Beginner’s 101 Guide to Film Photography | Film, Cameras, Labs, & More

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Film photography has recently seen a resurgence as more people seek ways to express themselves creatively and develop their unique styles. It's a medium steeped with tradition and offers a visual vibe that digital photography often fails to replicate (yep, I said it!).

For those new to the art of analog, shooting, developing, and printing can seem pretty intimidating. Fortunately, various resources are available to help new photographers learn the basics. This beginner’s manual on film photography is designed to help those just starting their journey to becoming more comfortable behind film photographers from start to finish.

It provides an overview of the fundamentals of film photography, from selecting the right camera and film to understanding the basics of exposure latitude, scanning basics, film labs, and more. If you have questions, our Gear Guides are available 24/7 with excellent customer service to help answer various inquiries.

Let's dive in.

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How To Choose your First Film Camera

We’re all beginners at first, no? Film photography is an exciting practice of patience and intention. Shooting film has enabled me, as well as many other photographers, to slow down and create purpose and meaning behind each image. It’s much easier to continuously press the shutter without fully reeling in your composition or framing. But with film, each roll forces you to think twice about the photograph you are trying to create.

So, how does one get started in film, and what kind of camera are good for beginners and the functions or features of each? Well, let’s start with some basics of buying, then we’ll further assess a list of cameras I think are helpful for those starting out but don’t know where to look.

What do you want to shoot?

This is the primary question to ponder.The type of shooting you’re looking to do will highly depend on the camera you should choose. You must also consider the type of format you’d like to shoot in, which brings us my following point.

The Difference Between 35mm and 120 Film Formats

There are two types of cameras that take different film stocks: 35mm and 120 film (medium or large format) film. 35mm is much smaller and typically less expensive than 120 film, meaning they are more portable but hold less space for details and resolution. Because 120 is a larger format, this means that each roll only holds 16 shots or less instead of the usual 36 on the 35mm film canisters. It’s definitely a bit more cumbersome to add 120 film to your camera bag, but the output can be very worthwhile.

If you’re truly just starting out your film journey, I’d highly recommend beginning with a 35mm camera; they are less technical yet still deliver a beautiful image should you shoot the roll properly.

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Where and What To Buy

You can typically buy the more expensive, modern cameras at any branded cameras shop, like Leica, Canon, or Nikon. However, if you’re looking for more old school / vintage options, then eBay, Etsy, or craigslist are excellent options. The one thing you MUST look for when purchasing an older or even slightly used camera is to ensure with the previous owner or manufacturer that the camera works. I cannot stress this enough — I’ve purchased a countless number of cameras that never ended up working once they arrived at my house. Luckily, I’ve since overcome that dangerous purchasing habit once I personally confirmed with the owner that it does, in fact, fully function. Don’t be like past Natalie. Don’t make those same mistakes.

Instant / Disposable Cameras:

  • Instax Mini 11
  • Instax Square SQ1
  • Lomography Lomo Instant Wide
  • Lomography Diana Instant Square
  • Lomography Lomo’Chrome Purple Simple Use Camera
  • Any Kodak Disposable at Walgreens or CVS

Point and Shoot Cameras:

  • Lomography Diana Mini and Flash
  • Lomography Lomo LC - Wide 35mm Film Camera
  • Contax T2
  • Contax T3
  • Olympus Infinity Zoom 80 QD 35mm Film Camera
  • Canon Sure Shot Tele 80 35mm Film Camera

35mm Cameras:

  • Canon AE-1
  • Nikon FE2
  • Olympus OM 1
  • Pentax K1000
  • Nikon FM
  • Holga 120N
  • Minolta SRT-101

120 Cameras:

  • Mamiya 645
  • Pentax 645N
  • Minolta Autocord
  • Mamiya RB67
  • Holga 120

Picking the Right Film

Now that you have your camera of choice, you’ll need to discover which film stocks are the best for you, your work style, and the appropriate lighting condition in which you’ll partake. I’ve used every significant film stock to date and adore the pictures from each, as they all feast a unique taste. However, some better symbolize my work than others, and some will better represent your work differently than mine. I’ve combined a list of my favorite and most popular film stocks, and brief examples of each in the article listed below that I think could be helpful.

  • Kodak Professional Portra 160 - The Versatile Light Range
  • Kodak Professional Portra 400 - The One With Perfect Skin Tones
  • Kodak Professional Portra 800 - The Low Light Compatible
  • Kodak Professional Tri-X 400 - The Black and White Details
  • Kodak Professional Ektar 100 - The Vibrant and Colorful
  • Kodak Gold 200 - The Golden Warmth
  • Kodak Professional Ektachrome E100 - The Experimental
  • CineStill 500 D - The Cinematic Tones and Dark Features
  • Fujifilm Superia X-TRA400 - The Purple-Tinted Majesty
  • Fujifilm Pro 400H - The Lightest and Airiest
  • Ilford Delta 400 - The Finest of Detail for Panchromatic Images
  • Ilford HP5 Plus - The Stark Contrast and Bright Highlighter

Additionally, if you’re hungry for more, I wrote an example article on the 7 best Kodak 35mm and 120 film stocks that feature more information about each roll and additional visual examples from other photographers. It’s an incredibly well-rounded piece about our personal favorite film roll company here at Moment — Kodak. I highly recommend reading this piece if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of what I find to be the highest-rated film stocks to use.

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Product Grid: Shop Film Stocks

Pushing and Pulling Film

The process of pushing and pulling film involves developing and shooting film at a different ISO than what the film was originally “rated” for. It is the art of using a different ISO speed for a more technical or creative approach used on black and white and color film. Due to the complicated process of what might seem like an intimidating start, we broke this process down to make it easy to understand and implement into your film photography.

Let’s say you want to push your 400 ISO film to 1 stop (+1 is how it will most likely be written out), place your camera’s settings to 800 ISO, and meter the whole roll as if it’s 800 ISO. When you’re finished with the roll, clearly mark the canister “+1” for your lab to know to push that film roll at least 1 stop.

There are several reasons why you might want to push your film. Low light is the most common reason people push their film images 1, 2, or 3 stops. Pushing can also be a fun and unique way to change the look and vibe of your Black and White canisters to receive more contrast or grain, a desirable look for monochrome photography. The hues tend to be more saturated with a few pushes for color film. Typically, you might want to push your 100-speed film, such as Ektar 100, 2 stops or more during a cloudy day to receive better shadows and contrast as it develops to 400 ISO.

Pulling your film applies this same concept, except in the opposite direction. If you’re shooting a higher ISO-rated film roll, but are in a super bright and sunny condition where the shadows and highlights might be blasted, then pull your film down -1, -2, or -3 stops to bring out those details and contrast in the shadows. For a more creative approach, pulling film mutes colors and flattens the image with less contrast.

A quick lesson on terminology:

  • ISO - The sensitivity rate at which light is rated. This is also often referred to as film speed.
  • Stop - A stop of either doubling or halving the amount of light let in when taking a photo.
  • Push - Doubling the amount of light by 1, 2, or 3 stops.
  • Pull - Halving the amount of light by -1, -2,-3 stops.

When shooting, you’ll need a camera that will allow you to change your ISO manually. Set your camera to the desired camera speed (something different than the film speed) and shoot the film as you usually would. The rest is done with your development lab.

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The Film Photography Workshop


The Film Photography workshop features 4 mini-lessons for beginner creatives looking to level up. Learn from the most esteemed modern day film photographers across various visions and techniques: ligh...

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Rating Film

Rating film is basically just overexposing your film roll at the time of shooting to give the roll enough light. That's why a lot of Fuji wedding shooters have that notorious light and airy vibe, it’s because they rate their color film to precisely what they want.

Most film stocks need more light than what their box speed recommends. Box Speed simply refers to the ISO each film roll’s manufacturer recommends shooting your film at. You can typically read the ISO number within each film roll’s name, like Kodak Professional 400 ISO box speed holds an ISO of 400.

For example, rating Kodak Professional 400 box speed film at 100 ISO is the same as over-exposing the whole roll by two stops (highlighted in the aforementioned section) because you are essentially slicing the box speed in half, twice.

But how will rating the film stock differently affect the look of my images? Various lighting conditions will give you various exposure results, so it’s essential to read the light situation of your scene to determine your rating outcome. You might need to overexpose in poor light more than you usually would maintain fine exposures and color tones.

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The Best Places to Get Your Film Developed

Lastly, a generalized list of excellent film development labs around the United States. We find it important to choose a lab you love and trust. There’s nothing worse than poor scans on photos you know would have come out better had someone else done them with greater talent and understanding. Photographer, Natalie Carrasco, wrote a guest piece with FieldMag on the top 10 best mail-in photo labs across the USA. Below are a few mentioned in the article:

Bonus Tip! Try organizing your shoot by these 6 essential steps to planning a photoshoot with Milanote.

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