How to Cheat at Film Photography – Simple Tips for Making Better Photos

Film photography can be hard. The learning curve is often steep, and blasting through twenty rolls of film as we learn the ropes can be a costly and frustrating experience. This barrier to entry may even cause some of us to quit, which is a shame, since there are few experiences in photography as rewarding and exciting as making amazing images on film.

But it doesn’t have to be so tricky. Here are a few simple tricks that will help both new and experienced shooters immediately improve their results when shooting with film.


Use a modern film camera

We know you love the K1000, we all do. But it’s a basic camera, and it may be holding you back (especially if you’re trying film or photography for the first times). I know modern cameras don’t have quite the charm of older machines, but if your chief concern is making gorgeous images, you may want to try one.

Cameras like Minolta’s Maxxum line, Nikon’s N series, and Canon’s entry-level EOS SLRs may not look as stylish as something like an AE-1, but these “basic” cameras from the 1990s are in almost every way superior machines to the SLRs from the 1970s that everyone seems to swoon over. Even the cheapest of cameras from the ’90s and ’00s come with built-in features with which cameras like the K1000 can’t possibly compete. Full PASM shooting modes including full auto and semi-auto, exposure compensation, multi-exposure bracketing, dynamic light metering, and, holy smokes, autofocus! No more blurry subjects. Imagine…

These humble cameras are the product of decades of innovation. By the 1990s, camera makers had solved nearly every problem that had hindered photographers for much of the previous fifty years. They handle like the DSLR and mirrorless cameras we’re all used to today, so operation will be more immediately comfortable for shooters born in the digital age, and they usually cost about half what a more “hip” camera costs. If there’s one simple way to “cheat” at the craft, this is it. Get yourself a more modern camera. Your camera will be more versatile, and your images will be better.

Shoot in aperture-priority / shutter-priority

If you’re a new shooter, you may not know what the terms aperture-priority and shutter-priority mean, but they’re not complicated. Essentially these are semi-automatic shooting modes in which the shooter sets one parameter of an exposure and the camera sets the other. These modes allow greater control than if we were shooting in Program mode while providing a more streamlined methodology than full manual might. For those new to the craft, shooting in one of these modes is the best way to see how changing the parameters of one setting will impact the other, and the final image.

Aperture-priority is great for those who want command of their depth-of-field (bokeh balls!), and shutter-priority is great for those who want to capture a sense of motion or slow things down visually by freezing fast moving subjects. But what’s most impressive about shooting in these modes is that we’re able to control the aspect of the final image that we most care about, while letting the camera’s brain ensure that our final shot will be properly exposed. For this reason, we’re able to get the style of photo that we want, while avoiding mistakes of under- or over-exposure.

And these modes aren’t just excellent tools for those looking to learn photography, they’re also extremely useful for experienced shooters who simply want to make better photos. That’s because they speed up the shooting process and allow us to focus on the parts of photography that really matter – composition, framing, storytelling; the “why” of a photograph.

Use exposure compensation

This tip augments the last tip, and using it when shooting in aperture- or shutter-priority will make instantly punchier and more vibrant shots without a second thought. And all we have to do is rotate our exposure compensation dial one or two stops toward over-exposure. How can this absurdly simple trick make your photos better?

One of the happy results of today’s modern film stock is something called “high exposure latitude.” What this means, in plain speak, is that today’s film will still make gorgeous images even when exposure settings vary from what would be a technically perfect exposure. Some film can even handle exposures that are “off” by as much as four stops. And if we look at many films’ spec sheets we’ll see that most can easily handle over-exposure, but react poorly to under-exposure. This is because modern film loves light, and the more light is splashed across the frame, generally speaking, the better that frame looks.

Under-exposed shots are low in contrast, present odd color shifts, and generally look terrible. Over-exposed shots, on the other hand, often still look fantastic even though they’re technically improperly exposed. So by setting the exposure compensation dial to one or two stops over, we’re creating a built-in safeguard against making under-exposed shots. Of course, different film types react differently and tastes may vary (slide film, for example, doesn’t tolerate over-exposure well), but if you’re a new shooter trying common C-41 film, more light is always preferable.

Stick to one film

Film stocks vary wildly from one brand and sensitivity to another. Learning how to shoot film effectively is often a process of eliminating variables. So choosing one film to shoot as we learn the ropes is an excellent way of controlling this very important variable. It’s much easier to see how our settings and our situational light impact our final image if we’re always shooting the same film, rather than constantly bouncing from one brand and ISO to another.

If you’re starting out with black-and-white film and developing at home, this tip can be carried one step further – always develop with the same chemicals, at the same temperature, using the same techniques. By controlling these variables as well, we’re able to more quickly get a handle on what works and what doesn’t when shooting and developing film.

But which film should you choose? That’s a tough question. We’ve written a number of film profiles that might help you decide. So take a look at what each film has to offer, what the final results look like, and decide from there. Personal recommendation? Try a general purpose film with moderate sensitivity somewhere around ISO 400, and maybe skew toward more affordable stuff in early days. Leave the professional and specialty films alone ’till you’ve mastered this lovely craft.

Buy the best lens you can afford

If you’re buying your first film camera kit, remember that you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a camera body. They’re essentially light-tight boxes with a mechanism for timing exposures. The heavy lifting of any amazing photo is done by the lens, so prioritize having an excellent lens over having a pricey body and your photography will be better.

Which circles back to our first tip – try buying a cheaper modern body with a fantastic lens, instead of an expensive old body with a sub-par lens.

What lens should you look for? To start, buy a prime lens. These lenses are less versatile than zooms and only offer a single focal length, but the trade-off is in sheer performance. Prime lenses offer much better image quality and faster apertures in a smaller package than their zoom counterparts. They allow for sharper and more dynamic images, with greater low light capability and the chance to make amazing BOKEH! And if you ever need to zoom, use your feet.

Keep shooting, embrace mistakes

Our final tip is probably the most important – don’t give up. If you’re shooting film for the first time or even if you’re an experienced photographer taking a break from digital, expect your results to be imperfect. Film is tricky. There’s no live-view and you’re not sure what you’ve made until you get that film processed. If your first results aren’t what you expect, read some tips, practice, and keep going.

The process of making images on film is magic, and using film cameras is a uniquely engaging action in an overly-digitized world. Whether you’re naturally excellent at it or not, the process is what matters, and try to remember that imperfect images are often the most captivating.

So wind those advance levers, focus, and just keep firing.


Have some tips on making better film shots? Share them with us in the comments.

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Martino
    October 9, 2017 at 8:16 am

    This is not cheating! (Well, the first advice maybe is a little bit)…but thanks for the nice tips, man!

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    October 9, 2017 at 10:24 am

    *Fabulous* advice on buying a later SLR for a first good film camera. They can be had for very little and their modes can shrink the learning curve. When someone asks me what camera to buy for their first film camera, I tell them Nikon N60 or N65 or something like it. I do tend to tell people to avoid the Canon EOS Rebel series – the shutters are prone to early failure. But higher-level EOS-series cameras are more robust and are good choices.

    It’s kind of like how I learned to drive a stickshift: at the same time I learned to drive. It would have been easier to learn on an automatic, and then after I’d built up good experience, to then learn how to shift my own gears.

  • Reply
    mmarquar
    October 9, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    These are all great tips. All good advice. Thanks for saying it all so well.

  • Reply
    Borys
    October 9, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    The best advice I can think of, would be to establish a simple gear setup that you feel comfortable using, and then start stocking up on film and just keep shooting. Let’s face it, most of us are possessed by the evil spirit of lust when it comes to certain pieces of equipment, but it’s very unlikely to elevate you as a photographer and help you create better art. Shooting on a daily basis, on the other hand, is guaranteed to be much more of a fun and educational experience!

  • Reply
    Huss Hardan
    October 9, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Great advice, because the reality is that the newer cameras are much better picture making machines for novices than the old, mechanical and especially un-metered ones.
    And they also tend to be much cheaper because they are not as ‘cool’! example, a Nikon N90s is about $45-$55. An incredible camera with AE, AF and a shutter that goes to 1/8000 sec. A Pentax K1000 is $100…

  • Reply
    Francis.R.
    October 15, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    My Canon EOS 7 is so wonderful to use in comparison to the far more handsome Canon EF, the black beauty. I can agree totally with the first point. Although I have fun trying different films for the colors, film is a trip to a discovery. : )

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