35mm Film the Easy Way

Pentax MV

My previous Blog resulted in several inquiries from photography enthusiasts who were considering film photography but wanted more information. Most of the questions were about basic things and easy for me to answer individually. However I did find myself repeating the same points in reply to different people. So, in order to save time and also to give my ‘answers’ a better structure, I thought it worthwhile to bring these together in one Blog that I could point people to. Please note that if you are already using film for part of your photographic activity most of this will already be known to you. What I am aiming for are those who have no previous experience of using film and have no direct contact with other fellow enthusiasts who have. For the purpose of this blog I will be considering 35mm film, though much the same is true of 120 film format. I will also refer specifically to the current situation in the UK although I expect this will be similar to elsewhere in Europe and North America and perhaps beyond.

Pentax ME Super

Q: Is film still made or do I have to find and use out of date old stock?

A: Yes it is still made today; though many brands have been discontinued a good choice is still available in both colour and Black and White. There are even old ‘classic’ films being reintroduced like Ferannia P30 {http://www.filmferrania.it/p30/}. If you find out of date stock it is usually ok to use provided it has been kept in reasonable conditions. Be careful though as I have seen OOD stock on sale for more than the cost of new film.

Minolta SRT 101

Q: Where then can I buy film?

A: There are a number of high street stores that stock film, Boots and Jessops come to mind as well as some small independent businesses {such as Photoghost here in Aberdeen}. Buying single cassettes on the high street is normally the more expensive option compared to ordering ‘multipacks’ online from specialists {like AG Photographic  http://www.ag-photographic.co.uk/} but it’s ok just to get started and its useful to know there you can find stock if you are in a hurry. Poundland, for a time, stocked cassettes for {wait for it} … £1 but those days appear to be gone unfortunately.

Olympus Trip 35

Q: What’s best, colour or B&W?

A: Neither as they are entirely different. Not only are they obviously different to look at their main distinction is on the way and how they are processed. Common colour film is always processed in a laboratory machine often found in high street or supermarket stores {some masochists will try to process C41 Colour it at home but I personally don’t see the point}. B&W, on the other hand, has to be sent to a specialist lab {some stores will do this for you e.g. Boots} or you can do it easily in your kitchen at home whilst listening to music and cooking a Chicken Risotto.

Zenit XP12

Q: Don’t I need a Darkroom to process B&W at home?

A: No, you need a dark ‘space’ to load a small lightproof plastic drum container. I use a small internal cupboard {with lights out}. It’s dark but maybe not 100% so I load the container with my hands and film inside a folded up black bin liner and just to be extra safe, I take off my watch with its luminous dial. That step takes 5 minutes to set up and 5 minutes to complete. Once the drum is loaded I step into the light and head for the kitchen to ‘cook’ it {and maybe a Risotto at the same time}.The developing process is easy and only a couple of chemicals are needed {I get mine from AG Photographic}. It’s about 10 mins to develop, 5 mins to ‘fix’ then about 15 minutes to wash and rinse. My Risotto takes a wee bit longer and a bit more skill but both are about having a reliable, simple process and good time and temperature control.

Minolta SRT 303

Q: This is sounding too easy, what’s the catch?

A: Good question. In my opinion it’s the ‘next bit’ in the chain and it’s not something most people ask about, until it’s too late. Mind you no harm will be done as you will have your negatives by this stage and it these are safely stored you can always go back.

Yashica FX-d

Q: You’ve lost me, what are you talking about?

A: The tricky bit is what to do with your negatives after the film is developed, colour or B&W. Getting film is easy and getting it processed is easy {whether it is colour or B&W}, the outcome is a permanent negative image on celluloid}. The point is that you need to do something with that negative to get an image, either on paper or on screen. Negatives are designed for printing and although you could head for a proper ‘wet’ darkroom to work with an optical enlarger, light sensitive paper and more chemicals I would not recommend that. It’s a huge step up in complexity and the rewards are unlikely to make it worthwhile from a beginner. So the alternative is to scan your negatives to make digital copies {this is what I now do, my darkroom years are all behind me}.

Olympus OM-1

Q: That doesn’t sound so hard, I have a scanner at home, can I use that?

A: Perhaps, but common flatbed scanners won’t work with negatives as the light has to pass through the negative and on to the sensor and not be reflected from them. If your scanner can scan negatives then it will describe this in its documentation. You will also need specific software to enable this. If your scanner is able to scan negatives then this software should come with it and be obvious. Buying a good, negative capable flatbed scanner is a major investment unless you are planning on buying a standard scanner anyway. {consider it as buying a specialised digital camera at about £400–£600}.

Minolta XD-5

Q: That sounds too much at this stage as I just want to try film to see what it’s like. What are the alternatives?

A: Yes, you are right, it’s too much to invest in something that you might not carry on with. Sure, you can send you negatives off to specialists but you won’t know at this stage what to ‘order’ them to do as scanning itself is potentially part of the creative process {well it certainly is for me}. It can also be unclear what you are actually ordering as scanning, in my opinion, is poorly explained by specialists and barely understood by standard sales staff. Think of it this way, scanning a negative is essentially taking a digital photograph of your negative so your scanner has to be regarded as a digital camera. It has no adjustments for shutter speed or aperture or ISO but it does require the you to make decisions about exposure {Auto and Manual Mode}, colour, contrast, saturation, tone curve, dust removal, sharpening and above all … Resolution. I regard my Scanner as simply one of my digital cameras.

Pentax P30

Q: So what do you recommend?

A: A simple and safe path to get you going. Remember that when you have your negatives safely stored they can be revisited anytime and scanned in different ways as you get to know better what you want and what you can do. Here is a basic plan:

Minolta XG-2


  • First locate and check out who will process your film. I normally use Asda near to my home. Check what services they provide and the costs
  • Check that you have a working camera (operate it without film with the back open and observe that all the obvious things work)
  • Choose an easily available, inexpensive C41 colour film, Agfa Vista or Kodak Colour Plus are my current favourites and a good starting point
  • Plan to stick with one film for a time so you can learn its particular characteristics
  • Buy two 36 exposure cassettes. Ignore 24 exp. unless it is a really good deal as developing costs are per cassette
  • Shoot film and try, really try, to make each shot count so think about how the image should be … visualise it
  • Take film to processor and order negative development plus scanning at high resolution. High Resolution has no specific meaning but it’s a good request to start with.
  • If that raises any doubts with the processor try Plan B. Ask instead for negative development plus 7 X 5” prints plus scanned digital images. This should work as staff are used to associating scans with prints that they sell (its where their profit is)
  • Assess results and amend as necessary for your second cassettes … treat these two as experiments. Just to compare with my own scanning I usually do a quick scan of most negatives to assess them and the camera functionality. These scans, if printed, would yield a 7 X 5” print.

The files scan at about 5Mb but are compressed to jpegs at about 400Kb. On my PC these would look quite large so for web use I would reduce these by about 50%. I would then revisit those special shots for more detailed scanning to make larger prints (up to A3) based on jpegs that would be about 1.5Mb

Ricoh KR-5

Remember to carefully store and catalogue your negatives as you will want to revisit them when your knowledge increases and if/when you decide to undertake your own scanning.

Minolta XG-2 chrome

A Personal Thought … of all my digital cameras my Epson V700 scanner is the one that has held its value the most and which I am least likely to want to upgrade or sell off in the future. All of the photographs in this Blog Post were shot on inexpensive C41 colour film, the negatives were developed by the local Asda store. I scanned them on my V700 using Silverfast software then made some adjustment, retouched out spots and converted many to B&W (because of my preferences) using a simple photo editing programme (not Photoshop!). These are not special in any way as they were all test shots to check the working of some of the many 35mm film cameras I have rescued this year.

Pentax AFC-35