The Analog Beginners Guide

So you have started your journey into analog photography but you need a little help. Taking in all the new information about film photography is a lot if you are new to this. But don't worry, I'm here to help you out!

Camera Film Formats

Film Formats

Let's first talk about the different sizes of film, also referred to as the film format.

The three most common formats are 35mm, Medium format, and Large format.

  • 35mm film is what most people mean when they talk about analog film. They remember the classic Kodak Gold film rolls from back in the day.
  • Medium format is often referred to as 120 film, and to be clear, it's not 120mm!
    There are several other medium formats; 126, 127, and 620 film.
  • Large format is commonly talked about as 4x5, 5x7, or 8x10. You will find it in the form of film sheets or even film plates.
  • There are several other film sizes like 110 pocket film and APS film, still available, fresh, or expired. But these are not very popular and easily obtained. If you have questions regarding these analog cameras or film, let me know!

Find all the different kinds of film rolls here.

Camera formats

These three most common formats go along with the three most used camera formats. These are 35mm Cameras, Medium format cameras, and Large format cameras.

  • The 35mm cameras are the most common of them all, everyone knows someone that has one or maybe one of your family members had one? For most of us, these analog cameras were used on our family vacations when we are young. These 35mm analog cameras are the best format, to begin with. They can be found for relatively affordable prices and have the biggest selection of available 35mm film at this moment. Most of these film rolls come in 24 exposures or 36 exposures, one exposure is one image.
  • Medium format cameras are referred to as professional analog film cameras or 120 film cameras. These cameras use bigger film rolls, in terms will equal to better quality when you compare it to 35mm. But keep in mind that this will only be really noticeable when you enlarge your images. For day-to-day photography, it does not matter. 120 film is relatively more expensive because it will give you anywhere from 8 to 16 images, compared to 24-36 on 35mm film. Of course, there are more possibilities, but these are the most common exposure amounts. Knowing about the exposure triangle is recommended before using most of these medium format 120 film cameras.
  • Large format cameras are mostly used by photographers that use this format for professional work, photo books, and things like that. These large-format cameras are very big, expensive and the film is as expensive. But, I must say, these cameras give you such good quality, it's almost unbelievable to see the film quality on these large format cameras. You will need to know almost everything about manual photography and metering the light. The film sheet or plates sizes are from a small toasted ham and cheese sandwich (4x5) to almost a full-size pizza (8x10! Yes, 8x10 is really BIG!

Camera Mechanism Formats

Cameras in all shapes and forms

Now you know more about the film formats and different camera formats we will go into the different types of camera mechanisms. Every camera operates differently and will give you different options in terms of use. I will talk about the 6 most common camera mechanisms.

Point and shoot cameras - P&S cameras

The point and shoot cameras are the first cameras that most of you will use. They are light, affordable, compact, and (some) feature automatic functions. This is the ideal analog camera for snapshots of friends, parties, and vacations! These are a great way to get started with analog photography. All you have to do is basically "point and shoot". Most of these don't need any control, some have some options like turning the flash on/off or activating the self-timer. Point and shoot cameras mostly take 35mm film, yes there are some medium format cameras that take 120 film and could be called point and shoot cameras. But most point and shoot cameras take 35mm film. The ease of use is what makes these P&S 35mm cameras very popular. You can find these from anywhere starting at around €50, decent image quality for around €100+.

Single lens reflex cameras - SLR Cameras

When you think of a digital camera with a lens that you can change, you are on the right track to understanding a single lens reflex camera. These SLR cameras are the same as most of the digital cameras used today. The only big difference, besides technology, is that they use film to capture the exposure instead of a sensor. The image is projected through the lens onto a mirror which then reflects it into a glass mirrored prism, this then shows you the image in the viewfinder. You can use one camera and change lenses with different focal lengths, making this a very versatile analog camera system. Again, most of these use 35mm film, there are some 120 film cameras that use the SLR mechanism but these would be referred to as medium format cameras over SLR cameras. You can find these from anywhere starting at around €150, decent built/lens quality for around €250+.

Rangefinder cameras - RF cameras

 Do you know the word Leica? Most of you do right? A Leica, in the analog time of history, was strictly a rangefinder camera. These RF cameras use a focussing mechanism that contains of two images that need to be aligned to get perfect focussed images. This mechanism is made of three elements that show the image, one that is fixed, showing the framed scene in focus, the other is a smaller center that needs to be aligned with the fixed frame. The third element is there to indicate your frame lines, these will change to the lens outfitted on the camera. Some rangefinder cameras have interchangeable lenses, so the frame lines will change to a fixed set of frames lines to uses for that particular camera. You can find these from anywhere starting at around €150, going up to more than €2000+.

Pinhole cameras

The pinhole camera is nothing more than a lightbox with a tiny hole. This lets the light through and exposes you light-sensitive material, eq film or photographic paper. It is a very basic but useful mechanism. It is so easy, you can build it with almost any material you have. But it is a very basic system, with close to no manual control or flexibility. You need to know what you are doing with these cameras. That is why I will leave it with that, explore the world of pinhole photography on your own. The internet is full of beginners guides that will help you on your experimental analog journey.

Twin lens reflex cameras - TLR cameras

The twin lens reflex cameras are probably the most icon analog camera of them all. The classic TLR cameras are a symbol of analog photography for most people. There are two lenses with the same focal length, most are fixed lenses but some offer the possibility to change lenses. One lens is used to compose the image taken, the other lens is used to take the actual image and let the light through onto the analog film. These cameras have a square viewfinder, which you look down into. The image is projected reversed, left is right, and right is left. After a little use, you will get used to this. Most of these TLR cameras will use 120 film and thus are also called medium format cameras. You can find these from anywhere starting at around €300, going up to more than €1500+.

Instant cameras - Polaroid, Instax

Shake it, shake, shake, shake it like a Polaroid. We all know that song right? These instant cameras using instant film date back to a long long time ago. This iconic film product has been on the market for years and still is today. This film comes in the form of film packs. These hold several sheets of film. The light exposes the film, which is then pushed and ejected through two rollers that will cover the film paper with an emulsion that in its turn develops the film. After several minutes the image will appear and will be fully developed after about 10+ minutes, depending on the film pack. It's also revered as instant photography. You can find these from anywhere starting at around €75, going up to more than €300+.

Find all the different cameras formats here.

Camera Film Sizes

Film format - Film size

Now you know the basics of analog photography, we need to talk about the most important part of shooting film. I'm going to talk about FILM!

One small thing before I continue, when you have a Nikon camera, you don't need Nikon film. A Canon camera doesn't need Canon film. You need a film that fits in your camera, the brand has nothing to do with it.

We have talked about the different film formats, aka film sizes, but there are many types of films. I will cover the most commonly used and available film sizes.
Ps. Every roll of film needs to be developed before you can see any image.


35mm film is what most of you think of when you think of analog film. The classic yellow film rolls with sprocket holes to help you wind it into the camera sound familiar right? This film is easily the most used film format these days. This 35mm film comes in a canister, it's wound up in the camera until you have reached the maximum exposures and then winded back into the same 35mm canister. There are many producers making these 35mm film rolls. The most common rolls will have 36 exposures or 24 exposures. This means you will get 36 photos or 24 photos.

120 film (not 120mm, this doesn't exist)

When you talk about 120 film, you talk about medium format and vice versa. This film is rolled around a film spool and has a paper backing behind it. You need another spool, the take-up spool, to wind the exposed film up onto. 120 film is not wound back into a canister like 35mm film. Once the 120 film roll is fully exposed you will have to "close" the end of the roll by sticking the dedicated adhesive paper around the end of the roll. This results in a light-tight roll that can be sent to a film lab or developed at home.

Large format - 4x5, 5x7 and 8x10

Large format film covers everything starting with 4x5 going all the way to 1:1 scale. This would probably be called ultra large format in some communities. But let's keep it simple and call it large format for you. These are sold in individual film sheets or plates of film, packed in a box. You need to have film holders to put the film into and put those film holders on the back of your large format camera. These holders have a dark slide to protect it from any light. The use of large format cameras and film is a whole another subject.

Film types

When you look at film you may see similarities but more often differences. This can be the color, tones, exposure difference, or the grain (#lovegrain). I hate to say this, but I think it's the easiest way to help you understand the differences.  Think about film as a filter, every film is a different type of so to speak filter. You can have black and white, color and every variation between them. Besides that, we need the film to be able to capture light. This is light sensitivity, mostly referred to as ISO, in old terms ASA. We will get into this later in this blog.

Let's get back to the available film types.

Color negative film - C-41

The color negative film is, once developed, heavily orange toned, reversed, light is dark, and dark is light. This has to be inverted to correct it to a normal balanced image. The developing method used for this film is called C-41. This is the most flexible and forgiving film type. Most films can be easily pushed or pulled. This pushing/pulling is also another advanced subject that will be covered in another blog.

Slide film - Reversal film - Positive film - Transparency film - Dia film (color and black and white) - E-6

Slide film, also called reversal film, positive film, transparency film, or dia film is a type of film that is, once developed, showing correct (positive) images. This means that when you hold the film against a light source you will see a correct image. This doesn't have to be inverted or corrected. This reversal film gives very strong colors and some claim it to be true colors. Positive film is less flexible and exposure needs to be close to spot on. In today's market, you can find transparency film in both color and black and white. The developing method for color is called E-6.

The developing method for B&W is depending on the film stock it self. For example Adox Scala uses a dedicated development kit. You can find the Adox Scala BW Reversal Kit here.

Black and white film

Black and white analog film was the first type of analog film ever made. The very first basic photographic materials were producing black and white images. You can find many types of black and white films. Monochromatic, Panchromatic, Infrared, Ortho-Panchromatic, and some more. It's all just black and white but with tonality differences. Some film stocks will show dark blacks and bright white colors and some will have a nice balanced greyscale across the tonality of the image. To have this type of film developed, it needs to be a specific developer, and developing methods differ in combination with the developer used. It's fairly easy in terms of use, it is flexible like color negative film and can be pushed/pulled very well.

ISO - Light sensitivity - Film speed

All these films have one thing in common. They all have an ISO value. The ISO value stands for the amount of light the film emulsion will take in when exposed. Every roll of film will have a basic value, it is commonly anywhere from 50 to 3200. You will find steps from 50 to 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200. There are also some special film stocks that have even lower ISO values than 50. The film speed value will tell you how light-sensitive the film stock is. A low ISO means it has low light sensitivity and a high ISO means it has a high light sensitivity.

Low light situations call for HIGH ISO films, bright light situations call for LOW ISO films.

  • 100-200 ISO films - sunny days
  • 200-400 ISO films - semi-cloudy days and indoor flash photography
  • 400-800 ISO films - cloudy days, indoor flash, and low light photography
  • 800-3200 ISO films - low light situations, sports, fast-moving subjects

This is a basic rule of thumb, when you learn more about analog photography and manual exposure you will learn that you can change camera settings to compensate for something else. This is the exposure triangle. You can use that to play with the available light and the tools you have with you. For example, a higher shutter speed will lower the aperture or increase the needed ISO. But that is another story, I will get into that in another blog.

GRAIN - Bonus part of the blog!

Grain is something we call noise in the modern world of photography. If you don't know about the phrase "image noise", don't bother to look it up! Within the analog photography community, we love grain! Grain is the noticeable sand grain in the images. Some film stocks have a more obvious grain and some have a fine to extremely fine grain. Fine grain film means the image looks very clean and if focussed correctly is very sharp. The grainy film stocks have more noticeable grain and this will give you that vintage look in your images. If you push and pull your films, grain can be more/less noticeable all well. So if you are planning to experiment, keep an eye out for that beautiful grain!

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