During the last 10 years I have seen a steady increase of interest in analog cameras, and as the analog community has seemed to have grown exponentially over the last two years, I am struggling to keep up with all the gear related questions the community is sending my way. From my bad case of Gear Acquisition Syndrome back in highschool to the companies I’ve co-founded here in Finland, around 40 000 analog cameras have passed through my eyes during the last 12 years. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Juho and I am primarily a family man from Finland, but secondarily and by trade an analog camera enthusiast.
The core goal for this article, video, and voting system is to provide a framework to enable new people to enter the analog photography scene with less frustration from camera troubles and/or wrong camera choice.
During many years of selling analog cameras daily, I heard countless stories from customers and enthusiasts. I noticed that many gave up on film before they even got comfortable with it, all because of a few crucial and common mistakes.
There are two basic mistakes
Buying a camera with advanced features not yet needed.
Believing that having a certain camera will make your photography better.
Having skills that are opposite of the capabilities of your camera does not typically go both ways. While a professional can have a “beginner’s” camera, it’s not advisable for a beginner to have a “professional’s” camera. Having a camera beyond your current skill set can hinder your learning experience. On digital workflows I once heard a golden rule to shoot all portraits in the shadows or with backlight and then just do magic on Lightroom/Photoshop to get the light you want. With film the right exposure is actually important, however some newcomers are expecting to get good pictures (which is what they saw on Instagram with film hashtags) out of the box. And yes with film you can stop paying Adobe a monthly sum, but only once you start to master your exposure settings. Many users however never get to that point because they jump too far ahead in the analog camera game and can’t stand upright without the proper roots.
The second case is as widespread as humanity itself. How many times have you been lusting at a new lens or camera as an absolute necessity to become a better photographer? It is a especially familiar mindset within the digital electronics market, but it tends to affect everything in life from upgrading your home to buying better earphones. In analog photography this mistake partly overlaps with the first mistake, but the difference is that people can do this for years, even decades. The temptation is to get a camera or new lens, test it out for a roll or two and then already have the next camera in mind. This has been easy in the past 15 years as most cameras in the market are still very inexpensive. I have to note that not being able to control this desire was a big part of the reason I started trading cameras as a profession ten years ago, so I guess there are possible advantages too 🙂
During the years I have however devised a step by step system that I wish I would have known when I first started out my journey into analog cameras.
Step 1: Automatic and Cheap Start
Shooting on film is not always the best possible tool for your photographic needs. There is little point in taking a film picture of the menu at a restaurant so you can send it to your friend that is on on their way. Shooting film has its quirks. You cannot confirm technical quality straight away. There is a waiting period, either to share the images with friends or to have for your own internal feedback. It is not instant, it is not connected, it is not crisp or perfect; there is an elevated risk of failure and you need a lot of skills to master it. But that is exactly why some people love it so much.
Depending on your generation, film might be a totally new and exciting thing for you or a flashback to your younger days, in any case the first step is the same: take something totally automatic and cheap and test what shooting film can do and if you feel a connection to it.
With a small pocket compact designed for grannies or a fully automatic SLR from the late 90s and a kit lens, you should achieve almost as consistent and well exposed film shots as you are used with your newish high end mobile phone. The major differences are in HOW you think when taking the pictures, the colours that come out of the box, and getting hard copies of your memories that will last 100 years and beyond.
If you also happen to have a good lab servicing your area, you can also get very nice digital files from your scanned negatives e-mailed or on a USB drive, so the older generations will find the process a lot easier than it used to be.
The biggest plus in Step 1 is accessibility. Anyone in the world can pretty much go for it instantly. Walk to the nearest thrift store, find a 5€ pocket camera, walk into a photo store and have them put the film and battery in and shoot happily away.
Step 2: Finding Your Favourite Films and Subjects
The second step I did not realise to be needed until the past 18 months in which I happened to do it myself almost accidentally. Photography is basically and endless sea of options, the trick is to know what you want out of it. You can shoot a million pictures in a decade or you can shoot one a month (120 in a decade!), you can trek to the darkest part of Lapland to shoot spanning Auroras or you can shoot the daily life of your kids. It all depends on you and what you want – whatever makes you happy!
If you don’t know what you want, you are going to miss out on things. Step two is about figuring out what you want to portray with your photography and how to do it. To do that I suggest you get a nice and sharp automatic pocket camera and carry it around with you all the time. Aim to get an answer to these two questions:
What are the characteristics of each film type with colours, ISO and over/under exposure?
What kind of subjects do you want to photograph and in what type of compositions?
Once you have photographed with a basic camera for a while and explored these two questions, you’ll know what film to use in each situation you are in (no matter the camera you use) and what kind of camera you will need to invest in to get the most out of your favourite subjects.
Step 3: Taking Manual Control of Your Camera’s Settings
Most people jumpstart their analog journey here (or in step 5 if they’re loaded), so one would expect it to be a fairly simple step. It is not.
This is the step where you can omit or bypass automatic settings with manual controls. It is like switching from an automatic transmission car to a stick shift, you control what’s going on inside, you are no longer a passenger but a driver. If you have gone along for the ride of steps 1 & 2 you already know that you like shooting film and you know what you like to shoot (both in film types and subjects) so now you can focus on what’s next: first learn to use the manual controls with your favourite subject and favourite film. Adjust things like focal length, depth of field and shutter speed to accommodate your favourite subject matter and make the results better than with the point-and-shoot you used earlier. Step 1 & 2 is the foundation to more easily understand everything that comes after, as I said these are your roots!
If you are reading this and are rolling your eyes at me and thinking that basic technical factors of photography are not that hard to understand even for a beginner, please do remember that there is a whole generation growing up that has never used anything but autofocus, auto exposure, auto iso and with instant results. Jumping from automatic to manual control is a big leap that may not yield the nice exposures of the photos taken in steps one and two. It may even feel like a step backwards. Film photography with fully manual tools is by no means rocket science, but for the total beginner, to reach the level of quality they aim for, the learning curve is just too steep for many people to go beyond the first roll. If you have already gotten positive results from step 1 & 2, you will need to use that as motivation to fight through step 3.
On the other hand Step 3 is an optional starting point for a photographer who has gone into manual mode with his or her DSLR and learned the basics of exposure reciprocity through shutter speed, iso, and aperture control. They still might have to figure out the questions in Step 2 though, but might be able to do it carrying around a bit more manual control.
Step 4: Diving Deeper into Your Style
Depending on how long you kept going with finding your own style in Step 2 & 3 you are now more or less sure about what you want with colour rendition, subjects and technical aspects for exposing. The first thing in Step 4 is buying/renting/borrowing different lenses to your Step 3 camera to understand what you might want next. The main questions are:
Do you want to have a wider or more telephoto option for the field of view?
Do you want more or less depth of field, or shoot in darker conditions?
Do you want to shoot more frames with some spontaneity or less frames and with a slower thought process?
Do you want to carry around less gear or are you willing to carry more if the technical quality goes up?
Now each of your answers point you towards a certain type of camera, but as there are literally thousands of models spread over 50 or so camera systems at this point it is virtually impossible for me to create a very comprehensive roadmap so that all photographers could find their dream camera. But together as a worldwide analog community, we surely try our very best. For a roadmap from 0 experience, to finding your dream camera; we are launching a voting system that couples steps 4 and 5 with photographic styles summed up as follows:
If you want to shoot the highest possible quality and are ready to spend a lot of time in just one frame you are looking into buying a large format camera. If you seek dreamy shallow depth of field (i.e. for portraiture) and still very high quality pictures you are going to end up with a medium format camera. If you want a documentary style like photojournalism you might appreciate reliability, size, or telephoto lenses that can be found in a 35mm SLR camera. For discreet street photography with wide to normal focal lengths you are looking at rangefinders. To record memories of family/friend gatherings the easiest thing is a quality point-and-shoot or a Polaroid-style camera, albeit you can combine nearly any style camera with any other style of photography but matching these things is typically where you will find the best results. And very soon into this you will know what your favourite focal length is.
Step 5: Your Dream Camera(s)
After four steps of figuring things out, you probably already know what kind of camera you would like next, and it might be a figure that most people would only invest in a car or overseas vacation . Luckily even the dreamiest analog cameras are still relatively cheap (compared to the dreamiest watches for example) and so far rarely one needs to put more than 3000€ even into the most desirable cameras. That most probably will change once time goes on, but for now we can all quite happily use these steps to find our preferences.
The nice thing is that your dream camera might be your step 1 flea market find for 5€. It might be just the thing you were looking for all along, but it took you a bit of soul searching to figure it out. The peace of finding your dream camera comes from knowing your options and being content with what you found to be the best camera(s) for you.