Film photography in 2008 – how to get started?

I received an email from Julie today. She wrote:


I read your page on the Canon AE-1. My father also purchased one in about 1976 when it was first introduced, he sold it one day at a yard sale when I was at work – it was very upsetting. Anyways I have since acquired one recently, and since I am so used to auto focusing digital cameras etc… I have no clue on what the basics are that I need to know about this camera.

Are there any tips or resources that you could give me? I have such a passion to learn and I am an empty book waiting to be filled!!

Thanks so very much,


Now, it’s good to see that people who already experienced digital photography are turning towards analogue photography again just out of curiosity and eagerness to learn. I think it is a great plan to get down to the basics of photography. It may even improve your results in the digital world if you know the “old” stuff.

Noon in Mantova, Italy (2000)
Noon in Mantova (from our Italy Gallery)
Mark Zanzig

When I switched to digital in 2005, I made a drastic decision to sell all my analogue equipment. So in terms of hands-on tips my memory is already fading a bit. Then again, analogue photography is not that much different from digital photography. The shutter is released, the aperture opens to a pre-determined size, light hits film (or sensor) for a pre-determined time, the aperture is closed, and the image is being transported away. Yep, it’s basically the same.

So, here are my generic tips for those who want to experience analogue photography using old cameras like the Canon AE-1 Program:

1. Get a manual for your camera

For the Canon FD cameras you’ll find most manuals at Christian Rollinger’s excellent site The site is also a great site for other FD-related information, e.g. brochures and out-of-print books. This, and the links page, make Rollinger’s site an authority in its field.

2. Get some decent Canon FD lenses

As most photographers are dumping their analogue equipment in exchange for state-of-the-art digital bodies, you can snatch good FD lenses and cameras on eBay at attractive prices. There is really no shortage.

A good set would certainly be: FD 20 2.0 / FD 28 2.8 / FD 50 1.4 / FD 35-105 mm / FD 70-210 mm – this will cover the complete range from wide angle to tele.

I suggest to do yourself a favor, and get only original Canon lenses. No need to fiddle around with other (even cheaper) lenses. Canon’s FD lenses are much more solid than similar priced lenses today.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, CA
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California (from our USA Gallery)
Mark Zanzig

3. Find the experts, and discuss

There are some awesome groups on Flickr dedicated to film photography. I suggest as a starting point the Canon Film Photography group. The traffic is low, but you’ll find some good discussions now and then. If you want to participate in the discussions, you will need a (free) Yahoo! account.

Another Flickr group worth mentioning is the Canon Photography group. There are more members, more discussions, more pictures, but all the digital guys hang out there, so they might not be able to offer concrete advice for old cameras.

4. Get slide film

Only with slide film you can actually see what you were doing right, and what not. With negative film (for prints) the results will always depend on the lab and how their machines interpret the negative film.

As you want to dive into analogue photography, you should see how your work with the camera influences the results. A word of warning, though: with film your cost goes up with each and every photo. Thus, it is a good idea to think twice before releasing the shutter. :-)

You may wonder about the quality of slide film. Well, it’s still okay-ish, compared to 2008′s standards. The three photos of this post are available in high-resolution, each about 9 Megapixel in size. The photos were shot with a Canon AE-1 Program on Fuji Sensia 100 slide film and scanned using a Minolta Dimage Scan Elite II film scanner at the highest resolution. Postprecessing was done using Adobe Photoshop. Click the images to download the high resolution files (about 3.5 MB each). If you want to learn how to scan slides, please check my Step by step slide scanning tutorial.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley, Arizona (from our USA Gallery)
Mark Zanzig

And then, I’d say — practice, practice, practice, and have fun!

Ah, the old days. A dreamy smile comes up on my face… Having shot a couple rolls of film, then waiting for the lab to develop the film, putting the fragile slides to the lighttable to inspect them with a magnifying glass, then sort the slides and mark the picks with a waterproof pen or a sticker. Photography was a lot slower back then.

Do I wish these times back? Naaaaah! ;-)

2 Responses to “Film photography in 2008 – how to get started?”

  1. Richard Wong says:

    I get a little laugh out of it sometimes now when people start off on digital and have a desire to try film after a certain point. I started off taking pictures right before digital started to get popular, but really learned on both simulataneously. Slide film was kind of a test for me to see if I was doing things right.

  2. I obtain a tiny laugh out of it often now when people start off on digital and also have a want to attempt movie right after a certain point. I began off taking photos appropriate prior to digital started to get popular, but actually discovered on both simulataneously. Slide movie was type of the test for me to see if I was performing things right.