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Tips for beginner travel film photography

Curious about film photography? Check out how I got into film photography, why I often prefer it over high-quality digital pictures, and tips for traveling with your camera!

By: Jessica Cho + Save to a List

My journey to film

If you’ve clicked on this story, then maybe you’re a little curious about film photography…YES!! That’s how it started for me too– the rising urge to better understand old school photography and to replicate the nostalgic, timeless quality it creates.

Though I’ll preface this story by admitting I am not an expert in photography, I do want to share my film photography journey so maybe it’ll inspire you to give it a go! 

My only photography experience prior to using film was with my iPhone. I’m the kind of person who has thousands of pictures in my phone’s camera roll– filled with an eclectic range of things from family vacations to food to screenshots to random items I want to purchase to landscapes. And though there are definitely lots of pictures in that vast digital void that I love, there are also a lot that could be considered junk… pictures that I likely won’t ever feel the need to look back at. I find that I can’t stop myself from snapping photos because I love the art of capturing moments. It’s a creative outlet for me.

Seeing that film photography was starting to come back in style, I was immediately curious about it and wanted to give it a try! I asked my grandparents if they had a film camera they weren’t using tucked away somewhere in their house. Luckily they did, and so it began.

What makes film photography worth it?

In other words, why should you give it a try? Despite having the comfortability and accessibility of my phone to snap pictures, here’s why I love film photography.

It’s intentional and meaningful. A roll of film has a limited number of photographs. This makes you want to slow down and think more carefully about what you want to capture and how to capture it.

It’s more than just picture-taking. It can become a hobby and creative outlet. It’s an art.

I like having physical copies of my memories. With phones and digital cameras, a lot of the pictures you take can get lost in the sea of content you have built up. It’s easy to forget what gems you have hidden in your camera roll. With printed copies of your photos, it feels special and more valuable. Hang these photos on your wall. Frame them. Give them to friends as a heartfelt gift. Start a photo album to show your kids one day. Create a portfolio. 

It creates connections. If you don’t develop your own photos, you need to find a camera shop or lab that will do it for you. This means you’ll likely have to connect with people to verbalize what you want and at the very least, drop off your film! It’s a great opportunity to ask questions of those who have knowledge to impart and to get to know others in the community with similar interests. If you become a repeat customer and start to develop a relationship with the shop, visits become more exciting!

Stylistically, it’s something different. Nowadays, film photographs seem to have a more vintage, grainy, warm quality to it than what we’re used to on our phones. Of course, each person has the opportunity to discover their own personal style. But, there’s typically a perceivable difference between film photos and high resolution digital photos depending on the photographer’s goals. 

It’s a learning process. Though it can come with its fair share of frustrations, film photography is something to get better at. You can gain technical skills and add artistic flair.

It’s a surprise. You can’t look back at the shots you’ve taken right away - You have to wait until the roll has been developed! The mystery and uncertainty can be exciting and the end results can be such a sweet reward.

What I look for in a camera

For right now, I like shooting film photographs with the ease of a point and shoot camera. One day I would love to learn all about the inner workings of a camera and how to operate it manually. But for now, I have only gotten my hands on cameras that allow me to find my subject and get to snapping photos right away! Since I’m still starting out, I’ve opted for one camera that was passed down to me and another cheaper portable camera I purchased online.  

I seek durability (will it break on me after just a few rolls?), portability, and easy usability. Right now, I’m looking for that simple camera that will get the job done without breaking the bank. There are tons of options online to choose from, but make sure you are thoroughly reading reviews or watching informative videos before you make your purchase.

What I look for in film

If you’re just starting out with film photography, most people recommend starting with either 35mm or 120mm film. 

The Difference:

35mm film is smaller and typically less expensive. It’s portable and contains 36 images per roll of film, which is great for beginners because there are more shots to experiment with. The type of film holds less space for details and resolution, which may result in a grainier look. 

120mm film is larger and contains 16 shots instead of 36. This makes it a more expensive repeat purchase since you would need to buy more rolls to shoot the same amount of frames. But, the trade off is you get higher resolution and detail. This film can be harder to purchase as it’s less common than 35mm film. You also CANNOT use 120mm film in a 35mm camera as 120mm film is larger and would not fit! 

Regardless of what you choose to start with, finding the “right” film for you is a process, but can also be fun! Experiment and take note of the differences between photographs. You’ll notice that different film types will produce different effects, one not necessarily better than the other. I’m still in the process of figuring this out and finding my unique style!

Tips for traveling with your film camera

1. Cameras are objects that aren’t indestructible. They can break at inconvenient times. Be kind to your camera and protect it, especially while traveling when it can easily be dropped or cramped with other suitcase items. Get a protective camera case or bag for transport purposes and to prevent scratching or hard hits.

2. Pack extra film. You're likely to make mistakes with loading and handling film, especially when you're first starting out. But if you’re traveling to a location where you aren’t sure there will be an easily accessible camera store if something happens to your film, it’s best to have the comfort of some backup rolls so you don’t miss out on the opportunity to shoot!

3. Consider a waterproof case. If you’re interested in underwater shots or know you’ll want to take photos in an area where water damage is likely, this can come in handy!

4. Pace yourself. Remember that each roll has a limited number of pictures. When traveling somewhere new and beautiful, it can be easy to get excited and want to start taking photos of everything you see… *click* *click* *click*. Be intentional and slow down. Find the moments that really speak to you.

What to shoot– finding your style

Experiment with different subjects to help you figure out what you like most and how you can improve. It’s fun to do this in different environments– perfect while traveling! If you’re looking for more specific ideas, here are some places to start:

-Sunrises and sunsets
-People– family, friends, pedestrians, crowds
-Moving subjects for that blurry aesthetic (people, vehicles)
-Local establishments (cute coffee shops, boutiques, or storefronts)
-Fashion– outfit inspiration, jewelry

Important things to consider

Before diving in, there are several things to note. 

1. There are a number of different cameras to choose from. Do your research into what kind of camera best suits your wants. If you’re especially interested in learning how to operate a film camera manually (setting your own shutter speed, aperture, and lens types), there are cameras for that! If you’re more interested in producing nice film photos without the time spent configuring your settings, then there are point-and-shoot cameras for that! These cameras automatically set the focus and exposure so all you have to do is choose your film and you're good to go!

    2. Film photography isn’t cheap. While there are certainly ways to cut costs (opting for cheaper cameras and film), it does cost money to purchase and develop film. These things can add up, but the final product and enjoyment of the process is well worth it!

      3. If you don’t plan on developing your own film, you’ll have to find a developer you like that hopefully has a quick turnaround time. The first time I tried film photography, I dropped my film off at Walgreens. It took about a month to get my pictures back and the quality wasn’t great. After that experience, I found a camera shop that had the capability to develop the film overnight and I’ve continued to go back! Take your time picking a good developer to work with and don’t be hard on yourself in the process if it takes some time to find the quality you’re looking for. There’s no need to settle.

        4. Think about your style preferences. Photo shops and film developers offer matte and glossy photo paper, making your images flat or shiny. See which type speaks to you more.

        Final words

        These days, everything seems to be about instant gratification. Sometimes the best rewards come with time and patience. Film photography takes time to master. It’s a slower art form, and it can be days or weeks before you see if the pictures you captured turned out well or not.

        For me, the fun is in holding the camera in my hands and intentionally capturing moments so there’s meaning behind each photo. It’s about finding my style and having physical photos to cherish afterwards. It’s quite literally about seeing the world through different lenses and appreciating the creative process and skills that come with it.

        Have fun and good luck! I’d love to see what you capture!

        We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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