Beginner Series with @theanalogbook
Part 1: Starting out shooting film
Part 2: Picking the right camera for you
Part 3: Learning to develop
Part 4: Embracing analog in a digital world
Part 5: My process
Part 2: Picking the right camera for you
Like many young film photographers, my first camera was handed down to me by my father and I still treasure it today. The brushed metallic coat, faux leather wrap, and recognizable ‘click’ make this Pentax K1000 one of my most prized possessions. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, I received this camera shortly before starting my Grade 12 Photography course. At the time I was convinced that I had the best film camera you could own. Who knows? Maybe I did.
My goal for this post is to convince you, the reader, that every film camera is just a unique tool, each with its own quirks and traits. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on bodies and lenses to take great photos. In fact, there is much more that goes into taking great photos than the cost of your gear. However, breaking the bank might happen if you’re not paying attention. Film photography is an expensive hobby and can become very addictive, so doing your research prior to indulging might save you some money.
About a year ago, when I got back into film photography, all I wanted to do was try new cameras, film stocks, alternative techniques, and explore different formats. After shooting two rolls of HP5+ through my K1000 I knew I was hooked again. I instantly started looking on Ebay, Kijiji, and other buy-and-sell groups for anything I could get my hands on. I was buying broken cameras, old plastic holgas, pin-hole contraptions, lenses, filters, and expired film. Within a span of a month, I went from owning just a K1000 to being the proud owner of a Holga 120, four point-and-shoots, six SLRs, a changing bag, a developing kit with all the chemicals, and a box of expired film from 2008. Needless to say, I wasn’t really thinking straight or with a budget.
It was time to admit to myself that I had a problem and If I was going to continue to buy gear I had to think it through a bit more. If I were to start that stage over again, here are the questions I would ask myself: What format do I want to shoot? What type of images do I want to make? How much am I willing to spend?
Let’s start with the first question; What format do I want to shoot? Picking a format to shoot isn’t black and white, no pun intended. I started with 35mm because that was the format of my K1000 and really the only format I was familiar with at the time. 35mm negatives are much smaller than medium format so they provide much less detail than a 120 negative. This does not mean the image quality is bad, however, with a roll of 120 film you are given fewer frames to play with. A roll of 35mm film ranges from 24 exposures to 36, where as a 120 roll only allows for 10-16.
Then there are large format cameras. Large format cameras tend to be reserved for landscape photography but are also used for amazing portraits and advertisement work. These cameras tend to be more expensive and require you to prep your film in a darkroom with film holders that are placed into the back of the camera. Here is a great video explaining how this is done. You tend to be limited to 1-2 frames per holder so the number of exposures you take depends on how many holders you prep and bring with you.
Next I would ask myself; what type of images do I want to make? I personally shoot a lot of street imagery and everyday documentary photos, so a 35mm works great for me. I don't have to lug around a heavy camera and I shoot a lot of film so having the option to buy a bulk roll of 35mm and roll canisters myself is a huge plus.
Framing and aspect ratio also play a huge role in choosing the right camera. Medium and large format cameras allow for more detail because of the size of their negatives. If I shot more nature or images with more objects in view, such as a city scape, then I would probably prefer a larger format camera. Obviously this is an oversimplified example so a good rule of thumb would be; if you want to print or display a larger image then shoot medium format. If you’re happy with having a smaller print (8.5x11) and prefer a lighter and smaller camera, go with a 35mm. If you plan on shooting large landscapes, such as mountains, then look into purchasing a large format camera. Here is a comparison of a 35mm negative against different medium and large format negatives.
Finally, I would ask myself; how much am I willing to spend? If shooting film is just a hobby for you then it really depends on how obsessed you are. If you are like me and want to try many different cameras and formats, then this hobby might get expensive for you. But, if you just want to explore shooting film for the experience, then just pick a format you are happy with and try to stick to it for a year. Just remember that typically the larger the negative the greater the cost.
On the other hand, if you are able to make a living off your photography, whether that be by shooting events, doing photo shoots, or even selling prints, then money might not be an issue. As long as you are able to budget correctly and make more than you are spending, shooting film could be a fun and inexpensive experience for you.
Obviously this is all a generalization on choosing the your first camera, there are many more areas you can research before you buy.. Here are some other questions you can ask yourself; “Do I want mirrored or mirrorless?”, “What type of lighting do I generally want to shoot in?”, or even “How many different types of lenses can I get for this camera?” All these questions can help you figure out what format and lenses will work best for you. But for me, this is what it all comes down to; “How does the camera feel in my hands?”
Just picking up and holding a camera, looking through the eyepiece, and cocking the shutter will tell you a lot about choosing the right gear. There are so many different styles, sizes, brands, and quality of cameras out there that it's almost impossible to pick the exact one for you so just keep trying. I recommend asking your parents or grandparents if they have an old camera you can have, going to camera shows and looking for deals, or buying a camera and continuing to trade in for different ones until you find the one you like. There are many great sites for buying, selling, and trading cameras, but I recommend checking out quality gear at KEH. They offer many used and new cameras at all levels of quality and are a perfect place to start!
The following are the requirements that I look for when choosing a camera to shoot with. I first look at the shutter speeds and check whether it goes up to 1000 or even higher. Next, I look at the lens and make sure that it has a wide enough range for me to play with. I prefer a lens that goes as open as 1.4, if possible. Now I take a look through the viewfinder to see if it has a built in light meter so I don’t have to carry one around. Built in light meters can provide fairly accurate results and help better gage what setting you should set your camera to. Then I pick up the camera; Does it have a good weight? Does it have a good place to grip and hold on to? How is cocking the shutter, is it easy and smooth or kind of clunky? Finally I ask myself, “How does it feel?” If all of these requirements are met, I tend to buy the camera, load a roll of film, and go shooting.
To finish this post, I thought I would share what camera I am currently using and what I like about it. Ironically, I was given this camera as a gift so I never did test it out before using it, like I just described. However, I was lucky enough that it passed all my tests. I am currently using a Rolleiflex SL35 made by Rollei Singapore, with a 50mm, 1.8 Planar lens and I couldn't be more happy. The lens ranges from 1.8 to 16 and has shutter speeds from 1 to 1000 with a Bulb setting. I absolutely love the glass’s clarity and the sound this baby makes.
So there you have it, go visit some camera shows, ask your family if they have old gear, buy or trade online, and most importantly, just pick up a camera. If it feels right in your hand, you probably have a winner.
I'd very much like to thank Josh for contributing to the blog with his series and I hope you are looking forward to the next part of the series where he will talk about developing your film!