Written by Eric Hergenreder
Around the beginning of this year I was feeling a bit uncreative with my photography. It seemed like I was caught in a rut of shooting the same things over and over and I couldn’t seem to break out of that creative-funk. A couple friends of mine were film shooters and they had been trying to convince me to join the dark side for months already. I had gotten lucky and scooped up a Canon AE-1 Program up at a garage sale for $20 the summer before, paired along with a 35-70mm Canon Lens that I have grown to enjoy. I found that shooting with film forced me to slow down, frame my shots more precisely, and think about what I was doing before even taking my lens cap off. Starting with film also allowed me to re-shoot some of my favorite locations with a different feel, which was fun. Whether you just want to get into it for fun or you’re older and want to jump back into the game, I have some advice on how to do it cheaply.
First off, you’re going to need a camera. Garage sales, flea markets, and thrift stores are prime locations for finding gems for good prices. Habitat for Humanity Re-Store locations often have bins full of old cameras. I stopped by Recycle Ann Arbor this week and they had 5-10 point-and-shoot film cameras that seemed in working condition, all for under $10. I also was able to pick up beautiful Quantaray and Sigma FD lenses for my AE-1 there. Salvation Army and Goodwill also are good places to look. I have seen a number of older cameras at Value World on Woodward in Detroit, too. If you are already a digital photographer, particularly Nikon shooters, and already own some older lenses you may be in luck. Nikkor AI and AIS lenses were originally made for film cameras and fit a plethora of Nikon cameras from the 70s onward, and still work on digital cameras today. D-series Nikkor lenses will also mount a number of newer Nikon film cameras as well. You can pick up the same Canon AE-1 Program that I use on Keh.com or Ebay for around $100, or less if you are lucky. I use an old Olympus point-and-shoot and my Canon pretty religiously, and find I never leave them at home even if I plan to shoot just digital.
Secondly, you’re going to need some film. There are a lot of budget films around, my favorite being Fuji. You can get four rolls of Fuji Superia 400 for around $12 on Amazon. That’s 96 total shots, which isn’t too bad. A lot of people don’t like Agfa films, but I think they are super fun to mess around with, especially in a party or concert setting. They’ll set you back around $4 a roll in store, which isn’t too bad. My budget film option of choice is only available in some specific places. Camera Mall in Ann Arbor sells expired film for $2 a pop, generally Fuji Superia 800. It has only been expired by one month, and I have never had any issues shooting with it. It isn’t the best film, but for starting out or just messing around, it’s not a bad deal. Once you have gotten your hands dirty, I would recommend trying Portra or Ektar films, which are both by Kodak and are a little over $10 a roll. They produce amazing colors and are fun to mess around with for portraits. If you really feel confident in yourself, you can try Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 black and white films, both of which are stellar, but will cost you a pretty penny to have developed… which is our next topic.
When I first started shooting film, I had no idea where I would have it developed. I heard that Woodward Camera did good work (which I must say, they really do), but after developing some film there I found the pricing to be a bit out of my budget as a broke & alcoholic college student. My buddy Julian recommended Express Photo & Camera in Livonia, and I haven’t looked back since. Development and scanning for one standard color roll ends up being around $5, and you save if you wait to develop a number of rolls at once. This is far cheaper than Camera Mall in Ann Arbor and Woodward Camera in Birmingham. They also only take about an hour to do the whole process, whereas the others can take up to a week or more. The workers at Express Photo & Camera are the nicest damn people you will ever meet, and are always happy to help with any questions you might have. Developing traditional black-and-white film is more expensive no matter where you go because of the different chemicals used, so to test the waters I would recommend Ilford XP2. This is because it can be developed in the same chemistry as color film, AKA, Express Photo & Camera can do it for cheap. I don’t like the results from XP2 quite as much as HP5 or Tri-X, but saving around $10 a roll is a nice kicker.
I highly recommend anyone who shoots digital to try film out. The only times I had ever shot film prior to this year was on family vacations before we had a digital camera and my mom would buy me disposable cameras. But after spending so much time and money on digital, I find film to be a nice break. I really feel it has helped me become a better photographer because I actually sit back and think about each shot individually before I press the shutter, and I am able to get a feel from my photos that I never could with digital. It’s definitely something fun to mess around with, regardless of whether you go out and buy a $5 point-and-shoot or a Leica M3 for $1000+. I also recommend trying to get into a dark room and seeing the process sometime, because it’s really interesting. I hate chemistry and I was enamored by the process. I hope I was able to help you understand film a little more, understand why I do it, and how you also can do it on a budget. Happy hunting!