Formula Perfected, the Nikon FE2

Being one of their last manual focus cameras, the Nikon FE2 comes very close to perfect. It’s a very solid camera that is very focused at getting out of your way and helping you take the photos you want.

On the surface the FE2 may look like almost any other aperture priority SLR (such as the Olympus OM-2, from my last review). But if you dive deeper, you’ll find three big differences:

  • A maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second (the contemporary Olympus OM-4 and Canon New F-1 maxed out at 1/2000, and the Minolta X-700 only 1/1000)
  • A mechanical backup shutter speed of 1/250 of a second (the OM-4 had a 1/60 backup, and the X-700 had none)
  • A multiple exposure switch (also found on many other contemporary Nikon cameras, I haven’t seen any other manual-focus cameras with this feature)

But why are those differences good?

The faster maximum shutter speed gives you more room to play around with your aperture, which, depending on your film speed, can sometimes allow you to shoot wide-open during the middle of the day (not that I suggest always shooting wide open, quite frequently you’ll want to stop down just to make sure everything is in focus, or that you aren’t losing resolution at the edges). Specifically, it gives you one or two more stops of light to play with compared to other manual focus cameras.

A mechanical backup shutter speed is really useful because if you run out of battery, and don’t have any spares on you, you don’t have to stop taking photos (though, you no longer have your meter or auto exposure at that point, but that’s not a problem if you know how to figure out proper exposure settings without a meter). But other cameras also have the mechanical backup, the reason I like the FE2’s is because I think 1/250 is a more workable speed than the 1/60 you’ll find on an Olympus OM-2s or OM-4. At 1/60 you need to set your aperture to f/22 when shooting in daylight using ISO 100 film. At 1/250 the appropriate aperture is f/8 or f/5.6 with ISO 100 film, both of which generally have less vignetting than f/16.

And, this is 500% just a sometimes nice to have, the multiple exposure switch means you don’t have to think about how to get your camera to create a multiple exposure, you just need to hold down a lever when using the film advance (it keeps it from actually advancing the film, and instead only cocks the shutter). This is just way more convenient than trying to do the “three finger dance” you can use with most other cameras (where you hold the rewind knob in place, push in and hold the rewind button, and with those held in place, pull the film advance lever). Again, it’s a tiny thing, but it is really nice if you like experimenting with multiple exposures.

But like all cameras, while it has some excellent selling points, the Nikon FE2 is not without its faults. While, for the most part, they’re just small annoyances, I still want to point them out.

The biggest annoyance I have with it is that the film advance also acts as a shutter release lock. Now that may sound great on paper (and it is generally pretty nice in practice too), it means you must have the advance lever popped out before you can take a photo or use the meter. Eventually you get used to this and stop forgetting about it (which I’ve done a fair number of times), but when you’re getting used to it it’s really annoying. At one point I thought my batteries were dead and replaced them before I remembered that I just needed to unlock the camera.

The other major issue I have with the FE2 is that the meter doesn’t start working until you advance the film counter to 1. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another camera with this issue, and can usually get an extra two frames out of a roll of film. Technically this isn’t a problem because if you really want to use those frames you can use the camera in manual mode without a meter, but you do need to stop and think about it if you’re going to do it. Like the shutter lock, I can understand why they did this, especially for a more consumer-focused camera, they wanted to make sure users got exactly what they expected (in this case, no half-exposed/half washed-out frames you generally get from the start of the roll).

Both of those issues are things I can live with, and work around, and overall I think the FE2 is an excellent camera, but I would rather someone understand the quirks of a camera along with the benefits, instead of just thinking “X said this camera is great, so it’s going to be the one for me”.

At the end of the day, I think the Nikon FE2 is a great camera, and it’s one I’ll probably continue using for a long time. It really supports my preferred shooting style by providing a great aperture-priority SLR with an incredibly fast shutter and easy way to create multiple exposures. If you can deal with losing one or two frames per roll that you might otherwise get from a different camera, I highly suggest finding one.

Why I love Kentmere Films

Generally considered Ilford’s budget brand, I’ve grown to love Kentmere’s two films, Pan 100 and Pan 400.

Because the films are somewhat newer (first released in 2009), and because it usually sits on the “student” shelf at stores, these great films are frequently neglected by photographers who would rather go to the more well known Ilford or Kodak B&W films.

But don’t let their lower price fool you, both are incredibly capable films. Neither has ever disappointed me, and depending on the look you’re going for they may be perfect for you.

Kentmere Pan 100

Just given it’s closeness in speed, Kentmere Pan 100 draws comparisons to it’s Ilford sibling, FP4+. While Kentmere 100’s grain may not be as smooth, I think it comes really close. All of the example photos were developed using stand development with Rodinal, which I’ve found results in a really nice, smooth grain, great sharpness, and fantastic tonal range here.

Kentmere Pan 400

Like Pan 100, Pan 400 draws comparisons to its closest Ilford counterpart, HP5+. And also like Pan 100, maybe the grain isn’t as fine or smooth as HP5+, but it can be imperceivable. The last three example photos are all pretty heavy on the grain, but I think that’s more from the subject than Kentmere failing, I can find some equally grainy HP5+ frames in my files too.

Wrapping Up

While I may think these two films are great, I don’t think you can get the best feel for a film just by looking at someone else’s photos. You need to figure out if it fits with your workflow and style. And thankfully in the case of both these films it’s really easy to try them out. Because they’re marketed as student or budget films, they’re some of the least expensive black and white films I’ve found (I haven’t found anything lower, and only found Fomopan and Arista EDU to be the same price).

Because of their low price, I highly suggest everybody who likes shooting in black and white give them a try. Worst case scenario they’re probably a little grainier than what you’re looking for, and best case scenario you may have found your new favorite film!

Photography, without a Light Meter

One of the nicest convenience features many film cameras come with is a built in light meter. Having one allows you to focus less on making sure the exposure is right and more on the composition of the photo.

But sometimes you won’t have a meter. Maybe your batteries died in the middle of shoot. Maybe you found or bought a camera that doesn’t have one built in. Or maybe you want to turn it off just to see what you can do without one.

Regardless of how you got here, you now need to to evaluate the light in a scene and dial your exposure settings in without any help. How do you do that?

The photos shown in this post were all taken without using a light meter. Black and white photos taken on Ilford HP5+, color photos taken on Fuji Superia 200 and Kodak Ektar 100. The light leaks present are from a shutter malfunction I don’t entirely understand but that has since been fixed.

“Sunny 16”

As a rule of thumb, you can get pretty accurate exposure settings by using what’s called “Sunny 16”.

The Sunny 16 Rule is that in bright daylight, set your aperture to 16, and your shutter speed to the number closest to your ISO.

Using Sunny 16 as a starting place you can adjust your settings with a basic understanding of how exposure works. Opening your aperture more (using a lower f number) means you need to increase your shutter speed, and vice versa. As you move one stop (the numbers marked on your lens) on aperture, you move your shutter speed one stop in the opposite direction.

For example, if you’re using an ISO 100 film outside, using Sunny 16 you know you can start with your shutter speed at 1/100th of a second with your aperture at f/16. If you lower your f-number to f/11 you need to up your shutter speed to 1/200. And this continues down, f/8 = 1/500, f/5.6 = 1/1000, etc.

What if it isn’t sunny?

This is where things get a little trickier.

Certain situations are easier to figure out than others. If it’s an overcast day, add an extra stop of light (by using a slower shutter speed or larger aperture). Same for a photo in some light shade on a sunny day. For darker shade, or gloomier days, add two stops.

Unfortunately it’s not always easy to determine how many stops different lighting conditions may be from bright daylight without practice or memorization.

Some Background: Exposure Value

Exposure Values, simply put, are the lighting conditions expressed in stops. These are the same stops as moving between different apertures, shutter speeds, and film speeds. Because of this, if you know what the approximate EV is of a specific condition and the settings for a certain EV with your film’s ISO speed (and you do, thanks to Sunny 16), you can determine the proper settings you’ll need to use in a given situation.

The unknown part of that equation is the EV. Thankfully that’s pretty well documented, and the Exposure Value article on Wikipedia has a table of common lighting conditions to EV. While the table says it’s for ISO 100 it still applies at all ISO speeds, assuming you start at Sunny 16 = EV 15.

There’s an equation behind how EV relates to foot-candles of light, and if you’re really interested in how it works, the previously mentioned Exposure Value article on Wikipedia is a great primer.

Aim for Overexposure

If you’re shooting negative film and you’re unsure of the lighting, aim to overexpose your film.

Film negatives love light, and it’s almost impossible to blow out the highlights on your negative. But the opposite is not true, if your image is underexposed your shadows may just turn into a dark, undifferentiated mess.

One stop underexposed isn’t usually too bad, but for best results err on the side of overexposure.

This is because of the concept of film latitude. That is, all films are designed to accept a range of light intensity, and when it comes to rating them, manufacturers tend to rate closer to the underexposure end of the scale than the middle (this may actually be part of the ISO standard, but I don’t actually know).

But don’t just take my word for it, PetaPixel has two great articles showing the latitude color negatives have. The first looks at six stop underexposed to six stops overexposed, and the second goes from three under to six over.

Some Parting Thoughts

Thanks to modern film stocks’ latitude, shooting outside without a meter is fairly easy (indoors is much trickier, at least in my opinion). If you’re looking for something to help slow you down a little more it can be a really fun exercise.

Overall I think it’s a useful skill to have, even if you won’t frequently use it, and it certainly can be fun, but I think it’s too much work for me. When I use a camera without a meter I find myself pulled out of my “let’s go take photos” mindset, and find myself locking up a little too much, losing the scene I was focused on.

But even though I have trouble with it doesn’t mean you will if you do it. Even if it’s just for a single roll, I think everyone should try shooting without a meter at least once.

Tiny but Mighty, the Olympus OM-2

If there’s any camera line that seems to be consistently underrated, it’s the Olympus OM line. Because of their diminutive size, commenters across the internet frequently miss that these machines were marketed at professional audiences. But by dismissing these incredibly capable cameras, people lose out on using some of the best and most capable cameras I’ve ever used.

But this post isn’t about the entire OM line. I’m only focused on the Olympus OM-2 (specifically the OM-2n, which was a refinement on the original OM-2, featuring mostly the same internals with a couple quality of life additions).

Released in 1975, three years after the original OM-1, the OM-2 took what was already an almost perfect camera and added one key feature: an aperture-priority auto exposure mode, using through-the-lens, off-the-film metering. Assuming the meter was working properly, this meant you would almost always have a perfect exposure.

All photos (except the cover) were taken with an Olympus OM-2n in auto mode using Kentmere Pan 400.

In practice I found this to be completely true. Even in some trickier lighting conditions the OM-2 never failed me.

Besides it’s wonderful light meter, here are the specs that matter:

  • In manual mode, you can set the shutter between 1s and 1/1000s, or use Bulb mode.
  • Because of the auto-exposure mode, the OM-2 is reliant on batteries. Thankfully they’re batteries you can still buy today at most drug stores (two SR44 cells).
  • With the kit 50mm f/1.8 lens, it weighs slightly more than 1.5 pounds.

And let’s talk about that lens.

There’s a reason a lot of film cameras come with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, the main reasons being that it’s an easy to understand focal length that you can pre-visualize, and as proven by their numbers it’s not a terribly difficult formula to get right.

And boy did Olympus get it right. They took a great formula and put it in a nice, compact body. Besides being some great glass, I really like how the depth of field preview button is on the lens itself, it makes it really easy to use compared to some other cameras where it can be awkwardly placed on the camera body. The other great thing about it is just how closely it can focus. I don’t think any of the other nifty fifties I have can even compete.

But while there are a lot of great things about the OM-2, it, like all cameras, is not a perfect machine.

My biggest issue is that if you leave the mode switch set to “auto” and don’t remember to put it back to “off” when you’re done using the camera it’ll just eat the batteries (I’m not sure if this is true for the “manual” position, because I haven’t left it there for a long period of time, but my guess is it does). The light meter is always on if the switch isn’t in the “off” position, and even if a cap is on the lens it seems to just chew through those batteries. If you do remember, the batteries will last a similar amount of time as other cameras, but you do need to remember.

In manual mode, it can be kind of a pain to adjust the shutter speed. The control for it is in a ring behind the lens mount, and because of their age these rings can be a bit stiff.

Overall the Olympus OM-2 is a great camera. Even with a couple issues it’s still one of my favorite cameras. And for an SLR, you really can’t beat its size, even cameras in the same class ten years younger (or more) are bulkier.

Developing Black and White Film on Easy Mode

One of the things that made me super nervous just thinking about developing film at home was that thought in the back of my head asking “but what if I screw it up?”

Disclaimer: If you’ve never developed film before, you’re going to need to combine it with a different guide for learning to develop. My goal is to have an article on the whole process soon, but I haven’t gotten around to developing any film recently to take photos of the process. Ilford published a guide on the process, it’s the same one I used to get started.

Easy Mode Option 1: A Monobath

Initially, to deal with this, I started using a monobath as my developer. A monobath is a concoction with chemicals that perform the two steps of developing black and white film, the developer and the fixer. Because it combines the two steps into one, it’s almost impossible to screw up assuming you’re working in a room around room near 70°F.

I know of two monobaths currently on the market, Cinestill’s DF96 (which I’ve used and can attest produces great results), and Famous Format’s FF No.1 (which I haven’t used, but based on what I’ve seen online it appears to produce similar results as DF96).

Easy Mode Option 2: Stand Development

After I’d exhausted the monobath and had enough confidence to try something new, I started investigating other potential options.

When asked for a good black and white developer, most of the internet points at developers made by Ilford and Kodak. A smaller portion of the internet points at Rodinal. I went with Rodinal.

Every developer you’ll find has its own strengths and weaknesses, and one of Rodinal’s strengths is that you can use it for stand development.

Stand development is pretty much what it sounds like, instead of shaking the chemicals up every minute and finishing the process fairly quickly, you instead do a little mixing at the start and then leave the tank to sit for awhile.

The gist of stand developing with Rodinal is this:

  • Mix a dilution of 1:100 Rodinal:water (so most likely 3ml Rodinal and 300ml water for a single 35mm roll)
  • Put the water in your development tank, and agitate for ~30 seconds
  • Go do something for 30 minutes (I usually watch an episode of a TV show and have it act as my timer)
  • Come back to your developing tank and agitate for ~10-20 seconds
  • Go do something else for 30 minutes
  • Dump out the developer (at this dilution Rodinal is most likely exhausted, and you’ll need to throw it out), and fix it the same way you would any other film.

Technically this is semi-stand development, but the two are very closely related. True stand development doesn’t have the extra agitation in the middle.

As a note, right now the only place I’ve found that will ship Rodinal in the US is Freestyle Photographic Supply. Get it on their Rodinal product page.

You may also be able to find it at your local film shop, if you have one. I have seen the B&H says they carry it, but it’s only available for in-store pick up, which isn’t useful for those of us living outside New York City.

The Leica Trap

No other camera line has a following anywhere near as large as the Leica M line.

Certainly, there are pockets of the internet devoted to other cameras, and many photographers will freely tell you why whatever brand they’re using is the best. But very rarely will you hear someone speak about, say, the Nikon F, with the devotion and reverence as the average Leica M fan.

So mythic are these cameras that many new photographers can feel like they’re missing out on this special, important, required piece of equipment that they can easily become distracted from the reason they care about photography in the first place.

Speaking from personal experience, I certainly was. In my first visit to the local film camera store several employees implied I should buy a Leica just because. Coupled with seeing what felt like thousands of articles about how no other camera can ever hope to approach I gave in. I bought a Leica M4.

And it was … fine.

The “Leica Magic”

A Leica M4, without a lens

The highlights of most reviews (though love stories is probably a more accurate term) on a Leica M camera are as follows:

  • Because of its tiny size you really feel like it’s possible to blend in with the scenery, and capture those “Decisive Moments”.
  • Being purely mechanical (most models), you can keep using the same camera until the sun explodes, and you never have to worry about carrying batteries around.
  • Leica cameras are incredibly well designed and beautiful to look at.
  • No other camera can compare to it.

It’s hard to argue against those points. The first two are actually true, and the last two are entirely subjective. The problem is that it’s not the whole story.

An aside: How should you choose a camera?

When it comes to picking out a camera, beyond ensuring that it works and will take photos, the only question that should matter is “will this camera help make it easier to achieve my goals?”

The deeper question in there, of course, is “what are my goals?” It’s a question only you can answer. Most likely, if you’re considering buying a Leica you already have and have used a different camera. Hopefully you’ve used it well enough that you’ve developed a sense of what you like and dislike about it so that at this point you can find a camera that does more of what you like, or does what you like better, and doesn’t do the things you dislike.

All of this is to say that a Leica M may be the right camera for you. In no way is what I’m about to say meant to Leica owners and users. They’re great cameras, and if your style and needs mesh with their features you shouldn’t avoid buying one just because they don’t work for me. I just want to provide a counterpoint to the endless praise these cameras receive.

Pulling back the curtain

As I said, you can’t really dispute any of the standard review points. What I can do is provide some additional context to those points.

Because of its tiny size you really feel like it’s possible to blend in with the scenery, and capture those “Decisive Moments”.

Yes, the Leica M cameras are fairly compact, but so are almost all rangefinder, and a host of smaller SLR cameras. Specifically, I have a Canon Canonet QL17 and Olympus OM-2n which are comparably sized, and I honestly prefer both of them over the M4.

Of course, they’re not entirely comparable cameras, you can’t swap out the lens on the Canonet, and the OM-2n isn’t a rangefinder. But that’s partially my point. You can find many cameras, of different styles, that are close in size and weight (and sometime smaller and lighter), it’s not something intrinsically unique to Leica M cameras.

But what about the “Decisive Moment” thing?

For some background, the Decisive Moment is a term that comes from the title of the English translation of a book by the famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (the original French title more closely translates to “images on the fly”). Cartier-Bresson’s central thesis was that what makes a good photo is the composition you create in the camera, which is made up of two elements, location and timing. What makes the moment decisive is that you have found the correct place, positioning, and most importantly time to capture an interesting image. The timing aspect is key, as you may need to wait to get all of the right elements lined up before you can take the shot.

The reason Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment is frequently brought up in the Leica discourse is because he exclusively used a Leica rangefinder. What is frequently ignored when talking about this is that at the time (1931) his options for a compact camera were very limited. My understanding is that the only option was Leica. Their first major competitor, the Contax, wasn’t released until 1932.

Being purely mechanical (most models), you can keep using the same camera until the sun explodes, and you never have to worry about carrying batteries around.

This argument applies to all of the M models except the Leica M7.

Just like the first point, that it’s small, this is true, but it’s not exclusive to Leica cameras. As recently as 2006 Nikon was selling film cameras with a mechanically controlled shutter. One of the best selling cameras ever, the Pentax K1000, has a mechanically controlled shutter. The disposable, single-roll cameras Kodak and Fujifilm sell today are fully mechanical.

Why people care about a mechanical shutter, compared to an electronically controlled shutter (which you see more frequently in cameras made from the 70s onwards), is that one, it doesn’t need batteries to function, and two, that you can always repair a mechanical shutter and get it into “like new” condition. If a mechanical shutter starts to get too slow a technician can tighten some springs to get the timing back in sync. If an electronic shutter starts to get to slow you have to hope it’s not because the controller finally gave out. Gears and springs are easily replaceable, electronic control boards, less so.

Gearing in the mechanically controlled Minolta SRT 201 (wires are for the light meter). The electronics in this camera are completely dead, but it can still take photos at any shutter speed.

So yes, purely mechanical is a nice thing. But it comes at a cost. First because these cameras are usually priced higher than similar electronically controlled cameras. And second because they usually lack some of the niceties you get with electronically controlled cameras.

Only four Leica M models have a built in light meter, the M5, M6, M7, and MP, and one of those, the M7, doesn’t have a mechanical shutter. These models, on average, cost twice as much, or more, than the earlier, meterless models. The M5 is the odd camera out, it can usually be found at around the same price as the older models, but this is because it doesn’t have anywhere near the same love as the rest (because the M5 has a radically different design than any other M camera).

Additionally, only the M7 has an auto exposure mode (aperture priority). This is not unique to Leica’s mechanical cameras, I can only think of one camera at all with a mechanical shutter that also features an auto exposure mode (and it’s because its shutter weird).

My point being, mechanical shutters are great and all, but do you need one? Is having the ability to work until the end of time and not needing batteries, but costing more worth the trade off of the possibility your camera breaks down and you need to keep a set of spare batteries with you, but the camera will have more features you might want? And consider, for the price of one Leica M camera you can buy ten electronically controlled but feature packed cameras.

Leica cameras are incredibly well designed and beautiful to look at.

Honestly I agree with this. Leica M cameras are very pretty machines. But so are a lot of cameras. I really like the metal and leather look of almost every classic film camera, I just don’t think you can go wrong with it. And while the M cameras are incredibly sleek, even boxy SLRs have their charm.

But while looks can be a factor in choosing a camera, it shouldn’t be the only factor. It needs to be weighed against how useful the features it has are. I have a chunky, plastic, late film era Canon that I like to pull out because sometimes it’s nice to have autofocus or any of the other automatic features it has.

No other camera can compare to it.

I just strongly disagree with this. There are a number of cameras out there that match the different Leica M cameras in features, and then go beyond. And they’re usually available for less than the equivalent Leica.

Two specifically come to mind, the Leica CL (sometimes branded Leitz Minolta CL), and the Voigtländer Bessa R2 (and R2M, R3M, and R4M).

The Leica CL was made in collaboration with Minolta, and featured the same lens mount and mechanical shutter that most M cameras have, but with a light meter and smaller body. The CL was so popular that Leica discontinued it because it was hurting M sales. It continues to be well loved by reviewers online, and sells in the $500 range (half of what the older, meterless M cameras sell for).

Unlike the CL, I have experience with a Voigtländer Bessa R2, and I’ve found my experience shooting with it to be much nicer than the Leica M4 I have. Like the CL, the Bessa R2 uses the Leica M mount, has a mechanical shutter, and includes a light meter. Having been released in 2002 (compared to the mid 70s for the CL), the Bessa R2 sells online for around $1,000.

So… should I get a Leica?

As I’ve been repeating through this whole post, it’s entirely possible a Leica M is the camera for you. I don’t believe the hype around them is particularly deserved, and as I’ve explained I think there are a lot of trade offs you have to make when you use one, but they are not fundamentally bad cameras.

What I would really like is for people to get out of the mindset that owning a Leica should be The Goal. Like all cameras, they have good aspects and bad aspects, and nothing about them is terribly unique. For a fraction of the cost you can find cameras with the same features, or cameras with entirely different features which may work better for you.

The most important thing, from my perspective, is that you stop and ask yourself why you want a Leica, and if buying one will help you achieve your photographic goals. If a camera doesn’t help you take the pictures you want to take, how is it any better than an expensive paperweight?

My Most Important Camera Tip

READ THE MANUAL!

I can’t overstate how useful reading the manual can be. Maybe a lot of it is stuff you already know (most cameras operate in a pretty similar manner, and most manuals include a quick primer on the basics of getting a good exposure), but a many cameras have their own set of oddities or unique features.

The biggest reason I say this is because I’ve come across a number of cameras who’s previous owners listed them as “broken”, when they were fully functional. A lot of cameras, especially those with electronics, have certain lock up conditions that you won’t know how to get out of unless you’ve read the manual.

For example, the Olympus OM-2 line of cameras will lock up with the mirror up, winder stuck, and shutter button not working when they don’t have batteries or when their batteries die. Getting out of this is really easy, you just rotate the speed dial to B (the bulb mode is completely mechanical), and the shutter will fire and the mirror will flip down. Sometimes this isn’t the case, and they actually are broken, but it seems more common to me that they’re just out of juice.

Another example, for cameras with interchangeable film backs (specifically the Mamiya RB76, because it’s the one I have experience with) will prevent you from firing the shutter if you’ve left the dark slide in the back. It can seem like it’s a dead brick, but really you just need to remove the small metal sheet that prevents light from hitting your film.

If you bought your camera secondhand, and it didn’t come with a manual, you can find copies online available for download. Mike Butkus has compiled a huge number of old camera manuals in his Camera Manual Library, and makes them freely available for download. I’ve never encountered a camera he didn’t have a manual for, but ff he doesn’t have one, most of the time just googling “<camera model> manual” should be enough to find it.

What film should I use?

After buying, inheriting, or otherwise acquiring a film camera, the first question you’re probably asking yourself is “what film should I use?” Unfortunately, just like the earlier question of “what camera should I shoot?”, there’s not a clear, immediate answer.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. My personal opinion is that you can’t go wrong experimenting with different film stocks to see what you like and dislike. But if you’ve never shot film before, or the last time you did was with a disposable camera where the decision was made for you,that’s not a good answer.

The Big Question™

The biggest question to ask when picking a film is black and white or color?

Economics need not be considered at this point, you can find low-cost color films and black and white films at around the same price. Really what matters is which you’d rather play with first.

If you’re developing at home (something I highly suggest doing, at least a couple times, though maybe not to start), you should probably start with black and white film. It can be developed at room temperature, and is generally more forgiving when it comes to developing times. But I’ll save developing at home for another day.

Shooting in Black and White

Black and white is classic. The earliest photos were monochromatic, most iconic photos from history are black and white. Photography as art is very grounded in black and white.

When shooting black and white you don’t have to worry about if colors coordinate or clash, all that matters is contrast and the available light (Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following, was shot in black and white for exactly this reason). Black and white images really highlight these contrasts. Texture becomes more important, and shows up really well in final images.

But, you also have to think in grayscale. You may be looking at something fantastic, which really pops in color, but is a flat mess in black and white. Color contrasts don’t transfer to black and white film, unless they’re also tonal contrast.

And as a final negative on black and white, you can always turn a color image grayscale, doing the reverse is much harder and more time consuming.

Shooting in Color

For the most part, with color films, what you see is what you get.

It’s not a perfect match, but that’s also the point. Different color films render colors differently, which is part of why playing around with different film stocks is fun. It’s also a built in instagram filter. Color films, especially consumer grade color films, are an instant path to “““that film aesthetic”””.

Some people tend to avoid color film because they find it too close to digital. Their argument is they don’t personally gain anything from color film photography compared to digital, and it seems like a waste to them. I don’t subscribe to that argument, but it’s a perfectly valid choice.

The next question: film speed

All films have an ISO rating. The name comes from the standard being set by ISO, the International Organization for Standardizations, because they published the standards on how those ratings are set (they also create standards for literally everything). This tells you how sensitive to light a film is, the higher the number the more sensitive the film. Photographers refer to this as a film speed, higher ISO rating, higher light sensitivity, “faster” film.

The reason it’s referred to as a “speed” is because the more sensitive a film is to light, the faster you’ll need to set your shutter speed compared to a less sensitive film (assuming a constant aperture). This is the same reason lenses with large apertures are referred to as “fast lenses”.

For some background, film rating, shutter speed, and aperture all work together to form the exposure triangle. To keep the exposure of the film the same (that is, keep the amount of light hitting the film the same), if you adjust one of those three things, one of the other two must change in the opposite direction. When shooting film, your ISO rating is set for an entire roll, which means in practice only aperture width and shutter speed are changing.

Like shutter speed and aperture width, ISO steps are exponential. ISO 50 is half as sensitive to light as ISO 100, and ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100.

The most common speeds you’ll find are

  • ISO 100, suitable for shooting outdoors in the bright daylight. Using it inside, even in a well lit room, usually means shooting with your largest aperture with very slow shutter speeds.
  • ISO 400, suitable for shooting outdoors in more subdued lighting. Can be used inside in well-lit rooms.

I think ISO 400 films are a pretty good starting place, especially if you shoot negative film (which you almost certainly will – slide film is pretty substantially more expensive). ISO 400 negative films usually have a fairly high exposure latitude, which means you can over- or underexpose your images a little without issue.

You should be careful about underexposing images, but most negatives can be pretty substantially overexposed without problems. I wouldn’t try massively overexposing on an important image, but it’s definitely worth trying on some less important images, especially so you can get a feel for what your film is capable of.

Okay, so what film should I use?

I think you can’t go wrong starting with Ilford HP5+. HP5 is a 400 speed black and white film, it has a nice amount of contrast, the grain isn’t overly gritty, but it isn’t invisible either. Being a 400 speed film it’s broadly suitable for most lighting conditions.

a double exposure taken on Ilford HP5+

HP5 is frequently compared to Kodak Tri-X 400, and being another 400 speed, medium grain film they are pretty similar. I personally prefer HP5 because I find Tri-X to be too contrasty. Depending on how you scan your film you can get essentially the same results from HP5 and Tri-X in a digital photo editor, so it doesn’t matter that much which one you choose. I just find HP5 gives me a better starting point.

flowers along the sidewalk, Kodak Tri-X

If you’re going to mainly shoot outdoors, I would go with Ilford FP4+. It has many of the same qualities as HP5 and Tri-X, but it’s rated at ISO 125, which gives you more freedom to play around aperture and shutter speed than a 400 film does in bright light.

Rowers, Ilford FP4+

Ilford produces a “lower quality” line of films under the Kentmere brand. These films are a little grainier than HP5 and FP4, but you can still get some fantastic results for a little less money. Kentmere 400 can easily take the place of HP5 or Tri-X, and Kentmere 100 the place of FP4. You could also use Fomapan or Arista EDU films. I haven’t used them (but I’d like to), but my understanding is they have a similar quality to their equivalent Kentmere films. Fomapan also has a 200 speed film, if you have the need for something between 100 and 400.

If black and white isn’t your game, I highly suggest the Fuji Superia line of films. They’re fairly inexpensive, but they feel like a higher quality film. The Superia films have great color rendition and a nice amount of saturation. Kodak makes equivalent films in their Kodak Gold like. I haven’t used it them, because every comparison to the Superias I’ve seen always has me picking the images from Superia. The Kodak Gold images tend to be on the warm side, with an emphasis on yellows, browns, and oranges, and they feel a bit more muted.

After putting down Kodak films I actually have two that I really like. The first is Kodak Pro Image 100, which is a 100 speed film originally made for warmer climates that’s only recently was released in the US. The images I’ve gotten from it are just fantastic. It has a blue/green emphasis that really works for me.

Kodak Pro Image 100

The other one is the much loved by basically the entire internet Kodak Portra 400. Portra is Kodak’s professional line of films, and is priced like it. But when you get an image with Portra right, it’s pretty magical. And even when you don’t it’s still pretty great.

Beyond these suggestions, there are a number of other films from a host of different manufacturers, most of which I haven’t tried and can’t suggest. But, I also don’t think you can ever go wrong with a film. The worst case scenario is you tested it and found out you don’t like it, which means next time you know what not to get. But even then knowing how it didn’t work for you means you’re on your way to establishing a personal style.

I know which film I want, where do I get it?

This may actually be the hardest question to answer. It depends.

I buy most of my film through Freestyle Photographic Supplies, mostly because when I’ve compared with other sellers they usually have lower prices.

But you should also shop around. You may be able to find a better deal on eBay (and very, very rarely Amazon). Some films may be cheaper through B&H and Adorama (last I checked I think Adorama had the best prices for Portra 400). And maybe you can find a deal at a local shop (if you have one).

How I pick a camera

Alternative title: what I think about when suggesting film cameras for first-time users.

While I’d been planning on starting with a large, comprehensive guide to the things a first-time film camera buyer should think about when picking their first camera, halfway through writing it I realized it’s 1) a super long post, and 2) possibly throwing way too much information at someone who doesn’t even know where to start.

So instead, I’m going to start with a shorter, but very opinionated, primer on picking a good starter camera.

The two keys

The two key things for me that make a good starter film camera are

  1. Manual focus lens
  2. An auto exposure mode

I think manual focus is important because it slows you down while shooting. Slowing down reminds me that I’m shooting film, and that unlike digital, each image comes with a cost. I’m not a purist, I don’t think you should only capture Very Important Things™ on film, and that experimentation or even just taking a photo for the aesthetic is bad, but being slowed down, remembering each image costs something makes me consider the framing and subject a little more.

For context, auto exposure modes is where the camera picks some settings for you, ensuring your image comes out with the right amount of light — not too bright or too dark. There are three flavors of auto exposure, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and program mode. Aperture-priority is where you dial in the aperture you want to use and the camera picks a shutter speed, allowing you to choose the depth of field you want the image to have. Shutter-priority is the oppose, you select a shutter speed and the camera decides the right aperture to use, which lets you decide how much motion you want to capture. Program mode is where the camera selects both the aperture and shutter speed for you.

You may be thinking “well now wait, if your first requirement is a manual focus lens to slow down, doesn’t an auto exposure mode speed you up?” And you’d be right. But more importantly it lets you think about the image you want to take, instead of the camera settings.

My personal preference for auto exposure mode is aperture priority. This is because it’s very easy to see how aperture affects an image, and when you’re starting out the differences between aperture stops will immediately jump out in your final images, while shutter speed is much less visible. The reason for that is most subjects don’t move very much once you get faster than 1/15th of a second, and a good deal of those that do aren’t moving enough for that movement to be noticeable on your film.

My suggestions

Depending on preference or interest, I fork in two directions: a lightweight, fixed-lens rangefinder, or a mid-range SLR.

If someone cares more about weight and size, and wants something pocketable (these cameras are at the extreme end of pocketable, but they’ll fit), I’ll lean toward the rangefinder. There are really only two that immediately come to mind, a Canon Canonet QL series camera (leaning towards the QL17 GIII, it has a wider maximum aperture than the QL19 and QL28, which gives you more room to play), and the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. The main difference between them is that the Canonets have shutter-priority, where the Yashicas have aperture-priority.

But, for most people, I think a mid-range SLR is a better starting point. An SLR allows you to see exactly the image you’re going to capture, and they allow you to change lenses, which means if you want to start experimenting with a different focal length you just need to buy a new lens and not an entire camera (that said, a lot of lenses are more expensive than these cameras now).

I can’t stress the what-you-see-is-what-you-get aspect enough. If you’re just getting started and aren’t feeling super confident in your skills, it can be hugely helpful and a great confidence booster once you see finished images that look the way you imagined in your head.

But an SLR also has an additional consideration beyond the camera, you have to pick a lens. This may feel intimidating, but I think if you’re starting out you should pick one of two focal lengths: 50mm or 35mm.

A 50mm lens sees at about the same “zoom” as your eyes. What I mean by this is if you look through a camera viewfinder with a 50mm lens, and keep your other eye open, there will be very little, if any, distortion between the two. This makes it super easy to visualize what the image will look like without pulling the camera up to your eye, it’s just what you’re seeing cropped a little.

A 35mm lens gives you a wider field of view, but without any of the distortion you start to see with wide angle lenses. Instead of being your eye’s “zoom”, you can think of it as approximately equal to the same area you can focus on. This is much harder to explain. It’s not everything you can see with your eyes open, but it’s close to the area you focus on intently without your peripheries. That may sound weird but I don’t have a better way to explain it.

Fortunately for you, a 35mm lens is almost always more expensive than an equivalent 50mm, so the choice of 50mm has basically been made for you. This is due to a combination of factors, but the biggest one is that 50mm is the lens that was sold with most of these cameras, so there are more of them on the market in general. Frequently you’ll find a nice camera body with the 50mm lens sold as a single unit.

In addition to the lens focal length, you need to consider its maximum aperture. The smaller the number next to the f, the wider the aperture can get. Most of the 50mm kit lenses you’ll find come in f/2 or f/1.8, both of these are perfectly fine to start.

(As a very quick primer, apertures are denoted with f/a number. This is because it’s a ratio, f is the focal length of the lens in question, if you divide it by the denominator you get the diameter of the aperture at that that stop. So a 50mm lens at f/2 has an aperture diameter of 25mm. Correspondingly, a 100mm lens at f/2 has a 50mm diameter.)

For concrete suggestions, there are a lot of cameras that fit what I’ve described. I’m only going to list cameras I’ve actually used, and highlight some of their specific features.

Starting off, there’s a large host of Minolta models. The advantage of choosing one of them over another brand is that their bodies and lenses are generally cheaper because Minolta doesn’t manufacture cameras anymore (their camera division was bought by Sony). They’re good, solid hardware, and a number of them were made in collaboration with Leica.

  • The Minolta X-700, or Minolta X-570 are both great. They’re Minolta’s last manual focus cameras, and were made between 1981 and 1999. Both can be found in the $75-$200 range.
  • The Minolta XE series, made in collaboration with Leica (the Leica R3 is based off it), can be found in the $50-$150 range.
  • Look for the 50mm f/1.7 lens if your camera doesn’t come with a lens. They can be found in the $10-$30 range.

The Olympus OM-2 is another great camera. The biggest advantage it has going for it is just that it’s tiny and light, especially compared to contemporary cameras. After about a decade of manufacture, Olympus replaced it in the line up with the OM-2S, which is broadly similar to the original OM-2, but adds a spot meter, swaps the swinging needle light meter for an LCD one, and adds a mechanical 1/60 shutter speed for use when you run out of batteries.

  • The Olympus OM-2 (also OM-2 MD, and OM-2n, they’re all mostly the same) were made between 1975 and 1984. They can be found in the $75-$175 range
  • The Olympus OM-2S (sometimes referred to as OM-2SP and officially OM-2 Spot Program) was made between 1984 and 1988. It can be found for the same range, $75-$175.
  • Look for the 50mm f/1.8 lens if your camera doesn’t have one. They’re in the $20-$50 range.
  • Do not get an OM-10. The OM-10 is a fine camera in its own rights, but it only has aperture priority exposure mode. You need an additional attachment to manually set the shutter speed.

Rounding out my suggestions is the Nikon FE2. Unfortunately, because Nikon is still a fairly large name in photography, their cameras all tend to be more expensive. The FE2 does have two pretty big advantages over the other cameras listed. The first is that it has a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second, where the others listed max out at 1/1000, which gives you an additional two stops of light to play with (meaning you can get more “bokeh-licious” images in bright light). The second, and much less important, is that it has a lever that makes taking multiple exposure photos incredibly easy.

  • The Nikon FE2 was manufactured between 1983 and 1987. You can find one in good condition in the $100-$200 range.
  • Look for a Nikon E 50mm f/1.8 lens if your camera doesn’t come with one, they’re in the $20-$75 range (Nikon has made a large number of 50mm lenses over the years, the E series was their entry level set of lenses, still great, but available for substantially less than other series).

Wrapping up

Hopefully that wasn’t too much information right in your face all at once. My hope is that even if you don’t pick one of the cameras I listed, you at least now have more of an idea of what are useful things to look for, and what sort of price ranges you can find equipment in.

Comments, suggestions, and questions are always welcome. You can leave them here on the page, or email them to me at don@dontakes.photos. Thanks for reading!