A Starter's Guide to Film Photography

Anna | camera: Minolta XE-1, film: Fuji Superia 400

Getting into film photography might seem difficult, but it's actually quite easy once you know how it all works.
This article is meant as a starting off point. I'll describe the basics you need to know about film cameras without overwhelming you or getting too technical.
Though, I will assume that you already know what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are and how they relate to each other. If not, let me know! I'd be more than happy to explain it.
You need three things in order to shoot film. Each of these things will be explained briefly in this article, and in the coming weeks I'll be giving each their own article.
What you need is a camera, some film and a place to develop and scan the film. People who shoot a lot of film develop and scan the film themselves in order to cut cost and avoid the hassle of having to go to store.

The Camera

Camera's are categorised by the size of film they use.
The most commonly used are 35mm, 120 (also called medium format) and 4x5 (also called large format) film cameras.
Instant film camera's also also making a comeback. Some great examples are the folks over at Impossible making film for old Polaroid cams and Fujifilm with it's Instax line of camera's.

The 35mm camera's are the most widely available and the cheapest to use. 1 roll of 35mm film holds either 36 or 24 shots. The amount of shots is always displayed on the film canister, along with the ISO.
Most 35mm camera's also have a working light meter. Just be sure to check if it has an electronic (CdS) and not a selenium light meter. Selenium is a chemical that degrades over time and since most of these camera's are pretty old, their light meter might not be accurate. A simple Google Search will get you your answer.
People who have experience with a dslr will find 35mm camera's very easy to pick up.

The medium- and large format camera's function the same as the 35mm camera, but shoot on larger pieces of film. They're also bigger than 35mm camera's because of this. Most medium format camera's can be handheld, but you need a steady tripod if you want to shoot with a large format camera.
With medium format camera's you can get between 10 to 15 shots per roll of film and on large format you shoot 1 shot per sheet 4x5 inch of film. That's a huge piece of film (that's what she said).

The Film

Film comes in two flavors: color and black and white. On the film canister you will find the amount of shots you can take, along with the ISO and chemical process required to develop the film (more on that below).
There are still some companies making film (like Kodak, Ilford and Fuji), so it's still possible to get fresh rolls. There is also a cheap black and white medium format film called Shanghai being sold on eBay at the moment.

Film has an expiration date. After the expiration date the film may not give consistent results throughout the roll. When an expired roll of film has been stored in a cool place, like a fridge or freezer, it is more reliable than a film that wasn't.
When color film expires it can get less sensitive and may give inconsistent (or sometimes outright wacky) colors. Some people like that and some people don't. There's a whole community of people (Lomographers) who only shoot with expired film because they love the unpredictability of the film.
Expired black and white film isn't that huge of a deal. Up until now I've only shot with expired film and haven't found any problems.
Because of the inconsistency of expired film it is oftenly sold for a lot less and sometimes people even give them away for free!

Developing and Scanning

There are three kinds of chemical processes for developing film: black and white, C-41 and E-6.
The black and white process is used for (you guessed it) black and white films. C-41 for some b&w films and color negative film. And E-6 is used for color positive film (also called slide film).
There are still stores out there who can develop film using all these processes and scan the film afterwards. In Holland we have the Hema. From what I understand, in the U.S. Walmart still develops film. And of course, most photography stores also offer these services.

Don't let any of this scare you off though, developing your own film is easy and there are tons of tutorials on YouTube explaining how to do it.
To scan your film you either need a filmscanner. There are multi-purpose flatbed scanners out there that are pretty cheap to use and give great results. I own a Epson V500 and am very happy with it. I can scan my 35mm and medium format film with it. The older models are cheaper and basically do the same thing.

Final Thoughts

Most people advised me to start shooting with a 35mm camera, since it's much cheaper. But I ended up buying a Yashica Mat medium format camera instead. I liked the idea of only having 12 shots per roll, since it forced me to take it easy and really think about WHAT I wanted to shoot and HOW I wanted to shoot it.
Most of my first shots sucked, big time. But I kept shooting anyway, looking at my old shots and determining what I didn't like about them.

When I started developing my own film, I messed up my first 3 rolls. But after that I never messed up a roll. At least not as badly as the first 3 times =p.

So do whatever the hell it is you want. And get out there, fail fast, fail hard, get depressed, get over yourself, learn from your mistakes and shoot more!

Handy Links

The Art of Photography - An inspiring weekly podcast that covers a lot of educational topics
Camerapedia - A great place to read up on specific camera's and manufacturers
Lomography - Community of photographers and photography enthousiasts experimenting with film