Why do you want to shoot film and what kind of photographer are you:
So, the obvious answer is just go out and shoot film! But that’s not really helpful, is it? I mean, where do you even start: what camera, what film, how do you even take a photo without an LCD screen that folds out and has a touch screen and has live view and without a camera that has things like Aperture Priority or Auto-Focus!!
As always I suggest you do some research into what type of photos you want to take. Personally, what drew me to the Fuji X-Series in the first place was its analogue feel. In my photography I was looking for something to replicate both the look of film, Fuji’s Acros and Classic Chrome film simulations, and the experience of shooting film, tactile knobs and buttons, whilst maintaining all the brilliant modern features like super fast autofocus or seriously good ISO capability.
But that’s me! I’m the kind of guy who still buys vinyl for his record player, and reads actual books from a book shelf. And yes, I still buy film and shoot with a camera built before I was born. For me, I’m not just interested in the outcome: the picture, the music, the story. I am also deeply interested in the experience. You have to invest quite a substantial amount of money and time into vinyl – and you have to listen to the album; there are no singles or skip buttons. And it’s the same with film. It does cost money, but it also slows me down. I have to think, I have to be deliberate, and ultimately, there is no ‘chimping’ (constantly checking your LCD). So shooting film makes me a better photographer.
Now you have to decide why and how do you want to shoot film. Do you want to start out with something automatic like a Contax T2 (a very fashionable camera right now, so it won’t be the cheapest), or do you want to emulate one of your photographic heroes and get a 2nd hand Leica M3 or M6 (again, not the cheapest or best starting point). To be honest, you can start with whatever you like, there is a wealth of good value 2nd hand film cameras out there.
My suggestion would be to stick to 35mm film to start with, leave medium format for later, and get a camera that has an inbuilt light meter: this really will help speed the shooting process up. You can enjoy manual focus, and having to set your settings completely manually, but with an inbuilt light meter you will at least have a small aspect of electronic help. And with what I’m about to tell you, you will know how to use the light meter intelligently and not just rely on it entirely.
Where can you get film cameras:
If you’re in and around the Leeds area, or can make it into the city centre, I can recommend West Yorkshire Cameras in the Corn Exchange:
You’ll be able to choose from a wide selection of cameras and lenses, and the staff will be more than happy to help you.
What do I use:
My suggestion is to learn in your DSLR/Mirrorless camera. The generic advice would be to use Manual mode as often as possible, assuming you have a camera that allows for fully manual operation – and this really is a must for learning to take better photos. But even this will rely on your cameras meter, and probably some ‘chimping’ on the LCD – two things that aren’t possible in film. So Manual is good, but it only gets you so far, and to start with you are still completely reliant on your camera making the decisions.
I suggest we dial in the settings on your camera. In your Metering Modes, choose Spot Meter. In Focus Select choose Single Point; and make sure that the focus square, although perhaps not the smallest it can go, is very close to the smallest square. You will also need to make sure that your Automatic Exposure is linked to your Focus Point.
What has this done and what has it given you? You now have a lot of control over your camera and can start to manipulate the exposure according to what you see with your eyes. We want our eyes to control the exposure and not the camera, because we are the photographer and we want as much control over our images as possible. You can then start making artistic decisions and understand HOW to go about shooting them.
This is only a training exercise intended to train the way we see and be able to relate that back to how the camera sees. I AM NOT suggesting that the only way to shoot a DSLR is with these settings.
Practice makes perfect:
Take a few photos of the room you are in now, pay particular attention to light and shadow; especially, notice how your exposure meter changes in your display depending on where you point your focus square. Why does it change so erratically? Presumably the light isn’t changing drastically where you are, you’re not in a concert environment where lights come on and off. It’s because your Exposure Meter is now only taking into account the light within your Focus Point.
You now know that, your exposure is dependent on where you put your focus point. If you want more light you need to search out a darker place in the room, and if you want less light you look for the lighter part. Over time this will train your eye, you will be able to control exposure in order to get a specific image.
Also, if you want a ‘proper’ exposure, i.e. a balanced exposure of an entire scene, it is now up to you to FIND the area in the scene that will give you that ‘proper’ exposure. So your eye will be HUNTING for light, and not only that, your eye will start to differentiate between different TYPES of light.
I also suggest that you change your LCD to a monochrome setting – this will effect your JPEGs, but will have no effect on your RAW files. Monochrome will help you see light so much better than colour. By stripping away the distractions of colour, your eye can really see the changes in light.
This level of customisation will not be possible on all digital cameras, and it will take some getting used to – it also requires you to get used to your menus and what your camera can do. Again, this will only make you a better photographer.
I must admit, I learnt this technique on both a Nikon D750 and a Fuji X-T1, and it was so much easier on the X-T1 due to the Electronic View Finder (EVF). You can see immediately the changes in light and the changes your exposure will make to your photo. The EVF was good on the X-T1, it is now brilliant on the X-Pro2 and X-T2. There is something so intuitive and responsive about seeing your photo before you press the shutter. You can still use this technique without an EVF, and I did for months on the D750; you just have to be aware of your settings in the viewfinder and use image play-back to see the differences. But without a doubt, having access to the Fuji EVF sped up this process for me.
How to apply this to film:
Now that you’ve trained your eye to find light and differentiate between different types of light, you are no longer reliant on your digital camera for correct exposures. You know where you need to meter for the correct exposure you want. So you can start using your SLRs inbuilt exposure meter to control your photo, putting the light meter where you want it, or under/over exposing your meter according to the desired results you want.
The biggest difference, however, comes in what you need to protect in your exposure. For DSLRs the dynamic range within the shadows is unreal; you can restore the shadows in post easily. However, once the highlights are ‘blown’ you can’t restore them. So digital photographers are always conscious of ‘protecting’ the highlights, making sure they are not over exposed. It is the opposite with an SLR. You need to protect the shadows. Unless, of course, you are consciously allowing the shadows to go black.
Having trained your eye, you can enjoy film photography because your brain has been reprogrammed to see differently; you can look with more precision and make artistic choices based on the different types of light you recognise.
In this regard, film becomes just another form of artistic expression; another medium for you to explore and to enjoy; knowing that nothing has really changed between a DSLR and an SLR, because you are still the brain behind the camera.
Decide what you are looking for: high contrast, colour, grain, 35mm, rangefinder, SLR?
Prioritise an inbuilt light meter: this will give you the greatest freedom from digital whilst maintaining a level of ease.
Learn on digital: really take time to learn how to see light; use Spot Meter and Single Point Focus to help you.
Apply what you’ve learnt to film: realise that you don’t need to be a different photographer to use film – you just need to see light in a creative and artistic way no matter whether shooting digital or film.
And above all, regardless of whether you shoot with a point and click or have a Medium Format, enjoy the process as much as the outcome!!
Spot Meter will always try to make 18% grey. There are plenty of Youtube videos explaining why this is and how to get around this. Primarily it involves learning to use your Exposure Compensation. But as this post is primarily about learning to see light differently with Spot Meter, and not how to correctly exposure in Spot I will leave this for now. But if you have a DSLR I suggest you look up some articles and videos explaining mid-grey more. If, however, you have an EVF, you simply have to make sure your exposure is correct in your viewfinder and you can intuitively see how different parts of your frame affect your exposure.
I’ve included a video by Ian Wong, not necessarily because it deals with the topic of this blog post but because I like his content and he shoots film. It’s just another possible source of inspiration for you, and if nothing else, it shows you someone shooting film for the enjoyment of it.