Good Enough

How to Get Into Film Photography (And Why You Should)

Shooting film is expensive, slow, and incredibly inconvenient. That's what makes it so magical.
A color 35mm film photograph of Point Dume, Malibu
Fun with film photography. Image: Jason Koebler
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A few years ago, I bought a used Sony A6000 mirrorless digital camera on eBay in what was, maybe, my fifth attempt to “get into photography.” Since then, I’ve dutifully packed the camera every time I’ve taken a big trip. Inevitably, the camera sits in the bottom of my suitcase taking up space. On the rare occasions I’ve convinced myself to bring it out, I usually reach into my pocket to snap some pictures with my iPhone. I now use that camera almost exclusively as the best, most expensive webcam I could possibly imagine.

Earlier this year, while on vacation in Japan, I found a camera that I actually like to use, that I like carrying around, and that I have fallen in love with: It is the Ricoh XR500 35mm film SLR that was released in 1978, sold at Sears in the United States as an entry-level camera, and has since been reviewed on various camera blogs as “a little heavy and a touch big considering the lack of features,” a “limited piece of junk” and “obviously budget built.”

After shooting and developing a few rolls of film, I have more high praise to give to this camera, and to the hobby of shooting film altogether: Shooting film is great because it is so damn expensive and incredibly inconvenient.

Blurry self portrait in a pottery museum. Image: Jason Koebler
Blurry self portrait in a pottery museum. Image: Jason Koebler

That sounds, probably, like a bad thing, but the cost and inconvenience of shooting and developing film is exactly why I have fallen in love with it, and is exactly why you should try it, too. (It should be noted that film, like vinyl records, is having a decade-long renaissance and is more popular than it’s been since digital cameras originally took over the market. Many other people have gotten into film for the same reasons I have.)

When I carry around my Ricoh, I kind of think to myself, “Is this picture worth a dollar?”

With my iPhone and with digital cameras, I do what basically everyone else does: I take tons and tons of pictures, possibly fuss over them in that moment, and basically never look at them or ever think about them again. Ultimately, this is why I never use my Sony a6000. If I am on some beautiful hike, I stop at a viewpoint, take 10-15 photos of the exact same thing or person, and then, later, compare each of these photos against each other, trying to figure out which one is the “best.” Then, maybe, I will run it through Lightroom or do some basic editing to create a photo I am “happy” with that represents the thing I was trying to take a photo of.

Ricoh KR-5

Buy on eBay

I cannot do that with film, or, at least, I cannot afford to do that. I have learned that it costs about a dollar to take, process, and print a single image using film. This means that when I carry around my Ricoh, I kind of think to myself: “Is this picture worth a dollar?” That may sound like a weird way to consider the value of any given moment, but I promise in practice it’s not. What I’ve found is that the photos I take on film are more meaningful, more thoughtful, and more fun than most any I’ve taken using a digital camera (the vast majority of which has been lost to the sands of time while languishing on various memory cards at the bottom of various plastic bins.)

What I feel I am getting with film is the actual capturing of a moment; I do not throw away or delete images where one person has their eyes closed. Sometimes people are out of focus. Images might be a little over- or under-exposed, and there is nothing I can do to fix that. I must also mention that the grain and/or imperfections of the film are also very cool.

There is also a surprise factor and time machine effect with film that is impossible to replicate with digital cameras (though some have tried). When I get a roll of film developed, I have essentially no idea what I’m going to get back. Looking at the developed images days or months after I originally shot them instantly puts me back into that moment, and lets me see it in an entirely new way. And, again, because shooting film is so expensive, I usually only take a couple pictures on any given outing. Getting a roll developed lets me relive the highlights of weeks or months of my time, all at once.

If you’re wanting to try out film, you should know that it is not nearly as complicated as it might seem (and it only seems that way because it is, like many hobbies, an endless rabbit hole one can go down). Here’s what I’ve learned over the last few months, and the bare minimum you probably need to know to get started.

What Camera Should I Buy?

I did not buy a film camera for a long time because I did not know what camera to buy. Or, rather, I read a lot of blogs and learned that I needed to buy a Canon AE-1, an incredibly popular camera that now costs a couple hundred dollars precisely because lots of blogs say you should buy it. I was never prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on an AE-1 and thus never bought it. I also didn’t want to buy the “wrong” camera and felt overwhelmed by how many different models there are.

Ultimately, I bought this Ricoh because I walked into a camera store in Tokyo and decided to buy the second least expensive SLR in the store for reasons that I am mostly unsure of. It just seemed cool. I am, again, very happy with it.

My suggestion is that you buy a 35mm camera that is not expensive and is not overly complicated. There are literally thousands of different models made over the course of decades (as well as formats outside of 35mm). There are a few new 35mm cameras, though most of them are point-and-shoot. You can check out some of them here.

Because I am a beginner, I will not get into specifics here, but I am very happy that I basically bought what I consider to be an entry level, mass market camera from the late 1970s, as opposed to one with more automatic features from the late 1980s, or one that is very old and thus perhaps more finicky or harder to use. The thing that I have read on various blogs and choose to tell myself is that a film camera is essentially just a dark box with a hole, a means to expose the film to light for a fraction of a second. This is just to say that any camera you buy is going to be better than having no camera at all, so just pick something that is in your budget.

What Lens Should I Have?

One reason I really like the camera I bought is because it came with a decently fast lens, meaning it has a big aperture (it’s a 1.8), meaning I can shoot with it in most indoor environments and can reasonably use it at night. I have not and do not plan to fuck with flash photography anytime soon. In the interest of simplicity, I would also probably start with a prime lens (meaning it doesn’t zoom). I have a 50 mm lens, which is close to the focal length of the human eye and thus good for all sorts of things. You could also get a 35 mm lens, which is a little wider but still very versatile. I would probably not start with anything outside of these.

What Film Should I Buy?

Getting film has been one of the more annoying aspects of this hobby. As I mentioned, a lot of people have been getting into film over the last few years, to the point where Kodak has been hiring hundreds of people to work in its film factories. Nonetheless, lots of places are having trouble keeping popular film types in stock. A lot of CVS and Walgreens nominally still sell film, but over the past few months, only one of the ones I've been to has actually had any, and they usually only carry Fuji 400 ISO film. Camera stores will (probably) have film, but stocks are usually in-and-out. Major online camera stores like Adorama and B&H have popular rolls of film on backorder.

Kodak Gold 200 color film, 5-pack

Buy now

The great news is that Kodak has seemingly just lowered its prices on a few different film stocks to be below $10 per roll, which is awesome, and suggests perhaps an end to the great film shortage of 2023.

When you buy film you need to decide if you’re going to shoot in black and white or color (35mm color film is called C-41), and you need to decide what ISO you’re going to use. ISO is the speed of the film and measures its sensitivity to light. With higher ISO, you can generally shoot in darker settings (indoor, on overcast days). Images shot on higher ISO film is also usually, but not always, grainier.

Kodak ColorPlus 200 Color Negative Film

Buy now

I have really liked shooting with Kodak Gold 200 ISO color film, but it has been backordered across most internet stores for the last month,  but recently just came back in stock across a handful of stores. I haven’t shot with enough types of film to have any real opinion on what you should buy, but I am personally going to stick to 100 and 200 ISO film for now because I mostly shoot outside in sunny conditions.

Another option—and something I am planning on trying soon—is buying large rolls of film in bulk and cutting that roll into smaller 24- or 36-exposure rolls of film.

How to load film and rewind it

There are many YouTube videos about how to do this, all of which are very helpful, short, and straightforward. There is no shame in watching these until you remember how to do it on your own. One thing to be very careful of is that the film is actually “catching” and advancing. Most YouTube videos will explain this.

What's a Light Meter and Do I Need One?

If you get an SLR, the camera will (hopefully) have a light meter, which makes sure that your shooting settings are going to expose the image properly. Basically, they will tell you if your aperture and shutter speed are correct for the lighting of whatever area you’re in. Unfortunately, the light meter on my Ricoh was broken when I bought it, and I was very upset. It is apparently very common for light meters to be broken in old cameras. Luckily, there are a bunch of light meter smartphone apps that can tell you what settings you need for any given situation. I used an app called My Lightmeter Pro, which worked wonderfully and cost $4 (there are free ones also). When I got home from Japan, the light meter on my camera was somehow magically working again, so I’ve since been using the built-in one.

How Do I Develop Film?

Getting my rolls of film developed has also been kind of annoying and overwhelming, but has led to some very wholesome interactions as well. I am relatively certain that “one hour photo” services are no longer a thing, and, though Google Maps will tell you that Walgreens and CVS still develop film, very few of them actually do (and the ones that do seemingly mail it offsite for processing).

A lot of the places that still develop film are catered toward professionals who want very specific things, and lots of them will give you tons of options that you may not understand and which may or may not cost extra money. A lot of them are also not cheap; it can cost $30 or more to get your film developed, printed, and scanned into digital files. There are a handful of websites that do mail-in film development. I haven’t tried any of them, but The Darkroom is the most popular.

Ultimately, I was able to find a small business near me in which a woman develops the film in her apartment and sends scans back to you in a few days for $15 per roll. My best advice here is to search Reddit (r/analogcommunity is great) for film developing options in your town or city and pick someone.

While researching where to get film developed near me, I also learned that developing and scanning your own film is also not that difficult (though it seems intimidating at first). Developing and scanning film is the next step on my photography journey and will surely be the subject of a future article.

If you do buy a film camera or have been shooting film on your own, please comment or let me know! I'd love to talk shop.