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(Pic: Unsplash/Pixabay)

Photography is all about trial and error, making mistakes and learning from them. But when you’re starting out – especially with film – it can sometimes be frustrating. Over the next 52 weeks, Zorkiphoto and London’s Film’s Not Dead will bring you a series of tips if you’re trying film photography for the first time, or returning to it after a long break. Happy shooting.

If you want to get serious with your photography, the conventional wisdom – especially with digital photography – has been to spend as much as you can afford. Buying the best-quality camera, and more importantly lenses, allows you to develop your skills without having to constantly update your gear. So surely it makes sense to do the same thing when you start out shooting film?

Not necessarily. Many of us might dream of treading cobbled streets or Manhattan avenues with a Leica in our hands and a leather holdall full of film, but there’s a lot to be said for starting out with much more modest gear.

If you want learn as much as you can, the best starting point is a manual-focusing camera with as few frills as possible. Forget aperture and shutter-priority, auto-focus lenses and built in flashes. The best learning tool is an SLR camera with a 50mm lens and a simple meter to allow you to take accurate exposures. Don’t be tempted to spend a fortune on a camera that used to be available only to those with the deepest pockets (one positive for film photographers is that cameras that were previously prohibitively expensive are now relatively affordable).

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An Amalfi street scene, shot on an old Soviet Zenit E camera which cost me £4 in a London market.

Why’s this good advice? Because film may not necessarily be for you. If you can’t wait more than a few seconds to review your results, analogue may leave you chewing your fingers off in frustration. It takes a degree of stepping back – sometimes even forgetting about the images you’ve taken. And that’s not a bad thing. But you definitely have to get used to it.

Camera manufacturers created a vast range of cameras aimed at amateurs and enthusiasts in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s that have truly stood the test of time. They have little in the way of finicky electronics that can go wrong; if the batteries powering the light meter run out they can still take pictures, and you can use a digital camera, a separate lightmeter to check exposures.

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Street scene details during the Notting Hill Carnival, shot on a Minolta SRT 100X

All the big photography giants that continue to dominate the scene today – Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax – made cameras that make this grade. They were joined by a host of other makers who have faded to obscurity.

Spend no more than £50 (or $80 if you’re reading this in the States). Back in 2000, when I decided to learn photography from the very basics, I bought an old Praktica MTL 5B. It’s an East German SLR built in the early 1980s. It uses screw-mount lenses, a universal mount also used by the likes of Pentax, Zenit, Chinon and many, many other manufacturers. I already had a Canon autofocus camera with a zoom lens – for the next six months that stayed in the drawer, and I burned through a bunch of rolls. It was trial and error and there were a fair few failures along the way. But it’s from here that I really developed.

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Prakticas like the MTL 50 are tough, simple and reliable – and should cost less than £50 (Pic: La Fille Renne/Flickr)

Snoop around eBay, visit thrift store, ask if anyone’s got an old film camera they no longer want, and check out any local camera store still stocking used gear – that’s where you’re most likely to find gear that’s been given a once over and with at least a few months’ warranty.

There are dozens of models of cheap SLRs you should be able to snap up for around £50 – including cheap Eastern Bloc models like the Praktica MTL 50 or mid-70s Japanese classics like the Olympus OM-2 or the Minolta SRT 100X.

If money’s burning a hole in your pocket, spend that on film and developing. Wait to buy that Leica when you’ve won the lottery – and learned a lot about shooting film in the meantime.

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Cosmin Munteanurobert quiet photographerjoecraftedTimTaras Recent comment authors
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RA Friedman
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Good advice! If a smooth user experience is important, I’d say go for a Nikon FM2 or similar; they are true bargains. If you want to be a rangefinder shooter, there are also tons of cheaper-than-Leica options including the venerable Canonet QL17.

mikeosbornphoto
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Very sage advice. I still need to be persuaded to dust off my Zenit for another foray into the beautiful world of analogue – future tips on this will be much appreciated!

Joe shoots resurrected cameras
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It’s the photographer that makes the shot, not the camera.

I’d say anyone’s best bet would be to ask family members or friends first. I’ve had many cameras given to me in the past few years. Aside from that, I’ve been really fortunate at garage sales: when I first started photography I found a Pentax Spotmatic for $5.00 at one, and yeah that definitely helped me learn a lot about the process. I love that camera and still use it.

Taras
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Taras

Unfortunately here in Russia it is not easy to find photostudio and too expensive to process films negatives (film development + scan) 🙁

Tim
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I picked up a Mamiya C220 with an 80mm lens for $80 because the owner couldn’t open the film door. Takes great pictures.

joecrafted
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Sage advice. My own preference are rangefinders, and partly that is because I find I can focus easier with them than many SLRs. Most of my old cameras do not have working light meters, so I use a handheld, or if need-be, just wing it (sunny 16).

robert quiet photographer
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Interesting and good advice. So much I like to shoot my Leica (bought preowned) I say that I use with same pleasure my BessaR or my Nikon FM2. Even my old Minolta SRT 101, the first “serious” camera I bough when young (and the dreamed Nikon was too expensive for my pockets!)
And the best results, the best photos are independent from the camera I used to take them.
And yes, shooting film is a great way to shoot and learn…there is always something to learn even for experienced photographers 🙂
robert

Cosmin Munteanu
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Although soviet or east german cameras are ok i would recommend a japanese one. One can find an excellent copy made by Cosina , Ricoh (as an example) or other M42 camera manufacturer (if you want a screw mount camera). Otherwise like mentioned in the article, a good Minolta SRT… with a fifty and you are ready to go.