Film Photography – What First Attracted You?

My first experience of shooting film was with a Polaroid in the late 90s.

My then partner and I were both interested in various creative exploits, and photography was something we wanted to try, but in a fun and instant way, without having to learn or invest too much.

Back then, digital photography was very new and not really accessible – or affordable – to the masses.

The first digital camera I had was a Sony camera phone around 2005, some seven or eight years later, but that’s another story.

So we went halves on the Polaroid and a few packs of film.

We used it a few times, then put it away in a drawer somewhere. To be honest, I don’t even recall what happened to it.

Needless to say, it didn’t make a ground breaking impact on my life.

As I started to explore photography again years later with camera phones, I didn’t give film a second thought, or indeed any digital cameras larger than those pocketable, always with me Sony Cyber-shot phones.

Funny how life goes in cycles.

My second, and far more lengthy and immersive foray into film, was in 2012, when I received a Holga 120N on my birthday.

It wasn’t a completely random present, by this time I was quite heavily into photography and had graduated from camera phones to my first “proper” camera, a Nikon Coolpix P300, and was shooting around 1000 photos a month with it.

The Holga had been on my Amazon wish list for some time, and my partner knew this, so when her dad asked about a possible present for me, she must have suggested the Holga.

What attracted me this time was the Holga was such a different experience (and indeed outcome) to the digital cameras that had become the norm. 

On first handling the Holga, I was sceptical that such a primitive chunk of plastic, that appeared to be a child’s toy, could make any kind of photograph at all.

I learned online how to load and use it, quickly adopting the first golden rule of Holga photography – throw away the lens cap, because when you’re composing you can’t tell whether it’s still on or not.

When my first roll of film was developed, aside from those few black frames from my rookie lens cap error, I was blown away by the Holga’s lo-fi charm, and realised why many considered these lumps of plastic rather fantastic. 

I used the Holga extensively for the first few months, and then read about how you could adapt it to run 35mm film through, which was considerably cheaper than 120 film, and allayed my already growing concerns about the cost of photography with the Holga.

Going from 1000 photos a month with the Coolpix, to just 12 shots per roll with 120 film in the Holga was another major difference – in both the pace of photography, and the cost. 

Cross-processing, close up lenses, film swaps, and other different avenues with the Holga followed, as my curiosity about the possibilities of film grew.

Ultimately, though my 35mm experiments with the Holga went well, this led to investigating native 35mm cameras, and over the next few years I ended up owning and shooting at least a hundred. 

That, too, is a story for another time, if you haven’t heard it here already!

I’m not sure I would have got into 35mm film if it hadn’t been for the Holga, which again was so removed from shooting with digital compacts and phones to feel like an entirely different art form.

But how about you? What first attracted you to film photography – and when? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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18 thoughts on “Film Photography – What First Attracted You?”

    1. That was similar to my first experience with the Polaroid. Digital just wasn’t on my radar – or accessible or affordable enough in the late 90s – for there to be any other option than film. And because I wanted instant photos, it had to be Polaroid.

      1. I think it was two things. I needed art credits to fulfil college graduation requirements. That was the practical thing.

        On an emotional level, growing up in the West Indies, I read a lot of National Geographic as was fascinated by the images of far away cultures, places and wildlife. My dad and my uncles were into photography. I remember one of my uncles did a slide show every year of his family adventures as well as extended family events. I think my early interest in taking up photography was to learn how to document my adventures as a new immigrant to the United States. Somewhere in my basement or my mother’s basement is a box of slides and black and white negatives.

      2. I’m glad you wrote more!

        Are you intrigued to recover those slides and negatives from your mother’s basement?

        I grew up to some extent being exposed (no pun intended!) to relatives who used photography to document their adventures, holidays, family parties etc. My uncle and aunt especially (I distinctly remember the golden rising sun logo of his black model, which looking back was probably a Minolta X-700) took plenty of photos on holidays and we went round afterwards to watch the slide shows.

        I don’t think at that time (I was probably seven or eight) I thought much about the medium, this was just what they did. It wasn’t even in my consciousness that one day I could make photographs myself, and somehow this realisation evaded me for many years, until into my mid 20s really.

        I wondered from the spelling of your first name if you might be of German descendants, but you grew up in the West Indies? Now live in the US? You’ve known plenty of travelling!

        (I now live about 15 miles from where I was born, and the other places I’ve lived have all been within the same kind of radius.)

  1. In my case seeing in Flickr the beautiful work in film. I asked my father if he had a film camera around there and he had a Canon EF (FD mount), sadly it was not working well, and even worse it was stolen afterwards. Then I got the Samsung ECX 2, wich I like, but being so big and now knowing better about film I got a Canon EOS 7 with a cheap Yongnuo 50mm f1.8, all cheap enough to see if there was a difference. My conclusions are mixed though, it is complicated in my corner of the world to extract the hidden quality from the negatives but I feel I can have nice images from anything. In the end I I’d say that rather the medium is film or digital is if the camera goes along with me nicely and invisible, and if it looks nice when being on the desk that is a nice, and vain, plus.

    1. Yes, with 35mm film, there are almost just two eras, very broadly speaking. You either go for the full classic experience with an SLR like a Spotmatic or OM or Canon AE1 or Pentax ME, or you go to one of the last models made, like a Canon EOS (like your EOS 7) or Pentax MZ5 or one of the Nikons, which in use are not that different to using a Digital SLR. Not as classic, but considerably easier to use to get the results you want.

      Yes as you say with film, a huge part of how the final image looks depends on how it’s developed and probably even more so on how well it’s scanned.

      Another reason I like shooting digital with cameras that deliver images I like straight out of camera – it eliminates that whole aspect with film or shooting RAW that adds so many other variables and interpretations.

  2. haha I have to agree with Marc, yep, I’m that old. Film was the only option back when I first started shooting. When the digital came around I jumped all in and spent loads of money gearing up. Now I’m back to film again and have been blowing my wallet on film and developing. Moving forward, now I find myself building my own cameras, making paper negatives and just now starting to develop my own film. Round and round we go.

    1. Thanks Lisa Marie, you’re certainly not alone in going through these kind of cycles. I know many jumped from film to digital then ended up returning to film years later as digital was missing something special that the film experience/images gave.

      I love that you’ve gone back to the start with film, but then gone back even further!

  3. When I jumped into photography on a serious basis was 2013 with an Olympus E-PM2. I decided to try to find old film-era lenses to adapt to my Oly to save money on glass. Well, some of these old lenses came still attached to their cameras, so after a while, I had three film cameras laying around, collecting dust.

    I started using the film cameras and got hooked. It was an instant throwback to my childhood, seeing the grain in a photo again. Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised that I was shooting fewer frames and enjoying it more. Most importantly, I was being forced to understand the exposure triangle in a very real way. Suffice to say, diving into film made me a better photographer all the way around.

    I’ve been drawn to things mechanical since I was a kid, so the clockwork complexity of analog cameras was a fascination to me. The history of all of the various manufacturers was just as fascinating.

    I’d say shooting film was an education in more ways than one.

    1. Thanks Rob. I had quite a similar experience in that I bought a Sony NEX, knowing it was very easy to get adapters and use old lenses. Some I already had, but my experiments with different lenses in different mounts on the NEX led me back to trying out the same lenses on their native film cameras.

      And yes I agree that shooting film forces you to go back to basics and learn about the exposure triangle. This can of course be done with digital, but there are usually too many other variables and settings and buttons and dials, it’s hard to get beyond all of that and just down to the very basics.

      I don’t have any engineering background, but I do to a certain extent share a wonder of the mechanics and build of a manual film camera, and appreciate for example the feeling of focusing with a beautiful old metal Super-Takumar, compared with a modern plastic AF equivalent.

  4. This can of course be done with digital, but there are usually too many other variables and settings and buttons and dials, it’s hard to get beyond all of that and just down to the very basics.

    This. Exactly. Using an old manual film camera distilled the picture taking experience into its raw essence. The biggest way that it helped me is that now I “shoot for the jpeg”, so to speak when I shoot digital. I get way more keepers on digital now, with a minimum of post-processing needed.

    There’s definitely no engineering background required to appreciate the way an aperture ring or shutter speed dial click into place with both smoothness and certainty. Or how a focus or zoom ring move with just the right amount of resistance. The ability to simply look at something and tell that it was made with care and craftsmanship. As well built as my Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and Pentax 35mm Limited are, they just don’t have the same feel as my Takumar and Zeiss 1.4/50mm lenses – not even close.

    1. Yes Rob, as you know I’ve moved towards zero processing too, and being able to get images (JPEGs) I like straight out of camera eliminates that whole world of post processing infinite rabbit holes.

      Yes, you’re right it’s not about one’s own engineering experience – or lack of. It’s about appreciating a product that’s been well designed and implemented.

      Still, 12 years later, my 2008 MacBook Pro has the perfect resistance when opening it up – not so much that the whole device lifts up and you need to put one hand on the base and one on the lid, but not so little that it flips up too fast.

      When the lid is open and I need to adjust the tilt of the screen it’s second nature to raise the base at the front and give a gentle flick up or down to move the screen the required few millimetres. The resistance again is just perfectly dampened.

      I cannot believe that I have never used another laptop that has this level of resistant just right – most you have to weedle you fingers into the crack then using opposing hands to prise it open.

      It’s very similar to Takumar metal lenses – just the perfect amount of resistance in the aperture and focus rings, that brings a little ripple of pleasure every time you use them.

  5. I didn’t really care much for film when film was the only thing we had. I thought it was a hassle to get the thing developed, and I wasn’t quite happy with my Olympus Stylus – especially in panoramic mode, the resolution of the prints was quite disappointing.
    Years after I went digital, I started looking into film and shot some rolls back in 2013/2014, before it became too expensive to do so anymore here in the US. I do like the aesthetics of film, and I think the hassle would be worth it now that I know what I’m doing and have good lenses – but the cost to me is prohibitive.

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