Getting Started with Film Photography

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Nikon F3 with MD-4 Motor Drive and it's little brother (cousin?) the LeicaM6.

Where to Start?  The first thing that you should do to get started in film photography is to find a camera. This is great fun for me as I love researching and shopping for film cameras and lenses. Some of us have film cameras in the attic or our parents may have one stored away gathering dust. Of course eBay, Adorama, and Amazon are all great resources for finding film cameras. I highly recommend the 35mm film format at least to start.  There are (generally speaking) two formats of 35mm film cameras: rangefinder and SLR.  Get both! 

Single Lens Reflex.  SLRs allow you to frame the photo through the actual lens mounted on the camera. This format is especially good for telephoto, macro, or technical photos where framing is crucial.  For photos of the craters of the moon, the spots on a ladybug's back, models, landscapes, nature, wildlife, etc the SLR is king.  SLRs like the DSLRs of today can do it all and do it fast.  These are the cameras that you see professional photographers carrying on the sidelines of sporting events or out in the tundra stalking rhinos or other exotic creatures. These cameras are by far the most versatile and most are system cameras which means that there are several attachments available for specialized work and they by far have the largest array of lenses available.

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They just don't make them like this anymore!
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Great equipment but sometimes bulky!

One thing about the  SLR design is that a mirror and a glass pentaprism work together to allow you to frame your photo through the camera lens, which is great, but this approach also makes the camera inherently bulky.  In addition, when the mirror flips up in order to expose the film, this action can potentially cause vibration when taking the photo.  While camera manufacturers have taken lots of measures to correct these issues they still present a compromise. Another side effect of placing a mirror behind the lens and in front of the film is that it requires that the lens is placed much further away from the film than what would be considered optimal. This requires that SLR (and DSLR) lens designs are much bigger than they should be and require additional correction to compensate for the added distance to the film (or sensor) frame.   The biggest drawback of the SLR design is the aforementioned bulkiness of the body and the huge lenses. There is another option:

The Rangefinder Camera. The rangefinder camera is another approach (and the original approach) altogether to hand-held photograph. Rangefinders use a separate glass viewfinder to frame the photo which offers several advantages and some drawbacks over the SLR/DSLR form-factor.  Rangefinders are smaller more efficient packages since there is no mirror or pentaprism. The lenses are much more compact and sharper since they require less correction and are mounted a lot closer to the film plain than are SLR/DSLR  lenses. The original rangefinder camera is the blueprint for todays super popular mirrorless cameras. Cameras have evolved not just from film to digital, but from rangefinder to SLR/DSLR-back to rangefinder/mirrorless, but today they have electronic viewfinders and cool preview screens that allow the use of long lenses, zooms and macro glass. The modern mirrorless camera owes it's basic design to the original film rangefinder that dominated photography for a 100 years.

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This gear goes everywhere with me! Nikon F100, 50mm f1.4 AF Nikkor and Fuji Pro400H color negative film.
Film rangefinder cameras can't fit (long) telephoto, zoom or macro lenses so you can't photograph the craters of the moon, the spots on the back of a ladybug or an NFL tight end catching a jump ball in the back of the end-zone. They are not fast, action stopping cameras that crank away photos at 7 frames per second. They are cameras for the other 90% our photographic subject matter.  Rangefinders are more than adequate for photographing everything else in our lives.  Landscapes, cityscapes, street photos, people photos, family outings, vacations and so on.  I use a Leica M6 film rangefinder for most of my photos.  I rarely take the ladybug or NFL tight end or moon crater photos but when I do I'll reach for an SLR.  For everything else, I grab the Leica!

Fixed Lens Rangefinder. You don't have to invest in high-dollar cameras like a Leica or Contax G series to enjoy film photography.  The rangefinder form-factor was so popular for so long that there were (and still are) many variants of the form.  Almost every major camera manufacturer made a "poor mans Leica" which usually was a fixed lens rangefinder most of which took great photos.  Some examples are the Canon G series, Minolta Hi-Matic series, Konica Hexar, Olympus X series, Yashica Electro and many, many more.
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  Look at this beautiful glass! This camera is capable of taking some amazingly sharp photos!

  Most of these cameras came with a fixed (non-removable) multi-element 35mm or 40mm focal length lenses that rendered absolutely beautiful photos! These lenses generally were from f1.7-f2.8 maximum aperture and some would sport as many as 8 glass elements!  You can buy these cameras today on eBay, Adorama, B&H Photo for practically nothing.  The reason that the fixed lens compact rangefinders became so popular is that most Leica photographers that had camera bodies that allowed interchangeable lenses opted to stick with the 35mm summicron most of the time.  Some Leica M users didn't even own another focal length lens! 

Go out and buy a film camera. Rangefinder, SLR, compact-whatever. While I appreciate the build quality of a Leica, Nikon, Canon or other renowned professional film cameras, I'll be the first to admit that they are not necessary for great photos.  Great photos come from a great eye, skill, nerve, luck, talent and other factors that are pretty hard to quantify. I love to go out with a my canon GIII or other simple fixed-lens rangefinder, ridding myself of technology and options just to test my skill as a photographer.  It's just me, my camera and my subject. I can't express how rewarding it is to take on the subject with only my camera, lens and film and to leave the experience with a roll or two of absolute photographic gold! It is this type of encounter that makes me love film photography so much and is why I encourage others to try it out!