I like to think that over the last 4-6 months I’ve got a pretty good handle on my film photography technique, but that’s only because I must have made EVERY MISTAKE in the book over the last 3-4 years !! 🤪
So allow me to share some of these mistakes with you, so you don’t have to experience the same amount of wasted money & occasional anguish !
This is a LONG read with plenty of my film camera disasters for you to gasp at, however I’ve tried my best to make it speed-readable … so please bookmark this page, dip in & out of it, and come back to it at later stages in your film journey.
New Equipment = New Tests
One thing I’ve slowly discovered with film photography, is that buying more expensive gear doesn’t necessarily produce images any better than cheaper ‘plastic’ versions, in fact, some of my more expensive ‘collector’ items have failed more when least expected and require more maintenance !
So I’ve learnt the hard way, that whenever I get a ‘new’ camera (or lens) the 1st film roll MUST be used for sanity checks … the ‘wasted’ money in doing this exercise, is better than the emotional hurt & pain of defective / blank photos of a beautiful landscape !
- Leave the lens cap on, go outside where it’s bright, and take 2 photographs with the shutter set to 1 sec and the aperture to f5.6 – one held horizontal the other held vertical. This will test for light leaks – the foam seals around the shutter box being defective, causing aurora style red/yellow swooshes to appear on your developed film)
- Focus on a object in your kitchen, leave the aperture at f5.6 and take photos at 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 – your developed film should show 5 photographs getting progressively brighter by the same amount, i.e. the shutter timing is reliable
- To test your exposure meter, take 2 test shots of : a) something bright white, ensuring you get your exposure needle/meter in the middle, and b) something dark black, again with your exposure needle/meter in the middle. If you get back two developed photos with the brightness quite dull & boring, it means your exposure meter is working, as it’s pushing you to middle-grey.
- The above 9 photographs will inadvertently prove that the film advance mechanism is actually working too … and that you’re not shooting photographs on the same single frame over & over
- If you’ve got a ‘new’ lens, then test your lens – take test photos of a close-up object with the aperture wide open (e.g. f1.8) to closed down (e.g f22) through all it’s full f-stops (f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16 and f22). This is to help you see where the lens is soft in the corners vs. when it’s finally sharp edge-to-edge. It will also highlight whether you’ve got a wonderful film camera with a badly defective lens, which is very soft all along one side of the frame … been there. done that, not a very nice experience !! 🥺
- Finally, if you’re using a flash-gun, take 4 test shots indoors at f5.6 with: a) the flash on manual 1/2 power, b) the flash on TTL mode, c) flash with the shutter speed at 1/60, and d) flash with the shutter speed at 1/250. This will test that the hot-shoe is actually working, the shutter plane movement, and whether your camera needs more manual assistance with TTL vs it being fully automated.
Even when you have a fully-functioning film camera, there’s plenty of things that can catch you out, and leaving you cursing at your newly developed film frames !
Here’s some of the horrible mistakes things I’ve experienced:
|Winding on Film||Older non-motorised film advancing cameras, require you to physically wind the film forward after releasing the shutter. This is where things can go horribly wrong … the dreaded blank film frames !|
I once missed an entire sequence of wonderful shots at sun-set because my film wasn’t actually advancing at all … the film had slipped off the spool … entirely my fault ! 😩
TIP #1 : Do yourself a big favour and watch a YouTube video of how to insert the leader of the film roll correctly onto the spool of your camera. Some cameras require ninja-style loop-backs through narrow slots. You’ll be surprised how a quick 10 sec instructional video clears things up.
TIP #2 : Don’t be fooled by the shutter counter increasing as you wind the film … pay close attention to the take-up dial on the other side of your camera, and ensure it’s rotating too. You should always feel tension in the film advance lever too.
TIP #3 : Make sure that you haven’t left the multi-exposure mode on … sometimes I’ve forgotten I had this mode on, or sometimes forgotten how to actually switch it off ! Urrrgh
|Set the ISO correctly||Some old cameras don’t automatically read the film speed (the DX code) … I’ve been caught out, to my horror, taking out a roll of ISO 800 film, hastily switching in a roll of ISO 200 film, and not changing the ISO speed ! Urrrrggggh = frames which are a dark, muddy mess ! 😖|
TIP #4 : Remember the phrase “before changing lanes, check your speed” … 😉 Get into the habit of checking your film speed setting no matter when you insert a new roll of film.
|Make sure your shutter box is clean||I once had an entire roll of film get developed and scanned, only to show a thin horizontal streak/scratch across every single frame in the roll !|
TIP #5 : Get yourself a small rubber air blower, and regularly turn your camera upside down, and gently blow upwards into the shutter box (do NOT touch the delicate shutter blades). This will help ensure no debris trapped inside, which can scratch your film.
|Batteries||Older 60-70’s film cameras may use LR44 watch cell batteries, while cameras from the 80-90’s may use CR123 & CR2 batteries. However, I’ve been sabotaged by an old battery suddenly dropping voltage in cold weather, causing my cameras’ exposure meter to behave erratically, and not only that but on a separate occasion, cause the lens aperture to become inoperable.|
TIP #6 : Always, always bring 2 sets of spare batteries in your camera bag / pouch (keep one set warm in your pocket if you’re out in the cold).
TIP #7 : Always take the batteries out of the camera if you’re not going to use it for a few days, as sometimes they drain away slowly.
|Removing Film||Sometimes your camera, if it’s automatic film advance, may have speed options for film rewind … sometimes the ‘fast’ mode can damage the film ! |
I once had a roll of film show strange vertical lines on the last 3 frames, these are film ‘stretch marks’ which appear when too much tension is being applied to film when rewinding 😳
TIP #8 : Rewind your film back slowly where possible, especially with certain higher ISO films
TIP #9 : I once received a roll that was 90% blank frames from the film lab …. why ? Because I accidentally opened the back of the film camera, without checking if there was film already in the camera first ! Remember the phrase: “Before opening the oven, check if there’s already a cake in there”
The amount of time I’ve made stupid mistakes, wasting film frames, because I wasn’t taking photographs properly … you’ll see what I mean below:
|Exposure metering||When I got my very first film camera, it was 95% mechanical – only the little light meter required power from a little A76 watch-battery. |
However, I must have had half of my first 4 rolls wasted because I didn’t fully grasp how to meter light correctly. Old film cameras don’t auto-magically nail exposure like digital cameras ! 💻
TIP #10 : If you’ve got an old-school camera, learn the Sunny 16 rule … it’s a great yardstick for understanding whether you’re in the right ball-park with your aperture choice when shooting outdoors
TIP #11 : Please read my blog post “Getting Centered” it will give you lots of helpful advice, tips and examples on how use 60-80’s center-weighted metering with confidence.
|Film loves light||Surprise surprise, film is the opposite of digital – film loves lots of light, easily handles over-exposure and hates being under-exposed (caveat: expect for slide film) ! |
The minute you start seeing developed frames that are murky, muddy, indistinct … that’s usually a sign of your shutter speed being too fast / your aperture not open wide enough
TIP #12 : if in doubt, point the center of your camera to the area in your photo which has shadows, and lock your exposure on that !
|Getting focus||A lot of the older cameras will either have no auto-focus, or maybe 1-3 auto-focus points if you’re lucky. The amount of photographs I took which were blurry at the wrong place, drove me nuts, especially at longer focal lengths !|
TIP #13 : Practice manual focus technique, rocking the focus forwards, back and then splitting the difference to land somewhere in between. Don’t forget f4 – f8 is your friend !
The final area where I made silly mistakes was not fully appreciating that not every film stock is made equal, that they behave differently.
|Know your film stock||There’s essentially 3 film types: slide, c41 colour and black & white. For anybody getting into film photography, just stick to c41 colour and black & white, as they’re more forgiving of technique errors.|
Secondly film comes in different sizes … be careful !! If you’ve got a 35mm film camera you need to order film that is ‘135’ / ’35mm’. I’ve had birthday presents that had to be send back to the shop as I received 2 rolls of medium-format 120 film instead of smaller 135 film 🎁
|Get to know your film||The next surprise with film photography is that different film stock can make dramatic differences to the end result … smooth, low contrast vs highly detailed and punchy.|
TIP #14 : When you’re first starting out, just try two rolls of Kodak Gold initially – get to know how it behaves, on cold overcast days, warm sunny days, inside your kitchen using flash, and at night. That will help you build up experience, before you try more expensive specialised stock.
|Get your negatives back||As I mentioned in my blog post “Negative Experience” the rolls of film are your RAW files, if you ever want to get the highest quality print or scan, you must have the negative frame to work with …|
TIP #15 : Always pay the extra little bit of money, to get your negatives sent back to you. You’ll be thankful in the future.
|Use a trusted film lab||Please, please, please send your film to be developed & scanned at a reliable & trustworthy film lab. How do you know you can trust them ? |
Here’s a few quick check-list items to help you decide:
1. Can you get your film negatives back via registered post / courier ?
2. Can they can push / pull film ?
3. Are different scanning sizes on offer, and do they have samples for you to download and inspect ?
4. Will the scans they provide get stored on a proper cloud service, so you can still get access to scans from last year or the year prior if your laptop decides to quit !
5. Finally, do they provide some form of online customer chat channel, where you can contact them, ask questions, and they can offer answers & advice ?
I’m not getting paid for saying this, so I’ll just say it, I’ve been hitting printpoint.ie with rolls of film almost every two months for the last 2-3 years, and they tick ‘yes’ to everything I listed above. The quality of their film dev & scan work is simply jaw-dropping at times ! 🏆
Yes, I know there are other film labs out there too, but I’m just saying – get a lab you can trust 👍
The journey into film can be both joyous and frustrating at times, however ultimately it’s enriching & rewarding, gaining you hard-won fundamental skills that digital photography can’t offer to the same extent.
As I say, I know this was a long post, crammed with a lot of content, but I do hope it helps you on your film journey 😀 Bookmark it, and revisit it time and again, when you’re getting strange issues, or if you’re about to put new film into a new camera ! 😉
Until next time, keep shooting film !
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