Film Photography Basics from a Beginner’s Perspective

Did you pick up a hobby in 2020? I know I sure did. 2020 is a year that many of us want just to write off. It was a terrible year.

With that said, I also learned a lot about myself and decided it would be a great time to pick up things that I’ve always wanted to know, including film photography. I decided just to jump right on in and began to shoot film on our day trips.  

Fast forward a year later, I’ve learned so much during my first year as a film photographer. Yikes, I said it: a “film photographer.” It doesn’t seem real nor legit.  

But I reflect on my progress, and I am like, “Wow, I’ve come a long way from day one.” Then I realize, okay, I am a film photographer, but I am still a beginner film photographer. And that is okay! 

Do I stop and occasionally think, “What the heck am I doing? Absolutely. Do I question why I started a film travel blog when I am just a beginner myself? Yes. Every single day.

Imposter syndrome is real. But you just have to push through it. Some days I don’t want to pick my up camera, and other days, I do. 

It is so easy to quit after starting something new. But I am happy that I’ve stayed with it so far and will continue to do so because I love it. My love for film photography and documenting my travels drives me forward in this process. 

Below, I’ve listed film photography basics I learned during my first year as a film photographer. I hope you find it helpful if you are starting film photography. Even if you are not learning film, I hope you feel inspired to continue to learn every day. We are all on some journey, and little steps go along away.  

The Very First Thing I Learned: How to Put Film in the Camera 

Learning how to put film in your camera might be a simple step, but it’s a significant one. If you don’t do it correctly, it can potentially mess up the entire roll.  

I’ve done this process several times now, but sometimes when I pull a new roll out, it feels like I am doing it for the first time again. 

Initially, I was afraid even to touch the film. My thoughts were, “If I touch the film with my fingers, will I ruin it?” These were unfounded thoughts as the answer is no.  

Don’t be afraid to touch the film stock and put it in your camera. It’s going to be alright.

Try not to change the film while just holding your camera as it is very easy to drop your camera accidentally. Have the camera on a strap around your neck or something stable, such as a table.  

How do you put film in a camera? See below to view how I put the film into my main camera, a Canon EOS-1N. 

Of course, the process will be different depending on what camera and film you have. This is where YouTube or videos online are so helpful in learning your camera. Or try to find a film photographer friend who can show you how. Don’t be afraid to ask – it is an important question! 

Loading film into a camera.
Putting film into my Canon EOS-1N.

How to Hold the Camera

There is a better way to hold your camera, and then there is a not-so-good way to hold your camera. Not going to lie; I still sometimes default to holding my camera in a less ideal way. It is effortless to do so.  

The best practice is to have one hand securely on the camera body while placing the other hand under the camera lens.

You do not want to do what I previously did – holding the camera body with both hands as this increases the chances of dropping it. 

And there is nothing worst than having that sinking feeling in your stomach when your camera falls to the ground. 

A woman holding a film camera.
A better way to hold your camera.

Get the Right Gear

It’s super important to get the right camera gear. And by the right gear, I mean what is right for you. We all have our preferences and desired looks. 

At the very beginning of shooting film, I attempted to shoot images with the Leica M6. I love the Leica M6, but I have one problem: I am terrible at manual focus.

It’s super frustrating, but I have horrible vision. I can barely see two inches in front of my eyes when my contacts are out.  

When I tried to use the Leica M6, I couldn’t see if the subject was focused. My husband suggested trying a camera that auto-focuses.

At first, I felt like this was a cheat. After spending a year with my Canon EOS-1N that has auto or manual focus, I can confidently say that this was the best decision for me.  

At the end of the day, I am getting what I want: my images. So, choose your equipment based on what makes the most sense for you.

Also, choose what is comfortable. While I wish to take all my cameras and lenses on my journeys, I also want to be comfortable toting them around. All this gear can get heavy! Walking around with heavy camera gear? No thanks. 

So, I only carry what I need in my camera bag; that way, I have all my gear I’m using for the day, and I am also comfortable. It’s a win-win situation for me.  

35mm v. 120 v. Large Format 

There are different film cameras. You have your 35mm, your 120 (medium format), and then your large format. I mostly shoot with a 35mm camera, which requires 35mm film.

A medium format camera requires 120 film, a larger roll film on a spool, and a large format requires film sheets in different sizes depending on your large format camera. Larger film formats provide more resolution.

If you own both 35mm and 120 film, be careful when you pack your camera bag. There have been numerous times where I accidentally picked up 120 film for my 35mm camera. This will not work. You always want to check which film you buy or pick up to make sure it will load into your camera.  

Medium Format Camera
Learning to shoot on the Hasselblad 500cm at Gibbs Gardens in North Georgia.

Color Negative and Slide Film  

You might remember the days where people used slide projectors. They would have tiny slides of images that project onto a screen. Did your grandparent(s) show slide images of their road trip across America?  These small images are slide film!

If you develop slide film, you will immediately see your exposed images on the film itself. I think of it as mini photos of your exposures. Plus, they are pretty neat to look at once your film is developed and dried.  

Slide film
Slide film of our visit to Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina.

For a color negative film, you need to revert the image to a positive. A negative is similar to an x-ray scan. To fully see your exposure, you must change it to positive, and you can do this with a photo editor application and scanner.  

I mostly use color-negative film because I like the range of colors that it gives. Slide film is fun when developed, but I find it hard to shoot slide film in a contrasty setting as it does not have a lot of dynamic range compared to color negative film.

For instance, we went to the bamboo forest in Atlanta, and I mistakenly used slide film. It was a bright sunny day, but the forest itself was in the shade. The lighting was very contrasty – the slide film blew out the highlights and made the shade areas very dark. If I were to go back there, I definitely would bring color-negative film. 

And as a good rule of thumb, it is best to overexpose for color-negative film and underexpose for slide film. 

Get a Sturdy Tripod 

In a previous post, 7 Things Learned in the First Month of Film Photography, I wrote that I loathe the tripod. After a year, I can still say that the feeling is the same. I am not a fan of carrying it around and setting it up.

But it helps me get fantastic images, and I would need the tripod to do so, especially when I need a slow shutter speed to get the desired look, such as a flowy waterfall.  

It is essential to have a tripod that will not break and tip over easily and is sturdy. We use a Manfrotto Tripod and have no issues so far. Many tripods with a bubble level are nifty because they allow you to see if the camera is balanced.  

Also, it is imperative that when you put your camera on the tripod, always position its weight on the tripod leg to keep it from falling over!

Familiarize Yourself with the Exposure Triangle

If you want to get proper exposure, you will need to become familiar with the Exposure Triangle. Three components make up this triangle: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. And they all relate to one another. 

If you change one, you might have to adjust the others depending on what you compose. I found it easiest to learn about each component first before connecting them.   


Aperture controls how much light enters your camera. Your aperture value, measured in F-stops (ƒ/16, for example), determines how wide or small the iris inside your lens is. A higher aperture value means less light is coming in than a lower aperture value, where more light is coming in.

Have you been to the Vincent van Gogh Immersive Experience? This incredible experience is in a low-light setting as they use projections and visual effects to display Van Gogh’s art on the walls.

Because the lights are really dimmed down, I had to decrease my aperture value to the lowest number (ƒ/2.8) to collect as much light as possible inside. Once outside, I had to increase my aperture value to a ƒ/11 to decrease light coming in.

It sounds confusing that a higher aperture value means less light, and it took a long time for my brain to wrap my head around this. It even makes it more confusing when some people say “stop down” on your camera. That just means to let less light into your camera or increase your aperture value (going from a ƒ/8 to ƒ/11, for example).   

Now, why is aperture important? Not only does it control the amount of light, but it also determines your depth of field. 

Depth of field simply refers to what is in focus in the background of your image or behind the subject you are taking a picture of.   

Think about a flower vase on a table. The table sits in front of a window. If you set your aperture to ƒ/2.8 and focus on the flower vase, then the vase will be in focus. But the window in the background will not be in focus as much. This is known as a shallow depth of field. 

Now increase your aperture value to ƒ/11 and focus again on the flower vase. The window will be in focus more since you increased your aperture value.   

Choosing your depth of field is excellent for photo composition as it can change how your image looks.   

I personally like to have a higher aperture value for landscapes to get everything in my image in focus. If I focus on something a lot closer to me, such as a person, I might choose a lower aperture value.

A purple flower.
An example of shallow depth of field.

Shutter Speed 

Shutter Speed controls the amount of time the light enters your camera. If you have a fast shutter speed, then the duration that light enters the camera is shorter. If you have a slow shutter speed, you have a longer duration of light entering the camera.  

Shutter Speed is measured in seconds. For example, 1/125 of a second is faster than a full second.

Everyone loves a good waterfall picture. You might see the images where the water is streamy or has a flowy effect (see below). You will need a slower shutter speed to get this desired look. 

I used a slow shutter speed to get the look of flowy water.

Sometimes you don’t want this streamy look. Instead, you might want to stop motion. If you want to stop motion, then use a faster shutter speed. 

A few years ago, we were at the San Diego Safari Park. We got to see a cheetah run. I’ve never seen one run before, and wow, they are fast!    

But to get cheetah stopped in motion, you need a fast shutter speed. If you select something too slow, the cheetahs’ paws or legs might be blurry from the running.   

You can also use shutter speed to get your desired composition for your photo. You might want a faster shutter speed to prevent blurred motion when people move around if you are doing street photography. 


Oh, ISO. For me, this component of the exposure triangle is the hardest to grasp. For shutter speed and aperture, I can visualize examples. But for ISO, it is harder for me to conceptualize it. 

To put it in the simplest terms, ISO is the film’s sensitivity to light. Some film is more sensitive to light compared to others.   

At night, let’s say you are walking around River Street in Savannah, Georgia, capturing people walking on the cobblestone street. Since it’s nighttime, you may want to have a faster speed film to have properly exposed images while keeping a fast enough shutter speed in the low-light scene.

The next day, you walk out of your hotel room, and the sun is shining with no clouds in the sky. You don’t need the high-speed film because there is already so much light from the sun. You will want to select a slower speed film with a lower ISO number, such as ISO 100. A slower speed film is less sensitive to light.   

There’s a tradeoff, though, in using high-speed film. If your ISO increases, the photo is grainer. Grain can be good and bad in some cases, depending on what you want.

If you have a slow-speed film, such as Ektar 100, you will have finer grain – resulting in sharper and higher resolution images.  

Visitors sit to enjoy the Van Gogh:The Immersive Experience. Van Gogh's famous Starry Night is displayed on the walls by use of projections and light.
I used Superia 800 (high-speed film) to shoot images in this low-light setting.

How do They All Relate to One Another? 

If you are trying to compose a shot, you will want to think about how each component of the triangle relates to one another.  

Generally, if you have a lower aperture value, your shutter speed will likely be faster. If more light is coming into your camera, then the light is coming in for a shorter time. You don’t want too much light to where your image is overexposed.

Likewise, if you have less light coming into your camera, the amount of time the light enters the camera will be longer to prevent an underexposed image.

Now to make it more fun, you can add ISO to the mix. You can use ISO also to help overexpose or underexpose your image. 

Luckily, many newer cameras have built-in meters that can help you determine how to expose your image. And if you wanted to really dive in, you could learn the math involved in choosing your exposure settings.  No thanks.

I am not a math person by any means, so I rely on my camera’s built-in meter. Why make it harder when my camera does the thinking? I generally shoot in Aperture Priority mode, meaning I determine aperture, and my camera determines my speed. Thank you, Neko (my lovely camera’s name). 

Some people choose to use a light meter, which helps you set your camera to the settings needed for proper exposure. You can just point the meter at your subject to get the readings. Many older cameras do not have a meter, and photographers will use an external light meter.

Set Your ISO on Your Camera 

I am so terrible at remembering to set my ISO on my camera. I will put a new film roll into my camera and then immediately take pictures. However, it is so important to remember to set your ISO.  

For example, if you put Kodak Ektar 100 into your camera, you will want to set the ISO to 100 to match the film’s speed. 

BUT (there is always a but), you can also increase or decrease the ISO if you want to overexpose or underexpose your image intentionally.  

I love Portra 400, but I try to remember to set it to ISO 200 after putting the roll into my camera. I intentionally overexpose it because I love the more bright and pastel tones from overexposing it by one stop. This setting is especially gorgeous on a beach with colorful umbrellas. 

In contrast, you might try to push it to ISO 800 to get a faster shutter speed to compensate for shooting in a low-light setting. Just be sure the lab knows this to adjust for the exposure chemically. 


Have you heard of metering to your shadows or highlights? 

I’ve heard this mantra. If you want to preserve detail in your shadows, then meter to objects in the shadow. If you want to preserve detail in your highlights, then meter to bright objects. 

Imagine you are talking to your friend and the sun is behind them. You may have a hard time seeing them. This means they are backlit.

If you were to snap a standard picture of your backlit friend, likely the image would be underexposed. The light is more intense behind the person, and your camera will try to meter for that intense light.  

To get your friend in the proper exposure, you need to meter for the shadow. With my Canon EOS-1N, I change my metering mode to spot metering and focus on something more in the shadow than my friend. I lock in my settings and then go back to focusing on my friend to take the shot. Now, your friend is properly exposed. I can see them clearly and also the trees in the background. 

You want to understand how your camera meters to get the correct exposure. How you meter depends on what type of camera you have. For example, older cameras are likely to spot meter in the middle of the frame.

Exposure Tips in Specific Environments 

I love having some guidelines or rules that I can apply to similar lighting situations. Below are some helpful tips I’ve learned about shooting photos in specific environments.  

Sunny 16 Rule 

If you don’t have a light meter and happen to be outdoors in a sunny setting with little to no clouds, you can use the Sunny 16 rule. For aperture, you will shoot at ƒ/16. Your ISO will help determine your shutter speed.  

For Sunny 16, you can start with ƒ/16 at 1/100 shutter speed for ISO 100. If you change your ISO to 200, you will want to increase your shutter speed or close your aperture by one stop.  

For example, if you change your shutter speed, it will be 1/250 of a second. If you choose to close your aperture by one stop, it is ƒ/22.  

You are increasing light sensitivity when you change your ISO from 100 to 200.  

You can also change the aperture if it isn’t entirely sunny outside. If you have clouds, you can let more light into your camera by decreasing your aperture value. But remember, if you do so, you will have to adjust your shutter speed and possibly ISO. 

You can apply the Overcast 8 rule.

Overcast 8 Rule

Now the skies are overcast. When it is cloudy out, you need to let more light in. To compensate for the loss of light on an overcast day, decrease your aperture value to ƒ/8 to add more light. You can keep your ISO and shutter speed the same, 100 and 1/100 of a second, respectively. 

Likewise, if it is stormy, you can open your aperture more to get additional light for your exposure. For example, the aperture can be ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/2.8, depending on how much light you want to let in. Just keep in mind when you decrease your aperture value, you also affect your depth of field.  

Overexpose by Two Stops in Some Situations

My general rule is to overexpose by two stops for white sandy beaches, snow, and bright buildings. 

When you shoot a nice picture at the beach with white sand, your camera naturally wants to make the sand middle-gray, which causes the image to be underexposed. 

When you have something white or bright like this, you want to overexpose by two stops to maintain the proper exposure. This can be for really any unevenly bright scenes. 

A Polarizer Filter Can Work to Your Advantage 

Want to cut out reflections and glare in your photos? You can do that with a polarizer filter. With this type of filter, you are reducing scattered light and increasing vibrancy in colors. It works excellent with landscape photos, especially waterfalls and hazy cityscapes! 

I use the K&F Concept ND and Polarizer Filter. It is super easy to use- just attach the filter to a compatible lens and begin taking photos. 

An oak tree on a hill.
A polarizer can make the sky bluer and less hazy.

It Does Not Always Need to be on Film

Don’t be afraid to use a different photographic medium to capture your memories. I started this travel blog with every intent to shoot all my travel pictures on film.

But this is unrealistic. And I will tell you why.

We live in a digital age, and there is nothing wrong with shooting digital. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with shooting film or a mixture of film and digital. 

You choose what you want to use. Sometimes using my iPhone is more convenient, and it can take some pretty darn good pictures.  

Plus, I love film, but it is expensive. I can’t shoot it for every picture I take on my trip. If I did, I would be broke, especially if I used film for all my pictures in places like Iceland, just saying. 

So, use whatever medium is the best for you at any given time! And have a fun time doing so. 

Have Your Camera Ready and Do Not Give Up!  

And the most important thing on this list: don’t give up. Getting good at something requires practice. Coming from the most impatient person ever (me) who wants to be good at something right away, this lesson can be painful.  

But I’ve learned the best thing to do is to just keep at it and do it. If you want to learn something, go for it! Jump right in. Don’t hold anything back, and remember there are a plethora of resources to help you.  

And the best way to learn photography? Take your camera everywhere you go. Get to know your camera and have fun experimenting with different film stock.

You never know when the opportunity will present itself for a good photo. 

Are you starting your journey as a film photographer? If so, please tell me about it! Do you have any helpful tips that are not mentioned above? 

 Also, if you find this helpful, please share! 

A woman holding a medium format camera.
Trying to figure out this camera. My first time with a medium format camera in Nashville.

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