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It's True: You Really Can Photograph Retro Photos With A Film Camera and Here's How...

Updated on January 29, 2019
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Content writer with a journalism background. Occasionally designing posts for social media. A blogger in spare time.

Black and White Film Photography

The digital photography we know today has developed itself through advancing technology and film photography. The film photographers were called the painters with light, scientists studying the movement. Learning the basics is not hard when you have a clear vision of what you are trying to achive.

Black and white film photography


“There are few great photographers like there are few great poets and philosophers.”

Photography is a craft like any other, but it is also a form of art, and a way of visual communication. The term “retro photography” is something new. It marks the age of photography, which ended 20 years ago.

The analog photographers had a task to take the photo, and develop the negative in darkroom. Their version of Photoshop was the darkroom enlarger. Unlike digital photography more relaxed, analog photography had no room for errors. Photographers were masters of their tools, because what you see is what you get. It is better to get it right the first time you take the shot.

Analog or Film Photography Basics Explained for Beginners – Painting with Light

The photography by itself is not hard to learn but it is not easy either. Like any other skill, it needs practice. You do not become photographer overnight; it is something that happens. The professional photographers have millions of photographs behind them. Some are instant success, some lucky shot, and some complete disaster.

To take a photograph is not only aim and shoot. Despite the general opinion and the expansion of digital photography. The analog photography was a moment of reflections. It could reflect photographer’s observations. The moments or objects that fascinated him, but in general, it is a study of light, shadow and time.


Light – the sunlight, light bulb or studio lighting. The moment the light ray touches the surface and unites with the shadow. This means giving the viewer a detailed description of the texture. Describing the material of the object visually. In case of portraits, the angle of light can soften or make the face harsher.

Shadow – A dark part of the photographed object. Without dark, there would be no light. In the black and white photography, these collisions are of especial essence. To describe the moment without the color is to have contrast. The darkest portions, the medium greys, and a light.

Time – An artist paints the painting by observing the object. But, he finishes the painting within a week or two weeks. The photographer yet, has to be a friend of time. Capturing the exact moment in exact second it happens. A moment, which might never repeat itself again.

Have you ever took a photo with black and white film?

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Personal favorite genre in black and white photography, are Life and Architecture. Life photography is what the name says, a reflection of everyday life. People on the streets walking by. If you remember Harvey Keitel movie “Smoke” from 1995. That is what life photography is (with full equipment). In the movie, Harvey Keitel’s character gets out in front of his tobacco shop on the corner. He does this each day, takes one photo of the corner. When you look in the long period, you can see the exact point on the Earth changing through time.

Let us take an example, for explanation. You march in to the store and buy a film. For example, it is 100ISO film. Says so on the box. You put the film in the cassette at the back of the camera. Set the stop where ISO is marked on 100. Roll one, or two shots, to be sure you don’t shoot over exposed film.

You get out on the street and it is a sunny day, lots of sunshine. Put the camera belt around your neck. Number one rule, never drop the camera. Hold the lens at the bottom with your left hand, and hold the right side of the body of the camera with your right. You point your camera toward the top of the building across the way. When you look through the viewfinder, you see the last floor windows and the sky. You press the shutter button half way. Inside the light meter shows numbers. For example 1000 and 4.

The 1000 is actually exposure (the 1000 split of a second), and 4 is the f-stop or aperture setting. You look at your camera. Where it says T, for exposure, set it to 1000. Then look at the lens, at the very connection of the body of the camera and lens there is a ring with numbers. Set that ring to the 4.

At this point, you look through the viewfinder, and roll the front ring of the lens to focus the image. Take the shot; press the shutter button all the way. Now all this depends on the level of knowledge. More advanced photographers might not choose these settings.

Holding the camera the right way
Holding the camera the right way | Source

Analog Photography Basic Equipment

A basic tool for photography is the camera itself. To simplify the text I will use as examples only photo cameras, which are the most common in use today. These are the small format cameras. The reason they are small format is due to the film they use and it is a 35 mm film.

Regardless of the camera model, it is the photographer that matters. The most important segment of the equipment is the person standing behind it. Looking through the lens. The person has to have a clear vision, idea and purpose about why he or she is taking that shot.

I have used several analog cameras, from different companies. These are all small format cameras:

Zenith, Praktica, Yashica, Olympus, Minolta, Pentax, Leica, Nikon, Canon, Smena 8 and Revueflex.

You probably never heard of some of them. Point being, any film camera you can find is going to be fine for beginning. I started with Smena 8, and then moved on through the list above. Today, I have my dream camera and that is Canon A1 35mm Focal-Plane Shutter SLR Camera.

The main equipment to take a film photograph are:

  • Body of the Camera
  • Lens
  • Negative (Film)

How it Works the Film Camera

Photo camera is complex mechanism. The inside of the camera body has an entire machinery. Before the images reaches the negative there is an entire set of movement. To the text, I will simplify the way camera captures the picture.

The three main parts of the camera are:

Frontal part – which is optical system, or better yet lens, with its diaphragm and shutter.

Middle part – which is the front body of the camera

Rear part – part of the body of the camera, which contains matte glass and film cassette.

Majority of commonly used cameras are single-lens reflex cameras (SLR). This type of camera uses a mirror and prism system. Hence, the name “reflex” because it uses mirror's reflection. The mirror and prism, permit the photographer to view through the lens. The image reflects and photographer can see the composition which he is going to capture.

The image falls onto matte glass. Once the photographer presses the button to capture image. The shutter with diaphragm closes to release the light onto mirror. The mirror reflects the image onto the matte glass. In the end, the matte glass moves and lets the light onto the film in cassette.

Length of time when the film is exposed to light is called the shutter speed or exposure time. The gamut of exposure defines the speed with which the shutter will open and close. Exposure is so the intensity of light multiplied by time. The most common marks are T and B. The T stands for “Time”. The B mark comes from the word “Ball” it marks longer exposures between 6 seconds and 20 seconds. Some cameras have M, X, and V marks. M and X are for synchronizing with the flash. V mark activates the self-timer.

The usual numbers standing beside T, are 1,2,4,8,15,30,60,125,250,500,1000. These mean parts of a second, meaning its 1/1000 split of second. In which point this is the shortest amount of time the light will enter. This is usually used for a sunny day outside, when there is more than enough light. Thus, depending on the light on the object you are photographing, you want to use the exposure accordingly.

The viewfinder is the beginning of creation; it is at the rear part of the camera body. Whatever you see through viewfinder comes through the lens of the camera. It is a window into the world. A frame in which your photograph will fit. The general rule is to leave a little “meat”, or let composition breathe a little on the sides.

To determine the intensity of light we use light meter. Majority of cameras have them. It is the numbers shown at the bottom, or the arrow on the side, when looking through viewfinder. It generates the numbers according to the composition you are aiming at. This is the suggested setting.

ISO system is a mark for film speed. It is the measure of a photographic film's sensitivity to light. The common one is ISO 100. Depending on which film you have you set the film speed. The negative companies usually have it written on the box.

Lens as the frontal part of the camera determines the quantity of light, which enters onto the film. This quantity is determined by aperture. Aperture is a complex system inside the lens. It is measured with focal length.

Focal Length is the distance from the focus to optical center. This is marked on the lens with f, which are f-stops. Simply put the aperture is an opening in the lens. When you press the shutter button to take a photograph, the leaves inside the lens close. The aperture f-stops you set impacts the size of that hole. The larger the whole (smaller number of f-stops) the more light comes through the lens.


Additional Shooting Equipment

Behind the scene of photograph, there are additional pieces of equipment. Not necessary, but they can make a better photo depending what you are after.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

— Ansel Adams


The body of the camera usually comes with a 50 mm lens. This means you can take photographs of something about 1 or 2 meters away. Yet when it comes to a greater distance or an entire building, you will need additional lenses.

Lens on the camera changes quickly. There are two types of lens mountings: breech-lock, and bayonet mounts. Breech-lock the lens is attached to the camera by means of a rotating ring. Bayonet mounts consisting of a cylindrical male side with one or more radial pins. The other is a female receptor with matching L-shaped slot and spring. This keeps the two parts locked together. Depending on the focal length, there are several different lenses. The focal length depends on the manufacturer as well.

Fisheye lens – This is extremely wide-angle lens. It’s used for panoramic and spherical photos. It goes from 12 mm to 18 mm range.

Wide Angle Lens – This lens is for photographing architecture mostly. The focal length range goes from 18-35 mm.

Normal lens – around 50 mm range and it’s used for nearby objects.

Zoom Lens – Used for zooming in on specific objects. Usually used in portraits. Focal length range goes from 70-150mm.

Telephoto lens – Is a type of long focus lens. It’s what photographers on tennis matches use. It brings the object closer to the viewer. Focal length range goes from 150-800mm and beyond.


Tripod is sometimes essential equipment while taking specific photographs. Its purpose is to hold camera steady. When you take night shots, the exposure can be rather long. So the tripod is very important piece of equipment.

Cable Release

Cable release as well as tripod is often necessary. The same night photo could use a steady hand. Much like at the time of Daguerreotype. The photographer had to have steady hand and keep their subject still for minute.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

— Ansel Adams

Photo Filters

The old school photography did not have Photoshop. The only way to create effects was using the photo filters. Depending on the effect you are trying to achieve there are several different types.

Ultraviolet filter – Filter absorbs ultra violet rays. It does not have any color. In the panoramic photo, the distant objects such as mountains will never be visible.

Light Yellow Filter –Similar as UV, only it has light yellow color. When taking a photograph of the sky the clouds will be visible against the blue sky.

Green filter – Gives texture to the objects such as trees.

Orange filter – Gives drama to the landscape points out the reliefs. In the portrait, the person will be much more prominent than the background.

Red Filter – Ads shadows to the photo, often used in the night photography.

Polarizing Filter – Ads color to the scenery. In the nature, the light blue sky will have deeper blue color.

Analog Photography Tips and Tricks

The trick with analog photography is experimenting. The reason I say this is that through try and error you can learn a lot. Photography is an experiment. It has been born from the experiment with silver chloride, silver iodide, and silver-nitrite salts. These created a photo emulsion sensitive to light.

The early photography started with:

Johann Heinrich Schulze, Louis Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot.

They created the beginning of photography. Analog photography at the end of 20th century was much more advanced than their time.

The photographers were scientists. Using the camera and the darkroom created some masterpieces, painted with light and shadow.

· Take your camera always with you.

· Hold your camera still until you hear the shutter.

· Taking a night shot is possible only with negatives with high sensitivity for example 400ISO negative. However, you have to place your camera on the tripod or solid surface. If you take a shot from hand, the photo will be blurry and you will not find out until the negative is developed.

· Using the longer exposures on purpose during the daylight can give you a study of motion.

· Use the light meter wisely; it is essential for a good photograph.

· Do not get near the object you are taking photograph of unless you have macro lens. The safe distance is half meter or 20 inches.

· Don’t set your focal length in lesser numbers than 4 or 2,8. This can add additional depth to the photo.

· Take the photos of architecture on a sunny day to reveal reliefs and textures.

· While shooting inside, you have to have three types of lights. One for the background, one for the object, and one, which is diffuse.

· Focus your objects by depth of field. For example, the entire depth of the object has three thirds. Focus the object on two thirds. Experiment with others.

· Taking a photograph on the bridge while the traffic is on it can make your photos blurry no matter the tripod. However, this is only if you are using long exposures.

· If you don’t have filters, you can use gauze or nylons, to cover the lens. Cover the lens with only one layer, the gauze will give a vintage diffused feel to the photo. The nylons add their color to the image.

· Do not shoot portraits against the daylight. Unless in one case you want to get a silhouette. Alternatively, in other if you have additional front light directed to the person you are photographing.

· Too much sun can hit your lens straight, there will be no photo. If you don’t have lens hood, make one from paper just watch for size.

· Take the photos in the early morning and dusk for dramatic look.

· If you don’t have the wide angle lens, and wish to take panoramic photo be patient. Start your camera from one side to another, always making sure you have some mark to continue, for example a tree. Keep your camera parallel to the ground at all times. Take single shots, you can merge photos together.

· If you are taking the negative to be developed, tell them not to correct, let them give you raw material. You can always do this yourself.

Many small things change the photograph. I am sure I did not remember all of them. However, many additional tricks are reserved for darkroom. However, I will not mention them in this text.

There is a term “spray and pray” this means taking as many shots as possible and praying to get one right. I really don’t like the idea unless you are working in the newspapers and you have something going on for a few seconds. These kinds of photos never turn out right.

Personally, I would recommend to take your time, observe, and think of your eyes as if they were the camera itself.


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