Film Photography for Noobs: 4 Simple Steps to Start Shooting Film

Film Photography for Noobs: 4 Simple Steps to Start Shooting Film

For humans of the digital age, film photography is a mystery. 

Where do you even get started?  Don't you need to mess with a bunch of chemicals to develop your film?  How do you share it?  Where can you even get film?

Film photography doesn't need to be complicated.  As your read this article, you will learn how to start shooting film in four simple steps.

STEP 1 - Get a 35mm film Camera

 This was my first film camera - a Canon FTb.  I still own it and use it today.

This was my first film camera - a Canon FTb.  I still own it and use it today.

Getting a film camera is the obvious first step to shooting film.  But where do you get one?

First, see if a family member has one.  It's very likely that your parents or an uncle has an old film camera collecting dust in their closet or attic.  They will probably be happy to give it to you and free up some storage space.

My first two film cameras were "hand-me-downs" from my parents.  One is a Minolta Maxxum that my Mom found at a yard sale for a few dollars.  The other is a Canon FTb that my Dad bought at a pawn shop in Seattle in the 1980s.  I still have both cameras.

 The Canon AE-1 is one of the most popular film cameras of all-time.  It's super reliable, easy to use and relatively inexpensive.

The Canon AE-1 is one of the most popular film cameras of all-time.  It's super reliable, easy to use and relatively inexpensive.

But what if you can't get one from a family member?  No problem.  It's super easy to find used film cameras in camera shops or online at places like ebay or KEH.com.  Sometimes you can even find them in thrift stores.

What camera should you get?  When you're starting out just get a 35mm film camera.  Any 35mm film camera will do.

If you don't know which one to get, here are a few under-$100 cameras I recommend:

  • Canon FTb
  • Canon AE-1
  • Olympus OM-1
  • Pentax K1000
  • Nikon FG-20

STEP 2 - Buy Some Film

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Now you're ready to get some film.  By far, the easiest way to buy film is to order it online.  Here are a few retailers with a good selection of 35mm film:

You can also buy film new on Ebay.  I've purchased film on ebay from some camera suppliers in Japan, since they offer some films that aren't available in the United States.  [list a reputable buyer here]

If you don't want to order online, you can also buy film in some stores, such as:

  • Local camera stores
  • Wal-mart
  • CVS or Walgreens

Before you hop in your car and head to the store though, it is worth it to call ahead and ask if they have any film for sale.  Many of these stores don't carry film anymore, especially chain places like CVS.  And if they do carry film, their selection is definitely limited, to say the least.

What Film Should You Buy?

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To keep things simple, there are two broad categories of 35mm film - color and black and white.  There are different kinds of films within these categories, but you don't need to worry about any of that when you're just getting started. 

Just decide whether you would prefer to shoot color or black and white (or both) and get some film.

Here are some films that I recommend.

Color Films:

Black and White Films:

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If you're interested in seeing the full range of options for film, Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography has a few useful guides linked below:

STEP 3 - Shoot the Film

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Now that you've got a camera and some film, it's finally time to shoot it. 

This is the exciting part but it can be somewhat nerve-wracking (kind of like a first date). You won't know whether the photos are coming out while you're shooting.  But that's part of the fun and excitement as well.

Luckily for you, film photography is much less complicated than say... brain surgery.  The basic rules of exposure, composition, and lighting still apply to film just like digital.  You just don't get that instant feedback to correct for mistakes.

If you don't know how to use your particular camera, there are plenty of camera tutorials on my YouTube channel.

If you can't find your camera on my channel, there is most likely another one out there.  Just do a search on YouTube or Google. (Here are my favorite film YouTube channels)

You can also probably find a PDF of your camera manual by searching on Google as well.  There are a number of fine folks who scan old manuals and share them online for free.

Another thing that will help you shoot is to download a light meter app for your smartphone.  There are many for free or as cheap as $0.99. 

The light meter apps will help you nail your camera settings.  It's a no-brainer investment if your camera doesn't have a built-in light meter (or a functional/accurate one).  I use one called Pocket Light Meter.

Once you've shot your film, you're ready to move on to the next step - film developing.

STEP 4 - Get Your Film Developed (and probably scanned)

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This step trips up a lot of people from even getting started.  They worry that they won't be able to get their film developed easily.  Or they worry about having to set up a darkroom to do it themselves.

But you don't need to worry about any of that.  Because there are film labs that will do all the work for you. 

When you're just starting out, it's worth it to send your film to a lab, rather than develop it yourself.  It just makes the process easier and more inviting.

Later on, if you're interested, you can try developing film yourself.  For now, just keep things real simple.

There are two main options for developing your film:

  • Local film lab (drop it off in-person)
  • Mail it to another film lab

I've done both and it's a pretty painless process.

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How to Find Local Labs

Is there a lab in your area that develops film?  You can usually find out with a simple Google Search.  For instance, I found Colortek (a lab I've used) by typing "film developing Boston" into Google.

Joey Ready from Awesome Cameras has also put together a cool film map on his website.  It has pins for labs that develop film all around the United States.  Check it out at this link.  Note: you'll probably have to zoom out on the map to navigate to where you want."

Mailing Your Film Out

Today I mail most of my film out for developing and scanning.  It's super easy and painless.  Most labs either have an order form you can download online and mail in with your film.  Or even better they have a system where you can place your order online and download a prepaid mailer to send your film to the lab.

What to expect:

Pay $10-15 for each roll you develop, plus return shipping of around $5-10.  It's more cost effective to send your film out in batches.  I usually wait until I have 4-5 rolls before I mail it out.

Labs I recommend:

Why Get Your Film Scanned?

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If you want to share your film photos on social media, then you need to get it scanned or digitized someway.  You can do this yourself by using a film scanner like the Epson V600 or Espon V750.  You can also use a smartphone app like FilmLab to scan your film.

But again, for simplicity's sake, it's worth it to get your film scanned by the lab that develops your film.  At least in the beginning.

Scanning film yourself introduces a host of other factors to consider, such as color correction, dust removal, etc.

STEP 4.1 - Rinse and Repeat

So there you have it.  That isn't so bad, is it?  Shooting film is a lot of fun and doesn't need to be complicated.  Lots of film elitists will tell you that you need to do this or you need to do that, but they're full of BS.  It's totally easy to dip your toes into analog photography without going through a bunch of complications or dealing with chemicals, dark changing bags, and expensive enlargers/printers.  Just grab a camera and some film, shoot it and let the film labs do the developing/scanning for you.

And Bada-bing,  bada-boom.  You're a film photographer now.

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About the Author

Dan Bullman is a portrait photographer and YouTuber based in Boston. He produces educational videos, gear reviews and other content to make you a better photographer faster.  His videos have been viewed over 1 million times.  His portrait work has been featured on accounts like @moodyports @followingboston and @portraitmeet.