I grew up shooting 35mm film with manual focus and manual exposure on a Canon FTb and a Canon New F-1, which I loved dearly. But those cameras are heavy, so as I’ve plunged back into analog photography in my 50s, I’ve been looking for something a bit lighter to toss into my satchel every day.
Over the past few months, I’ve haunted auction sites and snagged a few cheap, lighter 35mm SLRs that meet my minimum requirements for manual focus and manual exposure. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of some of the cameras I’ve tested.
A beloved classic, the OM-1 is a sturdy, simple, mechanical camera from the 1970s. I’ve got the OM-1n version, which is functionally pretty much the same. Pros include its small size and light weight (519 grams) and a match needle exposure system that doesn’t make you lower the camera from your eye. Biggest cons for me are the placement of both the shutter speed and aperture controls as rings on the lens. I’m used to a shutter speed control dial on the top of the camera, and after shooting a few rolls, I still haven’t really adjusted to the OM-1’s arrangement. Also, OM lenses don’t have intermediate clicks between f-stops, which means I have to fret a bit more when the exposure really wants to be right in the middle. Finally, OM lenses are a bit pricey, so I still haven’t nabbed a nice wide angle prime, which limits my shooting a bit. Still, a great camera, beloved by many, and pretty cheap on the used market.
The Minolta X-370 is one of the lower end cameras in its line, which includes the X-570 and the much beloved X-700, but it’s a great lightweight machine with an LED exposure system that lets you shoot in manual exposure mode without lowering the camera from your eye. My X-370 is just 469 grams, and I picked up a cheap 140 gram Minolta MD Rokkor-X 45mm f2 lens with the idea of putting together a super-light, take-everywhere rig. And yes, that lens does have intermediate clicks between stops! It all worked pretty well — for two rolls! Sadly, the X-370 is an electronic camera that craps out completely if a certain capacitor dies, which apparently happens in a large percentage of these cameras, including mine. It seems to be a pretty easy, cheap fix if you know how to solder, but I haven’t tried it yet, so I can’t speak from experience. I’m not mad, though — the chance for me to do a little DIY repair on these cheap vintage cameras is a feature of the hobby, not a bug. So I’m looking forward to the challenge and will post again when I’ve given it a shot.
CANON AE-1 and CANON A-1
When I was growing up, my mom had a Canon AE-1 and my sister had a Canon A-1, but I didn’t take much interest in either camera because I couldn’t figure out how the manual exposure controls worked. This year, an awesome relative hooked me up with an old AE-1 and I picked up a ridiculously cheap A-1 from a poorly labeled online auction. And I’ve learned that in manual exposure mode, both cameras will show you a recommended f-stop in the viewfinder — but they don’t show you the f-stop that’s actually set on your lens, so you have to lower the camera from your eye to set it. I love the feel and handling of both of these cameras, but I don’t love interrupting my flow by lowering the camera from my eye to set the f-stop. These A-series Canon cameras are also susceptible to cracking battery doors and the infamous “Canon cough,” which is a grinding, squealing sound the camera can develop when you fire the shutter. My bargain A-1 had a bad cough, as well as a weird sluggish mirror that took a second to flip up after pressing the shutter release. I did some searching online and followed the instructions at Fix Old Cameras to apply a tiny bit of oil to the right place inside the camera… and now it works great! And now I feel happy every time I pick up this camera, despite its hinky manual exposure issues. Investing a little time and effort to fix the darn thing has made me kind of love it!
NOTE: To be clear, the AE-1, A-1, and AT-1 (below) are not exactly lightweight cameras — my AE-1 and AT-1 are about 584 grams and my A-1 is 621. That’s actually pretty heavy for most folks. But compared to my beloved FTb, which clocks in at 744 grams, these are much, much easier on my shoulders over the course of a day.
The Canon AT-1 is a hugely underrated camera that hits a bunch of my buttons in a very good way. This is essentially a Canon AE-1 with a manual match needle exposure system like the FTb. And it only weighs 590 grams and often sells for a third of the price of an AE-1! The minuses are that it’s an electronic camera that’s unusable if the battery dies and that as a Canon A model camera, it’s susceptible to the Canon cough and the fragile battery door. Like the AE-1 and the A-1, it also winds the film against its natural curve (which makes film shot on this camera just a touch harder to roll onto developing spools) and lacks the FTb’s easy QL loading system. But I’ve got a cough-free camera with a good battery door and none of the other quirks are dealbreakers. I dig this camera a lot!
Probably my favorite current camera for everyday use, the Canon T60 was actually manufactured by Cosina instead of Canon as a lower end product and maybe has a bit less cache as a result. But it’s an all-manual machine that takes all my favorite FD lenses and displays exposure with clear LED indicators that let me shoot without taking the camera down from my eye — and it’s an astonishingly light 361 grams! I love this camera. I even love the almost comically loud slap the mirror makes inside its plastic fantastic body. But after picking up several used copies of this camera, I’ve discovered a couple of manufacturing quirks — one of which can result in scratched negatives. After a lot of thinking and testing, I figured out a relatively simple home repair for that particular problem, but that extra effort is probably too much for many folks, so it’s a tricky camera to recommend. I’ll delve into all this more in a future article.
VIVITAR V2000 and PROMASTER 2500PK SUPER
Like the Canon T60, the Vivitar V2000 and the Promaster 2500PK Super were made by Cosina, based on the Cosina CT-1, so they feature pretty lightweight, mostly plastic bodies with manual focus and a viewfinder that lets you set exposure manually without taking the camera down from your eye — so good so far! The LED exposure indicators on these cameras have less information than the T60’s — just three lights to indicate if you’re above, below or right on the correct exposure. Not ideal, but workable. These cameras take Pentax K mount lenses, which makes it possible to use a huge range of great, cheap glass from a ton of different manufacturers. Alas, the K mount lenses I have don’t have intermediate clicks between f-stops. And I think my Promaster may need a little home repair to take care of the same negative scratching quirk I mentioned above with my T60. But these cameras literally cost me ten bucks or less each, so it’s been fun to test them and have working bodies for any great K mount lenses I might stumble across.
I remain full of love for my Canon FTbs, and I encourage you to read all about them right here. But after testing all these cameras, I’m pretty sold on both the Canon T60 and the Canon AT-1 as lighter, everyday-take-everywhere cameras that I can use with any of my Canon FD lenses. But all of these cameras are fun and I’m absolutely going to shoot more with the AE-1 and A-1 to see if I can ever feel comfortable with any auto-exposure settings. I’m also eventually going to try to fix my Minolta X-370 and give it another whirl — I’d love to see what that 45mm lens is really capable of.
After trying out a dozen great cameras from various manufacturers since I re-immersed myself in 35mm photography this year, I’ve fallen back in love with my first serious camera, the Canon FTb, which might just be the best and most affordable single lens reflex camera for beginning analog photographers interested in the creative freedom provided by manual controls.
Full disclosure: my beloved and brilliant mother, Jane Pak, taught me how to shoot 35mm film on her Canon FTb almost four decades ago and I’ve shot thousands of images using Canon FTbs ever since. So I’m deeply attached to the camera out of habit and sentiment. But I think its advantages are real. Read on and see if you agree!
Aesthetically, the Canon FTb is a metal bodied 1970s film camera that comes in black and silver or all black. If you’re looking for that unmistakable, classic retro look, this is your baby.
THE BASIC FUNCTIONS
The FTb is a workhorse SLR camera with a sturdy metal body, manual focus, manual exposure, shutter speeds ranging from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second, and a combination self-timer and stop down lever. The camera is fully mechanical and everything but its light meter works without a battery, so you can continue taking pictures even if the light meter or battery fails.
What the camera doesn’t have is as much of a bonus for me as what it does. I love the lack of autofocus and autoexposure features. When I’m shooting film, I want instant, intuitive control over focus and exposure so I can shoot in the moment, making aesthetic choices on the fly and implementing them as fast as my fingers can move. Manual focus means that I chose what part of the frame I want to emphasize and don’t risk missing a moment while the camera searches for focus. Manual exposure means I can purposefully over or underexpose the image to accommodate unusual conditions, like heavy backlight. It also gives me better awareness and control of my aperture, which determines depth of field, which can be a deeply important part of the aesthetic impact of a photograph. So weirdly, autofocus and autoexposure slow me down. The all-manual FTb lets me move at just the right speed.
Canon made two versions of the FTb. I’ve used and loved both. My mom had the original version, which she gave me when I first started shooting film; when that camera got stolen a short while later, she bought me a used, second generation FTb.
In her fantastic FTb review, Mel at high5cameras writes that the original FTb’s mechanics run more smoothly than the second version’s due to all metal interior parts. On the other hand, the updated FTb shows the numbers of your chosen shutter speed on the bottom left of the viewfinder, which is a nice bit of extra information to have. But I honestly never noticed any functional differences between the cameras when I was in high school.
You can distinguish the two versions at a glance by the shape of the self-timer/stop down lever. In the original FTb, the lever has an asymmetrical shape designed to accommodate your thumb. The updated FTb has a straight, symmetrical shape like the lever on the original Canon F-1. The cameras are similar enough in form and function that when I say “FTb,” I’m usually talking about both of them.
I love the handling of the FTb. Again, I’m biased by my long history with the camera, but every knob feels like it’s in exactly the right place and responds in exactly the right way for me to shoot freely and seamlessly, setting exposure and focus nearly instantly while never having to lower the camera from my eye.
I also love the literal feel of the camera in my hands. The FTb’s silver metal has a kind of satin finish that just feels good to touch. The metal of black version is more polished and slick, but feels just as good. The camera’s solidity also creates a feeling of trust that means I don’t have to think about the FTb or its similarly sturdy Canon FD lenses when I’m shooting. I can move fast, spin that solid focus ring, and crank that film advance without even subliminally harboring doubts about the camera’s ability to hold up under pressure.
VIEWFINDER AND METERING
The FTb’s metering system features a circle and a needle on the right hand side of the viewfinder. The circle travels up and down the edge of the frame depending on the aperture you set — the lower down on the frame, the wider your aperture. The needle rises and falls based on your shutter speed — the lower your shutter speed, the lower on the frame the needle falls. When you get the needle to cross the circle, you’ve got a good exposure.
I love this system because I can set my exposure without lowering the camera from my eye. In contrast, when exposing manually, the viewfinders of the much more popular (and expensive) Canon AE-1 and Canon A-1 only indicate the aperture the camera suggests, not the aperture the lens is actually set to. So you have to check what the camera suggests in the viewfinder, then lower the camera to confirm your lens is set correctly. I don’t have to take that added step when shooting with an FTb, so I stay in the moment, have more fun, and don’t lose shots.
As another huge bonus, the FTb’s light metering system works like a semi-spot meter, which allows for more precise creative decisions on the fly. Most cameras of the era averaged the light throughout the entire frame. But the viewfinder of FTb shows a rectangular area in the middle of the frame that takes up about 12 percent of the viewfinder. That’s the area the camera is using to measure light. So, for example, if you’re shooting a backlit subject, you can fill the subject in the foreground with that smaller rectangular area, set the exposure accordingly, and run less of a risk of underexposing that critical part of your frame.
The only minus for me with the FTb’s metering system is that in very dark environments, it can be hard to see the needle and circle. The Canon New F-1, based on the same body as the FTb, has an internal light that illuminates the metering indicators. The Canon T60 uses tiny LEDs that are always easy to see. But in the dark with the FTb, you may have to squint a bit or work a slightly lighter background into the edge of the frame for a moment to see the settings.
Finally, the FTb’s viewfinder is big and bright and, according to the manual, shows 94 percent of the actual picture area. I have terrible eyes and wear glasses, so it’s hard for me to work with cameras with dim, small viewfinders. The FTb’s viewfinder is a joy — I never feel like I’m struggling to see when I’m using the camera.
I’ve been shooting 35mm film for decades, and I can still screw up loading film into my cameras. But it’s very hard to mess up loading an FTb. The inside of the camera’s fitted with a special brace that flips down and locks the film leader into place as you close the film door. So instead of threading the leader into slots on the take up reel, you just line up the end of the leader with the red film set mark, partially close the film door until the brace locks the film in place, then close the door completely and you’re good to go. Canon cameras with this system are marked “QL” for “Quick Loading.”
Another advantage of the FTb’s QL system is that it rolls the film along its natural curve on the take up reel. Many other cameras, including the Canon AE-1, roll the film against its natural curve. This is really only an issue for me when I’m developing film at home — film from an FTb that’s been rolled along its natural curve is just a bit easier to load into a developing reel.
A great camera body will help you nail your exposure and release the shutter at just the right moment, but the final image quality depends on your lenses. Fortunately, the FTb uses interchangeable Canon FD lenses, which is a huge advantage in my book. Different photographers have different favorite lenses, but I’m hard pressed to think of a better overall system for analog photographers on a budget than Canon FD primes. Vintage Canon FD lenses can only be used on modern Canon cameras with an adapter that contains an extra glass element, which decreases image quality. So FD lenses have typically been cheaper in the resale market than many other premium vintage lenses of similar quality. Some more recent digital cameras can use FD lenses with glass-free adapters, which has bumped up their value a bit. But I’ve still found plenty of bargains.
I also love Canon FD lenses because they feature intermediate clicks between f-stops. Some lenses from other manufacturers have just one click per f-stop. So if your exposure really wants to be between f4 and f5.6, you have to pick one or the other and hope for the best. With an FD lens, you can click to the intermediate spot and get a more exact exposure.
SHUTTER SPEED LIMITATIONS
So far I’ve primarily sung the FTb’s praises, but some photographers with specialized needs might reject the camera because its fastest shutter speed is 1/1000th instead of 1/2000th of a second and its slowest shutter speed is 1 second. But I’m not trying to freeze hummingbird wings, so 1/1000th of a second feels fine to me. And if I wanted to try long exposure night shots, I could do a little more math for the exposure time and use a shutter release cable and the camera’s “B” setting, which keeps the shutter open as long as you’re depressing the shutter release button.
THE BATTERY ISSUE
A bigger disadvantage of the Canon FTb is that its light meter was originally designed to be powered by a 1.3 volt 625 mercury battery, which is no longer sold for environmental reasons. There are two modern replacement batteries, each with small drawbacks. First, Wein makes a 1.35 volt MRB625 zinc air replacement battery that costs about six dollars. The WeinCell’s advantage is that it’s about the same voltage as the original battery and will theoretically get the most accurate results from the light meter. The disadvantage is that WeinCells react with oxygen and only last a few months after being exposed to air. Since they’re pricier than other batteries and expire a little faster, they become a more expensive option.
The alternative is a 1.5 volt alkaline battery like a Loopacell 625A, which is cheaper and lasts longer than a WeinCell. But its slightly higher voltage will typically make the light meter a bit more sensitive, which could lead to slightly underexposed negatives. Professional camera repair shops can recalibrate the FTb’s light meter to give correct readings with these 1.5 volt batteries. But these alkaline batteries also supposedly provide less voltage as they age. That means the light meter might become less reliable towards the end of the battery’s life, so you’ll need to pay a bit more attention and replace the battery before the meter starts giving false readings.
I’ve used WeinCell batteries in my FTbs without issue for months at a time and have taken many lovely pictures with them. But most of my WeinCells are currently on their last legs, so I now have 1.5 volt Loopacell 625A batteries in all three (yes, three — I told you I love the camera!) of my FTbs, even though I’ve only had one of those cameras recalibrated to 1.5 volts by a pro. Strangely, all three cameras are giving me identical light meter readings. It could be that the light meters on my uncalibrated cameras are simply off a stop and the voltage difference between a 1.35 volt and 1.5 volt battery coincidentally provides the exact correction needed. Or maybe these used cameras were recalibrated for 1.5 volt batteries before I acquired them. It’s a mystery!
Regardless of exactly what’s going on with my own cameras, the lesson here is that it’s important to check the accuracy of a used FTb’s light meter regardless of which battery you go with. If you have a light meter or existing camera you trust, you can just compare the measurements you get from your trusted device with the measurements from your FTb. If there’s a big discrepancy, you can adjust the ISO on your FTb until the measurements match.
A practical example: I have a Bell & Howell FD35, which is the same camera as the Canon TX, which is basically a stripped down FTb with the highest shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. With a 1.5 volt battery, my FD35’s light meter recommends f5.6 when my trusted Minolta Spotmeter F recommends f4. So I reset the ISO on the camera from 400 to 800 to accommodate.
If you don’t have a trusted light meter or just don’t have the patience to muck with all this, you can shoot a test roll and adjust your ISO for future rolls accordingly if you think the negatives look over or underexposed. For what it’s worth, you can often over or underexpose 35mm negatives by a stop or so without really noticing it that much, so the differences between a 1.35 and a 1.5 volt battery might not matter a great deal in the end for some shooters.
My only other serious quibble with the FTb is its weight. Without a lens, my old high school FTb weighs 744 grams. With my old Canon FD 50mm f1.8 breech mount lens, that jumps to 996 grams — over two pounds! When I was a teenaged photojournalist, I never thought twice about that kind of weight. But at the age of 54, it’s more of a commitment for me to toss an FTb in my satchel when running errands in New York City. So as an everyday-take-anywhere camera, I’ll often pack a Canon T60 instead — it’s less than half the weight of an FTb. (Please know that I love the T60, but that camera has its own quirks and can be trickier to find than an FTb, so before recommending it to beginners, I have a few more caveats, which I’ll try to detail in a future article.)
The counter-argument to the weight complaint is that little heft can be a good thing. The solidity of the Canon FTb may help me avoid blurry images at low shutter speeds. I feel pretty confident shooting at 1/30th or even 1/15th of a second with a standard 50mm lens on an FTb.
If the weight of the FTb still feels a bit intimidating, there are several very similar, cheap Canon cameras that are a bit lighter. The Canon TLb, the Canon TX, and the Bell & Howell FD35 are all based on the FTb but have a slower top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. My Canon TLb weighs 695 grams; my FD35 weighs 706. These aren’t radically lighter than the FTb, but an ounce or two might make a difference over the course of a long day.
(As a weird footnote, I’ve discovered that my different FTbs have slightly different weights. My high school camera is 744 grams while my two more recent acquisitions are about 730. All three of these cameras are second generation FTbs, so I have no idea what’s going on. My high school camera has a lower serial number than the others; maybe it’s an earlier version that uses the all metal interior gears that Mel at high5cameras mentions and thus weighs a bit more? Another mystery!)
GUIDE TO BUYING A USED CANON FTb
If you’ve got the money, the most straightforward, efficient, risk-free way to get your hands on a fully functional FTb is to buy a tested, serviced camera through a reputable store or online site with a return policy like Keh.com. You might pay anywhere from $100 to $250 for a guaranteed FTb under these circumstances, which is pricey, but a lot more affordable than the $300 to $400 you might pay at the same store for a more popular camera like the Canon AE-1.
But if you’ve got the time and inclination to do some bargain hunting, the skills for a little DIY cleaning and repair, and the willingness to risk blowing a few bucks on a dud, it’s possible to nab FTbs for ridiculously low prices through auction sites. A Canon AE-1 with a decent lens will typically go for over $150 on ShopGoodwill, my favorite place to buy used cameras. In contrast, I’ve picked up Canon FTbs through ShopGoodwill with great lenses for as little as $30 to $50.
The risk of course is that a camera from an auction site might have big problems or not work at all. I study the listings pretty carefully before bidding, but I’d say that about 10 percent of the used cameras and lenses I’ve bought online have turned out to be unusable, and almost all the working cameras I’ve bought have required some DIY maintenance like replacing foam light seals. But one advantage of a vintage mechanical camera like the Canon FTb over a more complex electronic camera is that there are fewer things that might have gone wrong with it over the years.
That being said, your average FTb is about 45 years old, so here are a few things to keep an eye out for when buying.
Do the light seals and mirror bumper need to be replaced? (Probably!) Light seals are black foam patches along the sides of the camera door that keep light from leaking into the body and fogging the film. The mirror bumper is a strip of foam along the top of the inside of the front of the camera that keeps the mirror from slapping into the metal camera frame. Over time, all this foam decays and can get gummy or crumbly. You can pay a camera repair shop to clean the camera and replace the foam. Or if you’re a little handy, you can save money and do it yourself. You can find loads of great videos and guides online to learn how.
How clean is the viewfinder? It’s rare to find a perfectly clear and clean viewfinder in a 45 year old vintage camera, and most photographers can live with a few specks of dust. But if you’re bothered by dust in your viewfinder, it’s possible to very carefully clean the mirror and focusing screen — again, I’d recommend searching online for some good videos and guides before you dive into this, and I wouldn’t risk a DIY job like this on a very expensive camera. An even bigger viewfinder problem is interior fungus or debris that you can’t reach because it’s inside the eyepiece glass or in the prism that connects the focusing screen to the viewfinder. It’s a big job to open up the top of the camera and disassemble the prism at home and expensive to pay a camera shop for the job, so I’d recommend not buying any camera with those kinds of issues.
How does the battery compartment look? If a battery has been left in a camera for years, there’s a possibility it’s cracked and leaked. If you can’t inspect the camera yourself, I’d highly recommend asking the seller to confirm that the battery compartment is clean in order to avoid buying any camera that contains a corroded battery or residue from corrosion. This is particularly important with the Canon FTb, since it originally used mercury batteries, which are now banned for environmental and health reasons. I can’t remember ever finding a leaky mercury battery inside a used camera, but if I did, I’d probably seal the whole camera body in plastic bags and get rid of it at a municipal safe disposal event. Safety first!
How does the shutter fabric look? If you open up the back of the camera, you should be able to see a rectangular black fabric shutter curtain. The curtain is made up of two parts, but under normal conditions you should just see a single sheet of black fabric. If you can see the vertical metal edge of one of the curtains, that means one of the shutter curtains isn’t fully retracted or extended. That’s not normal and could indicate a shutter problem that could lead to bands of overexposure in your negatives. I’d avoid any camera with shutter curtain irregularities.
Can you test the aperture and shutter speed operation? If you’re looking at used cameras in person, you should test a few basic functions. There probably won’t be a working battery in the camera, so you might not be able to test the light meter. But the FTb’s a fully mechanical camera, so you should be able to crank the film advance lever to charge the shutter and fire the shutter release. If you look in the front of the camera with the lens off when you fire the shutter, you should see the mirror flip up and down. If you look through the back of the camera with the camera door open and the lens on, you should see a brief flash of the open aperture when you fire the shutter and the mirror lifts. The size of the aperture should change when you change the f-stop on the lens, and the length of time it’s open should change when you adjust the shutter speed. A professional shop can time the shutter speeds precisely to see if they’re on target, but even with the naked eye you can get a general sense of how well they’re working. If you notice big discrepancies, like the shutter remaining open for a full second when it should only open for 1/8 of a second, maaaaaybe don’t buy that particular camera.
Does the self-timer/stop down lever work? If you push this lever towards the camera lens, you should be able to see the aperture of the lens contract to whatever size you’ve set it for. If you turn the self-timer lever around the other way until it stops, it should charge a spring-powered timer. If you crank the film advance lever and press the shutter release, a buzzing sound will commence and the lever will start to travel back to its original upright position. As it draws near to its fully upright position, the shutter should fire.
Does the lens focus properly? The focusing ring should move smoothly and you should be able to focus on objects when looking through the viewfinder. Objects in the far distance should come into sharpest focus when you hit the furthest mark on the lens, usually signified by an infinity symbol. If you hit infinity and objects in the far distance go out of focus, there’s something wrong.
Is the lens radioactive? Sadly, this isn’t a joke. Certain vintage camera lenses include glass made with a radioactive substance called thorium. Different people have different opinions about the dangerousness of this kind of glass, and some collectors actually go out of their way to acquire thorium lenses because they tend to have great image quality. But I personally avoid any thorium lenses. According to the Camerapedia Wiki page on the subject, Canon lenses that supposedly contain thorium include the Canon FL 50mm f1.4 and f1.8, the Canon FL 58mm f1.2, the Canon FD 35mm f2 (with the concave front element), the Canon FD 55mm f1.2, and the Canon 17mm f4. It’s up to each person to make their own decision about whether they’re comfortable handling or owning these items. Thankfully, the most common lenses that come with used FTbs are the Canon 50mm f1.8 and the Canon 50mm f1.4, which I’ve never seen listed as containing thorium. Other great, common, standard Canon FD prime lenses that are non-radioactive, to my knowledge, include the 24 mm f2.8, the 28mm f2.8, and the 135mm f2.5 and f3.5.
How clean is the camera lens? Some grime and scuffing on the casing and rings of decades-old thrift shop lenses are to be expected, and much of that will clean up nicely with a little isopropyl alcohol. The real question is the glass. Any scratches on the surface of the lens, particular on the rear element, can be bad news. But you should check the interior of the lens as well. If you shine a flashlight through the lens, you’ll almost certainly see some flecks of dust between the lens elements. Some dust is normal and typically doesn’t interfere with image quality. But you may also see a more fine and generalized mist — that’s haze, and it can sometimes result in foggier, lower contrast images, especially if you’re shooting into the light. And then there’s the possibility of bigger chunks of detritus — I once found a spiderweb inside an old lens!
More commonly, you may see weird irregular blotching on the glass, which may be fungus that’s grown inside the lens due to storage in humid environments. I’ve successfully opened up Canon lenses and cleaned out patches of fungus on my own. But sometimes fungus etches the lens, damaging the actual glass. Remarkably, you can often get pretty decent images from pretty dirty lenses. But if the lens is filled with fungus, the camera was probably stored improperly as well and the chances of unseen problems increase.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I GET WITH AN FTb?
It’s easy to go hog wild with lenses and accessories. But sometimes keeping it simple is the best. Many of my best photos have come from walking around with just a camera and a standard 50mm lens. If you’re on a tight budget, a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 is a great first lens. I grew up shooting with an older breech mount model with the silver mounting ring. But now I mostly shoot with the all-black new FD (or nFD) version of this lens, which has a plastic body but feels sturdy enough and weighs much less than the older breech mount version.
A step up would be a Canon FD 50mm f1.4, which is usually much more expensive, but the lens is beloved by portrait shooters for its wide aperture and will allow you to get about a foot closer to subjects for tighter, almost macro-feeling shots. The nFD version of the 50mm f1.4 is a bit lighter than the FD breech mount version, but as far as I know, the optics are the same. Both the FD and nFD versions of the f1.4 are heavier than their f1.8 counterparts, so I’ll often carry the nFD f1.8 instead of the f1.4 when I’m traveling light, but the f1.4 really is lovely.
When I want to have more options, I’ll also carry a wide angle prime and a telephoto prime. My favorite wide angle right now is a Canon nFD 24mm f2.8, which is a bit wider than the 28mm lens I grew up with and feels a touch more dramatic, which I like. I got a very good deal on it, but it can be a pricey lens. The Canon FD or nFD 28mm f2.8 can still be a bit pricey, but it’s cheaper and more common than the 24mm. A much cheaper but solid wide angle alternative is the Vivitar 24mm f2.8. I somehow picked up two copies of this lens. One of them’s fantastic; the other’s not quite as sharp. But both were cheap!
For a telephoto lens, I grew up using my mom’s Canon FD 135mm f2.5, which I later learned is very highly regarded. Unfortunately, the aperture on mine locked up in the 1990s and I gave it away instead of having it repaired. Now my standard telephoto is a Canon nFD 135mm f3.5, which is a slower lens, but it’s much lighter and feels just as sharp as my mom’s old f2.5. It’s also frequently sold for ridiculously low prices.
Many used cameras come in bundles with old zoom lenses. I’m not a big fan of zooms. I loved them when I was shooting 16mm documentary film back in the day. But I’ve never gotten into a good rhythm shooting still images with the extra variable of zooming, and zooms tend to be heavier and produce slightly softer images than primes. So I don’t have any particularly good recommendations for you here, other than to note that Canon branded FD zooms tend to be cheap and are generally considered to be pretty good. I’ve also heard good things about Vivitar Series 1 zooms.
If your lenses don’t come with skylight protective filters, I’d recommend picking some up. Some photographers don’t like any unnecessary filter between the lens and the subject. But I’ve never seen any loss of picture quality from a clean glass filter, and I like the anti-scratch insurance when I’m quickly changing prime lenses. If you’re shooting black and white film, I’d highly recommend a yellow filter, which darkens blues and makes skies a bit more dramatic. And I like slightly warmer colors in general, so I’ll often use an 81A filter when shooting color negative.
The other essential accessories would be a camera strap and some kind of protective camera bag. The FTb is heavy, as we’ve discussed, so I recommend a wide camera strap to distribute the weight more evenly over your neck and shoulders. I use old, vintage, so-called hippie straps that are two inches wide. I still have a couple from when I was fifteen years old. Most of the rest I got as bonuses in recent old camera auction bundles.
I don’t have an actual camera bag these days. Instead, I picked up a small, inexpensive, padded camera bag insert that I drop into a satchel or backpack. Eventually I may need to upgrade if I go on a bigger trip with multiple cameras, but for now it’s been great.
CONCLUSION AND THANKS
Thanks so much for reading so far into an article that ended up about 4000 words longer than I anticipated!
I’ll leave you with a few more images shot with my Canon FTbs over the last few months. All the best and happy shooting!
I didn’t take many portraits when I was was shooting 35mm film in high school and college. I focused more on vérité or journalistic shooting, trying to capture spontaneous moments on the fly. But since diving back into film photography this year, I’ve had a huge amount of fun shooting portraits of friends. I’m still aiming for spontaneity and life in every shot, but I’ve come to really love the vibe that comes from setting up a special time to meet a friend and take their picture.
I think that life during an ongoing pandemic has made these sessions particularly special to me. Looking back on these photos, I find myself marveling over how happy everyone seems. I started shooting these portraits when meeting friends in person was still incredibly rare for me, so each moment meant a lot.
I also think that folks can respond in a special way when they know you’re taking their picture with 35mm film. The camera looks cool. The process takes a little more time and care. And there’s a sense of permanence, legacy, and history that comes with having your picture taken on actual film. So the moment generates a kind of quiet excitement that can contribute something lovely to the images you capture.
Finally, the fact that we always meet outside for COVID safety reasons and often go for a walk gives everything an organic, natural feel that’s good for the body and soul — and the final pictures.
In May, I did my first comic book signing in over two years, and the great comics editor Joe Illidge came by to say hi. It was an outdoor signing hosted by Anyone Comics in Brooklyn, and we could not have asked for a more glorious day — breezy, cool, and lovely. I think we all felt pretty great, and I love the way this photo came out. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on Tri-X.
I shot this photo of fellow STAR WARS comics writer Marc Guggenheim with a Canon T60 and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Tri-X. The sun was going down and I shot pretty wide open, so there’s a nice narrow depth of field and a lovely glowy effect with the park lamps in the background. Folks generally prefer the Canon FD 50mm f1.4 for portraits, but the plain vanilla f1.8 did great for us here.
Comics creators Becky Cloonan, Michael Conrad, and Evan Narcisse were awesome enough to come out to say hi during my outdoor signing at Dragon’s Lair Comics and Games in Austin, Texas, this June. We found a cool place in the shade on that blazing hot day to shoot a few pictures. Evan was fun to frame with the funky shopping mall architecture in the background. The height difference between Becky and Michael made a horizontal photo tricky, but turned out to be absolutely perfect for a vertical shot. I forgot to change my ASA from 200 to 400 for this roll, but Tri-X is a forgiving film and a lab in Garland pulled it a stop to great effect. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4.
I’ve hung out with my INCREDIBLE HERCULES and MAKE COMICS LIKE THE PROS co-writer Fred Van Lente more than just about anyone else in comics, so it was a total pleasure seeing him in person in April for the first time in a couple of years. The moment was made even more special because this was the first roll I ran through my newly repaired Canon New F-1, the camera my mom bought me back in high school. I’m pretty sure I used a Canon 50mm f1.8 for this shot.
A few practical pointers that work for me
I like black and white for portraits. Feels special and timeless and somehow zeroes right in on emotion and character for me. All of the portraits on this page were taken with Kodak Tri-X 400.
Lots of folks love 100mm or even 135mm lenses for portraits. But I’ve had a ton of good luck with a regular ol’ 50mm lens. You have to get a little closer with the 50mm, but that’s felt fine and maybe even preferable when photographing friends. Someday I do want to get my hands on a 100mm prime, though, just to see!
Lower f-stops create narrower depth of field and allow you to separate the subject from the background in a lovely way. I try to avoid the very lowest f-stop, since that setting tends to be less sharp on most lenses, so most of these images were probably shot around f2.8 or f4.
I try to avoid harsh direct sunlight on my subjects to avoid losing people’s features in shadows. But I also try to find interesting frames with some interesting light in the background, like the dappled light on the leaves in Joe’s portrait above. The trick is avoiding too extreme a difference between the light on your subject’s face and any other light in the image. But black and white negative film tends to have pretty good latitude and can handle a decent range without blowing out.
I often photograph friends after we’ve talked for a while or taken a walk. That gives us a chance to relax and bond a bit, which almost always makes for better, more natural photos.
I try to shoot a lot of photos in a pretty short amount of time so I get a decent number of options without tiring folks out. I don’t generally shoot dozens of images — I’m a little more selective, trying to stay in the moment and press that shutter release with intention when that magic happens. But I also firmly believe in shooting more than I think I might need, because you never know what will go really right or wrong. I probably shoot five or six frames for every image I really love.
Earlier this year I walked past a person sitting on a park bench who was staring straight ahead, looking devastated, while their friend said, “Everyone fucks up sometimes. Everyone.”
I think about that all the time, because it’s true, and as someone who tends to be brutally unforgiving of his own failures, I need those kinds of reminders.
So one of the things I love about analog film photography is that if you’re shooting film, you’re probably fucking something up. And that’s okay.
There are dozens of things you can screw up when you’re shooting analog film with manual controls on decades old mechanical cameras. Missing the moment you wanted to capture and goofing up focus and exposure are the most obvious mistakes. But maybe you mis-loaded the film, or opened the camera before you’d fully rewound it. Or your camera might have a shutter capping issue or a light leak or some quirk that’s scratching your negatives. Your lens might be hazy or dirty or just kind of crappy. And if you’re rolling your own bulk film and developing your own negatives, you could goof things up a thousand more ways.
Your mistakes might ruin your images. Or they might be something you can figure out how to work with or fix. Or they might even create something surprisingly gorgeous. Whichever way it goes, you’ll survive and learn and it’s okay…
…because everyone fucks up sometimes. Everyone.
So here are some of my fuck ups from this year of shooting film, some of which were agonizing, some of which were delightful, all of which I learned from.
This is very basic. I missed the focus on this shot. I’m pretty new to macro photography — I never had the lenses or filters for it when I was younger. So I’m still figuring things out, and it’s a challenge to nail focus on tiny objects blowing in the breeze! But in this case, the near miss produced a pretty gorgeous image that feels dreamy and strange instead of just wrong. I actually think I’d have a lot of trouble nailing this look if I were going for it, so I should feel pretty lucky.
I don’t have room for a darkroom for prints in my New York apartment, but I’ve been developing my own black and white negatives at home. I’ve been very happy with the results — the negatives I develop at home are generally much cleaner and scratch-free than negatives I get back from labs. But I screwed up here, using exhausted fixer that left those brownish vertical bars along the top of the frame. I knew my fix was a little old, but I was too eager to develop this new roll of film to replace the batch. Live and learn!
I still have no idea what happened here but I love it. The bottom of the frame here is fogged — hence the light haze. But in addition to the fogging, there’s a series of strange liquid droplet images underneath the clover. I assumed they were water marks from uneven film drying. Maybe I added too much or too little PhotoFlo to the final soak of the negatives before hanging them. But when I inspect the negatives closely, I can’t see any marks on the surface of the film that would indicate dried liquid residue. So I’m wondering if those droplets are some kind of double exposure, but I have zero idea where or how I could have made any kind of double exposure like that. This is bulk rolled Arista EDU Ultra 400 film, so there’s the possibility that through some manufacturing or packaging quirk, the film was fogged and imbued with these liquid images, but that feels like a stretch. An ongoing mystery! But the image is actually kind of beautiful!
This one nearly broke my heart. My friend and fellow STAR WARS comics writer Marc Guggenheim was in town a few months ago, and we met up for an outdoor, COVID-safe, adult playdate in the park. I brought along my camera and Marc was gracious enough to consent to sit for a few pictures. It was the first time I’d photographed a friend since I’d gotten back into 35mm film, and I think I’d subconsciously set some pretty high expectations for myself. So I was thrilled with the luminous look of the Tri-X film when I developed it, but horrified to see the thin horizontal scratch across the middle of the frame and the weird light leak on Marc’s chest at the bottom of the frame.
But all this just gave me the chance to hone my Photoshop skills. I used part of another shot to replace the spot blown out by the light leak, deployed the clone stamp to remove the scratches, and lightened the shadows over Marc’s eyes a bit. Marc liked the resulting image so much that he’s now using it as his official headshot in his big-time Variety announcements!
The scratches troubled me, though — I was using a new-to-me Canon T60, a Cosina-made, Canon-branded plastic fantastic that had immediately become my favorite walk-around camera because it’s got all manual controls, weighs just 361 grams, and uses all my great legacy Canon FD lenses. And this lovely camera was scratching negatives?
After several weeks of testing and pondering and re-testing, I finally figured out that the camera’s take-up reel was slipping, which was allowing the film to rub against the horizontal ridges that had inexplicably been built into the inside of the film door. I loved the camera so much I took the extreme risk of drilling a hole in the plastic take-up reel so I could glue it to the metal rod it encircled — and that seems to have taken care of the problem. So here’s an instance where an agonizing screw up led to a triumphant fix-‘er-up!
My latest and greatest mistake! I shot a bunch of photos at the beach using an unbranded 2x teleconverter I got as a bonus in a camera auction. A 2x teleconverter doubles the magnification of your lens, so my 135mm lens worked like a 270mm lens, which is great for shooting wildlife. But… I did a crappy job of cleaning the lenses on the teleconverter. The smears on the glass led to the haze in the middle of the images. There’s a decent chance some of that haze comes from the crappy optics of the teleconverter itself, but my fingerprints on the glass sure didn’t help.
Film’s not cheap — a brand new 36 exposure roll of Tri-X, the classic black and white film I grew up shooting, costs about $11. But you can bring those costs down if you buy a bulk loader and 100 foot rolls of film that you can roll onto individual, reusable cartridges.
So pretty early in my re-introduction to 35mm, I started looking for bulk film loaders on auction sites and was delighted to find one with some old film still inside. I inspected the lead, decided it was probably Tri-X, shot a test roll, and developed it. I was right — it was Tri-X! But the film was deeply fogged, producing prints that were nearly black on the edges and pretty grainy throughout.
This doesn’t really qualify as a fuck up — I knew that film this old would probably have some issues and I (correctly) overexposed a couple of stops to accommodate. And I kind of love the results! Some day I’m going to dress up in a suit and take photos of myself against a fabric background using this film and pretend I’m a 19th Century time traveler.
So I suppose you could classify this last example as an experiment. And maybe that’s another way to think of everything I’m doing with 35mm film — or maybe even a good chunk of life itself. We’re experimenting, figuring out what works, and learning every day from our success and mistakes.
As a final example, I just hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” so this post is now live and I’ll gracefully exit stage left, laughing at myself.
I remember sitting on this sidewalk and leaning against this wall, lounging in the sun while waiting to go see a movie with a bunch of NYU film student friends 28 years ago. We’d just finished an incredibly intense few weeks of shooting our 16mm short films, and the feeling of relief and calm was palpable. I remember realizing that day that at that moment that I didn’t have a single care in the world. Incredible.
This image, taken all these years later, doesn’t quite do justice to the memory, but I’m gonna go back from time to time to check the light at different times of day and see if I can improve on it.
Minolta X-370, Minolta MD Rokkor-X 45mm f2, Kodak High Definition 400 (20 year old expired film, overexposed by two stops).
When people talk about why they love analog film, they often focus on the glorious look and feel of film images. And I talk about that, too! But it’s also true that high end digital cameras and post-production software can reproduce some of that film look.
I’d still argue that there’s a serendipity to shooting film that produces unpredictable but beautiful results that you’d never discover merely by adding a film look to a digital image. And of course there’s great value (and sometimes more efficiency) in using the original tools to achieve a certain look instead of cobbling it together after the fact.
But even beyond that, I love shooting analog film for multiple other huge reasons. Here are just a few.
Slowing Down by Choice
I’m prone to fury when companies or products or institutions waste my time. I’ll give you a good rant whenever you like about the way the attention economy is designed to monetize our time, so everything about the internet is designed to increase “stickiness,” slow us down, and keep us anxiously clicking and scrolling our lives away.
On the other hand, I’m a huge proponent of slowing down by choice. So the extra time and care involved with film photography feels great to me.
Before I started shooting 35mm film again, I’d constantly peer at my phone while running errands or taking walks around New York City. Since my phone is connected to the internet and the internet is designed to generate agitation and clicks, my walks would often increase instead of decrease my stress.
But when I’m walking around with a camera, I’m not looking at my phone. I’m slowing down in real life, looking at my surroundings. I’m observing color and light and frame. I’m thinking about visual storytelling. I’m noticing how the city operates, how things are put together, how people move through spaces. I’m living in space, seeing things, learning. And I end up feeling rejuvenated instead of exhausted.
All of these benefits are achievable with any kind of camera, digital or film. But my most convenient digital camera is my phone, which is connected to the internet, which likes to distract me, so using a film camera removes me from that temptation. And the extra focus that manual film shooting requires means I’m even more immersed in each moment in a very good way than I would be with a more automated system.
I also love the fact that when shooting film, I can’t immediately peer at the image I’ve shot. After I take a picture with a digital camera, I check the image immediately, because of course I do. But that breaks up the flow, pulls me out of the moment. When I’m shooting film, I stay focused on the scene, looking through the lens, observing my environment. And that’s a beautiful thing in an age in which our ability to focus and pay attention has been destroyed through commodification.
The Comfort of Mechanical Objects
The steps involved in shooting film further ground and calm me by their connection to actual physical objects and reality. Manually focusing, turning the dials to set exposure, pressing the shutter release, and advancing the film are all physical actions with haptic feedback from actual machinery. It all feels so good.
I love the sound and reverberation of the mirror slap. I love the little solid clicks of the aperture ring. I love knowing how the camera actually works, imagining the aperture blades contracting and light going through the lens to hit the film inside the camera during the split second the mirror rises and the shutter opens. The whole thing makes sense, which seems tiny but is deeply comforting in an era full of existential threats that make no sense at all.
I also love the fact that when something goes wrong with an old camera or lens, there’s a decent chance I can figure it out and maybe even fix it myself. Without advanced training in microchips and circuitry, I’d have almost no chance of fixing a modern electronic camera. But when I got an old manual camera that wouldn’t advance, I opened the bottom of the camera, studied the mechanics, and reconnected a rod that had slipped off of its piston. Incredibly satisfying.
Good Cameras for Bad Eyes
I have terrible eyesight. So when I try to shoot with a digital camera like my 10 year old Panasonic DMC-GX1 that uses a screen instead of a viewfinder, I have to peer over the tops of my glasses to get close enough to the screen to focus, which feels awkward and throws me off. I can hold my 10 year old Canon Rebel T3i digital SLR up to my eye, which is more comfortable, but the viewfinder feels much, much smaller than the viewfinders of my old 35mm cameras, which is a bit of a strain on my old eyes.
So when I started shooting again this February with a Canon TLb and a Canon FTb, I felt like I could breathe again. The big, bright viewfinders let me focus in a split second without even thinking about it, so I can frame and capture fleeting moments on the fly much more easily.
I also love working with standard prime lenses again. I grew up shooting thousands of images using my mom’s Canon FD breech mount lenses — a standard 50mm, a wide angle 28mm, and a telephoto 135mm. So the boundaries of those focal lengths are permanently etched on my brain and using those lenses feels immediately comfortable and comforting. Zoom lenses allow for a huge amount of flexibility in a small package. But when I use those standard primes, I’m simply at home. Everything looks right to me through those lenses; I instantly know how to frame the scene. When I started shooting with standard primes this year after a couple of decades of using zooms on digital cameras, I felt like I could finally see again.
The Glory of Manual Controls
I’m here talking about the joy of film, but I’m spoiled by my iPhone. I love its ability to take instant snapshots that are perfectly focussed and exposed. I use it almost every day to take practical photos of things I need to share immediately with family and friends and it was the perfect camera to shoot all the images of food that I used in my COOKING WILL BREAK YOUR HEART book. The predictability and speed and pleasant rendering of its automatic exposure and focus made shooting food prep on the fly incredibly easy.
But when I pick up a film camera, I’m generally stretching my aesthetic muscles more and feel painfully constrained without full manual control of focus and exposure. With COOKING WILL BREAK YOUR HEART, I was shooting into pots and onto plates with uncomplicated overhead lighting. The automatic settings on the iPhone worked great for that. But when I’m out on the street shooting film, I constantly find myself interested in backlit scenes that require more thoughtful exposure or frames with distinct foreground, midground, and background that require specific focus choices and depth-of-field control. And the manual controls for focus, shutter speed, and aperture work incomparably better for me on my old 35mm cameras than my modern digital cameras.
My old Canon FD lenses were made for manual focus — it’s the only kind of focus they can do! So they’re nice and silky and smooth. The more modern Canon EF lens on my digital SLR feels wobbly and uncertain to me when used in manual focus mode.
I’m also a big fan of the needle-and-circle manual exposure indicators in the old Canon F-series of cameras. The needle indicates the shutter speed; the circle indicates the aperture. Line up the needle with the circle and you’ve got a good exposure. More modern systems with digital readouts feel like they provide too much information and too little information at the same time. In contrast, I don’t have to think when using an old camera with a needle-and-circle system; the viewfinder gives me all the information I need and nothing more, so I can set exposure and shoot with the least amount of friction.
I also prefer the analog needle-and-circle system because the needle floats freely and thus gives you a better sense of the actual light reading than digital readouts that can display maybe ten different positions. What if the best light actually is in between two of those positions? The camera’s giving you the LED that represents the closest aperture or shutter speed, but a floating needle would give you a better approximation of exactly how off you actually are. Full disclosure: I’ve grown to love the Canon T60, which uses LEDs, but I still prefer the needle-and-pin.
I Love a Good Bargain
It seems weird to talk about price as a selling point for analog film photography. You can shoot thousands of digital images for a few dollars of storage space on your computer. Shooting a thousand 35mm film images — approximately 28 rolls of 36 exposures — might cost you $500 or $600 for film and processing alone.
But used, vintage film equipment can be incredibly cheap compared to new, high end digital cameras and lenses. The Canon FD cameras and lenses I grew up with are particular bargains right now. If you know what you’re doing and are capable of a few simple home maintenance and repair procedures like replacing foam light seals, you can end up with a serviceable Canon FTb with a standard 50mm prime from eBay or ShopGoodwill for $40 or so. And because they’re not directly compatible with most of Canon’s EOS cameras, the old Canon FD lenses can be shockingly affordable. They’ve gone up in price recently after adapters came out to connect them to new full frame digital cameras, but they’re still vastly cheaper than modern primes.
I know there are brand new digital SLRs that would probably feel great to me to shoot. But brand new digital SLRs of that quality cost thousands of dollars, and a full set of primes would be thousands more.
In contrast, I recently picked up a Bell & Howell FD35 and a B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4 prime for less than $20. Both camera and lens cleaned up beautifully and are a joy to shoot. I also found an unlabeled Canon A-1 on an auction site that I nabbed for a little over $40. The camera had a sticky mirror, but I did some research, learned how to oil it, and now it works just fine.
Part of the joy of resurrecting these old cameras is ethical and ecological. It feels good to keep old things working in a time of tremendous waste. And then there’s the emotional attachment we develop towards things we’ve put work into fixing. I get a thrill of pleasure every time I press the shutter release on that Canon A-1 and hear that mirror slap.
But yes, I also just love a bargain, and spending an hour poring over ShopGoodwill listings feels like a much better use of my time and emotional energy than scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day.
Thanks as always for reading! I’ll be back soon with more — including some thoughts on portrait photography!
I started shooting 35mm still film again this year after a hiatus of two decades, and it’s rapidly become one my greatest joys, filling voids, exercising muscles, stretching my heart, and reminding me how to use my eyes again.
I’ve been posting about this journey back into film in a long Twitter thread you can read here and I’ve been sharing photos on Instagram and Grainery. But given the ephemeral nature of social media, I figured it’s time to create a space here on my own site where interested folks can read a bit more. This post and any related posts should be findable by clicking on the “Photography” link in the menu of this site or by visiting gregpak.com/category/photography/.
Where It Started
My mother, Jane Ellen Riechers Pak, was a brilliant photographer who took thousands of luminous black and white pictures of her family throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, my mother taught me how to use her Canon FTb and sent me off to summer camp with a 50mm lens and a dozen rolls of color film. A few months later, she taught me how to develop black and white film and make prints in her little darkroom. Over the next few decades, I’d shoot thousands of my own photos for high school and college publications and for myself, my family, and my friends. But in the early 2000s, both of my 35mm cameras developed shutter issues right around the time digital started to take over. So for the next two decades, I put serious photography on the backburner while paradoxically shooting thousands of images with a series of digital cameras that never quite satisfied me.
But after my mom died last August, my sisters and I spent hours poring over her old photographs, and I dug up my own high school and college negatives. And I fell in love all over again with the textures and latitude and grain and memory of shooting 35mm film.
This is probably the image that hit me the hardest during those days. I found an old roll of film that I shot in 2000 or so but never got developed. I vaguely remembered taking photos of my mom on that roll. So I took it to a lab and got it developed… and there she was. The film had gotten foggier and grainier with age, but that maybe makes the image even more beautiful and I couldn’t be more grateful to have it now.
I found a repair shop that specialized in the old Canon cameras my mom gave me in high school and sent them off to be fixed. In the meantime, I picked up an old, used Canon TLb camera body very similar to the FTb my mom originally taught me to use, attached one of my old high school lenses, and shot my first roll of film in two decades.
And I haven’t stopped since.
Why I Love It – Part One
On a sheer aesthetic level, I just can’t get enough of the latitude and texture and feel of photos shot on film. Yes, digital cameras are tremendous and camera phones in particular allow for instant recording of moments that are incredibly precious, sometimes for deeply personal and sometimes for incredibly important political and historical reasons. And great artists create great art with all kinds of tools, including digital cameras. But my eye and heart have been trained to respond to film images with a kind of visceral hunger and joy that’s hard to explain. But let’s try!
First, here’s a perfectly fine image shot with an iPhone 7S on Canal Street in New York City.
This simple photo represents decades of incredible technological and aesthetic achievement. The first digital cameras I tried back in the 1990s drove me up the wall with their shutter lag, terrible handling of highlights, and low resolution. Now I get a tremendous, high resolution image from my phone. My phone! I know, it’s so mundane, but it’s still astounding.
But for me, it’s not enough.
Here’s the same scene shot in 2022 with a Canon FTb with a standard 50mm f1.8 prime lens on 20 year old Kodak High Definition 400 ASA 35mm film.
On one level, it’s basically the same image with much of the same information as the iPhone photo. But to my eye, everything is different.
First, the framing of the second image just feels so much more right to my eye. I’ve shot thousands of images over the decades with a standard 50mm film photography lens. So I instinctively know how to arrange things in that frame when I look through that lens. Everything about the frame in the second image feels more intentional, more aesthetically pleasing, and more like a story I want to keep hearing.
My iPhone has the equivalent of a 28mm lens, which is a wider angle than a 50mm lens. I love 28mm lenses in film photography. But it feels too wide for me for certain kinds of shots, and this is one of them. As a result, the iPhone image ends up feeling more removed to me, less a part of the moment than the film image.
Second, the film image handles light in a very different way from the iPhone image. Look at the light glancing off the side of the building in the middle of the frame. In the iPhone image, it’s just… side light on the building? I don’t really notice it or linger on it. But in the film image, that light feels so fresh and crispy I can practically taste it. I keep falling back on food metaphors when I think about it — I drink that light up, I eat it up, it inspires a deep pang of hunger and satisfies it all at once. I just love it, and I don’t generally get those kinds of feelings from the iPhone photos I shoot.
Third, color takes on an entirely different feel in the film image. The iPhone image looks a bit like nice, standard news footage of a city street. Good color and resolution and information! But every different color feels like it gets equal attention, which ends up distracting my eye a bit. The green of the cop’s vest and the umbrella jockey for attention with the red of the sign and the medallion hanging from the streetlight. It doesn’t quite feel like a whole; it feels like just a random snapshot of random stuff.
In contrast, the film image feels to me like a still from a movie, with a kind of built in art direction and intention that comes from the film’s grain and color rendition. In this example, there’s a kind of coolness to the sky and buildings that helps the red elements pop in a really satisfying way. The greens don’t distract the same way here; everything feels like part of a whole.
One way to describe all this is atmosphere. To my eye, the film image has it in droves. The iPhone image doesn’t really have much at all.
Of course, some of this comes down to the specific moment captured — the film image is just a better composed photo with more depth and interesting balance. The truck on the right and the line of people crossing the street towards us just fill the frame and tell more of a story than the much less active iPhone photo.
But I personally tend to find those better frames with a film camera much more consistently than I do with an iPhone. When I’m shooting with a film camera, my eye is up to the camera, looking through the lens. That image fills my entire field of vision and takes all my attention. When I’m shooting with an iPhone, I’m peering at a screen a few feet from my face. The image I’m trying to frame takes up just a fraction of my field of vision and I’m consciously or subconsciously distracted by whatever else is happening around me. I’m not as focused and I don’t find the frame I’m hungry for as often.
This is a very specific and personal thing, of course. But given my background and eye, I feel like I’m really seeing when I look through a film camera. No digital camera has ever quite given me that seamless sensation.
Well, it’s past midnight and tomorrow’s a big work day, so I’ll stop here for now. But this is fun, so I’ll be back later with more.
I’ll leave you with a photo of the Empire State Building that remains one of my favorite images from my first month shooting film again in February 2022.
Thanks much and more soon!
Writer of over 500 comic books, including PLANET HULK, MECH CADET YU, FIREFLY, and DARTH VADER