There is something so nostalgic about shooting on film. The rich colors, the haziness that reminds you of childhood summers. As a contemporary photographer, it might seem counterintuitive to love film as much as I do. Most of my peers in the industry have their sights set on the latest DSLR model, yet I find myself finding treasures in vintage lenses and bodies. If you find yourself asking ‘what is film photography’ and wanting to explore the format for yourself, then this article is for you! 

What is Film Photography: The Science 

You are likely familiar with a strip of film. They come tightly wound in cylindrical tubes. Maybe these spark an old memory of unprocessed film rolls bundled into ziplock bags labeled with their occasion and stored inside the fridge next to the milk carton? 

Or maybe that’s just me…

The strip itself is coated in a plastic-like gelatin emulsion containing little silver halide crystals, unseeable to the human eye. These crystals are the magic ingredient, responsive to light, and ultimately the factor that determines both the contrast and the resolution of the final image.  

Let There Be Light

When asking, ‘What is film photography?‘ it’s important to recognize that light is the all important secret sauce that activates the film, since these silver halide crystals are so sensitive to light exposure.

Now, picture your film camera. Even as a digital photographer, you’ll be familiar with shutter speed: the determination of how long the shutter stays open, and therefore how much light the film is exposed to. 

When you take a film photograph, the camera lens briefly exposes the strip of film to an image, and the light exposure burns a copy of that imprint onto the film strip. We call this image imprint a ‘latent image’. 

Your roll of film typically holds either 12, 24, or 26 images. Once you’ve taken all of your images then your roll of film is developed into negatives. Have you ever got a disposable camera developed, and your photographs arrived back with long strips of micro versions in a deep red hue? – Those are your negatives! 

Victoria Heer, a Virginia wedding photographer, walks and smiles as she holds her DSLR camera.

These can be projected onto light-sensitive photo paper and this is what ultimately becomes a photograph. You can take these negatives and scale them up, if you wanted to reprint or resize your photographs, or simply create duplicates. 

What is Film Photography: Analogue vs Digital

If you are getting into the basics of film photography, you need to start with the first principles. There are two formats of photography: analogue (or film) and digital. Let’s evaluate some of the primary differences between the two:

  • Film shoots in rolls, giving you a limited number of shots. This puts the pressure on to make sure that your exposure and framing is 100% accurate before you take an image. 
  • Digital cameras allow you to playback your image in the moment, this means that you can assess your image and alter your settings if you are dissatisfied with how they are developing. 
  • Digital images are immediately accessible. Since their digital data is captured straight onto a memory card, you can access those images to print or download instantaneously.
  • Film images are typically externally processed unless you have personal access to a dark room. (Financially – this adds another cost threshold to the equation that one should be aware of!).

What is Film Photography: Understanding Formats

Now that you have a basic answer for ‘what is film photography’, it is time to move on to the more nuanced elements of film photography. There are 3 principle formats of film photography – each determined by the size (measured in mm or millimeters) of the film strip.

  • Small Format – 35mm
    • This is the most commonly used image size and produces an image that is 36x24mm. Brands such as Fuji, Leica, Canon, Kodak, Nikon, and others will sell 35mm as their most basic, entry-level film camera. If you are exploring what is film photography, then this is the format for you! 
  • Medium Format – 24mm
    • Medium format photography was the first common form of photography, popularized by Leica in the 1920s. 
  • Large Format – 102mm x 127mm
    • This produces images that are 4×5 inches.

Film For All Occasions

As your passion and enthusiasm for film photography grow, you’ll start the process of experimenting with different film types, in order to master them and establish an aesthetic and style that suits you. 

Time magazine has done a stunning run of iconic film stock and the brilliant, diverse images that they produce.

Victoria Heer, a Virginia wedding photographer, smiles as she holds her DSLR camera and gets ready to discuss her answer to what is film photography?

Film stock is marked by varying numeric types, take, for instance, Kodak Portra, which one can buy in 160, 400, or 800. The number value equates to the film ASA, or ISO – meaning its film speed. Choosing the right film stock can be complicated, here are some basics broken down for you:

  • Lomo Color – The Lomography range is one of the cheapest / best quality film stocks to start out on. The images have dazzling colors and feel so nostalgic! 
  • Kodak Portra – One of the most popular film stocks for capturing portrait photography. They have a great, fine grain quality and produce sumptuous images. 
  • Fuji Pro400H – A lot of photographers in the wedding photography field love Fuji Pro. Their images are light and airy, but with a beautiful, crispness that feels so timeless.
  • Kodak Ektar – Kodak is best known for their portraiture stock, but if you specialize more in landscape photography, then this is a great avenue for you to explore!

Just as a digital photographer will typically find a camera brand that they love, and focus in on products within that brand family, as a film photographer you typically gravitate towards a certain film stock and make it your own.

Now that you can answer the basics of what is film photography, it is time for you to start experimenting! Don’t be discouraged, it takes time to experiment, master, and grow familiar with film photography. Enjoy the nature of taking risks and embrace the playfulness as you learn the skill. I promise you won’t regret it! Why not take a look through my portfolio for some film inspiration!

Interested in learning more about film photography?

A female photographer inserts film into her analogue camera. Image by Victoria Heer, a Washington DC wedding photographer. Image overlaid with text that reads What is Film Photography?

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