How to Shoot Film – Getting started with film photography in a digital era

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

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Fig.1 Film camera ready to shoot

Fig.1 – Film camera ready to shoot.

In part 1 of the series we talked about the “soul” aspect of film photography and in part 2 about what gear is available for you.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand some terms in the beginning of the article, please read the article entirely and the recommended reading links and go back here, take your time.

In this part we will talk about how to shoot film, how i do it and what i learned until now. Also, again, i will not go in detail about exposure, the shutter speed/aperture/ISO relationship, there are plenty of info online. Basically learning about what is exposure it’s the same on digital and in film, a full manual film camera is like setting a DLSR on M (manual) mode, sort of.

Any camera you choose, will have some sort of resources online, like manual, user community, fans, YouTube videos etc., and i encourage you to learn the manual of your camera inside out. Take your time, read all the info, it will pay off later. Learn how to load film, how to meter the light (if your camera has a built in light meter it’s easier, if not, no problem, just use the Sunny 16 rule), how to set the exposure on your camera.

If you shoot digital, maybe you know that for a good exposure you have to expose for the highlights and to the right of the histogram, with film you should expose for the shadows (meaning setting up the camera to get the detail in the shadows). Having a dynamic range superior to digital, it is said that film (especially color negative) is more forgiving, meaning that you are safer with film on blowing highlights.

Let’s take the classic example of bright sky and green forest:

Digital: You expose for the forest (shadows) and the sky will be blown away with no possibility to recover the sky in post production. You expose for the sky, you get the details in the sky but the forest gets really dark, but, you can pull out the details in the forest in post production (shooting RAW will give you a great latitude in post). So you should expose for the sky, the highlights.

Film: You have to expose for the forest (get the details in the shadows – the forest area) and the sky will not be blown away that much. Also try to understand the Zone System by Ansel Adams, it will help a lot.

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My recommended work-flow:

I can’t stress this enough: TAKE YOUR TIME AND STUDY ABOUT EVERYTHING YOU DO! It’s not a race, we want to learn something new and more importantly to have fun in the process.

  1. Film camera – checked!
  2. Film – get the right type for your camera. If you try for a few days to fit an 120 mm film roll in a 35 mm camera, stop it….just stop it! 🙂 I started with what i think it’s the cheapest and easiest film type for my 35 mm camera, it was a color negative Kodak Color Plus 200, in fact it’s the only film available to buy in my town.
  3. Load the film in the camera – check online for instructions: your camera manual, YouTube videos etc.
  4. Set the exposure.
  5. Focus the lens.
  6. Shoot!

Point number 4 incorporates a very important part in photography in general, as the name implies is setting the exposure. That is to fiddle with the settings of the camera so that based on your camera, lens, film type lighting conditions, the film inside to catch the view in front of you with the greatest accuracy. You may say “What’s the point?! With my digital camera i just press the shutter and the pictures look good.”, yeas! you are right, but even with a digital camera, you will encounter many situations when a tricky lighting situation will fool your camera and your shot will not be that great.

Point 4 in detail: Setting the exposure

Fig.2 - In the middle is the dial to set shutter speed and on the lens you set the aperture.

Fig.2 – In the middle is the dial to set shutter speed and on the lens you set the aperture.

Old and affordable film cameras, regarding exposure settings, can be of 3 types:

  1. Full manual – requesting you to set all the buttons right for a good exposure.
  2. With some kind of automation – they might have some kind of built-in light metering system, that can measure the light and set automatically for you the aperture or the shutter speed based on the shutter speed or aperture you choose previously.
  3. Full automatic – you just load your film and shoot. The camera sets all the stuff for you, talking here about compact cameras, mostly viewfinder cameras. This is very convenient but you have no creativity, meaning what if you want that cool sharp subject with blurred background…huh?! 🙂 TIP: use a bigger aperture, a small f number like f2.8 or f/4.

The cameras that can help you with the exposure and are pretty old, usually have the cells that measure light in no working condition, or they require batteries that are no longer available (or are very hard to find). In this situation, sooner or later you may be faced with the case of having to set everything yourself, and here comes the oldest but greatest rule of setting exposure:

THE SUNNY 16 RULE!

The best detailed explanation i have found online about exposure and how to set exposure is Fred Parker’s Ultimate Exposure Computer article. Please take your time and read it!!!

Ok, so we’re back,

Lots of people don’t grasp the terms like, light stops (going down 2 stops), lower the aperture (you are on f/11 and you go to f/16…say what?! you say lower, why i am getting higher?!

TIP on understanding f numbers: these are fractions and f being like the maximum opening of the lens and when you divide it by 2m you get f/2, meaning your lens is opened half way. If you divide f by 16 you get a little piece opened so…..bare with me….The higher the f number (f/16) the smallest lens opening (aperture) and vice versa, the lower the f number (f/4) the biggest the lens opening).

TIP on depth of field (DOF): based on the info above, with f/16 (small aperture) you will get more of the scene in focus in front and in the back of your subject (a big Depth of Field). And with a f/4 (large aperture) you will get a small DOF, like you are shooting a portrait and the subject is in focus nd the background is blurred.

The Sunny 16 rule is an age tested set of rules to achieve always a good exposure of the film or sensor, based on different lighting situations. It was used by the first photographers in the world until now and it will work as long as this system of exposing film/sensors with the triangle ISO-shutter speed-aperture will be linked to photography.

The basic trick about the Sunny 16 rule is this:

“On a full sunny day, for a front lit subject, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to 1/ISO”.

In detail:

  1. Check the ISO/AS/DIN of your film. Let’s say it’s ISO 100.
  2. You are on a full sunny day like at the beach with no clouds and distinct shadows and you want to photograph something front lit (it works with side lit subjects).
  3. For a perfect exposure set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to 1/100.
  4. Shoot!…..Instant masterpiece.

Now, if your camera doesn’t have 1/100, you set it to the closest shutter speed available, like 1/125.

If the light intensity gets lower, lower your f number. Continuing on our beach example, if there are a few clouds in the sky, keep your shutter speed 1/100 and set the aperture to f/11, and so on.

This rule take in consideration the type of shadows of the environment. Here is a simplified table you can check:

Sunny 16 ISO 100 1/100 shutter speed (or 1/125)
Aperture f/22 f/16 f/11 f/8 f/5.6 f/4
Lighting conditions Snow / sand Sunny Slight overcast Overcast Heavy Overcast Open shade / sunset
Shadow detail Dark with sharp edges Distinct Soft edges Barely visible No shadows No shadows
  • If the subject is lit from behind (back lighting), add 1 stop of light: If your scene is a 1/100 and f/11 one but the subject is backlit, go for f/8 instead of f/11.
  • There are equivalent combinations for the same exposure: 1/100 and f/8 is the same as 1/500 and f/4 and the same as 1/60 and f/16. The difference is in the Depth of Field (the zone in focus vs the out of focus zone of the shot, but this is another story).

The best way to master exposure is to keep shooting and review your shots when you get them on the computer, or printed.

To measure the light with a device, you can use:

  1. A light meter. I don’t have one but you can find old used ones pretty cheap or buy a shiny new digital.
  2. A light metering app on your android/iOS/Windows phone device. There are pretty good ones out there. Maybe those apps are not very accurate but they can give you a starting point and you can use them to help you with the Sunny 16 rule. I recommend LightMeter Free for starting and get the paid app if you like the software.
  3. A digital camera that can measure light that will give you the settings. Transfer those settings on your film camera. Remember to set the ISO on the digital camera to match the ISO of your film.The fastest but now way hipster.

I recommend to experiment the Sunny 16 rule, guess the settings and to keep track of your exposures you can do one of the following:

  1. Keep a little notebook and write down for each film: the type of film (ISO), the frame number, the shutter speed, the aperture and a little description of the scene (where you were and lighting conditions). Not very fast but hipster. You can take the digital approach and write the info in your smartphone, like in Evernote or you can even do voice recordings. Faster but not that hipster.
  2. Use an Android/iOS/Windows phone app to keep track of your film rolls and each exposure in your rolls of film. I recommend Exif4film – you can upload your rolls to Dropbox.

Also, always improve your knowledge about film exposure and you will see that rules are meant to be broken and you will see that:

  • film has a pretty large exposure latitude – if you go 1 stop up or down, you will still get a pretty good exposure also. So have no fear that you will ruin your film if the planets are not aligned.
  • color negative is “safer” in exposure than color slide film.
  • you can develop black and white film with coffee and vitamin C.
  • with rangefinder and/or viewfinder cameras you will see the scene in the viewfinder even with the lens cap on. :))

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Point 5 in detail: Focus

I only shoot rangefinders and compact viewfinder cameras and i can only speak about those cameras, but as a rule of thumb, you just have to set the distance to the subject. I never shoot a film SLR but i am pretty sure they focus just like rangefinders.

Viewfinder cameras: they are the equivalent of point and shoot cameras of today. You just have to set the distance to the subject and the lens will “automatically” get the focus. There is nothing magic, the lens have a very large latitude on Depth of Field (DOF).

Rangefinder cameras: just like viewfinders, you will set the distance to the subject and based on the chosen aperture you will get perfect sharpness at that distance and bigger and smaller DOF based on the aperture. When you focus the lens, in the middle of the viewfinder you get a little patch with two overlapping images and when you twist the lens, you superimpose those images or make them further apart. When the two images are perfectly on top of the other, your lens is focused and you can shoot. Twisting the lens (adjusting the focus) is basically setting the distance to the subject. If after you focused the lens you look at the distance markings of the lens, you will see that the lens is set to the actual distance to the subject.

Fig. 3 - Lens set to focus at 2 meters at f/5.6 aperture with everything in focus from 1.7 m to 2.5 m.

Fig. 3 – Lens set to focus at 2 meters at f/5.6 aperture with everything in focus from 1.7 m to 2.5 m.

If you can judge distances by your eye you can pre-set (set the focus in advance) your lens and when you think the subject is at that distance you just shoot. This is the really cool thing about lenses on rangefinders (and SLR, i think) the zone focusing or pre-focusing is the fastest focusing machanism in the world…booooy, how street photographers love this.

Zone focusing / pre-focusing:

In Fig.3 you can see the zone focusing explained. Lens set to focus at 2 meters at f/5.6 aperture with everything in focus from 1.7 m to 2.5 m. So now if you shoot something between 1.7 m and 2.5 m, the subject should be in focus and that if you don’t shake the camera and you have a fast shutter speed for a moving subject.

Ok….pretty much info. Take a deep breath now, have a drink and relax.

We’re done and i hope you learned something new and exciting and you are right now with the camera in your hand ready to go out the door to take some pictures. What are you waiting for, go go go!!! I will wait you here reviewing and writing and rewriting the best i can to make your passion easier and funnier. :))

Have fun, go shoot and … buy film, not mega-pixels! ^-^

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

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