5 Film Photography Tips

By: Kate Kershner

Film, or analog, photography, has become trendy among young people in recent years.

You've shunned the digital revolution and have proudly dusted off your film camera. Or maybe you rescued your mom's or granddad's vintage model from the attic. You've loaded the film, put the strap around your neck, raised the camera to your eye ... and realized that a film camera is actually quite different from your compact digital SLR. What to do?

First of all, realize that you're not alone. According to Kodak's marketing manager, color film is still selling steadily, and black and white film does quite well in the market [source: Sorrell]. And let's not forget the hipster cred that comes with film; as of this writing, Urban Outfitters stores across the United States are carrying retro film cameras and related accessories. That might help explain why digital camera sales dropped 2 percent from 2009 to 2010 -- and film cameras gained a 30 to 40 percent sales boost [source: Golden].


So don't march up to the attic to throw your camera back in a box just yet. With a few tips and techniques, you can be shooting old-school film in no time, basking in the glow of beautiful photographs and jealousy from your digital-only friends.

5: Keep It Light

One of the disadvantages of working with film is that you can't simply click your mouse to lighten or darken a face or background image. That's why when you're shooting on film, you must be aware of how the natural (or unnatural) lighting plays out on your subject, as your ability to edit an image is not going to come as easily.

Remember that with film, you're manually lightening and darkening areas as you're developing prints in the darkroom. While dodging (lightening a dark spot) or burning (darkening a light one), you're either blocking or prolonging exposure to get the desired effect. To that end, you need to make sure you have an optimal lighting experience to start with. Too much strong sunlight can wash out an image or create shadows, so look for shaded areas or cloudy days. Using reflectors like a light-colored umbrella between the sun and your subject can help you capture an optimal image from the get-go.


On the other hand, lighting issues are one of the main reasons people prefer film over digital. Film can produce a larger range of color than a digital image, and it can also handle bright, white colors better. Film photographs often contain more imperfections -- unique flaws that some people find creativity in.

4: Choose the Right Lens

Whether digital or analog, lenses make a big difference in photography.
Whether digital or analog, lenses make a big difference in photography.

Point-and-click digital cameras sure are easy to use, but if you're a dedicated film user -- or at least testing the non-digital waters -- you should be aware of how different lenses on film cameras are going to affect your images.

Remember that when shooting with digital film, it's always going to be the same quality as when you shot it. When photographing with film, you can scan your pictures to a digital file and then rescan them as technology progresses to get better images. (You might be familiar with this concept as it applies to movies, when an old film is "digitally remastered" -- same idea.) As photographer Ken Rockwell puts it, "Scanners always get better. Film shot today will be scanned better tomorrow" [source: Rockwell].


Choosing the right lens will help you get a better image from the get-go, of course. A wide-range lens will provide a larger depth of field (that is, a picture where even background details are crisp). Use wide-angle lenses for capturing a larger scene, like a group of people at a distance, scenery or a panorama shot; anything where your subject has context within the environment. A telephoto lens -- which has a smaller depth of field, making the background less clear and the foreground sharp -- is going to make your subject the "plot" of the picture.

3: Know Your Camera

Hmm, I wonder what that button does?
Hmm, I wonder what that button does?

Remember that booklet that used to come with technology? The one that actually explained how it worked?

Although user manuals are a thing of the past for a lot of brands, that doesn't mean you're forced to learn how your camera works through trial and error. Go online or contact the manufacturer to find the user manual or diagram for your camera's functions. Clearly, not all film cameras are made equally, and understanding the peculiarities of yours will prove helpful while shooting and in the darkroom.


Some cameras have more forgiving exposure than others, for instance, while others might be more stringent. According to Kodak, some cameras have more leniency in how pictures are produced when you're a bit off a stop. Black and white film can actually be a full stop or two off and still create a perfect picture [source: Kodak]. Keep in mind that you can correct for exposure when developing film, but you'll want to have a baseline for how your camera reacts. Play with your manual exposure by taking light meter readings and making incremental changes with F-stops to see how pictures improve or decline.

And while you're fiddling with exposure and camera functions, be careful to frame your shot well.

2: Stay Balanced

Behold, the rule of thirds. Nifty, huh?
Behold, the rule of thirds. Nifty, huh?

It's no surprise that any photograph -- digital or film -- is going to be vastly improved by a terrific composition. That is, no matter how excellent your equipment is or how skilled you are at wielding it, the subject still won't hold interest unless it's framed and positioned well.

Composition in film photography is more important than in digital for a very tangible reason: It simply costs more money to develop lots of shots. Experimenting with composition by snapping tons of pictures is easy breezy with a digital camera. With film, you might find yourself more interested in capturing the "right" shot from the beginning, saving you time and money in development.


The old adage to simply get closer to your subject is particularly true in film, as blowing up and cropping an image is a lot harder in a darkroom than it is on your computer. And while you're up close and personal, remember that we're used to seeing the world at our own height -- crouching below a subject or climbing a staircase to spy the image from another angle can instantly give the viewer a novel way of seeing the subject of the photo.

The rule of thirds states that a photograph is well-composed and balanced if points of interest intersect on three horizontal and vertical lines (check out the image to see what we mean). Look for compositional lines that shoot toward the subject, drawing your eye to it without framing it perfectly center.

1: Develop Your Own Film

Developing takes work, but it's fun and rewarding.
Developing takes work, but it's fun and rewarding.

So you've learned all about your analog camera, played with the exposures and compositions, and shot your pictures fastidiously (and artfully, no doubt). Now comes the real hard part: How do you get that picture in your hand?

If you're truly into photography, there's no better way to improve your work than by actually developing the film yourself. Yes, it can be time-consuming and can run you a few bucks for chemicals and paper. But if you have access to a darkroom (or can easily render a room of your home light-free), you'll be able to control much of what the finished product looks like. As the developer, you can lighten or darken images or parts of images and even control how the negatives are printed.


If you don't want to get your hands dirty doing the developing, delegating the job to professionals might seem like a good option. In some cases, that's true. Real film professionals will most likely do a terrific job developing your film. But remember -- not every lovely clerk at your local drugstore will be able to give due time and thought to your photographs. Instead of handing your artistic genius over to the 16-year-old grocery store worker -- who, it might be noted, will probably leave her fingerprints on your negatives -- consider taking your film to a professional photography lab.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bray, Simon. "A Beginner's Guide to Film Photography." Phototuts+. Jul. 14, 2011. (Jan. 29, 2012) http://photo.tutsplus.com/articles/photography-fundamentals-articles/diving-into-film-photography/
  • Golden, Amanda. "Teen hipsters discover joys of analog photography." CNET.com. May 16, 2011. (Feb. 10, 2012) http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-20062810-93.html
  • Digital Photography Tips Central. "Digital Photography Advantages." 2011. (Jan. 29, 2012) http://www.dptips-central.com/digital-photography-advantages.html
  • Guidetofilmphotography.com. "Photography Guide to Help Create Stunning Images." 2011. (Jan. 29, 2012). http://www.guidetofilmphotography.com/photography-tips-techniques.html
  • Kodak. "Accurate Exposure With Your Meter." 1998. (Jan. 29, 2012) http://www.kodak.com/cluster/global/en/consumer/products/techInfo/af9/index.shtml
  • Mulvany, Colin. Personal correspondence. Jan. 23, 2012.
  • Rockwell, Ken. "Introduction to Film Photography." 2006. (Jan. 29, 2012) http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/filmdig.htm
  • Sorrell, Charlie. "Kodak sees a very real resurgence for film." Wired.com. Sept. 29, 2010. (Feb. 10, 2012) http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/09/kodak-sees-a-very-real-resurgence-for-film/
  • Willis, Keith. "Camera Types." School Curriculum in Photography. (Feb. 10, 2012) http://scphoto.com/html/types.html