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At first it may seem that, compared to digital, you're getting zapped for more money at every step of the process, but I don't think that's right. True, shooting film you don't have the potential for the limitless gulf of images theoretically possible with digital, unless you spend a whole lot of money. But the real limit on the number of pictures you take won't be due to the cost of film and processing; it will be due to the amount of time you want to spend taking pictures. For a realistic amount of money, you'll be able to take all the pictures you want. It is a good idea to get your basic technique together with a digital SLR, though— that will save you some money, and the instant feedback is helpful. Prices on the obsolete, but still perfectly usable Nikon D-40, are dropping rapidly— you should be able to get one used for under $200.
Losing that instant feedback is another problem people have; but, working with film, especially when you work with your camera in manual mode, you're disciplining yourself more to pay attention to what you're doing, and learning how to get the images you want. You begin to learn when you've gotten the shot, and can move on, escaping the digital-age options tar pit for one step of the creative process, anyway.
So here's my list of things you'll need to get started:
A camera!See my previous recommendations (this link or the next one). If you're just getting into film photography, and are getting sort-of serious about taking good pictures, probably 35mm would be the way to go, either Nikon or Canon. 35mm gear is dirt cheap, and there's no reason to buy an off-brand. And lenses you buy for your film camera will be usable on any digital SLR of the same brand— with a few exceptions, every Nikon lenses ever made will work with any Nikon camera body, digital or 35mm, though some newer cameras will lose some functionality. All Canon autofocus lenses should be fully functional with all Canon digital SLRs, and autofocus 35mm SLRs. I get as much of my used gear as I can from KEH.com— their “bargain” grade gear has always been a legitimate bargain: 100% functional, and looking much better than the dire-sounding description they give.
If you want to try medium format, you can have a lot of fun with a toy Holga or Diana for under ~$30. A Lubitel is almost a real camera, in that you have focus, set the aperture and shutter speed; it wouldn't be a bad option if you can find one on eBay for around $20-30. A lot of lunatics are asking way too much for them, and they really are little more than toys. See my Yashica D post for advice on getting an old TLR that is a real camera; you want to buy as cheaply as possible, and plan on having to have it serviced. Also, certain pro cameras are rather dirt cheap now, and if you shop carefully you can probably get a Bronica ETRS, Mamiya 645, or Mamiya RB67 (huge— for in-studio only!) for under $200, or a Koni Omega/Rapid (a rather bulky press camera) for under $100. Most of these cameras do not have a built-in light meter, but you can use the “sunny 16” rule, or get an app for your smart phone that will work OK; do some homework before you spend money on a real light meter, though.
MUCH MORE after the break:
Remember, there are three major types of film you'll be using:
- Traditional black and white, which you can and should develop yourself. You can buy it expensively through your local camera shop, or order it cheaply from Freestyle Photo. Their film called Arista EDU Ultra is repackaged Fortepan, a good Hungarian film, and costs around $3 a roll. You should burn up a lot of that.
- Color print film, also called C41, which you can buy anywhere, and get developed cheaply at any photo place. If you're willing to shop at Walmart (I'm not), you can get good 35mm Fuji film cheaply there. There are also C41-process black and white films available, like Ilford XP2.
- Color slide film, also called E6. BW and C41 give you a negative image, E6 gives you a positive— if you look at a color slide, it looks “normal”, like the world as you know it. Get it developed at your 1-hour place, or your camera store; usually it will take awhile, as they have to send it out. For a very cool special effect, you can also have them “cross-process” E6 in C41 chemicals, for the same cost and turnaround time as developing plain old C41— some places won't do it, though.
If you're just playing around doing art stuff like me, and the results aren't critical, especially if you're experimenting with cross-processing, you can get expired film off of eBay— I purchased a couple of large lots of film left over from professional shoots around 2006, and have been drawing from them ever since. For a long time my magic number on second-hand film was $1 a roll, but I think those days are over. As more companies are discontinuing film production, suddenly everyone on eBay thinks film is super-scarce, and every yahoo who found a couple of rolls of expired-in-1997 K-Mart film in their junk drawer thinks they're worth 7 bucks each. Today, I would not spend more than $3/roll for any expired film that was not stored frozen or at least refrigerated. Because processing costs time and money, I don't think it's worth it to buy any old screwed-up, obviously-stored-at-room-temperature, very expired film— like more than 3-5 years out of date— even at $1/roll. Compare prices with what you can get on Freestyle before buying.
The more limited selection of available films is OK, by the way— for quite a few decades film options were very limited, and people still managed to do some OK photography. And now we have Photoshop, so maybe subtle differences in film brands aren't as big a deal as they once were.
Do buy in large quantities; you don't want to be thinking “I'm spending $3-10 right now” when you're actually taking pictures. Once you know what you like, you can drop a couple of hundred bucks stocking up, and you'll be shooting quite happily for the next 6-24 months— depending on how prolific you are.
A reasonably-priced one-hour lab close bySomeplace to do your 35mm C41, and get cheap color prints made, fast. It should cost you no more than $3 to get a negative from a roll of film. Some places will even cross-process for you— they'll develop your slide film in C41 chemicals, which gives the cool, blue-or-greenish, super-saturated-and-contrasty look you've seen in so many people's camera phone pictures on Facebook, only you'll be doing it for real. My neighborhood Walgreen's has just tripled their price on processing, so that's out. Costco has traditionally been a good option.
If you don't want to spring for a scanner up front, you can have your lab make a CD for you. Back in the early 2000's I spend way too much money getting prints made of all the pictures I took; that was standard when you got your film developed. Don't do that. Get them scanned, and only print select things.
A professional lab close by
Someplace to handle your 120, to do your cross-processing, and maybe to get some prints made. You can also get this done by mail, if you can stand the wait, and a few bucks extra cost. Your 1-hour place may be able to handle it by sending it to the same place they get their E6 processed, though they'll probably look at you like you just flew in on a pteranodon.
If/when you're shooting black and white, you should do your own processing— it's ridiculously slow and expensive to have a lab process your film. Doing it yourself requires only minimal equipment, no dark room, and no special skill. I just started with the Arista developing kit from Freestyle, which has the minimum amount of stuff you need; as you learn better what you need and why, you can get larger tanks and beakers either from Freestyle or used on eBay, or at your local camera store.
You'll also need some chemicals— start with D-76 developer (powder), Kodak fixer (powder), and Kodak Photo-Flo (liquid, for dilution)— and a bucket, and two 1-gallon, and one 2-liter chemical storage containers. And unless there's a room in your house you can easily make 100% dark, I would also get a changing bag. Then read my post on developing, or this post at Chromogenic, which is the one I read when I started doing my own developing.
You can develop your C41 at home, but it's more of a hassle than doing B&W, and I have not messed with it.
A negative scanner
Part of why my film photography ground nearly to a halt in the past several years was that my negative scanner totally sucked— I bought it around 2004, and it was just hopelessly slow. Scanning a roll of film took a couple of hours. My new Canon 9000f Mark II cost about $170, and works great; it's fast, gets high enough resolution for nearly all applications, and handles 35mm negatives, 35mm slides, and 120 negatives or slides— it comes with special holders for each of those media.
I get way too bored typing specs, so if you read about the Canon scanner, and compare to the rig you're thinking of buying, you should be fine. Make sure it has the capability to scan negatives! Or just buy what I bought.
You can spring for Photoshop, but there are also decent free software available: The Gimp, Photo.NET, and Irfanview. The Gimp is an open-source Photoshop substitute, Photo.NET is the same, but very minimal— I use it mainly for resizing things for the web. Irfanview I just use for browsing images stored on the computer.
The absolute cheapest-up-front foot-in-the-door:
35mm: Get a bargain-grade Nikon N80 or Canon EOS Rebel G with a zoom lens from KEH.com, and a bunch of Fuji color print film from Walmart, take hell of pictures, get the film processed at Costco, or wherever will give you your negative for <$3, and a photo CD for <$3 more. The camera will cost you about $40, the film another $40 for 10-15 rolls, and processing will be $60-90, spread out over the period of time it takes you to burn through those first rolls.
Medium format: Get a Holga, Diana, or Lubitel on eBay; get whatever garbage expired 120 color print film you can find on eBay for less than $3/roll; take it to your closest camera store/photo place and hope they will give you a negative and a CD for the same ~$3+3 as the 35mm people will. Get a free light meter app if you're using the Lubitel, shoot outside with good light and hope for the best with the Diana/Holga.