The Gear – Getting started with film photography in a digital era

Part 1 – Introduction | Part 2 – The Gear | Part 3 – How to shoot film

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The introduction of this Getting Started with film photography gave you a feeling about what it means to take pictures on film and if you are determined to continue, now, we will talk about the gear, like camera, lenses and film. I will not go in deep technical details about stuff, you can study in depth if you want from external sources, i will try to keep things as simple as possible.

I am interested in street photography so i got myself a rangefinder (FED 5B) tailored for this type of shooting. I also used a viewfinder film camera (Belomo Vilia). I didn’t use a film SLR (single lens reflex) but i will try to give you as much info as i can.

First thing first.

A. Film:

What is it? – Film is a peace of transparent plastic, coated with a gelatin emulsion of a silver based substance.

Types of film – I can put them in 3 categories:

1) by size (35 mm (24 x 36 mm), 120 mm or medium format (6 x 6 cm or 6 x 9 cm) and large format (4 x 5 inch)) – I recommend starting with 35 mm although 120 mm scans better with budget scanners.

2) by type (color negative, color slide transparency, black and white negative) – I recommend starting with color negative because it’s widely available and more “forgiving” when you overexpose.

3) by ISO (the sensitivity of the film to the light – you can easily find from ISO 50 to 800). Use lower ISO for bright light with no grain and noise and high ISO film for low light but high grain and noise. My last films used were 35 mm color negative ISO 200 Kodak Color Plus, good for a wide range of daylight situations…cheap but very reliable.

How it works? – the black and white negative case: As you click the shutter of your camera, a curtain/mirror expose the film to the light rays reflected from your subject. Lighter rays will “agitate” more the emulsion on the film and that zone will get darker as the silver cells will bang their heads violently. Darker rays are gentle with the emulsion, leaving it lighter. Picture this, you take a picture with a bright sky and above the forest with darker tones. The film will get dark tones in the sky and lighter tones on the forest, that’s the negative. To get the correct tones after scanning, you have to “Invert” the tones. Extrapolate that to other types of film (the color film has additional layers on the emulsion).

Makers: I only used Kodak but check Fujifilm, Ilford etc.

My recommendation will be to stick to 1 type of film, usually a 35 mm or 120 mm (depending on the camera you have) color negative. Shoot a while with 1 film to understand how to set exposure and how the film behaves. Learn that 1 film inside out.

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B. Camera:

Film cameras come based on the size of film you can load, so we have 35 mm, 120 mm or medium format and large format. I will talk about 35 mm and 120 mm cameras because the large format 1 tone cameras are another story.

Types:

  1. SLR (single lens reflex) – have you heard of a DSLR, the digital single lens reflex? A SLR works with a mirror/prism that let the photographer see through the lens what he is shooting. When you click the shutter, this mirror is raised and the film is exposed to light. They came in 35 mm and 120 mm sizes, have interchangeable lenses and the quality is great. They come from full manual to battery operated full automatic cameras with light metering and all the cool stuff. There are some awesome used SLRs out there like: Canon AE-1, Canon F1, Nikon F3, Nikon FM, Minolta X-570, Minolta X700, Olympus OM series, Pentax K100, Pentax LX, Praktika MTL3, Contax S2b etc. For starters try Canon AE-1 or Pentax K100, they’re cheaper. Also very cheap but very good are the Former Soviet Union (FSU) SLR cameras like Zenit.
  2. Rangefinder – A rangefinder focusing mechanism works by allowing the user to measure the distance to the subject an keeping in focus parts of the depth of the image based on that distance and aperture of the camera. The older rangefinders have decoupled viewfinder and rangefinder (you had to look through a hole to focus and after that you had to look in another hole for framing), the new ones have those two coupled. It is the camera used by street photographers because they have the fastest focusing mechanism – zone focusing/pre-focusing. In human terms: If you set the distance (D), at a given aperture, everything from (D-something) to (D+something) will be in focus. They are very quite because the film is exposed to light by opening a cloth curtain in general than raising the mirror of a SLR. They also have interchangeable lenses. There are some awesome used rangefinders out there like: All Leica rangefinders (insanely expensive, even the really old ones), Canonet G-III QL17, Olympus 35RC, Zeiss Ikon, Voigtlander Bessa. Also very cheap but very good are the Former Soviet Union rangefinder cameras like Zorki, FED.
  3. Viewfinders – Look at them as the compact/point and shoot cameras these days. They don’t have interchangeable lenses. There are some awesome used viewfinder cameras out there like: Rollei 35 or the FSU Vilia and Smena.

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C. Lens:

Apart from the viewfinder cameras that don’t have interchangeable lenses, with SLRs and rangefinders you can get a great variety of lenses out there. My FED 5b, being a Leica copy can mount an expensive Leica or Voigtlander M39 threaded lens. Pretty slick huh?!
Also, if you find in the basement your grandpa’s Leica but the lens is missing, you can get a great 200$ russian Industar 1.4 lens or the cheaper ones (starting 20$) with f/2.0 and up.

Start small and grow if you find film photography your passion. It doesn’t make sens to buy a Leica to find out you don’t like shooting film. Whatever you choose, stick to 1 camera and 1 lens and shoot with that for a while until the setup of the camera will become natural to you. Also a fixed lens like 50 mm  or 35 mm will help you more learning to judge the distances and framing and their good for fitness because you will have to zoom with your legs. 🙂

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My gear:

  • Camera: FED 5b (18$ camera + lens below + case + flash).
  • Lens: fixed 53 mm Industar 61 L/D f/2.8
  • Film: Kodak Color Plus 200 (35 mm color negative) – 3.5$ with free developing.

You can check the first part of the series to get a feeling of what shooting film means or continue with the next part on how to shoot film.

Stay hungry, buy film! ^-^

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Part 1 – Introduction | Part 2 – The Gear | Part 3 – How to shoot film

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