Despite not being particularly proficient at it, photography was always something that captured my interest. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t exposed to a lot of other hobby-like things, because I was. It’s just that there was something about freezing a moment in time that spoke to me in a way picking up old coins from the subway never did.
Coupled with the low-key hipster that lives in the back of my mind, there was naturally only one path this interest in taking photos would bring me down: Film photography, an art form that I think can be best described as the photographical equivalent of edging.
Much like a lot of you who started out in digital photography, I was very hesitant about shooting film. It was one of those self-depreciating moments where I simply didn’t think I was worthy of using the medium. In my head, I had to at least master digital before even thinking about moving to film.
But I was wrong because it’s not the same
Through the process of completing my first roll of film I realised that these two forms of photography are vastly different. So different, in fact, that they’re almost foreign.
Sure, you still have to point and shoot. You still have to consider factors like lighting, composition and all that good stuff, but the entire experience is night and day.
You don’t get to see your shot before you take it. You don’t get the instant gratification of a winning shot. You can’t immediately upload it to Instagram and hope for the likes to roll in. There is no sharing the moment you’re in right now. And every time you pull the shutter — at least in my case — you don’t actually know if you have a shot or not. The urge to whip out the digital camera just to make sure you have the shot is almost irresistible.
Each shot matters more than the last
Especially when you’ve only got one roll of film. And when things (inevitably) go wrong, it’s almost like torture. You don’t have the luxury of shooting a thousand photos with the mindset of “there’s bound to be a winner in there, somewhere”. No, you only have 36 so you have to make them count.
Which means I had to plan my exposures in a way that I never had to with my 64GB SanDisk Extreme SD card which could fit nearly 5,000 images. It was such an involved process where I had to think about things I never did because of how spoilt I was by the conveniences of digital. Try getting a perfectly level shot handheld without an electronic level and you’ll know what I mean.
Identical yet distinct in its own way
Digital photography, especially with what people like Brandon Woelfel are doing with it, is almost a completely different art form now. Just look at his before-and-after shots and you can see how much he pushes the files in post to get that particular aesthetic. The end result looks good, but I don’t think you can do that with a medium like film.
Even the way you derive pleasure from these two forms of photography is completely different. I know I talked about how you don’t get that instant gratification with film, but what I didn’t realise until I sent my film in to be developed was how much better the waiting actually made the final payoff.
The joy, excitement and relief that washed over me when I finally got the Google Drive link to the high-res scans of my film was amazing. It was exhilarating. Going through each image, a part of me still couldn’t believe that I had usable photos. In a way, it gave me this sense of accomplishment that I kinda knew what I was doing with photography but also reminded me of how much more I had to learn.
Yes, there are some that are out of focus. Some that are not leveled. Some that are under or over exposed. But I love them all, even the weird double-exposure one that I still have no idea how I got.
And this is why I wholeheartedly encourage you to try out film photography if you’ve been hesitant to try it out. It’s challenging, rewarding and I think a completely new experience compared to digital. But most of all, it’s a welcomed change of pace from the instant nature of digital.
In a way, it’s almost poetic how the two sides of this same coin could feel so different. The contrasting nature of these two essentially identical forms of art is almost like a reflection of how dependent we’ve become on instant gratification — and the aproval of strangers we don’t even know — that we miss out on how much more joy we can get from actually taking our time with things.
But maybe that’s just my sentimental side talking. There’s really only one way for you to find out: Give film photography a try.
If you have no clue on where to start, you can see how I got things started myself on the next page. You can treat it as a “Beginner’s guide” but I’m no expert on film, so I guess it’s more like a “Beginner’s guide for beginners by a beginner”.
Every photo you see here was from my first roll of film, completely unedited.
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The camera I picked up was the Canon AE-1 Program. I got it off Carousell for RM550 and it came with a Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 aperture lens, a roll of film and a bunch of accessories. As far as I could tell, it is in mint condition, though I have no idea how much longer the shutter will last before it needs some mending.
It’s not a Leica, or some other rare classic camera. In fact, it is one of the most popular film cameras of all time because of how beginner-friendly it was. It has a full-auto mode (hence, the name Program) which made it easy for people starting out and a body that had a lot of plastic bits that were coated in a shiny chrome-like paint so it was light yet felt premium.
Besides, I think the AE-1 Program looks absolutely gorgeous too, which is always a nice plus.
Most importantly, this was a camera that was within my budget. You should easily be able to find it for below RM600 with a lens and some accessories. I personally love the 50mm focal length so I was very happy with my purchase but your mileage may vary so spend some time digging around. Also, with any secondhand purchase, you should always test it out and make sure that it’s working properly before buying it.
Starting out with the camera was a bit of a culture shock. There’s no LCD display for you to preview your image. There’s no ISO dial to crank when the going gets dark. There is no auto-focusing system and no labels on a lot of the buttons so I didn’t know what many of them did. And if I’m being completely honest, I still don’t.
That meant that the first few days with it was spent figuring out how to get the thing doing what I wanted it to do: Take photographs. But discovering how the camera functioned was a joy in itself.
We who shoot in the digital age are so accustomed to electronics doing much of the work that we sometimes forget how good plain mechanical ingenuity is. On the AE-1 Program, things are completely different. Even though it is considered a fairly “modern” camera with a lot of electronic bits, the way the camera worked felt so decidedly analogue.
There is no battery percentage because there is no screen. Instead, you have to hold down a button next to viewfinder and listen to the frequency of beeps to know how much battery you have left. Metering is done by setting your shutter speed and letting the camera tell you what aperture to use for the best exposure. Want to intentionally under expose? It’s trial-and-error o’clock.
Focusing? That’s done through the optical viewfinder much like a DSLR, but this one doesn’t have AF points that light up when something is in focus, nor does it have the ever-useful focus peaking. Instead, you’ve got two circles in the middle that work together to help you see when something’s in focus. The circle on the inside is a split image that you have to line up before your subject is in focus while the second ring gets more distorted the more out of focus your subject is.
Despite all the conveniences and advancements of digital, a part of me just can’t help but be impressed with how much you can get done without a 3-million dot LCD display. It’s just a bunch of dials, switches and buttons, and I love that.
Even the power button is a little tab that switches between A (on), L (off) and S (timer) mode.
Since this camera has a bunch of electronic features — like the timer and metering — it does require a battery so make sure your camera has juice before you start shooting. To check, flick the power switch to A and hold down the black button next to the viewfinder. The faster the beeps, the more juice you have.
The basics of film
There’s no sensor in film camera. That’s down to your film, and so is your ISO setting. See the number on the film’s box and canister? That indicates your ISO so if you plan on shooting in low light, you want a faster speed film (ISO800, ISO1600, etc.). However, much like digital cameras, faster film may also come with rougher grain and more noise so that’s something you should consider when building your aesthetic.
I started out with a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 which I discovered later in my research that it’s probably not the best film for a complete beginner like me. That’s because Ektar 100 is supposed to be very unforgiving if you get exposure wrong. If you under expose, it will introduce a blue tint that can look cool but also look far less accurate.
But shoot things in daylight and this film is gorgeous. The colours have a character to them that I haven’t seen on a digital camera thus far.
Since I got it free with the camera, I didn’t take this fact into consideration but Ektar 100 is also a fairly expensive roll of film so you might want to start with something a little cheaper if you’re just testing the waters.
Work with what’s within your budget and do some research on the kinds of look you want before choosing your roll. What I also learned is that expired film doesn’t necessarily mean the film is unusable. Some characteristics may change, but from what I can tell, it should still work. Should.
Loading film and taking a shot
Now that you’ve bought your film, you need to load it into the camera. With a camera as popular as the Canon AE-1, it’s pretty easy to find tutorials on YouTube. Here’s the one I used:
Some tips that might be helpful is to make sure you push the film all the way through the spool so it stays in place. It’s also important to line up the sprockets with the holes in your film so the film doesn’t slip when you advance it.
A good way to check whether your film is advancing properly on this camera is to keep an eye on the film rewind knob. When you advance the film, the rewind knob should move too, otherwise there’s a high chance your film isn’t advancing properly.
Also, don’t forget to set the ISO on the camera to the ISO of your film before you start shooting so the metering works. You can do that on the AE-1 Program by holding down the silver button and moving the little tab until the marker lands on the ISO of your film.
When metering in full manual, you set your desired shutter speed, point the camera at the area you want to meter, look through the viewfinder and half-press the shutter. In the viewfinder on the right, you’ll see a number. That number is what the camera thinks you should set your aperture to if you want a perfectly exposed shot. Turn the aperture ring on your lens to that number and you’re good to take the shot.
After each shot, you’ll need to pull the film advance lever before you can take the next shot. It’s one of the most satisfying feelings ever — like pulling the bolt on a rifle.
The slot at the back is to put the tab from your box of film so you know what film is in the camera.
Most films have either 36 or 24 exposures (it should say the number of exposures on the box) so you shouldn’t be able to advance your film past those numbers. If you can still advance past that, it probably means you didn’t insert your film properly and it didn’t advance when you pull the lever. Best case? Your film didn’t advance at all and you can still use the whole roll. Otherwise…RIP.
One thing I realised shooting film is that it’s better if you expose for the shadows than the highlights because film can retain details in the highlights better than shadows. Ektar 100 also does pretty well with backlit situations, but if it gets dark, you’ll start seeing lots of blue.
Rewinding and developing your film
Now that you’ve shot your first roll, you’re going to need to rewind it before you can send it in to be developed. To do so on the Canon AE-1 Program, simply push the switch at the bottom of the camera, lift the rewind arm and start rewinding until you don’t feel any resistance. Then, you can pop the back cover, pop your film out and send it to a shop.
It’s important to send your film to a shop that knows what it’s doing with film especially if you’re a beginner, for the best results. I sent mine to a shop called Bang Bang Geng in Publika, Solaris Dutamas, who will develop the film (with cross processing and push processing), scan the negatives into A2 sized jpegs, sleeve your negatives and send you the scanned negatives via Google Drive, for RM19.10. A little pricey, but they come highly recommended.
From there, you can let them know which images you’d like to print — if there are any — and they’ll print them for RM1.05 each. The guy I dealt with there was friendly and helpful, which I think is always encouraging for someone starting out.
Plus, their shop has a whole bunch of really cool camera gear that you can ogle over if you’re into that kind of stuff. And that’s about it. That’s all I have for you. If you’ve got more knowledge you’d like to share with the rest of us beginners, feel free to drop them in the comments below!