My Top Five Favorite Film Cameras of All Time

My Top Five Favorite Film Cameras of All Time

Criteria

I’ve collected quite a few film cameras over the years, and I found it difficult to select my top five favorites. Having winnowed the field fairly quickly down to 8 semi-finalists, I applied the following criteria to pick the winners.

  • I personally own one or more of each camera, either the exact model or some variant.
  • Number of images taken with each.
  • How often I used the camera in the past year.
  • Ease of use and familiarity.
  • Feelings the camera invokes within me and in others. For example, do people tend to approach me to talk about the camera when they see me using it in public.

#5. Nikon FM2

Nikon FM2

I stepped back from photography in the mid ‘90s while I attended grad school, a period I refer to as my dark ages. I sold all my camera gear except my Nikon FM and the venerable Zoom-Nikkor 35-105mm, a dodgy lens by almost all standards yet one I hold in high esteem. I write nostalgically about this wonderful lens at length in this blog post: https://photography.warrenworks.com/index.php/photography/two-images-decades-apart-same-great-camera-and-lens/  

Large White Planter - Balboa Park, San Diego 1999

Over the Nikon FM, I prefer the Nikon FM2. Like the FM, the FM2 is a fully mechanical camera with several improvements, namely, a faster maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second. It’s a rugged, dependable instrument and is one of the finest cameras Nikon ever produced. I especially like this camera because of its compact size. Yes, they make a motor winder for it, but I have never felt compelled to use it. I like the buttery smooth feel of the manual film advance and the reassuring sound of the shutter release and the mirror moment. It just feels put together, well made, wonderfully engineered.

Pavillion - Balboa Park, San Diego, CA - 1999

It has an exposure meter, which requires batteries, but I never insert the batteries. Instead, if needs be, I use a handheld exposure meter, either the Gossen DigiSix, or a Pentax Spot Meter.

Twisted Trees - Balboa Park, San Diego - 1999

This camera is all about slowing things down and taking your time. What’s the rush? There’s no gunning it, no spraying the subject with the machine gun sound of a high-speed motor winder. With a little thought, planning, and measurement, you can obtain incredible images without wasting film. I’ve used this camera on a tripod more than any other camera I own.

It’s the camera I’d take with me on a trip into the jungle or into the artic. I’d take it anywhere I believe I’d be unable to find batteries or electricity. As long as you have film, you’re in business.

#4. Leica M3

Leica M3 w/Leica Summicron 50mm Near-Focusing Range Lens

I was a late comer to Leica cameras. Like I explained earlier, I chose Nikon over Leica early in my photography career and I’ve been happy with my decision ever since, but when an opportunity came along to acquire a pristine Leica M3, I figured why not? I’m still happy with my Nikon gear, but I must admit, there’s something special about how a Leica camera using Leica glass renders an image on film. There’s more acutance, which comes from the rear of the lens being closer to the film plane due to the lack of a mirror. I still prefer an SLR to a rangefinder, but a well-tuned rangefinder lets you achieve very precise focusing, especially when shooting portraits and you want to focus on the eyes.

Exploring The Barn - Shamba - March 2020

This particular M3 was made in 1962. I like the idea of making images using a camera that’s older than I am. After 58 years, It’s still going strong. And who would have guessed? Retro technology is the new cool thing! Like the Yashica Mat 124G, walking around in public with this camera around your neck attracts aficionados who admire and appreciate sleek design and precise engineering.

I prefer to use the Leica 50mm Summicron f2 Near-Focusing Range lens on this camera. It requires the use of goggles when in the near-focusing range to correct for parallax. The goggles lend an air of mystery to this already beautiful camera which magnifies its attraction quotient substantially. Someone who would ordinarily walk past an old camera in use is drawn to the goggle-equipped Leica M3 like a moth to a flame. You can learn more about this incredible lens in this blog post: https://www.warrenworks.com/film-photography/leica-m3-post-cla-shakedown/

Waiting - Shamba - 2020

The best thing about the Leica M3 is that it’s 100% mechanical. It contains no batteries and no frills. If you want to take a picture, you’d better know your craft. In fact, I enjoy the mental exercise of manually calculating exposure, especially when using this camera. It sharpens the photographic eye.

John - Falls Church, VA - March 2020

#3. Contaxt T

Contax T

The Contax T is the ideal street photography camera. It’s compact, discrete, and unobtrusive. It has a manual focus Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38mm lens, made by Yashica, that folds up for easy storage.

Single-Handling the Contax T
Single-Handling the Contax T
Single-Handling the Contax T

Its manual film advance is easily operated with one hand. It has a leaf shutter, so it’s quieter than the Leica M10D. On a busy street, or in a quiet setting, no one knows you’ve taken a picture. It works in Aperture Priority mode, so in low light you get some wonderful, ethereal, blurry images. 

Alex and Pete - Irish Bar - Courthouse - 2008

It’s a rangefinder, but rarely, if ever, do I focus in this manner. Instead, I set the aperture to F8 and position the green dot on the hyperfocal distance scale opposite the black aperture indicator. This ensures everything between 1.8 meters to infinity will be in focus. Every lens has a hyperfocal distance. I highly recommend you take some time to study this important concept, especially if you’re interested in street photography. With the hyperfocal distance set, I aim the camera in the general direction of the subject, usually from hip level, and fire.

Setting Hyper Focal Distance

I hold the camera in my right hand with the carry strap wrapped around my wrist. I aim, shoot, and advance the film with one hand. I find shooting from the hip yields the most candid shots. The camera is down, out of the way, and inconspicuous. I find that when people see a camera their defenses go up. They become suspicious and sometimes hostile.

Acrobat Man - Leidseplein Square, Amsterdam -  2005

If I want to engage a subject on a more personal level, I will approach them and ask for their permission to take their photograph, like I did with this protester at a Women’s Rights March in Washington, DC.

Protester - March for Women's Rights  - Washington, DC - 2004

#2. Yashica Mat 124G

Yashica Mat 124G

In 2006 digital cameras reached parity with film and professional photographers around the world started upgrading. This resulted in a glut of used medium format gear coming to market at good prices, so I bought a few. One of the gems I acquired early on was a nearly new Yashica Mat 124G. I took it on a trip to Amsterdam and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

Amsterdam 2007

This is a twin lens reflex (TLR) camera and it takes some getting used to. To take a picture, you flip open the top and peer down through the top to compose and focus the shot. From a distance it appears you’re hunched over a mysterious black box. People watching wonder what you are doing, and that’s what makes using this camera so much fun. Perfect strangers, driven by curiosity, approach and start a conversation. Where I to find myself stranded in a strange land with nothing but the clothes on my back and this camera, by the end of the day I could secure a hot meal and a place to stay.

Frankie & Jack - Atlantic City, NJ 2012

I especially like to use this camera to capture images with a different point of view. By the very nature of its twin lens reflex design, one tends to shoot from their belly button, as opposed to a 35 mm SLR, which is most naturally employed at eye level. It’s easy to photograph subjects who are sitting without the need to squat down. Where this camera really shines is shooting at ground level without danger of getting your clothes dirty. I’ve made my best images of my animal friends with this camera.

Pirate Flag - Old Forge, New York - 2007

The Yashica Mat 124G is not a high-end camera. Compared to a Rolleiflex 3.5F or the Mamiya C330 Professional, both heavy, solid cameras, the Yashica Mat 124G feels like a rattily tin can. Using an automobile analogy, the Yashica Mat 124G feels like a Yugoslavian compact car to the touch but performs like an uber engineered German touring sedan. Physically, construction-wise, one perceives loose tolerances, sloppy seconds, false hopes.

In reality, this camera shines in three key areas:

  1. It has one of the world’s finest lenses,
  2. It has a dead-on-accurate, built-in exposure meter, and
  3. It’s one tough mother of a camera.

There’s nothing frilly hanging off the sides of this machine to get destroyed when it’s accidentally dropped, say, when drinking beer and playing foosball at the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. It’s lighter, too, than a Rolleiflex 3.5F or the Mamiya C330 Professional, which makes it easy to carry around for an all-day shooting adventure. And you can buy one for a song, comparitavely speaking. 

Kathleen Thinking - Old Forge, New York - 2007

Well, a Yashica Mat 124G used to be a real bargain on eBay, but a quick glance at recent prices shows mint condition specimens listed for upwards of $800. These sellers are smokin’ crack. A used one in nice condition is listed for $285. eBay used to be a great place to buy used gear until they started charging tax on out-of-state purchases for flea-market items. I’ll save that rant for another video. A used Yashica Mat 124G in good condition between $125 – $250 is a good deal in my opinion.

Stevie - Fat Rabbit Cottage
Ramble Shack In Fading Light
Bent Rim and Trash - Amsterdam - 2007

#1. Nikon F3HP

Nikon F3HP

This is, by far, my favorite camera, period. I love everything about this camera, from the way it looks, the way it feels in my hands, the way it performs, and how easy it is to forget about its controls and simply focus on the art of image making.

Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985
Wardroom Operation - USS Norfolk (SSN-714) - 1985

I bought my first Nikon F3HP in 1984 when I was a young sailor assigned to the USS Norfolk, SSN 714, a Los Angeles class fast attack submarine. I wanted to take my photography to the next level and the two camera brands most closely associated with professional photographers in those days was Nikon and Leica.

Fiery Sunset - Squadron 6 Pier - Norfolk, VA - 1984

Eventually, after some research, I narrowed the choice between the Nikon F3HP and the Leica M4-P. Unlike today, where professional grade digital cameras easily cost $5000 or more, and you feel like your arm is being twisted behind your back when you buy one, I recall that neither of these cameras were outrageously expensive, though the Leica did cost more than the Nikon.

Italian Girl Riding Bike
Italian Girl Riding Bike
Italian Girl Riding Bike

Ultimately, I based my choice on my preference for looking through the lens of a single lens reflex (SLR) camera vs. using a range finder, and so I chose the Nikon. I’ve been a loyal Nikon user ever since.

Patrick - Chantilly, VA - March 2020

The HP stands for High Eyepoint. Essentially, what makes a Nikon F3HP a High Eyepoint is the DE-3 finder, which allows you to see the entire viewfinder image while wearing glasses. This is a great feature, because in the ‘80s, I wore Ray-Ban sunglasses, so I could take pictures and look cool at the same time.

Snorking Ops - USS Norfolk - October 1984
Cold Topside Watch - USS Norfolk - January 1985
John - USS Norfolk - On Station
Batman with the Wrong Way Shoes
Five Favorite Film Cameras
Leica M3 Post CLA Shakedown

Leica M3 Post CLA Shakedown

How Time Flies

Finally, after over a year since having received a thorough Clean, Lubricate, and Adjust (CLA) service by Mr. Youxin Ye at YYeCamera [ http://www.yyecamera.com ] based in Canton, Massachusetts, I was able to take the mighty Leica M3 out for its post CLA shakedown.

Quite honestly, it is shameful to have waited so long to foray out on a long overdue picture hunt with this classic, historic camera, but other projects demanded my immediate attention.

A Coveted Invitation

Photography is a wonderful hobby. The problem with being an amateur is your day job conspires to keep you away from what you’d rather be doing…taking pictures. So, I was super excited when we received a coveted invitation to spend a weekend at The Shamba, the quiet retreat of our friends Rick and Jane, nestled in the hills of West Virginia overlooking the Capon River. This is, quite literally, God’s country, where dogs frolic off leash, cattle grazes in the pasture, roosters crow, cats prowl, deer linger in the surrounding forest, and a person can spend a leisurely afternoon reading, writing, or shooting targets along the riverbank, whatever strikes your fancy and ignites your passion. And Capon Bridge is no bumkin town. It is the honored home of the world-famous, award-winning Farmer’s Daughter [ https://www.farmersdaughterwv.com ].

Kodak 400 TX

Kodak 400 TX

Over the course of the weekend at The Shamba and the following week, I ran two rolls of Kodak Tri-X through this machine. The lens I used was the venerable 50mm SUMMICRON f2 with Near-Focusing Range. The leather case I use to protect this, and all my cameras, comes from Luigi Crescenzi [ https://luigicases.com ].

Leica M3 with 50 mm Summicron f2 Near-Focusing Range Lens with Goggles and Luigi Crescenzi Half Case

The Camera Works Flawlessly!

I normally take along an exposure meter when I shoot with a manual camera, the handy Gossen Digisix, but in my excitement to get to The Shamba, I left it at home and had to estimate the exposures. Using the Sunny 16 rule as a guide, I tended to overexpose the negatives, but for the most part, I was quite happy with the results, namely because, as you can see from the contact sheet, the camera is now firing on all cylinders. Mr. Ye – you did a great job! Thank you! Compare this contact sheet with the pre-CLA version: [ https://www.warrenworks.com/cameras/leica-m3-needs-cla ].

 

Contact Sheet for Film Developed 16 March 2020

I developed each roll individually in Kodak D-76 1:1, which means 1 part stock solution mixed with 1 part water, for 14 minutes. Here are the two pages from my development journal which notes the process I followed and times for each stage for this batch of film. I developed one roll on 16 March having just returned from a fabulous weekend with Rick and Jane. I developed the second roll on 21 March after a wonderful family dinner with my aunt Lois.

Development Journal Entry for 16 March 2020
Development Journal Entry for 21 March 2020

 If you’re not already doing so, I highly recommend keeping a Process Journal. In this case the process I’m interested in improving is film development, so I refer to my journal as a Development Journal, but any activity that involves a process or activity at which you want to improve can benefit from the act of keeping a process journal. You can read more about my development journal here: [ https://www.warrenworks.com/technique/improve-your-practice-through-journaling ].

Jane

To take fullest advantage of the close focusing abilities of the Leica 50mm SUMMICRON f2 Near-Focusing Range lens you’ll need the appropriate optical viewfinder attachment, which Leica aficionados commonly refer to as “goggles”. Refer to the lens instructions below. These instructions are hard to find, so I’ve provided them here as a PDF file for easy download and printing.

The image of John, above left, was made in the near-focusing range mode with the goggles attached. I was about a 2 feet away, perhaps closer, and focused on his right eye. As I recall, it was overcast, early evening, approaching 7pm. I took an incident reading with the Gossen Digisix and set the aperture to f4 to ensure his nose would be in focus. If this image suggests character, it’s the same impression I received when I first scanned the negative. The subject, John, certainly contributes to this impression, but the lens reveals his character in ways other lenses simply can’t. Perhaps, too, it is the combination of lens and camera.

Leica SUMMICRON 50 mm f2 Near-Focusing Range Lens Instructions

You only need the goggles for near-focusing operation to correct the parallax between the range finder and the lens at distances between 48 cm (~19 inches) to 88 cm (~35 inches). You don’t need the goggles for subjects from 1 meter to infinity, considered the normal range for this lens.

Perhaps the secret to this notion of character created by the lens is technically described in the instructions:

“[The 50 mm Summicron f2 with near-focusing range] represents the highest achievement made possible by modern computing optics and the introduction of a novel, highly-refractive type of glass – the so-called lanthanum crown. In this lens, excellent correction in the distant and close-up range is combined with a degree of freedom from vignetting extraordinary for this high speed. Even at full aperture, the Summicron has an excellent resolving power, uncommonly high contrast, and perfect colour correction.”

I’ll just refer to the ability of a lens to render character as Natural Character. The only other lens with as much natural character is the Pentax SMC 67 165mm f2.8. Here’s an image of my late Labrador Retriever, Schmoogle made with this lens:

Schmoogle ~2007 - Pentax 67 with Pentax SMC 200mm f4

Schmoogle – 19 April 2010 – Pentax 67 with Pentax SMC 165mm f2.8

Weathered Bird Bath
Farmer's Daughter House Burger
Leica M3 Single Stroke with 50 mm SUMMICRON f2 Near-Focusing Range Lens

When employed in the normal range this lens is just incredible. Again, the normal range is anything between 1 meter to infinity. The pictures of the barn, the dirt lane, and fallen tree were all made with the lens focused to infinity. The acutance of this lens is easily perceived. It renders tack sharp images with firm contrast.

 

Taking a Walk

We explored the lane flanked by rolling fields and undulating foothills of bigger mountains rising in the distance. I stop to photograph a grove of dead cattails rising from the frog marsh. I attach the goggles and put the lens in near-focusing range mode and try my best to make dead cattails look interesting. I tend to descend into deep, metaphysical states when I’m absorbed and immersed in an activity, and when I look up, the gang has stopped some ways down the lane to wait for me.

Waiting

Onward we push to a working barn that houses a rusting pick-up and a fiberglass canoe, on past another barn with chickens, goats, and a cat, a real mouser. We linger for some time talking baby goat talk to the baby goats, who seem as intrigued by us as we are by them. We turn around and head back to Shamba, stopping along the way to inspect a home under construction.

Old Wooden Barn with Canoe
Exploring the Barn
Cattails on the Edge of the Frog Marsh

The following morning it began to snow, turning to sleet, then to rain. There’s something especially magical about Shamba when the weather turns cold, a fire crackles inside and casts its warming heat and golden glow throughout the house, and the deep sound of the wind chimes accompany the dance of ice crystals landing on dried leaves upon the ground. In these special moments I am completely content, thankful for good friends, and pleased the camera is again able to capture the special moments in life.

Fallen Tree

Parting Thoughts

The serial number on this camera indicates it was manufactured in 1965. I was four years old; it has weathered time better than I have. The lens was manufactured sometime between 1956 – 1968. It still works flawlessly, something I can’t even claim myself. The previous owners have obviously taken exceptional care of this camera, and for this I am eternally grateful. It’s an incredibly humbling feeling being able to capture images on a camera that’s well over 50 years old and still going strong. I don’t consider myself so much an owner of a Leica, rather, I am merely a steward, caring for this wonderful instrument until I pass the torch to another.

Leica M3 Needs CLA

Leica M3 Needs CLA

Over the course of a year (Jan 2017 – June 2018) I ran a roll of Tri-X through this camera, and when I finally got around to developing the film, I discovered it had a serious problem which I’d never noticed before. At shutter speeds 125th of a second and faster the rear shutter curtain quickly catches up to the front curtain and a severe case of shutter capping occurs, as you can see from the contact sheet below. Time for a CLA.

A few hours of Internet research later and I settled on YYeCamera.com. I sent Mr. Youxin Ye an email introducing him to my camera and its problem(s), and asked for shipping instructions. He responded within 30 minutes. His prompt reply assured me my camera would be in good hands. I told him I’d ship it out the following day.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed the shutter release would jam at random intervals, requiring the use of the self-timer to release. At speeds below 125th of a second the shutter curtains seemed to work fine. Cameras, like motorcycles, benefit more from use than neglect. Taking over a year to shoot a roll of film could be construed as a high crime against a classic camera.

The lens used to make these images is the Leica Summicron 5cm f2. This is a collapsible lens and when paired with the M3 makes for a compact kit, although not quite as compact as the Leica Elmar 5cm f2.8.

Update – 28 March 2020

Read about the Post CLA Shakedown here: https://www.warrenworks.com/film-photography/leica-m3-post-cla-shakedown/

 

New Year’s Resolution: Shoot More Film In 2019 (2 January 2020 Update!)

New Year’s Resolution: Shoot More Film In 2019 (2 January 2020 Update!)

Happy New Year!

 

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of film, but I’m ashamed to admit I slacked off in 2017 & 2018 and shot only a handful of rolls and developed not one. I’m now faced with a stockpile of aging film and chemicals nearing expiration and I need to get busy. I need to shoot more film. 

My ambitious plan for 2019 is to select two cameras from my collection as daily shooters and carry them wherever I go, either one or the other, or, if I’m feeling froggy, both, but that might be too ambitious. In case you haven’t already guessed from looking at the header image, I’ve selected the venerable Nikon F3HP and the Mamiya C330.

Nikon F3HP


Nikon F3HP

The Nikon F3HP was an easy choice as it’s easily my favorate camera of all time. I’m upping the ante by using only two prime lenses: 1) a Nikkor 50mm f1.2 (shown attached to the camera), and 2) a Nikkor 35mm f1.4. The use of primes will force me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to get close and intimate with my subjects. I also need to build an image bank using these lenses and this will give me the opportunity.

Mamiya C330 Pro


Mamiya C330 Pro

I’ve owned the Mamiya C330 for some time, but haven’t had a chance to use it.  Its 80mm f2.8 Mamiya-Sekor lens is superb for portrait work.

Both of these cameras are hefty. In my very unscientific left-hand-right-hand scale test, the Mamiya feels more than a bit heavier than the Nikon with the MD-4 motordrive attached. My strap of choice in situations like this is the UPstrap Large Mountain ‘Hybrid’ Pad Camera Step/Sling. These are, hands down, the best camera straps on the planet. And no, I am not affiliated with UPstrap. I just like to plug companies that make great products here in the good-ol’ USA.

Kodak 400 TX



Kodak 400 TX

For film I’ll be using Kodak Tri-X 400, Kodak Porta 400, Kodak Ektar 100, and ADOX 25. I’ll schlep the film and other doodads around in my goto camera bag: a US Army Communications Peg Bag.

US Army Bag



US Army Bag

The one shown above is a reprodution. I waterproofed the fabric with 3M waterproofing spray and I carry a handful of waterproof pouches for when the weather is particularly nasty and I can’t escape the elements.

I’ll post updates and sample images throughout the year.

Update
2 January 2020

I fell way short of achieving this goal, I’m saddened to admit. I didn’t even touch the Mamiya C330 Pro, but I did manage to take the Nikon F3HP out for several spins over the course of the year and came away with a handful of images, several of which are posted below.

Bentleys Still Life

Bentleys Still Life – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.2

Tri Nguyen

Tri Nguyen – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.2

The Nikon F3HP is perhaps my favorite camera. I’ve used it since the early 1980’s and its controls are as familiar, intuitive, and responsive to me as a lover’s body.

Kathleen

Kathleen – Nikon F3HP w/Nikkor 50mm f1.2

But it seems I have found a new lover…

Leica M10-D

Leica M10-D w/Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0

…a digital camera that shoots like a film camera, the Leica M10-D. You can read my complete review of this amazing camera here: Leica M10-D: Comparison to an Old Friend

For The Love Of Film

For The Love Of Film

OK, I admit it. I like to shoot film. I like everything about film: I like the way film smells when I open the canister, I like the way the chemicals smell during processing, I like the feeling I get when I load a fresh roll of film into a camera, and I like the challenge of making every shot count when I have only 36 frames on a roll. But I especially enjoy opening the development tank after the final stage and inspecting a freshly processed roll of film. The anticipation is palpitating. I admit it:  I – love – film! My professional photographer friends think I’m crazy. “Drop film!” they advise, and they’re right, after all, they’re professionals who earn their living with their cameras. If time is money, and bills need payin’, then film and the time it requires is a drag on their incomes. But that’s one of the reasons I like to shoot film: It forces me to slow down “…to stop and smell the film…” you could say, and although I do earn money with my photography, it is not my primary means of earning a living, so I am not pressed for time. Of course I shoot digital. My workhorse camera for weddings and other events is the ever-faithful Nikon D3X.

My Trusty Nikon D3X

The dynamic range on this instrument is impressive, but I like to augment it with a film camera for a different perspective. Consider the following two images taken of Liz early in the morning on her wedding day as she writes her vows.

Liz Writing Her Vows – Nikon D3X

 

Liz Writing Her Vows – Nikon F3HP with Tri-X Film

Nikon F3HP

The black and white image is taken with a Nikon F3HP with a 50mm f1.2 lens on Kodak Tri-X film. Critically and technically speaking, the image was somewhat under exposed, which made it difficult to work with, but I found the image aesthetically pleasing, and so did Liz, and in the wedding photography business, if the bride is happy, I get paid. So why do I like to shoot film? Here’s a list of the top ten reasons why I continue to pursue my passion for film photography and I hope that among them you will find one that prompts you to take up the cause as well.

The Top Ten Reasons I Still Shoot Film

1. I’m a Nostalgic, Romantic Fool

I guess when I really think about it, I miss the “good ol’ days”. I came of age in the early ‘80s, when I purchased my first camera, so I learned how to shoot film from day one. Shooting film today, in the modern age of digital cameras with impressive imaging capabilities, takes me back in time to when I first fell in love, and when I first fell in love with photography as well. Taking a photograph with a classic film camera evokes the same emotions as hearing a classic hit song. The sounds of the camera provided a soundtrack for life, like the ratcheting of the film advance lever, the click of the aperture ring, the snap of the shutter, and the whir of the motor drive. Those sounds remind me of yesterday, and I enjoy remembering yesterdays gone by.

2. It Offers a Different Perspective

The simple act of taking a photograph with any camera alters reality. The camera’s format constrains the image. The lens distorts the scene. The light striking either pixels or film is altered at the moment of impact. And processing further bends and twists reality. A digital camera will alter reality in one way, while a film camera will alter it in another. Taking a photograph with both a film and digital camera of the same scene, at the same moment, from the same spot will yield two different perceived realities in their respective final images. Perspective can be changed not merely via film, but via the format of the camera employed. Consider the following image of one of my favorite canine models, Teddy.

Teddy – Fat Rabbit Cottage

I made this image with a Twin-Lens-Reflex (TLR) camera, the venerable Yashica Mat 124G. It’s easy to get ground-level perspective with a TLR camera because you look down into the camera to frame the image vs. through the camera at eye-level. The negative format is square vs. rectangular, so again, it’s a different perspective. Unless a digital camera offers a reticulating screen, it’s difficult to get ground-level perspective without laying flat on your stomach. A change of aesthetics offers a powerful change of perspective, and different types of cameras yield different image aesthetics. For example, images captured with a Leica MP using a Noctilux f1.0 lens will be noticeably different than an image captured with a Nikon F3HP using a Nikkor 50mm f1.2 lens, all other variables being equal. Believe me, I can tell the difference. Not that one is any better than the other; merely that one is noticeably different than the other. They each bring a uniquely different perspective to an image.

3. I Like to Change Cameras Like I Change my Clothes

I have accumulated a fairly respectable collection of classic film cameras over the years, not a lot, for sure, but ones that matter most to me, or should I say, ones I find most interesting. These range from cameras I used when I first started my photographic journey, like my Nikon F3HP, to hand-me-downs like my mom’s Kodak Retina II C, to cameras used by photographers and artists I admired and wanted to try out. And I like to use them all, though I do have my favorites. It’s fun to wake up and play “choose my weapon” – figuratively speaking mind you. “Shall I wield the mighty Pentax 67 or the tiny Contax T?” Either one is a great choice as far as I’m concerned. There are no losers; every camera is a winner.

4. Film Cameras are Easier to Operate

For the most part, film cameras are easier to operate, at least the ones I prefer to use. Some of my classic cameras have Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes, and a few have full auto or Programmed mode along with a handful of choices for metering modes, but for the most part, that’s it. Pro-level DSLRs are packed with features and options buried deep within menu screens. Speaking for myself, whenever I pick up my Nikon D3X to shoot a gig, I must review all the settings I plan to use that day. I scan through the four shooting banks A, B, C, and D to try and figure out what in the world I was thinking when I set them, and make any necessary changes demanded by prevailing circumstances. I must ensure I’ve correctly set the ISO and Color Balance. I don’t want the camera making decisions for me that I haven’t specifically delegated. I must also review what functions I’ve assigned to different buttons. Back button focus is a prime example. If I switch between my Nikon D3X and my Sony A7II, then I’m really in a pickle. Their menu layouts are worlds apart. On the other hand, the toughest choice I make when I pick up a film camera is deciding on what type of film to use. The limitations are obvious, of course. Selecting film is a fatalistic decision is some regards; It’s very tricky to change your mind once you’ve committed to, say, Tri-X 400, when the light turns out to be too bright, or you really want to capture those wonderful colors. I’m not saying for a moment that it’s easier to make a technically great image with a film camera. That requires skill, artistry, and finesse, things I’ll address in greater detail later. No, I’m talking about controls here. I never need to reacquaint myself with the controls on my Nikon F3HP, or my Contax T, or my Yashica Mat 124G. I know where everything is and what everything does. I know them intimately, like one knows the reassuring feel of a lover’s body in the dark of the night. The ease of use, the familiarity, it all translates into being able to let go and focus on the scene before you, and not worry about the camera.

5. High-Tech Isn’t Always Best-Tech

When the sun is too bright it’s hard to see the screen on the back of a digital camera, making it virtually impossible to chimp. I don’t have that temptation with a film camera. No screen – no chimping. But a hard-to-read screen is the least of my concerns here. I’m thinking more along the lines of extreme conditions. I’ve never had a film camera overheat on a hot August day, the Leica M3, Leica MP, and my Nikon FMs are all completely mechanical instruments. Some have batteries that power light meters, but that’s all they power. As a rule, I roll without batteries in these cameras anyway. The Nikon F3HP uses batteries for everything, but like a Cadillac, if they do fail, it has a mechanical limp home mode that allows me to trip the shutter at 1/60th second. Come to think if it, I’ve never had auto focus fail on a manual focus camera. Umm, nope, nothing comes to mind. And in many instances, I prefer manual focus. Take street photography as an example. Ever shoot street with a compact auto-focus camera? It perhaps can be done, but auto focus and street photography are not happy bed fellows, at least not the way I like to shoot street. For quiet operation, you can’t beat the Leica film cameras like the M3, M7, and MP, or the Contax T. That’s why I like to use them to shoot events that require the upmost discretion. The reason they’re so quiet is because they are rangefinder cameras, not single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras. They don’t have mirrors that must move quickly out of the way with a loud “thwap”!

6. It Allows Me to Focus on the Basics

Fundamentally, shooting film with a film camera in manual mode allows me to focus on essential image making. I must consider the scene and the play of light within the scene. After all, photography is all about the light. I must then determine the appropriate exposure. This is not simply a mathematical equation. It requires some sense of where you want to go image wise. Think Ansel Adams and visualization. To take this one step further, I like to go completely mechanical and forego even an exposure meter. This forces me to review the exposure rule-of-thumb or the “Sunny 16” rule that sets a base exposure in bright sunlight at f16 at a shutter speed of 1/film speed. This base exposure provides a point of departure from which you can obtain a good exposure with a little thought and consideration. Throw in some bracketing for good measure and you’re good to go. The benefits of exercising these back to basic skills are many, but mainly they instill confidence. Automatic exposure systems are easily fooled. Knowing how to interpret a scene’s lighting and when to override a digital camera’s automatic exposure mode can really save the day.

7. Digital Workflow Makes Film Fun

Computer image processing technology has revitalized the film industry. More importantly, I enjoy shooting film more because I can employ a digital workflow. Let me explain. When I shoot film, I use a hybrid approach: I develop the negatives, either color or black and white, using traditional methods which include measuring and mixing chemicals and development using wet processes. In this way I can experience my favorite aspect of film development – the moment I first lay my eyes on a fresh set of wet negatives. When the negatives dry I scan them into the computer. My scanner of choice is a Nikon Super CoolScan 9000 with which I can scan film up to 70mm (120/220) which is the size of film used in the Yashica Mat 124G. For larger negatives up to 4” x 5”, which is the largest I shoot, I use an Epson Perfection V750 Pro flat bed scanner. From this point forward the workflow is the same as if I had shot with a digital camera. Once I’ve scanned the negatives, I use Lightroom to organize and categorize the images. I apply metadata to help catalog the images, and apply standardized processing presets when necessary. I could do more processing in Lightroom but I prefer Photoshop for heavy lifting. If I print an image I use an Epson Stylus Pro 7900 large format printer. I must print images at least once a month to keep the ink jets unclogged. Bottom line, I shoot more film because I geared up to process digital images. I believe it offers me the best of both worlds.

8. I Enjoy the Challenge

I gain a lot of personal satisfaction when I’ve done a good job at something that’s rather difficult to do. Given the number of variables at play from the moment I snap the shutter and the latent image forms on the film to when the negatives emerge from the tank, I consider it something of a miracle when an image turns out the way I’d hoped. Sometimes I screw things up, I am human, after all. When this happens it’s usually because I rushed. Why am I rushing? After all, isn’t one of the reasons I’m shooting film is to slow down? If you come to film photography from a purely digital background, you will find it challenging. You’ll have to solve problems like what type of film to use, where to buy it, and where and how to process it. I don’t believe you’ll discover the real joy of film photography unless you chose to process your negatives yourself, but this requires a small investment in specialized chemicals and equipment, not to mention you’ll need some place to do the processing. More on this later. In the end, I find the challenge presented by film photography adds to my enjoyment of film photography.

9. I Enjoy the Process

I particularly enjoy the process of film photography, from camera and film selection to developed negatives. Here I’d like to share with you some of the equipment and tools I use to develop film. First, why do I bother going through all this trouble to develop my own film? Because I get the best results when I develop my own film. Unless you send your film out for processing to a professional lab, of which there are fewer today, you’ll be largely disappointed with the results. When I’ve shot a roll of film I sometimes develop it right away but more likely than not I’ll wait a few months before I accumulate enough rolls of exposed film to warrant the effort. In the meantime, I use a lead lined film storage bag in which I store the exposed film. Notice in picture I’ve made notes on the film canisters about details of the contents. I also record these details in my development journal, which I’ve written about on a separate article.

Lead Lined Film Storage Bag

Notes on Film Canisters

Depending on the type of film you shoot, either black & white or color (C41 or E6), you’ll need to purchase some chemicals.

Black and White Development Chemicals

Color Development Chemicals

My preferred black and white film developer is Kodak’s HC-110. I use Kodak Fixer and Hypo Clear, and Photo-Flo. If this is all very confusing to you, it helps to acquire some reference material. Film manufacturers offer data sheets on their products and Kodak produced a wonder little book called the Black and White Darkroom Data Guide, which you might possibly find at a yard sale or on EBay. Well, I just checked, and you can still buy these on Amazon, too. I’d go used or download the .pdf version.

Development Reference Material

You’ll need tanks and beakers to mix the chemicals and jugs to store them. B&H Photo sells stainless steel measured pitchers that will allow you to mix a gallon of chemicals at a time.

Beakers and Pitcher – And A Good Thermometer

I use brown plastic jugs for storing black and white chemicals and brown glass jugs to store color chemicals

Brown Glass Jugs

When it comes time to actually process the film, you’ll need tanks and reels in various sizes depending on the size of film you want to develop and a few other doo-dads, like film hanger clips, scissors, and a can opener to open 35mm film canisters. You’ll also need a good thermometer. Knowing the exact temperature of the chemicals and water is crucial to good results. I use a Kodak thermometer. It’s long and the numbers are magnified for easy reading.

Processing Tanks and Reels

My preferred 35mm film development reel is made by Hewes. B&H Photo sells them. Get the ones with the teeth, not the spring. It’s easier to load film onto them, especially for beginners. If you plan to shoot large format film like 4″ x 5″, you’ll need hangers and rectangular open-topped tanks.

4 x 5 Tanks and Hangers

You don’t need a dedicated darkroom to process 35mm film, but you do need a dark place to load the film onto the reels, and the best way to do this is with a dark bag.

Dark Bag

Items you’ll need inside the dark bag include the film, reels, tank, can opener, and scissors. It takes practice to get the hang of working in a dark bag, but with it soon becomes second nature. I’d be lost without one. For large format film, you’ll need a real dark room. That is, you’ll be processing the film sheets in the open air, so during development the lights will need to be completely blacked out until you’re half way through the fixer stage. (Just to be sure, I keep the lights out until I’m completely done with the fixer stage!) If you don’t have access to a dedicated dark room, you can block light leaks in a small bathroom and obtain the same, amazing results. Next you’ll need a reliable timer, and I use a GraLab timer mounted to the wall of my makeshift bathroom darkroom. You could use a watch, and I use one, but the GraLab timer is really simple to use and has a nice, loud alarm.

GraLab Darkroom Timer

Well, that’s about it, and trust me, it’s worth the effort. This is a picture of my makeshift darkroom in action:

My Makeshift Darkroom

This little bathroom is perfectly laid out for a makeshift darkroom. Notice the rolled up black-out fabric at the top of the doorway. There’s   a roll on both the inside of the bathroom and outside. I drop these when I need to have a completely dark room to process 4″ x 5″ film in open tanks.  Film hangs from the vent fan.

10. Because I Enjoy Shooting Film

Lastly, I just like shooting film, and doing something simply because you like to do it is reason enough for doing it.

11. Retro is Cool!

Oh, one more thing. It seems we are living in times where all things retro are cool again. Those who’ve only used digital cameras are discovering film for the very first time. Classic film cameras sell like hotcakes on EBay and certain ones, like the Plaubel Makina 67 just keep going up in price. As I write this, a brand new collectors quality Nikon F3T is listed for $1,700, though that may be a bit overpriced. There are websites dedicated to film photography. Here are a few: The Film Photography Project, Film’s Not Dead, I Still Shoot Film, or, a List of 49 Film Photography Blogs.

Please Share Your Film Story

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you share my enthusiasm for film photography I’d like to hear from you. This is my cry into the dark. I know you’re out there. I’d like to share your images and your stories with my readers. They’d like to hear about your work as well.