Learn to shoot film

By @rtaylormcknight | Posted: January 22, 2016

Back in September 2015, I decided to learn to shoot film.

I shot on disposables and a Canon SureShot as a kid but never learned to use an SLR.

After researching various entry-level cameras and watching a number of video tutorials, I bought a Canon AE-1 on Craigslist and a couple rolls of film at a thrift shop in Northern Virginia.

Later in the month, an email with a link to my first set of scans arrived from the lab.

I shared some of the images with an old friend from film school. “Why are you shooting 35?” was his first reaction. “Try out 120.”

A medium-format camera was a much larger financial investment than the AE-1, but I knew it was something I would regret not trying. Within a few months, I went on eBay and bid for a Mamiya 6.

Soon after purchasing it, the Mamiya stopped working. I quickly deduced that the shutter curtain and another part were getting jammed. Using diagrams of the camera I found online, I dismantled it, fixed the jam, and put all of the parts back together (a great way to learn about your gear).

Want to try it yourself?

Good entry-level SLR: Canon AE-1 (about $50 on Craigslist)

Good film stock for portraits: Kodak Portra 400 (~$5-7 per roll)

Good lab: Indie Film Lab ($10 for developing each roll // scans delivered as JPGs via zip file)

Shooting tips:

  1. After you load a new roll, set the ASA number on your camera to match the speed of your film – e.g. if the film speed is 400, set the ASA to 400. The ASA tells you how sensitive the film is to light. Low speeds – e.g. 50 and 100 – are great for bright days outside. High speeds – e.g. 800 – are great for low light environments. Also keep in mind that higher speed films will be more contrasty than lower ones.

  2. Set your shutter no lower than 1/125th of a second, unless you plan to use a tripod. Otherwise, you’ll get motion blur from the camera shaking. I usually keep mine at 1/125th, unless I’m shooting fast action – then I step up to 1/250 or 1/500.

  3. Each time you take a shot, check the light meter in the viewfinder for the recommended f-stop.

  4. When you focus, remember that the dial is set in increments of meters. If you are unsure about the focus in the viewfinder, you can always look at the dial number and see if the subject is about that distance away.

  5. After you finish shooting a roll, DO NOT open the camera. First, roll the film back onto the spool. Otherwise, you’ll expose the film to light and ruin all of your photos (I’ve done this before).