Film Photography: What I Learned on my First Rolls of Film

Paulo Makalinao
Sep 30, 2020 · 9 min read

About two weeks ago, I went out and bought my very first film camera, the coveted Canon AE-1. This was probably the most typical choice I could have made when choosing a film camera. But I was already buying FD lenses for adapting on mirrorless, and so buying the AE-1 or the A-1, which only the former was present at the open market, made a lot of sense to me.

I then proceeded to buy the battery and a few rolls of film and instantly got to shooting. There were certainly a lot of things I needed to learn on this camera before I could ever get things right. Having shot on digital, I was so accustomed to the convenience it provided, and so I didn’t understand the gravity of the issues I was really in for when shooting on film.

Film Cameras are Not Always in Mint Condition

This was pretty obvious, but most film cameras have a lot of age on them. They’re older than me, after all. Some of them are even twice my age. This means that buying a 40-year-old camera like the AE-1 has some risk. It was really important that I bought one that was well taken care of, so I went to the camera market here in Brooklyn to get one. In the probability that something went wrong, I could just walk on over there to get it checked out again. I knew the face who sold it to me, and I was also willing to pay a little bit more than on eBay just for the assured peace of mind.

And my AE-1 did almost work perfectly. But halfway through my first roll, I realized that the shutter and mirror locked up at any shutter speed slower than 1/250s. If I advanced the film, they came down, so I didn’t have to remove the lens to see the issue. But the shutter and mirror getting caught at slower shutter speeds caused me to have my fair share of white or extremely overexposed images after getting my first roll developed. Not pleasant.

Result from a Shutter Lockup

Luckily, I watched a couple of YouTube tutorials and ended up fixing the problem. It turns out that the magnet that releases the shutter was dirty, so I opened up the bottom of the camera, got out some isopropyl, and cleaned the grime off the magnet. I had thought for a solid minute that I had broken the AE-1, but then it worked properly at every shutter speed I could set it to, including the 2-second shutter.

It stands to reason that these old film cameras will have problems, so it’s imperative to understand its limitations and to have a store in mind to help you resolve those problems. Luckily, a lot of issues like the shutter and mirror lock are easy fixes, but it’s important to really test out your film camera before putting in your first roll.

It’s a Whole Lot More Manual

Shooting manual on your digital camera is already a lot for people getting into photography. Shooting “manual” on a film camera means an entirely different thing beyond your settings.

I first realized that manual focusing is not anything close to what it’s like on digital cameras. On digital cameras, I have the pleasure of focusing peaking, so I know exactly what’s tack sharp in the frame. On my AE-1, I have to make sure that these two little half circles in the viewfinder are lining up. And these viewfinders aren’t exactly the crispest either, so sometimes this is a difficult task.

I’m also learning about finding the right exposure. My light meter on my camera is all over the place. Comparing it to another light meter, my camera can be off by one to two stops. On the one hand, I could always have an external light meter, but that’s way too tedious. So I’ve had to learn Sunny 16 in order to judge the exposure for myself. It certainly takes a lot of self-trust to gauge my exposure without any tools, and sometimes I just have to go with my gut feeling about what I think the correct settings would be.

And then there’s the whole part about loading and unloading your film. After a few rolls, this is relatively easy, but it’s hard to get a feel for loading your film the first time. I was very afraid I was going to accidentally expose some of my frames.

But the worst part for me on my first few rolls was unloading. On my second roll ever, I forgot to press a little black button on the bottom of my camera that releases the spool holding the film. I ended up pulling back my rewind lever so hard that I snapped the film inside my camera, and I completely lost an entire roll, my second roll at that! There are just a lot more moving parts in a film camera that I had to understand. It’s really a learning process. Sometimes film is unforgiving, but I have to keep moving forward and learning from my mistakes.

It’s One and Done

On digital, I was very used to taking photos maybe two or three times in order to make sure I got it right. Maybe I missed focus, or maybe my exposure was off just a tad. I don’t have that luxury on film. I guess maybe I do, but it’s not exactly a luxury I can afford.

I typically have 36 exposures on a single roll. The fact of the matter is that I cannot spend 3 of those trying to take the same exact photo. So it’s one and done when I shoot on film. I really, really have to like a possible composition in order to risk two exposures on it.

And so unless you have tons and tons of money to spend shooting on film or shooting on film provides you forms of income, it’s all about, again, just trusting yourself to have gotten the image correct. It’s also just super easy to go through a roll of 36 very quickly. I saw that I was taking a lot more photos on a roll than I intended to per day and finishing rolls quicker than I thought. 36 is just not a very big number, especially coming from digital.

So every shot I take on film has to count. I am not throwing away my shot.

I Need to Wait for It

One of my biggest problems with digital was chimping. I wanted to know what my image looked like the exact second after I took it. I am a very impatient person on occasion. But film is a waiting game, and it took me like four or five days to see how my first couple of rolls turned out. And going forward, it might even take me a week or two to see how a roll turned out just because I will not process them right away.

But the anticipation of waiting for how your film came out is literally one of the most exciting and painful experiences all at the same time. There was absolutely nothing better than getting the scans back from my first couple of rolls when I returned to the photo store. And there was no greater relief than knowing I hadn’t messed up every single exposure I took.

I suppose this is all part of the joy in the film process, waiting days and days to figure out how a roll turned out and only being able to view your image long after you initially took it. It’s certainly difficult not to be able to see results instantly, but the end of the process is one of the most rewarding moments I’ve ever gone through.

It’s Expensive

Compared to my gear on digital, my film camera and my film lenses were incredibly cheap. I bought the AE-1 somewhere around $120, and I spent around another $150 on well maintained 50mm f/1.4 and 28mm f/2.8 lenses. But where the costs really come into play is buying and developing film. Rolls can cost anywhere from $4 per roll if you can buy a bundle of three to like $11 if you want something really premium. For me, buying the rolls is totally fine. It’s developing the rolls that really hurts my wallet. From the roll itself into a scanned and usable image, it costs like $14 per roll. These are New York City prices, but I could imagine that it’s similar by a dollar or two elsewhere. So if each roll I buy is an average of $6, the real total cost of each roll comes out to somewhere around $20. And it’s also imperative that I buy 36 exposure rolls instead of 24 exposure as developing 36 exposures only ever costs maybe a dollar or two more for 50% more shooting.

And so I find myself looking for ways to cut costs on film. The first thing I can do is prioritize inexpensive rolls. My first few rolls were on Extramax 400, which I feel is somewhere in the middle-to-cheaper side of prices. I also bought a few rolls of Portra 400 just to test it out, but that was definitely pricey. Moving forward, I’ll probably stock up on Kodak Gold 200, which is $13 for three rolls of 36.

But the biggest way to cut my variable costs of shooting film is learning to scan them on my own. After looking at all my options of learning to scan, the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to do it in my own situation was to use my pre-existing mirrorless camera to take photos of the negatives. Then, I proceed to use Lightroom to convert the negatives. Of course, there were some upfront costs for doing this. I had to buy a lightbox and negative holders. This could be even more expensive if you don’t have the macro lens or a tripod, and you certainly need to have a modern digital camera to begin with. However, by putting in some fixed costs into my film process, I only now need to have the rolls developed into negatives, which cuts my development cost from $14 to $8, saving me $6 on a roll. I spent like $60 in total buying equipment to scan in my negatives, so this should pay for itself after ten rolls.

The general gist of this whole article is that film is not easy, and it’s not exactly cheap. But it’s insanely rewarding to finally view your image after all the time and money you spent bringing your rolls to life. Film is like an addiction to me. It makes me happy. It makes me want to create. Of course, there’s a whole lot I have to learn, but I am ready to keep honing in my analog photography.

Originally published at https://www.photoparadox.com on September 30, 2020.

Photo Paradox

Helping you become a better content creator, photographer, and videographer one article at a time.

Paulo Makalinao

Written by

An avid portrait photographer and media content creator. Currently attending Stanford University. Originally from Matawan, NJ.

Photo Paradox

At Photo Paradox, we discuss cameras, lens, technique, and workflow. We also talk about overused or underused gear, gear recommendations, and gear reviews so you know what to buy next.

Paulo Makalinao

Written by

An avid portrait photographer and media content creator. Currently attending Stanford University. Originally from Matawan, NJ.

Photo Paradox

At Photo Paradox, we discuss cameras, lens, technique, and workflow. We also talk about overused or underused gear, gear recommendations, and gear reviews so you know what to buy next.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store