How to Cheat at Film Photography – Simple Tips for Making Better Photos

How to Cheat at Film Photography – Simple Tips for Making Better Photos

2000 1125 James Tocchio

Film photography can be hard. The learning curve is often steep, and blasting through twenty rolls of film as we learn the ropes can be a costly and frustrating experience. This barrier to entry may even cause some of us to quit, which is a shame, since there are few experiences in photography as rewarding and exciting as making amazing images on film.

But it doesn’t have to be so tricky. Here are a few simple tricks that will help both new and experienced shooters immediately improve their results when shooting with film.

Use a modern film camera

We know you love the K1000, we all do. But it’s a basic camera, and it may be holding you back (especially if you’re trying film or photography for the first times). I know modern cameras don’t have quite the charm of older machines, but if your chief concern is making gorgeous images, you may want to try one.

Cameras like Minolta’s Maxxum line, Nikon’s N series, and Canon’s entry-level EOS SLRs may not look as stylish as something like an AE-1, but these “basic” cameras from the 1990s are in almost every way superior machines to the SLRs from the 1970s that everyone seems to swoon over. Even the cheapest of cameras from the ’90s and ’00s come with built-in features with which cameras like the K1000 can’t possibly compete. Full PASM shooting modes including full auto and semi-auto, exposure compensation, multi-exposure bracketing, dynamic light metering, and, holy smokes, autofocus! No more blurry subjects. Imagine…

These humble cameras are the product of decades of innovation. By the 1990s, camera makers had solved nearly every problem that had hindered photographers for much of the previous fifty years. They handle like the DSLR and mirrorless cameras we’re all used to today, so operation will be more immediately comfortable for shooters born in the digital age, and they usually cost about half what a more “hip” camera costs. If there’s one simple way to “cheat” at the craft, this is it. Get yourself a more modern camera. Your camera will be more versatile, and your images will be better.

Shoot in aperture-priority / shutter-priority

If you’re a new shooter, you may not know what the terms aperture-priority and shutter-priority mean, but they’re not complicated. Essentially these are semi-automatic shooting modes in which the shooter sets one parameter of an exposure and the camera sets the other. These modes allow greater control than if we were shooting in Program mode while providing a more streamlined methodology than full manual might. For those new to the craft, shooting in one of these modes is the best way to see how changing the parameters of one setting will impact the other, and the final image.

Aperture-priority is great for those who want command of their depth-of-field (bokeh balls!), and shutter-priority is great for those who want to capture a sense of motion or slow things down visually by freezing fast moving subjects. But what’s most impressive about shooting in these modes is that we’re able to control the aspect of the final image that we most care about, while letting the camera’s brain ensure that our final shot will be properly exposed. For this reason, we’re able to get the style of photo that we want, while avoiding mistakes of under- or over-exposure.

And these modes aren’t just excellent tools for those looking to learn photography, they’re also extremely useful for experienced shooters who simply want to make better photos. That’s because they speed up the shooting process and allow us to focus on the parts of photography that really matter – composition, framing, storytelling; the “why” of a photograph.

Use exposure compensation

This tip augments the last tip, and using it when shooting in aperture- or shutter-priority will make instantly punchier and more vibrant shots without a second thought. And all we have to do is rotate our exposure compensation dial one or two stops toward over-exposure. How can this absurdly simple trick make your photos better?

One of the happy results of today’s modern film stock is something called “high exposure latitude.” What this means, in plain speak, is that today’s film will still make gorgeous images even when exposure settings vary from what would be a technically perfect exposure. Some film can even handle exposures that are “off” by as much as four stops. And if we look at many films’ spec sheets we’ll see that most can easily handle over-exposure, but react poorly to under-exposure. This is because modern film loves light, and the more light is splashed across the frame, generally speaking, the better that frame looks.

Under-exposed shots are low in contrast, present odd color shifts, and generally look terrible. Over-exposed shots, on the other hand, often still look fantastic even though they’re technically improperly exposed. So by setting the exposure compensation dial to one or two stops over, we’re creating a built-in safeguard against making under-exposed shots. Of course, different film types react differently and tastes may vary (slide film, for example, doesn’t tolerate over-exposure well), but if you’re a new shooter trying common C-41 film, more light is always preferable.

Stick to one film

Film stocks vary wildly from one brand and sensitivity to another. Learning how to shoot film effectively is often a process of eliminating variables. So choosing one film to shoot as we learn the ropes is an excellent way of controlling this very important variable. It’s much easier to see how our settings and our situational light impact our final image if we’re always shooting the same film, rather than constantly bouncing from one brand and ISO to another.

If you’re starting out with black-and-white film and developing at home, this tip can be carried one step further – always develop with the same chemicals, at the same temperature, using the same techniques. By controlling these variables as well, we’re able to more quickly get a handle on what works and what doesn’t when shooting and developing film.

But which film should you choose? That’s a tough question. We’ve written a number of film profiles that might help you decide. So take a look at what each film has to offer, what the final results look like, and decide from there. Personal recommendation? Try a general purpose film with moderate sensitivity somewhere around ISO 400, and maybe skew toward more affordable stuff in early days. Leave the professional and specialty films alone ’till you’ve mastered this lovely craft.

Buy the best lens you can afford

If you’re buying your first film camera kit, remember that you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a camera body. They’re essentially light-tight boxes with a mechanism for timing exposures. The heavy lifting of any amazing photo is done by the lens, so prioritize having an excellent lens over having a pricey body and your photography will be better.

Which circles back to our first tip – try buying a cheaper modern body with a fantastic lens, instead of an expensive old body with a sub-par lens.

What lens should you look for? To start, buy a prime lens. These lenses are less versatile than zooms and only offer a single focal length, but the trade-off is in sheer performance. Prime lenses offer much better image quality and faster apertures in a smaller package than their zoom counterparts. They allow for sharper and more dynamic images, with greater low light capability and the chance to make amazing BOKEH! And if you ever need to zoom, use your feet.

Keep shooting, embrace mistakes

Our final tip is probably the most important – don’t give up. If you’re shooting film for the first time or even if you’re an experienced photographer taking a break from digital, expect your results to be imperfect. Film is tricky. There’s no live-view and you’re not sure what you’ve made until you get that film processed. If your first results aren’t what you expect, read some tips, practice, and keep going.

The process of making images on film is magic, and using film cameras is a uniquely engaging action in an overly-digitized world. Whether you’re naturally excellent at it or not, the process is what matters, and try to remember that imperfect images are often the most captivating.

So wind those advance levers, focus, and just keep firing.

Have some tips on making better film shots? Share them with us in the comments.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • This is not cheating! (Well, the first advice maybe is a little bit)…but thanks for the nice tips, man!

    • Well the first isn´t even always right. Sure if you start using film your learning curve is much lower than with digital because it needs more time
      to see and what was wrong and how to fix it – so full automatic cameras take over “skills” but if you know what you do manual settings rule.
      I absolutely agree for the advice to use primes – they train your eye and help you better to understand the connection between focal lenght, viewpoint
      and their effect to the composition…

  • *Fabulous* advice on buying a later SLR for a first good film camera. They can be had for very little and their modes can shrink the learning curve. When someone asks me what camera to buy for their first film camera, I tell them Nikon N60 or N65 or something like it. I do tend to tell people to avoid the Canon EOS Rebel series – the shutters are prone to early failure. But higher-level EOS-series cameras are more robust and are good choices.

    It’s kind of like how I learned to drive a stickshift: at the same time I learned to drive. It would have been easier to learn on an automatic, and then after I’d built up good experience, to then learn how to shift my own gears.

  • These are all great tips. All good advice. Thanks for saying it all so well.

  • The best advice I can think of, would be to establish a simple gear setup that you feel comfortable using, and then start stocking up on film and just keep shooting. Let’s face it, most of us are possessed by the evil spirit of lust when it comes to certain pieces of equipment, but it’s very unlikely to elevate you as a photographer and help you create better art. Shooting on a daily basis, on the other hand, is guaranteed to be much more of a fun and educational experience!

  • Great advice, because the reality is that the newer cameras are much better picture making machines for novices than the old, mechanical and especially un-metered ones.
    And they also tend to be much cheaper because they are not as ‘cool’! example, a Nikon N90s is about $45-$55. An incredible camera with AE, AF and a shutter that goes to 1/8000 sec. A Pentax K1000 is $100…

  • My Canon EOS 7 is so wonderful to use in comparison to the far more handsome Canon EF, the black beauty. I can agree totally with the first point. Although I have fun trying different films for the colors, film is a trip to a discovery. : )

  • Renato F Valenzuela February 1, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    I remember the summer between high school and college I borrowed my dad’s FM and bought a 3-pack of fuji drugstore film. Spinning dials and adjusting knobs cluelessly to get that red LED in the middle lit up. As fun as it was it was also disappointing to see the results. Fast forward to community college a couple years later, I remember taking B&W101 and my professor urged us to forget manual and buy something with aperture priority. So instead of getting a FM10 I went to B&H with my parents and picked up a gray market FE10. For B&W102 I showed up with an N80 and soon after the digital SLR age arrived. It wasn’t until recently that I returned to using a fully manual, fully mechanical film camera by way of an OM-1n and a bunch of inexpensive but expectation-subverting Zuiko primes. I can honestly say how much more rewarding it is to shoot with manual now after having gained experience with cameras that help you get the exposure you want compared to half my life ago when I was completely clueless and just kept trying to get the middle diode to light up. Long story short, save the manual dream camera til later and build your skillset and adopt technology where you can in the meantime.

    good read as always!

  • The exposure triangle is the same for digital or film, yeah? “Learning” film, in my experience, has more to do with learning the camera. Some of my first images (with a Kodak Hawkeye Instamatic) are good because the shot was lucky enough to fall into what the camera could do (and 126 negatives aren’t tiny, which helped).

    But when my dad gave me his Canon FTb things got better. Exposure compensation with a match needle system has always been easier, faster, and more intuitive than pushing a button (where is it?) or twisting a knob on the back (where?). Later, when I’d convinced myself I was spending way too long focusing, I bought a used Elan II. What an ergonomic marvel, although I rarely made use of exposure compensation (oops) or focus lock (oops). It had auto focus and auto exposure, so why bother when it should “just work,” yeah?

    So right there, that’s your hint that my Elan II images were often not better and frequently worse. But at least I was shooting faster. When I got tired of crappy-looking color (cheap film, bad light) and the double F-you of the cost of developing I used our first-born’s birth to justify the first Digital Rebel. That was a further jettisoning of convenient control, as it lacked the second dial on the back I could not afford with the Elan’s digital counterparts (10D/20D).

    On average, the quality of my images went up, way up, with that digital camera. But guess what? I was convinced a “purist” approach of seldom more than ISO 100 (because noise, yo) and that garnered my a trove of blurry images. I’d forsaken aperture priority and shutter priority (both of which of course it could do) for ISO priority — the exact opposite of what should have happened. Stupidity on my part.

    All of which is to say, you can learn the gear, or the gear can learn you. The best user does the former, the inexperienced user had better find something that works how you think, and I’m not convinced most modern auto-everything cameras form the 1990s-on are the best way to go without caveats.

    Side note, my best film camera was a QLIII 17 because it came with a fantastic lens I was too cheap to buy for the SLRs, aperture priority is smarter for me
    (and its lighter weight meant slow shutter speeds were not as blurry) and because for whatever reason I could focus faster and more accurately with it than any FD lens I tried. And tying the exposure to distance (when using the Canolite D flash) was deceptively brilliant and effective! It was either perfectly in focus and exposed when you took care to use zone focusing, or blurry with horrible exposure. No frustrating “almost there” shots, which describes much of my Elan II and Digital Rebel archive.

    None of the above justifies why the FTb, Elan II or the AE-1P my dad also gave me are now gone (the QL17 died). But I do not miss the Digital Rebel, even though I much later came to realize (as with the others) why I wasn’t as successful with it as I should have been.

  • Stefan Staudenmaier February 25, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    First I have to agree that the technology of the last generation of film cameras
    for sure offers the best value for the money and „can“ guarantee amazing results
    (If you work out the film itself later) otherwise the limit will always be the lab and
    not your (cheap or expensive) equipment.

  • Cheyenne Morrison July 18, 2020 at 6:44 pm

    People who use film for the first time after years of digital seem to lack even basic knowledge the was around in the film era. Simple tricks such as the Rule-of-Thirds, keeping the sun over your shoulder when shooting, an understanding of the importance and effect of light and composition. The tips in those old guide books like the one in the picture are as valid today as they were when written. The classic book that went through multiple editions is “The Complete Photographer” by one of my photography heroes Andreas Feininger

  • Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne May 17, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    I own more cameras than I have fingers or (just) toes, but as I am fond of telling anyone who listens, fewer than I have hairs on my head!!

    After much shooting and a small fortune spent on gear, I now realise that one camera and two lenses are all anyone needs to do truly superb photography.

    A photo trip for us entails much planning on my part, for the journey but also the usual agonising over which camera and lenses to take

    My partner, on the other hand, is quite happy with either a Nikon D90 with the kit lens or a Nikon F65 (aka N65) with a 35mm and 85mm from my arsenal of good glass. With at most two rolls of film, B&W or color negative depending on where we go and what we see. Often as not most of only one roll is shot. The number of keepers from that F65 is, in a word, astounding.

    An important lesson for me to learn there.

    Less is more.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio