Design, Photography, & Fashion

Complete Guide to Film Photography: How to Develop Film and Film vs. Digital Photography

Written by MasterClass

Aug 26, 2019 • 9 min read

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These days, almost everyone has access to a digital camera in the form of a smartphone. And yet, although we live in an increasingly digital world, there are many benefits to shooting and developing film the old-fashioned way. Below, you will find a rundown of everything you need to know about getting started with film photography.

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What Is Film Photography?

Film photography is the art of taking photographs on thin, transparent strips of plastic we call film. One side of the film strip is coated with a gelatin emulsion that contains small silver halide crystals, which determine the contrast and resolution of a photograph.

How Does Film Photography Work?

Silver halide crystals are light-sensitive. The more light they’re exposed to, the brighter and less detailed the photograph will be.

  • When a film camera takes a picture, the camera lens briefly exposes the film strip to an image that’s being magnified through the lens.
  • This exposure burns an imprint into the emulsion and creates what’s called a latent image.
  • Once captured, that latent image can be developed into a negative, which can, in turn, be projected onto light-sensitive photo paper to create a photograph.

What Is 35mm Film?

When you hear someone referring to 35 millimeter film (often abbreviated to 35mm), this is the most commonly-used film gauge, which describes the physical width of the film strip.

Photographer Oskar Barnack, the inventor of Leica cameras, introduced the 35mm format in the 1920s.

  • Photographic film is separated into small- and large-format depending on the size of the image that the film is used to produce.
  • 35mm film is considered small-format because it produces images that are just 36x24 mm in size.
  • This differentiates it from large-format, which produces images that are 102mm x 127mm, and medium-format, which produces images between 24mm x 36mm.

The term “35mm” is also used to refer to cameras that shoot exclusively 35mm film. Camera companies that make 35mm cameras include: Leica, Kodak, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Fujifilm, and many others.

What Is the Difference Between Film Photography vs. Digital Photography?

Film photography and digital photography each have their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. There are two main differences between film and digital photography:

  1. Analog cameras use physical film to capture images. Digital cameras capture digital images which are then kept on storage cards.
  2. Analog photography requires photographs to be chemically developed, while digital photography produces instantly viewable images.

5 Advantages of Film Photography

It’s not uncommon to find established photographers rejecting digital photography for film photography. This is for a number of reasons, including:

  1. Analog photography offers more involved, hands-on opportunities to learn the principles of photography. There are a number of different types of analog cameras, each with their own camera settings with which to tinker.
  2. Analog photography keeps you focused on the discipline of the art and forces you to shoot more critically. Unlike digital cameras, analog cameras don’t have fancy grid lines or an “auto” mode that will automatically capture a well-exposed photo; they force you to make decisions and learn how to use all of the buttons and knobs on your camera.
  3. Analog photography is rewarding. Successfully loading, shooting, and developing a roll of film takes time and equipment, but it’s a process that many photographers find extremely satisfying—particularly when it comes to working in the darkroom. When you look at a photo you developed yourself, you remember and appreciate the long process you went through to make it.
  4. Analog photography encourages photographers to be more thoughtful. Since rolls of 35mm film can only capture a limited number of pictures, every shot counts.
  5. Analog photography can produce artistic effects like overexposures, vignettes, and light leaks. While you can create these with photo editing software, the unintentional effects are more authentic than the deliberate ones.

3 Advantages of Digital Photography

That said, digital photography has its advantages over film photography. These include:

  1. Digital cameras allow you to shoot a much larger volume of images. This can be especially helpful if you’re photographing a once-in-a-lifetime event (like a wedding) and want to make sure you're getting enough usable shots.
  2. Digital photography allows you to preview your images as you take them. This can be useful for working photographers (think fashion photographers or sports photographers) who need to be able to check the images they are taking during a shoot and correct things like lighting, angles, and settings.
  3. Digital cameras allow you to produce photographs quickly. Uploading and editing digital pictures onto a computer is a lot faster than manually developing film in a darkroom. This can be helpful for working professional photographers who are working on deadline and do not have enough time to develop film.

When Should You Use Film Photography?

Many photographers prefer film photography and stick with analog cameras in spite of the convenience of digital photography. Film photography is an especially good format to use when:

  • Shooting outdoors. Analog cameras can produce more vibrant colors and finer grains in natural light without digital editing.
  • Shooting black and white film. With black and white photos specifically, you have a leniency in the darkroom that you don’t have with color film. This often results in amplifying a photo’s details.
  • Shooting for fun or as a hobby. Film photography is all about experimentation. There are so many different techniques that you can try, whether you’re changing the aperture settings on your analog camera or playing with color temperature in the darkroom.

3 Settings to Master When Shooting Film Photography

Understanding how camera settings work is crucial to being a good film photographer. How you adjust your settings depends on a number of factors, like if your subject is moving and how much light you have available. That said, every film photographer should understand and experiment with three main settings on their camera, including:

  1. Shutter speed. Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open, expressed as a measurement of time in seconds. For example, 1/100 means that your shutter is open for 1/100th of a second. Shutter speeds range from 1/4000 to more than 1 second. Fast shutter speeds are great to capture movement like birds, cars, and sports photography because they let in less light and allow you to freeze or blur a subject in motion. Slow shutter speeds are great for nighttime photography because they let in more light to make up for exposure. Learn more about shutter speed here.
  2. Aperture. Aperture is the size of the opening that lets the light in. We measure aperture is in f-stops. F-stops are a bit counterintuitive, because the larger the number, the smaller the opening. For example, f/2.8 allows twice as much light into the camera as f4, and 16 times as much light as f/11. Aperture affects the depth of field, or the distance between the closest and the farthest objects in a photo; larger openings create a shallower depth of field, while smaller openings put more of the image in focus. Learn more about aperture here.
  3. Focus. Focus is achieved by moving the camera lens closer to or further away from the light source to locate the image within your depth of field. Most cameras also have the option to do this automatically using autofocus. Learn more about manual focus here.

How Do You Edit Film Photographs?

After you shoot film, you have to develop it in the darkroom. Manually “editing” in the darkroom involves different techniques in the printing process. The two simplest exposure techniques are dodging and burning.

  • Dodging is decreasing the exposure to make part of a photograph lighter.
  • Burning involves increasing the exposure to make part of a photograph darker. You can also adjust things like contrast, shadows, highlights, and color.

Developing film in the darkroom takes longer than digital editing and may require more trial and error. Digital editing is a faster and more precise editing method. Once you develop your film, you have the option to scan it and create digital copies of the images. Use editing software like Adobe Lightroom to make adjustments to your images in different categories including white balance, exposure, contrast, clarity, saturation, and sharpening.

How to Develop Film in 8 Steps

Once you’ve shot a full roll of film, it’s time to develop it. You can have a lab develop the film for you, but if you have the time and the means—and the access to a fully equipped darkroom with proper lighting and ventilation—many photographers find it satisfying to develop film themselves.

You will need the following equipment:

  • Bucket
  • Film spool
  • Thermometer
  • Cups
  • Chemical developer
  • Chemical fixer
  • Film developing tank
  • Dish soap
  • Clips
  • Timer

Follow this step-by-step guide to develop your film.

  1. Prepare the film bath. Fill a large bucket with water that’s about 70 F.
  2. Mix your chemicals. Fill a cup with 10 oz. of water from the bucket, add 10 ml of developer, and stir. Then, fill a second cup with 8 oz. of water from the bucket, add 2 oz. of fixer, and stir.
  3. Put the film into the developing tank. In complete darkness, open the film canister and wind the film onto the spool. Place the spool into the developing tank and close it tightly. At this point, you could turn the lights back on.
  4. Add the developer. Pour the developer into the developing tank. Let it sit for 3 minutes and 45 seconds, agitating it every 30 seconds. Pour out the developer.
  5. Add the fixer. Quickly pour in the fixer. Leave it in for 1 minute, agitating it throughout. Pour out the fixer.
  6. Rinse the film. Open the developing tank, take out the spool, and rinse it in the bucket for 1 to 2 minutes. Add a drop of dish soap, and rinse for an additional minute.
  7. Hang the film to dry. Clip the film on a line to dry. Let it sit until it’s completely dry, at least 30 to 60 minutes.
  8. Develop your prints. After you develop your negatives, the next part of the process is to make a contact sheet, enlarge your photos, and develop your prints.

Does Film Need to Be Developed in Total Darkness?

Film must be developed in complete and total darkness. However, while you’re learning the basics, it can be useful to practice with the lights on using cheap film that you don’t mind ruining. Remember that, when it comes to film photography, practice makes perfect.

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her first online class, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.

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