So ya wanna get started shooting film?

Shooting film is a beautiful thing. Luckily people have been doing it for a century so as a medium film has been adapted to all levels of skill, interest, devotion, and economic means. This rabbit hole is deep but the hurdles to getting started are low. All it *really* takes is a thrift store/garage sale/parents’ junk drawer camera, a roll of film, and a nearby Walmart. As cool as they are you don’t really *need* a Lomo camera. If you just want to stick your toe in the film water and have fun, I’d suggest sticking with a point and shoot camera, the simpler the better. Something like a Kodak Cameo keeps it super basic and lets you focus solely on the taking of the picture. There’s no settings, no choices, just point it at something interesting and push the button. Now in that vein I’d also recommend any regular color film (not slide film!), in the 200-400 speed range. To have them developed I’d recommend Walmart’s send-out service, the little envelope stand usually near the camera section of the store. It’s the cheapest, but I think Walgreene’s still does it in store. Quick little note about finding film camera: stay away from odd formats like 127, 828, 126 and APS. In general you’re going to want either a 35mm, 120, or maybe a 110 camera. 110 film is tiny, the cameras are generally not great and enlargements beyond 5×7 are usually pretty bad. 35mm is probably your best bet to start, but and old 120 box camera like an Ansco Sure Shot will work also.

This is all well and good but soon you may experience the urge to upgrade. This is ok, but let me state a brief public photography service announcement. Most of what makes an image good or bad is what the camera is pointed at, not the camera you point at the subject. The goal should be to find something you enjoy using that produces images you like. Or to take it a step further, to find a process you love shooting that makes images you love. You may want to get out and explore other options to find more things you love, but the objective is not to use the most expensive equipment though they do have advantages.

Ok, back to upgrading. If you want to take a baby step forward, something like a Canon EPOCA or Photura is really fun. You have a zoom lens and everything else is automagic. Or if you want to go another route, the Yashica Electro is a focus-and-shoot rangefinder. The long venerated Canon AE-1 can be a focus and shoot SLR with a whole host of cheap used lenses available on secondary markets like ebay, keh.com, craig’s list, and pawn shops. There are literally 1000’s of choices of steps in this direction. The end point of this chapter in your film photography exploration ends pretty much when you want and are comfortable with fully manual cameras.

Once you’re ready for the fully manual experience complete with separate light meters and auto-nothing, you’re ready for “real” medium format. You can test out medium format with a box camera or a Holga and get the hang of handling the film. If you’re using color negative film you can keep using Walmart’s send out service though it will take longer to get your images back. “Real” medium format takes a bit of investment in the camera and film. You’ll probably have to buy the film online from a place like freestylephoto.biz. The most cost effective MF SLR cameras are 6×4.5. But for me a big part of the MF experience is the square format. TLRs will be the most cost effective option for 6×6, something like a Ricohflex will get you started, but Kowa 6 or a Lubitel might be an option. Most any 6×6 camera with shutter speed, aperture, and focus controls will cost over $100.

At some point you may want to try different films. Awesome! Slide film is fun and backwards from print film. It has higher contrast, more vivid colors, but unlike print film it handles under exposure better than over. Walmart can still handle slide film though the employees get confused by the lack of prints. Black and white film is a path many, myself included, find appealing. You will most likely process this yourself unless you want to send it out to a specialty services at around $10/roll +shipping both ways. Probably the best way to get into black and white is to buy a darkroom someone is selling nearby. Generally I wouldn’t pay more than $250 for a complete darkroom. You’ll probably have to clean everything, toss the chemicals, don’t trust the paper until its tested. Initially you won’t need the enlarger, trays, and print processing equipment, but clips, development tanks, graduates, etc will all come in handy. You’ll need to get and mix up a developer and a fix and at this point you’ll probably be asking for help specific to your film/developer on flickr groups or on boards like Apug.org. Also the massive dev chart at digitaltruth.com is a huge help.

Now I know buying a few developing tanks and graduates is way cheaper than a whole darkroom, but printing is WAY more fun than developing. Once you start printing you’ll definitely be hooked.

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  1. …regarding that “old” paper that comes with the used darkroom- don’t toss it, test it, and if it works, even only reasonably, use it to practice, practice, practice. I have processed hundreds of sheets of slightly fogged paper, it can be frustrating trying to get the contrast especially, but when I moved on to fresh paper each time, my skills and darkroom eyes were noticeably improved.