How (Not) to Shoot 35mm Film

I’ve given film photography a go recently, and I learned some valuable lessons in my early failures that I thought were worth sharing for photographers and filmmakers regardless of their medium.

The Basics of Photography

At its core, the skills and science that make photography possible are the same regardless of whether you are using a film camera or a digital camera. Things like lighting, composition, exposure, and lens selection are common to all camera types, so in theory it should be easy for a digital camera shooter to pick up a film camera and apply most of what they know.

I primarily shoot with Nikon F-Mount cameras for my digital work, which means that my lens collection will work to some extent with Nikon cameras stretching back decades*. So after I picked up this Nikon EM to use as a prop in the studio, I decided to load it up with some film and give it a try. Unfortunately, the camera’s electronics were fried, which meant that it had no meter and its shutter speed was limited to a fixed 1/90 second. This didn’t matter to me when I bought it since I bought it as a prop, but it did present me some challenges once I decided to actually use it to take photos. 


Nikon EM with 50mm f/1.8 lens

I would need an external meter and some way to control my exposure with a fixed shutter speed. Fortunately, there are surprisingly reliable light meter apps available for most cell phones, so that wouldn’t be a problem. To control my exposure, I could use the lens’s aperture and a variable neutral density filter, which I have marked off in whole stops. As for my lens selection, I used a mix of 50mm lenses and the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5; the 50mm lenses generally fit well on the body and provided me with faster apertures, and the 105, while less compact, also handled very well and it was the longest focal length I felt comfortable using with a fixed 1/90s shutter.

My First Time Shooting Film

So with my camera, a few lenses, and a few filters in tow, I set out on my first film-only photo walk.

It was a total disaster.

As someone who is so used to shooting with a variable ISO camera, I had grossly misread the lighting for the time of day; it was early evening in midsummer and it quickly became apparent to me that it was going to be too dark to take any meaningful photos with ISO 400 film, even with a fast f/1.2 lens that I had brought. Fortunately I brought along a digital camera too as a backup and I used that for the rest of the evening. 

I wasn’t about to let a little poor planning on my part ruin my first film experience, so the next day I took my film setup around the yard just capturing some basics like flowers, bugs, and other stuff from our yard. I got through the whole roll and dropped it off with my local pharmacy to get them developed.

Operator Error?

When I got the prints back, I was a little bit heartbroken because they all turned out kind of like this:

35mm film fail (but abstract art success)

There was some funky imagery there for sure, but it was all from a roll of film that had never been exposed. At first I thought maybe there was an issue with the camera, especially since I knew that its electronics were broken. Flipping through the images you can clearly see some of the film perforations casting shadows; maybe the film looped back over itself? I can’t really tell from these pictures. But it turns out that whatever it is I was looking at, it was caused by operator error, and I had the photographic evidence to prove it.

This is a picture I took just before setting out that first night. 

Evidence of operator error

If you look closely, you’ll see that the film isn’t loaded properly; it wasn’t inserted into the winding spool, so most likely the film just sat there the whole time, or maybe it wound a little bit loosely onto the spool, but at nowhere near the proper rate. So all of that planning and work was largely wasted because I made a rookie mistake.

On the flip side, I did end up with some cool art to use in composite photos and I’m excited about that. And I took the EM back out, fried electronics and all, and finally got some good photos on film. 

House plant


I skipped the late afternoon walk downtown, and shot more in bright daylight in and around our house so I had plenty of light to work with, and I mostly stuck with the 105mm Nikkor because it felt the most comfortable when mounted and it was a good match for the fixed shutter speed. 


The second time around, I was much happier with the results. The exposure and contrast are far different than I’m used to, and I’m not sure how much of that was because of the film or my curious shooting setup. I did notice some unusual purple banding in spots and I’m not sure where it came from, but my guess is a shutter malfunction or a light leak.


Light Leak?

It was a fun experiment to try film photography with such a constrained camera. It was both a great learning experience, and a lesson in humility; it reminded me that it's not only alright to fail, but failure is part of the learning process. Having said that though, I've generally moved on to more capable cameras** for my film work now.

So What's The Point?

At this point you may be asking me why I wrote this post. All I did was talk about how I should have been able to jump right into shooting film but ended up failing not once, but twice before I got good results. And that is the point. As artists, we can’t be afraid to fail. We have to be bold and try new things, and sometimes those new things won’t work out right away, or at all. But we have to try anyway in spite of the failures because that is how we learn. As long as we learn from our failures, they’re not really failures; they’re just one more experience that teaches us how to make the art we want to make.




In the year or so since the little episode I discussed here I've been putting far more of my attention into medium and large format film (120 and 4x5 film, respectively) than 35mm. While the notion of using my Nikon lens collection to shoot film was appealing, I've found that the larger formats just jive better with what I want out of shooting film; a slower pace, less pressure to take lots of photos, and creative options that aren't available to smaller formats***. But I wouldn't have realized this if I hadn't been willing to fail with 35mm first.


* This is one of the strongest draws for Nikon shooters that I know. If you have a huge Nikon lens collection, there are a massive number of compatible cameras spanning almost half a century. 


**There was that medium format Instax conversion I did...but I'll save that story for another time....


** Plus, I do rather enjoy having cameras with zero electronics to fail. My 4x5 camera in particular is literally just a box that collects light. 


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