you bother starting. The really good stuff comes at 400. You can do the 400 level before the 300. If you complete the Ph.D. I'll send a picture to you of myself genuflecting to your greatness.

Film 101 level course:

  1. get a cheap 35mm (borrow or buy) camera.

  2. shoot a few rolls of film & develop in a GOOD developer. See Adams "The Negative" or other zone system texts for descriptions of good film devs. D-76 is basically crap. don't even bother.

  3. Print on some high quality paper. I don't even know what's available these days. Back in the dark ages, I used Kodak Elite Fine Art. Prob doesn't exist any more. If you can, buy a film/print darkroom setup on ebay. super cheap. else use college facility if available. Note: don't even bother with the cheap stuff. Doesn't make sense. You are doing this course for the learning, not because it's practical. Get full value out of your investment: buy the best softgoods, rent the best film equipment.

Film 300:

  1. Rent/borrow a Hasselblad or comparable 120 roll film camera. There are some truly sweet 120 film cameras out there. repeat step 2 and 3 from Film 100. 120 film cameras are a world unto themselves, deserving contemplation.

Film 400:

  1. Rent/borrow a 4x5 view camera kit. Get a good one if you can. using a 4x5 is a truly landmark experience for photographers. You will learn SO much about photography by using a view camera.

  2. shoot a 25 sheet box of 4x5 film. repeat 2 and 3.

Masters Level:

  1. learn an alternate/historic photographic printing process. Gum or Platinum/Palladium is a great place to start. Palladium is probably the best in terms of ease of learning and expense. contact print one of your 4x5 negs.

Ph.D/fellowship:

  1. Do a wet plate collodian negative and print it with photogravure. If you do this, YOU ARE A GOD.

Upon graduation, I fully expect you to have gained photographic insights comparable with forms of mysticism (trips to Mecca, fasts, prayer vigils, month long meditations). You will also then have to resist the urge to make love to your digital camera, given your newly found respect for how freaking easy it is to use. Moreover, when you look at the stunning images of the old film masters, you will have a much better appreciation of how skilled and patient they were. Note that many incredible images were done with what I'm calling a Ph.D. level of knowledge.

Oh, and if you get around to shooting a 4x5, then look at Mary Ellen Mark's photography... you might notice the tell-tale signs of 4x5 negatives shot in the the most intimate of locales (bathrooms, bedrooms, etc). Getting images AT ALL with a 4x5 takes skill... using a 4x5 as a documentary camera to capture the decisive moment requires.... um. . . whatever the word is that denotes 'something more than skill obtainable by a human'. You may not be the uber-photographer of your dreams by completing this course, but you WILL have a much better appreciation of those who are.

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Please note that shooting a 25-sheet box of 4x5 is not possible the first time out. You will waste a number of sheets learning how to load the holders -- even if you practice for weeks with a scrap sheet somebody gives you for the purpose, you're going to crease something, miss the slot on one side or miss seating the dark slide properly on something like half the first box of film. And you'll probably scrape the emulsion off of half the sheets you do expose while developing. Call it an initiation to the club. –  user2719 Mar 15 '11 at 23:12
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@stan: good point. Not to mention the ruined negs from dust and hair in exactly the wrong spot. But these are the sorts of things someone who would bother with this would want to learn, right? I should have said 'attempt to shoot a 25 sheet box' –  Kevin Won Mar 16 '11 at 2:55
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+1 just for style :) –  Benjol Mar 16 '11 at 6:30
    
buy two 25 sheet boxes :D +1 for this great answer –  JoséNunoFerreira Sep 27 '11 at 10:58

Oh, it may not seem expensive right away, but every time you hear the shutter click it's costing you money. I had it really bad -- I had to start turning tricks (er, shooting weddings -- it's the same thing as far as I'm concerned) to support my habit.

That said, shooting film can be very rewarding. Or, rather, shooting black and white film can be very rewarding. Colour makes you a slave to the process, and will make you intimately familiar with all of the nuances of meaning contained in the innocent-looking phrase "reciprocity failure". (Want to make a one-second exposure adjustment in that print? It's going to take an hour of making test strips to figure out the new filter pack for the exposure, even if you have a dichromic enlarger. And burning and dodging colour prints is its own special little acre of Hell.) There is no real advantage to shooting 35mm colour film; digital gives you far more control over the end product without locking you into any decisions you make along the way. If you ever go to medium format, then it'll be a lot of lab and film charges before a used Bronica becomes anywhere near as expensive as a low-end digital MF back (Hasselblad and Mamiya both have "entry-level" cameras that only cost as much as an economy car, if you're interested).

With black and white, you really do need to go to the darkroom to make it worthwhile. It's the ability to adjust the contrast both globally and locally that makes the difference between a photograph and the snapshot you'd get from turning your Brownie 620 film over to the druggist. A lot of the drama is going to come from film choice and the filters you use when shooting (and you almost always need to use some kind of a filter), but much more comes from the development of the negatives, the choice of paper contrast, and burning and dodging.

The thing is that you can't just jump into pushing and pulling and so on with both feet -- you need to understand "straight" pictures first. That takes direct experience, and a bit of care and attention. It won't take you very long to figure out that "straight" pictures are almost always a disappointment (studio pics are an exception, since you can use lighting and filtration to micromanage the contrast and tonality at the time of the exposure). They'll either be flat and lifeless (just a page full of grey yech) or you'll run out of room and be left with either pure white, pure black, or both, in parts of the picture.

Oh -- "standard" negative development is rarely satisfactory. Most B&W shooters have found that a slight "pull" (overexposing by 2/3-1 stop and underdeveloping by a few seconds) gives both smaller grain and a longer tonal scale to work with. If you want to do the Ansel Adams thing (as opposed to the gritty Life magazine photojournalism thing), then standard souping is not where you want to go. But you have to know what to adjust and by how much, and that means starting with the standard and changing (and recording those changes for later reference -- you don't want every roll of film to be a science experiment).

Now, a pro lab won't leave you there (unless you give them clear written instructions to do so), but a pro lab isn't going to give you a 4x6 print for a quarter, either. You will at least want to look at a contact sheet (or, when you have enough experience reading them, the developed negatives) before making a print order. Unless you are expecting to do high-volume print production, it's almost always easier to do things yourself. Even if you are doing high volume, you'll usually want to make contrast, burning and dodging decisions for yourself -- you're the artist. You can't really make decisions about the process until you understand the process, and that means getting in there, experimenting, and making a few mistakes along the way.

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I wouldn't jump straight in to developing personally. I would (and have) get a good film SLR (ridiculously cheap these days) and have the film developed at a good shop. That way if you decide film photography is not for you, you haven't wasted money on a load of developing equipment. If you enjoy it, go ahead and invest in developing.

Film photography is well worth a go. It forces you to assess a scene more critically beforehand and think about your settings, rather than the shoot-and-adjust methods you can resort to with digital.

Otherwise, film photography is very similar to digital. The controls of a relatively modern film SLR will be very similar to their digital equivalent. My EOS film SLR has Scene modes as well as Av, Tv, P and M modes, various metering modes, various shooting modes, and exposure compensation.

If you are not already familiar with it, you will need to pay more attention to the in-camera light meter, but that's about it. If you are lacking confidence, you can always take a shot with your digital, then match the settings on your film camera.

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Film is worth doing, but not with an SLR IMHO. A film SLR does not give you anything a DSLR does not. A Leica, now, that is a different kettle of fish entirely! Corner-to-corner crispness from the lens (any lens, basically - rangefinder lenses are comparatively easy to build compared to SLR lenses and any cheap Voigtländer will give a top-of-the line SLR lens a run for its money) and with a good, low-ISO film it will rival or surpass digital in image quality. And all this in package smaller than an SLR with kit lens. Given a good scanner and decent postprocessing, of course. On high ISO, forget it - digital is so much better than film in that regime that it is not even funny. A good 100 ISO slide film on the other hand - I am partial to Kodak's E100 series personally - is at least as good as what my Canon 1Ds mk II can output.

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+1 for mentioning film rangefinders. I guess you could get a digital rangefinder if you wanted to spend $5,000 or more for a Leica, but there are tons of film rangefinders available for dirt cheap that can be a lot of fun. –  unexplainedBacn Sep 2 '11 at 4:00

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