Returning to Analogue Photography: 1. Starting Out

An East of the M60 partwork for 2013: a refresher course and beginners’ guide to using film cameras

Kodak Retinette 1A, Ektar/Kodachrome version
My Kodak Retinette 1A, lovingly photographed in Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar.

Digital photography is convenient. You can just save your images onto a computer, memory card or post them on your favourite social networking site. You can even use your own printer, but in spite of all these creature comforts, we may forget to share our images or print them off. In a way, digital photography could be a tad antisocial and a little throwaway.

The social side of sharing photos in the physical form is somewhat diminished. Though high resolution, the images can be on the sterile side, and not have a character of their own. Which explains why Instagram has taken off, so that we can add the imperfections of our favoured toy cameras onto a mobile phone image. Outside of digital cameras, genuine toy cameras such as the Holga and Diana can create such effects. It is also worth noting that results from a decent film camera can surpass those of a bargain basement digital compact camera.

Film shouldn’t be underestimated in the digital age: a 30 year old exposed negative can still be reprinted and enlarged. Will a Secure Digital card three decades on be just as compatible, or will it have been replaced by the Next Big Thing? Film can also coexist with digital by means of scanning devices and image processing programs.

Since the dawn of digital photography, there are several people who haven’t had the joy of analogue photography. They no longer have the sense of anticipation gained from getting their photos processed, nor been able to develop their photos in a darkroom, using Rodinal or Caffeinol.

Even in this digital age, it is still possible to return to analogue photography. This little guide will set you on your way.

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Choosing Your Camera

My first ‘grown up camera’, which I actually purchased myself, was a Haminex camera from a car boot sale in August 1990. It used 110 film, which comes in a cartridge form. 110 film was fairly popular in 1990 among cost conscious snappers, but nothing more. Today’s mobile phones would be a worthy successor for the format launched by Kodak in 1972 as its ‘Pocket Instamatic’ film.

Today, you cannot buy a new film camera from your local Argos or Currys store, but, disposable cameras are film based and are readily available in most chemists or photo processing shops. If you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful compact camera, I recommend rooting through the local charity shops. There’s every chance you’ll find a half decent film camera for less than a fiver.

If you’re more discerning, purchase a copy of Amateur Photographer, or scour the internet for a suitable film camera. To begin with, I recommend starting off with a simple compact camera such as an Olympus Trip just to get used to using film cameras. (Issues about manual control will be dealt with in a possible follow-up post).

About Film Types

There are two types of film: negative film and reversal film. The former often has an orange tint, whereas the latter is transparent. Negative film is the most commonplace type, whereas reversal film is used for picture slides. Each layer of film has microscopic crystals which determines how films are processed, from development to printing.

Both types are available in a variety of speeds designed for a range of applications and light settings. These are referred to as ASA speeds, with 100ASA film being slower than 800ASA film. Faster film can be used where lighting is at a premium (i.e. night time shots, or any location where flash photography is prohibited), whereas slower film is best in brighter light. As film speed increases, the amount of grain in the film increases.

Main Film Formats:

  • 120 (Medium Format): the oldest film format in continuous use. Launched in 1902, its high resolution and versatility remains popular with serious film photographers today;
  • 135 (35mm): the most popular and widely supported format;
  • 110: Pocket Instamatic format launched by Kodak in 1972. Last films produced in 2009, since reintroduced by Lomography in May 2012.

The main two film formats in use today are 120 (also known as Medium Format) and 135 (or 35mm). 120 films come in a single spool, which has to be loaded onto a second empty spool in the camera. The film itself is in two parts: the negative, and the backing paper. The backing paper is often marked with three sets of numbers. This is because 120 film has sub-formats, which determine the number of shots which he or she has to take. This is dependent on the camera which he or she is using.

Popular sub-formats of 120 film are 6 x 4.5cm (16 shots), 6 x 6cm (12 shots), 6 x 7cm (10 shots) and 6 x 9cm (8 shots). At 6cm width, 120 negatives also allow for reprints the size of a plasma screen television without any loss of image quality.

For cost-conscious film photographers, 35mm film is a better option, not only in terms of affordability, but also in terms of availability. It is widely available at local photo labs, branches of Boots The Chemist and – has for the last five years – been available for purchase at Poundland. 35mm film comes in a plastic cartridge, stored in a plastic container and available with 24 or 36 shots.

In the last year, the Pocket Instamatic 110 format has since returned to production. Thanks to Lomography, fresh stocks of 110 film were made available last May.

Film Brands

Each film tends to be different from each other with a character of its own. This is due to the way each film is made, and the types of chemicals used to determine colours or tones. Though the amount of film, and outlets, available today has diminished in recent years, there is still plenty to choose from including:

  • Kodak ColorPlus: suitable for beginners where cost is a concern. Slightly muddy colours, though good for testing cameras and retro style pictures;
  • Agfa Vista Plus: widely available at Poundland, slightly muted colours. Again good for testing cameras and retro style pictures. It is also available in repackaged form as Boots’ films and as the budget priced Fujicolor C200;
  • Kodak Gold (ISO 200): widely available negative film;
  • Fujifilm Superia: fine grained film suitable for outdoor daylight photography;
  • Fujifilm Superia X-Tra: as above in ISO400 form with more vivid colours, and more suited for fast action shots and sports events;
  • Lomography (ISO 100/400/800 negative film): besides marketing and selling pricey plastic cameras, they have a wide range of films for 120, 110 and 135 film cameras. There is also a wealth of redscale, slide film, and black and white films;
  • Ilford HP5/XP2 (ISO 100/400): for many photographers, Ilford’s films are the last word in black and white photography with good contrast;
  • Ilford Delta (ISO 400/3200): the latter black and white film is excellent in low light;
  • Kodak Portra (ISO 160/400): a favourite film of mine, excellent for portraits and sunny landscapes. Also a dream to scan owing to its very fine grain;
  • Kodak Ektar 100: cited by some photographers as a worthy substitute to the late lamented Kodachrome, it is known for its vivid colours.

Where to Buy Your Camera

Charity shops are often a good place for cheap compact cameras. I have taken a few photos myself with a 1987 Olympus AM-100 purchased for 50p and most surprised to find a clear lens free of fungus and light leaks. I also recommend:

  • Choosing a second hand camera from the classified adverts section of Amateur Photographer. Though more expensive than the charity shop or car boot sale, some cameras may be guaranteed for a short period of time, with reference to its condition (for example, Mifsuds and Ffordes are good places to start – and they also have websites);
  • Calling in to a branch of London Camera Exchange, available in most city centres throughout the UK;
  • Visiting (if you’re in Manchester) The Real Camera Company shop on Lever Street – they really do know their cameras – and film ones at that! They also have a good range of photography books, darkroom equipment, tripods and film;
  • Mithering your parents or siblings into ‘borrowing’ their – otherwise gathering dust – film camera (cheapest option);
  • If you wish to go down the toy camera/hipster/more money than sense route, Urban Outfitters’ shops offer a range of Diana cameras in 120 and 35mm film formats;
  • The Diana, Holga and its friends are also available from Lomography’s website and shops all over the world. Manchester’s shop is on Oldham Street, and they offer the full complement of toy cameras including limited editions. Or you can visit their website and purchase your camera and/or films online.

Choosing and Purchasing Your Films

As film is sensitive to light, please keep in mind that a low speed film may be useless at night time, though suitable on sunny days. I recommend buying an ultra cheap roll of film to test your camera with. By doing that, you can check the camera’s potential foibles such as light leaks, jammed shutters or exposure. If there are problems with the camera, you will have little to lose if your film came from Poundland, instead of from Boots where a roll of Ilford XP2 would set you back around £6.99 for 36 exposures.

If you’re satisfied with the results of your camera using El Cheapo Brand Film, you could introduce a more expensive film. Then, consider purchasing a selection of films suitable for each day, application or season, and storing them in a fridge before use. I would consider for example (you may have your own personal preferences):

  • For sunny days: Kodak Ektar 100 or Kodak Portra 100/400;
  • For a retro look: Kodak ColorPlus or Agfa ColorPlus;
  • For darkness: Ilford Delta 3200 or any colour film rated ISO800 upwards;
  • For rainy days: Ilford XP2, Ilford HP5.

Accessories

Sometimes, your film camera may allow for accessories. The most common connector is known as a Hot Shoe, and is often seen on the top of the camera. This is often used for external flash heads. At the bottom of most cameras – including the most cheapest and nastiest Pound Shop Special Edition Variety of 35mm Cameras – is a screw mount. This is used for attaching your camera onto a tripod or monopod.

A tripod is used to keep your camera still, and is particularly important if you wish to take night time shots or any picture with a long exposure time, such as at a firework display or moving traffic. A monopod only has one foot, so it is best used if you are resting against the monopod itself, or aligning it against a fence.

Sometimes, the shutter button has a screw connection at the dead centre. This is used for shutter release cables. Coupled with a tripod, a shutter release cable allows you to remotely control the shutter.

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Next Up…

By this point, you’ll be itching to take some pictures with your ‘new’ film camera. In our next part, we shall go into detail about the types of cameras, loading film and taking your first picture.

S.V., 23 January 2013.

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5 thoughts on “Returning to Analogue Photography: 1. Starting Out

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  1. Film is SUPERB! I “inherited” A Nikon F50 off my late grandad, and use it reasonably regularly (I normally use a Nikon D40) and it takes EXCELLENT shots! I have uploaded some to my Flickr account http://www.flickr.com/photos/bungle666ue/ . it is worth noting when using film, if you wish to save money on processing, opt for the “scanned to CD” option instead of physical prints, my local processor will do me a 36 exp film to CD for around £4 as opposed to prints that can cost up to a tenner a throw + the £4 processing charge!

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    1. Hi Alan,

      A good tip there, as regards D&P and CD copying cost savings. Not least the fact you also let somebody else scan the negatives into digital form, saving yourself a most arduous job.

      After running some El Cheapo film into my Kodak Retinette 1A (with excellent results), I have now treated it to some Ilford XP2 to see how the Schneider lens performs with black and white.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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  2. So glad to find this site – am frustrated by the limitations of digital photography and so am going to use my late grandad´s lovely old Olympus OM1 to do some outside close up photography.

    If anyone can recommend websites or shops that offer cheap film & processing deals please let me know as, since Jessops went bust, I´m not sure where to get them.

    Many thanks!

    Clare
    (Folkestone/London)

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    1. Hi Clare,

      Thank you for your comments, glad to see you’ve rediscovered the joys of analogue photography.

      With regards to cheap film and processing deals, City Photographic in Southampton offer mail order film processing with prices starting from £4.99 (24 exposures, 35mm, 6×4 prints). They offer a 24 hour turnaround time on colour films, and three days with black and white films (that I would assume also includes non-C41 process films like Ilford HP5).

      I have also heard excellent reports from a fellow film user about Peak Imaging in Sheffield. They are a bit more expensive than City Photographic, and I’ve been told they have a quick turnaround time too. Cheshire Photo Lab, not only process 35mm and 120 film, but also discontinued films like 126 and 620. Peak and City Photographic both do 120 and 35mm processing, with cross-processing/Lomography style effects available. The latter also offers 110 film processing if you wish to dig out the pocket Instamatic.

      Another joy of film is it is possible (with the right chemicals and a suitable place for a darkroom) to develop and print your own pictures. You can even use non-chemical methods of film processing such as Caffeinol for different effects again.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

      Like

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