A beginner’s guide to film photography

Photograph by Angus Marian

Film photography can be unpredictable in a way that is both terrifying and liberating. However, it is a rewarding experience when you are able to achieve the tone, look, and feel that many photographers try to replicate in digital. Whether you’re just getting into photography, moving over from digital, or you’ve inherited some old cameras from your grandparents and don’t know what to do with them, this is a practical guide to shooting the most common film formats and where to get them processed.


Probably the cheapest and most accessible way to start shooting film. This was the standard back in the day, so 35mm cameras can be found everywhere, ranging from cute ‘90s point-and-shoots to fully manual SLR cameras. If you don’t already have one, have a look around flea markets and op-shops, or buy one on Gumtree. Save yourself the frustration by doing some research, inspecting the camera if possible, and making sure that it has been tested. There’s nothing worse than wasting rolls of film and losing valuable photos because the shutter doesn’t work or the film can’t wind properly on the reel.
If you’re wondering which colour film to buy, start off with consumer-grade 35mm such as Kodak Ultramax or Fujifilm Superia. These are often sold in multi packs, with 24 or 36 exposures per roll, and provide consistent results, useful for when you’re learning how to use a new camera. For black and white, you can’t go wrong with Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X. Both films have good latitude, making them very forgiving if you accidentally over or underexpose your shots. There are also chromogenic films such as Ilford XP2, which allow you to shoot in black and white but can be processed in C-41 chemicals like colour film.
After you figure out how your camera works and what kind of results to expect, there is a multitude of professional-grade and specialty films to experiment with.

With a much larger negative size, photos shot on 120 usually retain more detail and are more suitable for enlargements. However, the stakes are a lot higher – a roll of film will only get you 12 or 16 frames, depending on your camera. As with 35mm, you can buy an SLR, but there is also the option of a twin lens reflex (TLR) camera, which has one lens for the viewfinder and another lens below it for exposing the negative. The waist level viewfinder in TLRs can take some getting used to, as the glass screen shows a mirrored image, and it can be disorientating trying to move left to compose right (pro tip: swivel your body, not the camera). That said, once you get the hang of it, you can take some killer mirror selfies, Vivian Maier-style.

Now, as it was then, instant film is the life of the party. There’s nothing quite like clicking the shutter, watching a photo pop out of the camera and waiting for it to magically develop in front of your eyes. Instax, made by Fujifilm, has been around since the late 1990s and is the easiest way to get into shooting instant film. If you’re looking to shoot legitimate ‘Polaroids’, you’re out of luck: Polaroid stopped making the original instant film back in 2008, but a company called The Impossible Project makes film that’s compatible with existing Polaroid cameras. Fujifilm also used to produce ‘peel-apart’ film, which you could shoot, pull out of the camera and then ‘peel-apart’ to reveal a positive and negative image. This has recently been discontinued, but if you manage to get your hands on the last remaining packs, it’s worth trying out.

Standard ‘negative’ colour film can be taken to any photo lab in Melbourne which still processes film. The majority of ‘1 Hour’ photo labs have closed down or switched to digital, but there a few camera stores such as Michaels and digiDIRECT in the city where you can buy film and get your rolls processed. There is also an indie photo lab, Hillvale, which literally runs out of a garage in Brunswick. Just be aware that black and white usually costs more to process than colour, and it can be very expensive to process dying formats such as transparency/slide (E-6) and APS film. For a more DIY approach, it is possible to buy the chemicals needed to develop your own black and white film at home: Vanbar in Fitzroy stocks these, as well as some Australian based eBay stores. It takes a little more effort on your part, but is a fun and very cost-effective way of shooting film.

Hopefully, reading this guide brings you a step closer to picking up a camera and taking photos. You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to shooting film, but that’s what makes it so interesting. Take your time, don’t be afraid to experiment and most importantly, enjoy the process. Happy snapping!

Shannon Ly

The author Shannon Ly

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