Starting out with Film | Tutorial by Gretchen Willis

Shooting film is my zen. I love hearing the shutter click, and that sexy sound of the film advancing. It’s more than just the sound of the camera, though. Shooting film is all about slowing down… knowing I just have a finite number of frames to capture my vision… carefully choosing my composition and lighting.

I got started out with film simply: A friend was selling his Canon AE-1Program and, being a diehard Canon fan, I was intrigued. Part of me wondered if I could just use the lenses with an adapter on my DSLR, and save some money on glass. But how I ended up using that camera – completely by happenstance – changed how I shoot. Heck, it changed how I think.

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

Starting out wasn’t easy at first. There’s a plethora of information about starting with a DSLR. But starting with film? I didn’t know where to look. I mean, who shoots film anymore??? When I tried to ask people about it, I got looks like I’d just asked to drink sour milk. WHY would I want to do THAT?!?!?!

Once I made myself completely transparent, confessing that I knew nothing but was eager to learn, I found some experienced film shooters who led me by the hand. I found books at my local library that – although dated – contained all the information I needed to learn. See, the thing is, the technology of film shooting hasn’t changed in the last 50 years. What worked back then STILL works today.

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

So what kind of questions did I ask? How did I move forward? Let me share what I have learned….

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

What kind of film should I buy?
I usually tell film newbies to start off with consumer film: Kodak Gold and Fuji Superia. If they want to try black and white film, I suggest Tri-X. I believe, there will always be time for more expensive, pro-level film. When just starting out, it’s worthwhile to cut your teeth on film that costs half as much.

Once a photographer has learned about exposure, shadows, and the intricacies of any particular camera, I recommend Portra 400 or Fuji Pro400H. Those two films both produce beautiful results. Portra, in particular, is very forgiving and can be under-exposed or over-exposed without ruining the images.

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

What kind of equipment do I need?
Obviously, a film camera. Modern 35mm film cameras can accept the lenses you are currently using on your DSLR. They also offer autofocus, so in that way they will feel very similar to your current camera. Classic cameras come in 35mm as well as 120 (also called Medium Format). 120 film has a varying number of exposures per roll, depending on if your medium format camera shoots 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, or even 6×9. You should also get a handheld light meter. Internal light meters can be finicky and a handheld meter will teach you about light and how it falls on a subject.

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

Where do I get my film developed?
Depending on where you live (metropolitan area vs. small town) you may have options you didn’t even know about. Some Walgreens, Costco, and Sam’s stores still develop color film! That’s one option, but probably not the best. The upside: you get it back quickly. The downside: the employees are oftentimes not familiar with developing chemicals and since developing film is not as common anymore, those chemicals don’t get changed as often as they should. Another option is to take your film to a local Pro camera shop. Quite often these shops still develop film and are arguably more knowledgeable about film, chemicals, etc. A third option – and most popular among my film friends – is to send your film away to a pro developing lab. The turnaround time is longer, but the results are more reliable and usually much much better. Popular film labs in the US are The FIND Lab, Indie Film Lab, Richards Photo Labs, Pro Photo Irvine, and a less-expensive option is

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

What is this “pushing” and “pulling” I hear about?
Pushing and pulling are terms related to development times. A film that’s underexposed when shot, will benefit from having some “extra exposure” in the developing tank. To balance out one stop of underexposure in camera, a film can be “pushed” (or, left in the developing chemicals) for extra time, to bring the net exposure up to -0-. This would be compared with taking an underexposed digital image, shot in RAW, and adding one stop of exposure in post-processing. “Pulling” is just the opposite: pulling the film out of the developer tank earlier than it normally should be pulled to finish development. Pulling film will balance out film that’s been overexposed when shooting. Some people purposely over- or underexpose their film, depending on the look they want. So in a case like that, you just let your lab develop the images as they are shot.

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

Can I edit my images after getting them back?
For a long time, I thought shooting film meant, “once I snap the shutter, that’s it. It’s ‘in the can’ so to speak. Editing photos is only for digital cameras, right? I mean, isn’t that the point of shooting film? Less editing?” Well, yes and no. The benefit of shooting film is that, when it’s exposed correctly, the images will have near-perfect white balance and will handle highlights and shadows much better than their digital counterparts. Sometimes, though, we want a specific look and that might require some dodging and burning, or some brightening of shadows, etc. Whatever the reason, there’s no rule about editing film images – just make photos that make you happy.

Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos Shooting with Film - Gretchen Willis #filmphotography #photographybywomen #inbeautyandchaos

I have loved learning about shooting film because it forced me to slow down and think about my craft. Besides that, I love the idea that I’m learning how to shoot in the same way that photographers learned years ago. I now have a kindred link to master photographers from the past. It’s amazing to think that I have something in common with other incredible artists. Shooting film gave me back my photography happy place and that’s what it’s all about.


Gretchen Willis - biobubblesGretchen Willis is a teacher, volunteer, photographer, wife, mom, friend, and lover of all things chocolate. Not necessarily in that order. She shoots in her rural backyard of southern Wisconsin, taking the occasional client but she mainly shoots the people who pay her in hugs and kisses.

Gretchen has a recently published an ebook, which you can find for sale in the B&C Store. It’s titled “A Photography Love Letter to your Children”, filled with inspiration and solid advice. Find it HERE.
Visit her website at

Add a comment...

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

  • Kim PetersonApril 14, 2015 - 11:27 am

    Love this, Gretchen!!! I wish I could have read it a month or two ago before I shot my first roll lol. It answers all the questions I had then. Your images are absolutely gorgeous too!!ReplyCancel

  • Julie KiernanApril 14, 2015 - 11:30 am

    Gorgeous work! As you’ve shown, film captures light so beautifully. I love shooting film for many of the same reasons.ReplyCancel

  • Léa Lebrun JonesApril 14, 2015 - 3:27 pm

    lovely post Gretchen!ReplyCancel

  • Summer CatesApril 14, 2015 - 4:47 pm

    Thank you for this, and these images are stunning!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah Anne KiblerApril 14, 2015 - 5:37 pm

    This is great! I love that you gave a simple explanation about, why film? in addition to the connection and love for the camer – “The benefit of shooting film is that, when it’s exposed correctly, the images will have near-perfect white balance and will handle highlights and shadows much better than their digital counterparts.”ReplyCancel

  • soniaApril 14, 2015 - 6:37 pm

    This is fantastic, thank you for sharing your journey! Definitely some of the same reasons I started shooting film. Great idea using consumer film first before exploring pro film. The cost definitely adds up!ReplyCancel

  • Lauren Humphreys EckardApril 14, 2015 - 6:37 pm

    I love it Gretchen! Great read!ReplyCancel

  • LaurenApril 14, 2015 - 7:04 pm

    I waited all day to read this! I loved every word of it… it completely resonated with me. Thanks for sharing all your wisdom and your beautiful photos. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Jill Camacho QuashApril 14, 2015 - 9:56 pm

    Great read!! Thanks for posting this. Your photos are gorgeous!ReplyCancel

  • Ginny TuckerApril 14, 2015 - 10:20 pm

    So inspirational! What a wonderful post.ReplyCancel

  • Ziona BothmaApril 15, 2015 - 9:18 am

    Thank you, Gretchen. That really helped me understand ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ film and why it’s done. I have the gear, but also the fear and literally took 1 shot and haven’t picked up my camera again, but this really helped. Sometimes you just need someone else to explain it for it to click 😉ReplyCancel

  • Gracie Blue DinwiddieApril 15, 2015 - 2:00 pm

    Great post and gorgeous photos 🙂ReplyCancel