Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Film Newbies, This is for You

I have not shot a frame of film since 1995 but I still remember stuff.

My last 35mm film outfit, a 1986 Canon T90. This camera would not work without batteries. Photo ©by author CGH.

Cassie Ring recently published a story that resonated strongly with me.

After dabbling for a few years, I suddenly got serious about photography about 1965. In my day (he harrumphed), we used film. Most cameras were entirely manual. There was an enormous amount to learn, and we had it too good considering the relatively recent past. We who studied the history were well aware of the beginnings of photography little more than a century earlier, and the tribulations of photographers like William Henry Jackson, the first photographer into the Yellowstone in 1871 with huge view cameras, glass plates, and wet collodion silver nitrate emulsion that had to be mixed on the spot in a “dark tent,” coated on the plate, rushed still wet to the camera for the exposure that was timed with a pocket watch, then dash back to the tent to develop the image — while still wet.


So we knew we had it good.

Cassie collects cameras, one being a 1977 Nikon FM, a popular 35mm SLR. This camera is almost totally manual except for having an onboard through-the-lens (TTL) light meter. Those TTL meters were generally pretty good, but intermediate and advanced workers were still encouraged to use handheld meters.

Look at Cassie’s linked article with its illustrations.

Cassie and a friend went out with their film cameras to see what they could do. At a duck pond with friendly ducks, they took their first crack at film photography (as opposed to digital).

Attempt One:

I took pictures of the ducks but got confused when the camera was not running out of shots. It just kept letting me wind and snap.

Lesson One:

Even if the camera does not have film, it will still wind and snap as if there was film. — Cassie Ring

Well. Obviously, this NEVER happens to seasoned pros (/s).

Seriously, one of the great night terrors for us “seasoned” folks was reaching the end of a standard 36-exposure roll and having the camera keep on snapping. And snapping. Until you noticed (GAAAH) and realized what had happened: the film leader had not snagged the takeup spindle. We had just made 36 “exposures” of nothing. The film had never advanced!

B-b-but the film counter! IT advanced!

Yes, yes, it did because (pro tip) the takeup spindle drives the counter whether there is film present or not.

For a pro, this is not just embarrassing; it is a disaster. Everything you thought you shot on that roll is — not. You have either to reshoot it or let it go.

The trick we all learned early was, after loading and taking up the “waste frames” of the exposed leader, you flip out the rewind crank and gently turn it until you feel resistance. Advancing the film another frame should cause the crank to spin. If it doesn’t, you know the leader didn’t catch, and you need to go back in and repeat the process.

This always worked swell! UNLESS you forgot to do it, but, well, seasoned pros that we were, well (heh), that NEVER happened to US! (Hey, all you seasoned pros reading this — show of hands: how many times did you… Oh! That many? Yeh, me too.)

Attempt Two:

I put a roll of film in the camera (with my friend’s help) and continued to take snapshots of the ducks. Once I took what I thought was the limit, I attempted to take the film out.

Lesson Two:

There is a button on the bottom of the camera that needs to be pressed in order to release the film, before you start unwinding it. If you don’t press this button, you will shred the film. — Cassie Ring

Well, the Old Seasoned Pros needn’t brag that yeah, we did it too, but not as often as failing to load the camera properly. You only really need to make this particular goof once to learn that if the crank is resisting like crazy, you ain’t pushed the button.

Attempt 2.5:

We decided to visit a local camera shop in Blacksburg with our shredded film. We took everything inside and asked the owner for help.

Lesson 3:

Film cameras require batteries. Even if I had taken the film out correctly, there would have been no pictures.

Thank goodness you have a brick-and-mortar camera shop with a knowledgeable owner. They are a vanishing breed. But I differ about batteries. There may be a misunderstanding. The Nikon FM has an onboard through-the-lens (TTL) light meter powered by a button battery in the baseplate. The battery needs to be there for the TTL light meter, but that model (I owned one) operates perfectly with no battery. Even in the mid-’60s, there were some cameras that would not work without batteries, but the FM wasn’t one of them. You just may have to do without the TTL meter.

An aside: I was leading a photo walk. Most of the participants had Nikon FMs. I was teaching the “Sunny Sixteen” rule, but one of my students was having a goshawful time. Her camera’s meter often disagreed with Sunny 16, and I knew why: in-camera meters measure light reflected from the scene and are easily “fooled.” Sunny 16 relies on incident light — light falling on the subject. It is more accurate on average than reading reflected light. She relaxed and enjoyed herself after I removed the button battery from her camera. Got good pictures, too.

Cassie Ring
I am so grateful that I found an expert on these types of cameras. He taught me how to load the film, change the battery, and operate the camera. With this newfound film knowledge, I will experiment again, and I can’t wait to share what I do!

My last 35mm film camera, the legendary 1986 Canon T90, considered the Best analog camera Canon ever made. Photo ©by author CGH.

I wrote this to support newbies to film. I am personally utterly daft for digital, but it is increasingly obvious that analog — film — is making a strong comeback. I came up in analog and easily transitioned to digital, but it really wasn’t that long ago that analog and manual was what there was, and to practice the craft you learned it. Working in film is a powerful teaching tool for all photography. I am grateful for what I know that analog taught me.

Thanks for reading! I truly appreciate it. If you have a question I will do my best to answer it. 😊👍



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Charles G. Haacker

Charles G. Haacker

Photography is who I am. I can’t not photograph. I am compelled to write about the only thing I know.