Why on Earth would you still shoot film? First you pay money for a camera. You pay for each roll of film you buy, and you pay for each of those rolls to be developed – and possibly pay again to have them turned into a CD so you can share them via the web. Compare that to digital – you charge up your camera, stick in a memory card, and you can shoot again and again and again. If you want your pictures to look like film, you can use Instagram or use film plug-ins on Photoshop, rather than spending all that money on film and development.
Getting into film photography, however, needn’t cost a fortune. It’s now over a decade since the digital revolution took hold, and the vast majority of photographers now shoot digital. Many of them have long-since traded in or sold their film photography gear. That’s meant millions of film cameras looking for new homes.
Search for “film cameras” on eBay and you’ll find tens of thousands of cameras up for grabs – from professional-level Canons and Nikons to vintage folding cameras and cheap and cheerful compacts. Medium format cameras and high-end 35mm SLRs that once cost the pros thousands of pounds to buy new can be had for only a few hundred.
But taking your first steps into film need only cost a fraction of that. In the decades before the camera industry concentrated on all-singing, all-dancing autofocus creations, most cameras used manual focus and a bare minimum of electronics. That might make things initially a little bit of steep learning curve early on, but also means that there’s less likely to go wrong. Many of the cameras from the 50s, 60s and 70s – made of metal rather than brittle plastic – were expensive to buy at the time and, accordingly, built to last. There’s no reason why they can’t still be capable of great results.
Some think buying cameras on eBay, where you can’t inspect it before it arrives, is a bit of a gamble. If you’re worried about spending money on something that turns out to be a glorified paperweight, then set yourself a modest budget and stick to it. You can spend as much – or as little – as you want.
Hitting camera shops, second-hand stores and markets stalls is another way to go. This at least gives you the chance to pick test if everything’s working and it feels right for your hand.
Ten years ago I bought a Zenit E at Greenwich Market in south London. The Zenit E is a no-frills SLR that was made in the Soviet Union in the many millions during the late 1960s and 70s. The camera was widely sold across Europe, including the UK, to raise hard currency for the USSR. This particular camera was inscribed with the logo of the 1980 Moscow Olympics – a very canny capitalist trick to make the these Communist cameras more collectible. The price? £4. That’s less than the cost of pint in a London pub. It turned out the Zenit was in perfect nick. On a trip to the Amalfi Coast I paired it up with a lens of an old Pentax Spotmatic (which costs me £20) and shot slide film on it, using the camera’s own selenium meter (an old style camera meter that doesn’t need batteries). The pictures came out perfectly exposed. The East German Praktica cameras are another good bet – I learned my basic photography skills on a Praktica MTL 5B which cost me £50 from a London camera store, with a six month guarantee. That’s a lot more than you’d pay for one off eBay,
Some film, such as the last few varieties of slide film made by Fuji, cost more than £10 a roll. But it’s still possible to get film for as much as only a few pounds. If you’re shooting black and white, consider buying Foma, a brand of black and white print film made in Czech Republic. Their 100 speed film is perfect for bright sunny days and their 400 speed film can be “push processed” up to 3200 ISO and yield great results, Shop around and you can get a roll of this for as little as £2.50. Two great colour films – Kodak’s 100-speed Ektar and Fuji’s atmospheric Superia 400 – can also be had for under a fiver. While you can try and find cheaper – usually expired – on eBay, buying fresh and new means you add to the ranks of regular film customers. And by doing that, you help keep film alive!
And when it comes to processing, you can shop around and get your films developed and put on CD for little more than the cost of your film. I use West End Cameras on Tottenham Court Road, which charges little more than £5 to develop and scan colour print film (black and white is a little more expensive), with consistently excellent results. Some mail order labs – like pro-lab Peak Imaging in Sheffield – offer a discount if you send films in batches of five or 10, bringing the cost of development-only down to £4 a roll. Other labs around the UK are even cheaper.
Shooting film can make you a better photographer – it can certainly make you a more patient one. But it needn’t make you a bankrupt one.
Written by: Stephen Dowling/ Stephen Dowling Blog/ Camera Reviews from Stephen Dowling