5 Film Photography Concepts You Need to Know by John Adams III

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Written by John Adams III

In any hobby or creative pursuit, there are foundational terms that you need to know in order to better understand the process.

Film photography is no different!

Below, you’ll find 5 concepts that anyone getting into film photography should familiarize themselves with.

5 Film Photography Concepts You Need to Know
5 Film Photography Concepts You Need to Know
Medium format film image of a window - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Portra 400

1. Rating Your Film and Shooting Box Speed

Rating your film is deciding what ISO to shoot your film. When you rate your film, you’re making a decision to underexpose, overexpose, or shoot your film normally.

Rating your film at box speed means to set your ISO to the same speed as your film. Rating Kodak Portra 400 at box speed is setting the ISO on your camera or light meter to 400.

But you can also rate your film at an ISO that does not match the speed of your film. Rating your film lower than box speed would overexposure your film, and rating it higher than box speed would underexposure it.

For example, if I load a roll of Kodak Portra 400 into my camera and set the ISO selector in-camera to 200, I have “rated” my film at 200. This will overexpose my roll of film by one stop of light.

If I decide to rate a roll of Kodak Portra 400 at 400 ISO, I am shooting at box speed – the suggested ISO for that type of film.

If I am shooting a roll of Kodak Portra 400 and set my ISO on my camera or light meter to 800 ISO, I have “rated” my film at 800. This will underexpose my roll of film by one stop of light.

Rating is a technique that can be used to over or underexposed your film for creative and aesthetic purposes.

You can read about rating and metering in more detail here.

Medium format film portrait - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Portra 400
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2. Scanning Your Film

Scanning is the process by which your film is digitized and converted into a format where it can be viewed online.

Traditionally, your photos could only be viewed by making prints from the negative in a darkroom, or by using a slide projector in the case of slide film. Nowadays, scanning allows you to view your photos without having to make prints unless you desire to do so.

There are two main ways to scan film at home: the flatbed method or the DSLR method. Each method has its own specific benefits and disadvantages.

If you send your film our to a lab for developing, the majority of labs will also scan your negatives for you and send you the digital files of your film scans.

35mm film image of a plane - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Minolta SRT and Kodak Portra 400
35mm film image of a plane - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Minolta SRT and Kodak Portra 400

3. Pushing and Pulling Your Film

Pushing and pulling are techniques done during the film development process in which you increase or decrease development time.

Pushing Film

Pushing is done when a roll has been intentionally underexposed and extra time is needed in development to compensate for some of the effects of underexposure and achieve a quality image.

For example, let’s say I have a roll of Fuji Superia 400 loaded in my camera and am intending to shoot outside at golden hour. Regretfully, when I arrive at the shoot, clouds have rolled in blocking out the little bit of sunlight left in the day.

This change in lighting condition renders my 400 speed film useless because there’s no longer enough light.

In this situation, I can set my camera’s ISO dial and/or light meter to 800 – tricking my camera into thinking I’m shooting 800 speed film. Shooting my film at 800 allows me to adjust to the new low light conditions.

Once the roll is complete, I can then ask my lab to push the roll one stop, 400 ISO to 800 ISO.

When pushing film, you can expect added contrast, more visible grain, and potential color shifts.

You can read about pushing film in more detail here.

Medium format double exposure - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67

Pulling Film

Pulling film is the opposite of pushing. It is done when a roll has been intentionally overexposed and less time is needed in development to achieve a quality image.

In this example, I have a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 loaded and am wanting to take some portraits of a friend outside. It’s a bright sunny day out, and I want to take a portrait of my friend at f/4, to achieve a blurred background.

When metering, I find that there’s too much light to shoot at that aperture and 400 speed film.

Just like in the pushing example, I can trick my camera by setting the ISO dial and/or my light meter to 100 – this tells my camera that I’m now shooting 100 speed film. Now, I can shoot at a much wider aperture because my camera/light meter thinks I am shooting a slower film.

Once the roll is complete, I ask the lab to pull the roll two stops.

Pulling film can create a flatter image (less contrast) and can mute colors. It can also result in less grain and more shadow detail.

Medium format film portrait - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Portra 400

4. The Format of Your Film

Film has been available in a multitude of types and sizes over the years.

Some of these types, like 110 film and 620 film are still around but less popular than others. Some types, like 126 amd APS cartridge film, are essentially discontinued these days.

The format of a film is simply the size and type of your film. Film cameras generally shoot in only one format.

Familiarizing yourself with film formats will help you become more educated when searching for a new camera and can help you form a deeper understanding of your current camera.

35mm Film

35mm cameras take 35mm format film, which is the most accessible and most popular option.

35mm film comes loaded in plastic containers designed to make it easy to load and unload. 35mm rolls come in 24 or 36 exposure options making it great if you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck when shooting film.

Certain 35mm film cameras can shoot in half frame format, which will double the amount of exposures by cutting each in half, and some, like Lomography’s Sprocket Rocket, shoot in a panoramic format giving you beautiful wide shots, but less per roll.

35mm film image of a plane - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Minolta SRT and Kodak Portra 400
35mm film image of a city street - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Minolta SRT and Kodak Portra 400

Medium Format Film

Medium format film cameras take 120 film.

120 film can be shot in different formats depending on which camera it being used in. These formats from shortest to longest are 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 and 6×17.

The numbers in each ratio describe the length and height in centimeters, the height being 6 cm in all formats and the length being different depending on which format is chosen.

Each format will give your final image a unique look: 6×6 format results in a square look and 6×7 format results in an image with similar proportions to an 8×10 sheet of paper.

You can read more about medium format film photography here.

Medium format film image of two people with foreheads touching - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Tri-X
Medium format film portrait - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Portra 400

Large Format Film

Large format is the biggest size you can shoot your film. It traditionally comes in two formats, 4×5 and 8×10.

Because of its size, large format film comes in sheet format instead of rolls, and is sometimes referred to as sheet film.

Large format is popular among some photographers because of the level of detail you can achieve when shooting a negative that big. Large format cameras also have specialized functions that allow you to customize the focus, depth of field and angles of your image.

If you’re interested in how to get started shooting large format, this article has a lot of helpful info.

Medium format film portrait - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Portra 800

5. The Type of Film Camera

One of the coolest things about film photography is the endless amount of cameras out there that you can use.

In general, there are five main categories of cameras in the analog world, each with its own specifications that set them apart from other categories.

Point and Shoot Film Cameras

Point and shoot cameras are synonymous with film photography. These cameras allow you to shoot a properly exposed and focused image without the need to mess with any settings at all.

If you want to get into photography but don’t have the patience to learn shutter speed, aperture, and all that jazz, this is the camera for you.

A quality point and shoot camera can be had for a nominal price but be aware than many are made with inexpensive parts and can be known to fail.

35mm film image of a plane - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Minolta SRT and Kodak Portra 400
35mm film image of a plane - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Minolta SRT

Instant Film Camera

Instant cameras are a unique type of camera that develops your film in seconds after taking the image.

In general, these cameras don’t have as many settings as other types of cameras, and they operate similar to point and shoot cameras.

Polaroid is keeping this type of film camera alive as is Fujifilm with their Instax series of cameras.

SLR Film Cameras

In single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, light enters through the lens, bounces off of a mirror, bounces off of a prism, and then goes through the viewfinder into your eyeball.

When you’re ready to take a photo and press the shutter, the mirror flips up exposing the film to the light you were just looking at, and then that image is captured by light sensitive crystals in the film.

DSLRs (digital single lens reflex cameras) work the same way except instead of the light hitting a piece of film, they come in contact with a digital sensor.

This is the most common and widely available type of film camera. Popular 35mm film cameras like the Canon AE-1, Nikon FM2, and Pentax K1000 are all SLRs.

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Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Portra 400

TLR Film Cameras

Twin Lens Reflex cameras work much the same as SLRs except instead of one lens, they have two.

The top lens, called the viewing lens, is used to preview and compose the scene, while the bottom lens, called the taking lens, contains the shutter and takes the actual picture.

These cameras often only accept 120 film.

The Rolleiflex 2.8F and Yashica Mat 124-G are popular examples of TLRs.

Rangefinder Film Cameras

Rangefinders are different in that you view the scene through a viewing window that is next to the lens. So, what you see isn’t exactly what will be recorded by the film.

Focusing is done with a mechanism unique to rangefinders and not with the actual lens itself.

Rangefinders are popular because they do not have a mirror, which makes the camera more quiet (great for street photography!), and they are also more compact when compared to other types of analog cameras.

Lecia makes the most well known rangefinders, such as the Leica M6.

Knowing what type of cameras are available to you and how they differentiate from each other can help you choose the best tool for your own personal photographic journey.

Medium format film image of a light in a room - 5 Film Photography Terms by John Adams on Shoot It With Film
Mamiya RZ67 and Kodak Ektachrome 100

Thank you so much, John! John is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, such as a 11 Amazing Film Photographers Share Their Best Tips for Shooting Film and the best light meter app for film photography. You can also check out more of John’s work on his website and Instagram.

If you have questions, leave them below in the comments, and you can check out all of our film photography tutorials here.

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John Adams III

John Adams III is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find his other articles here, such as a review for the Mamiya RZ67 medium format film camera and the best light meter app for film photography.

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