Understanding the Basics of Film Cameras

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Understanding the Basics of Film Cameras

Despite the large growth of digital cameras, the more traditional film cameras are still going strong and offer several technical advantages over their digital counterparts. There are many different manufacturers of film cameras, each with their own idiosyncrasies, but a knowledge of the basics will always be useful. This article aims to introduce those basics.

Origins of the Camera

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first person to notice that light rays converge to pass through small holes and, upon striking a surface beyond the small hole, an inverted image is produced. However, it was only in the 16th century that the first basic camera was used; this was called the camera obscura. This was the beginning of photography, but it wasn't until the middle of the nineteenth century that the invention of the negative/positive process of developing photographs stimulated the creation of a fledgling photographic industry. The first disposable camera was made by Kodak and allowed people to take their own photos. Once the maximum photograph capacity had been reached, the person returned their camera to Kodak their film negatives were developed and returned to them as photographic prints. This process still occurs today.


Despite the wide variety of camera models and film formats the operation of film cameras remains roughly the same throughout them all. Once the desired view for photographing has been sighted and a suitable angle has been found through the viewfinder, the camera operator presses a button called the shutter release. This opens a small gate at the end of the camera lens called a shutter. Light comes through this opening in the camera lens and hits the film. The chemicals in the film react to the light. After a short amount of time, sometimes only fractions of a second, the shutter closes leaving that section of the film exposed. This exposure is the moment that is commonly known as taking a photo. In rare cases, film can be exposed multiple times for artistic effect, but one exposure is usually important for obtaining a clear picture. If the film is exposed to natural light before it is developed into negatives, then all of the chemicals in the film react to the light and it becomes impossible to differentiate between the first and second reactions, which destroys the potential photos.
Camera Models

Within the category of film cameras there are five main types, each of which are made by manufacturers such as Nikon and Olympus.

Large Format

Large Format - This type of camera refers to any models that use film sizes of four by five inches or larger. In early photography, large format was the only size available. The biggest advantage of using a large format camera is its high resolution, this is still unbeaten by digital formats to this day. Instead of film these cameras also used photographic plates. The main difficulty with large format cameras is their lack of portability, they often have to be carried around in suitcases and they can take up to half an hour to set up for a picture. Large format cameras are also so expensive that they can only realistically be rented, another factor that makes transporting the cameras that bit more nerve-wracking.

Medium Format

Medium Format - This format of photography is used to describe photographic film larger than 35mm, or medium format film being used. Medium format cameras and their associated films have gone from being the most popular film format to now only being used by a small group of professionals and enthusiasts. Their decline in use is also due to their high cost, both film and the cameras are out of the range of most amateur and even many professional photographers' budgets: a brand new camera cost tens of thousands of pounds.

Single Lens reflex

SLR - Single Lens Reflex. This is the traditional camera used by enthusiasts and professionals, it consists of a camera body, detachable lens, viewfinder, LCD screen and a dial or two for selecting options. It allows full manual configuration for a wide variety of settings such as exposure and aperture size. The sophistication and associated price of a camera often reflects the amount of configuration available to the user.


Bridge - This camera includes some of the manual settings that are available on an SLR, but it doesn't have a removable lens. Due to the decreasing expense of SLR cameras, these are declining slightly in popularity, but they still pose excellent value for second hand buyers.

Point and Shooty

Point-and-Shoot - These cameras automatically configure the camera settings for a situation. The majority of this camera type tend to be digital, however, there are some film ones available. Film cameras in this category are also available as disposable models. These are very popular as holiday snap cameras, but have become less popular with the advent of cameras on phones and other cheap alternatives. The disposable cameras are usable for the specified number of shots, but once the internal film has been developed, they are unusable.

Film Types

Film cameras are based around the light sensitive material which, when exposed to light, reacts in such a way to create a latent image on either colour or black and white film, this image isn't visible to the naked eye. The extremely light sensitive chemicals in photographic film reacts almost instantaneously to light. Controlling the width of the camera lens opening and the amount of time the shutter is open controls the exposure of the film and hence the image. Films are graded by their sensitivity to light using an ISO rating. The standard level of ISO used is 400, anything lower than that is used in a low light situation, anything higher is used in bright light.

One of the biggest disadvantages of having a film camera compared to a digital camera is the inability to switch rapidly from one ISO rating to the other. Photography is sometimes a spontaneous affair, the lighting conditions of any environment are unpredictable. However, with improving photo editing and a little forethought, the majority of the risk of coming across a situation impossible to photograph can be mitigated. There are a selection of photographers that actually enjoy the challenge of shooting with just one ISO rating as they consider it to stretch their creativity and it gives them results they wouldn't have otherwise achieved.
From Film to Photo

Once the roll of film has been finished, it is taken to a professional processing store to have the pictures developed into negatives and then turned into prints. The quality of the final pictures will be affected by the quality of the development process and the establishment that processes them. While corner stores offer a quick turnaround, a professional photography establishment will be able to offer much higher quality for film and prints at an associated price. Any amount of prints can be made from a negative. Due to their small size, storing a large amount of negatives easy, but careful storage and organisation is needed because it is unsurprisingly difficult to identify a particular photo by its negative.

Compared to digital formats, one of the disadvantages often associated with film cameras is the inability to view the results of the photograph immediately on a computer. Despite this fact, many photography courses start their students off with film cameras. This is partly to give the students an appreciation of the development of photography over history, but it can also benefit their technical abilities. Delaying the review of the photographic results encourages students to use the viewfinder and other associated tools to make the best photograph they can.

With the costs of buying new films, developing them and buying prints many people would assume that the cost of film photography would be higher than that of digital, but there are several factors to consider. Firstly, a good film camera will last a lifetime. With digital cameras, there is always the pressure to upgrade to the latest and greatest model with a bigger sensor and ever more megapixels. This is not such a big factor with film cameras where the ability to change films and lenses can have a big impact on the quality of the photographs, leaving the body of the camera untouched.

Another way to combat the costs of film photography is for photographers to develop their own negatives. This is a difficult and potentially dangerous operation so it is important to make sure that proper training and supervision has been provided.

Finding Film Cameras on eBay

Aside from using the powerful keyword search on eBay, film cameras can be found by navigating the categories. Starting at the All Categories link, click the link to the Electronics shop. From here, go to the Cameras & Photgraphy page, and then to the All Categories page. Here there is an easy link to the Film Cameras page.


For an outsider who has entered the world of photography in the last couple of years, it may appear that film is an outdated medium. This is not the case, however. Film photography still has many advantages over digital. It offers a level of customisation and control that digital cameras can't match, but with this comes a certain amount of dedication and willingness to learn. At the end of the day the choice between digital and film photography is a personal one that should be made based on a user's needs, but it is definitely worth every photographer's time to give this exciting and versatile medium a chance to shine.

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