When I got back into film photography in 2019, my knowledge of shooting film was meager. I still remembered the basics of using a camera, but I knew nothing about developing film or the nuances of exposure, metering, using filters, hyperfocal distance, and other essential topics. Naturally, I looked at YouTube and searched for books. My problem with many YouTube presenters is they usually talk too much for the amount of information they impart. I tried books, but overwhelmingly, most books were aimed at digital shooters with long chapters on fixing things in Photoshop. I wanted to do things the old-fashioned way, so those books helped very little. The best book I encountered was Photography, Sixth Edition by London and Upton. Since it was written before the digital revolution, most of the discussion was directed at using film. One more indicator that film is making a comeback is the release of books aimed specifically at film shooters.
Over the last 18 months, I bought two film-specific books, The Film Photography Handbook: Rediscovering Photography in 35mm, Medium, and Large Format and Mastering Film Photography: The Definitive Guide for Photographers. A third book, Shooting Film: Everything You Need to Know About Analogue Photography, was complimentary from the publisher. I wish I’d had these books in 2019.
All general photography books share a common format. There are chapters on camera types, film emulsions, the exposure triangle, and composition. From these topics, digitally-focused books go on to cover sensors and post-processing techniques, while film-focused books discuss developing, printing, and scanning. Books are distinguished by the sub-topics they choose to focus on, and each of these three books offers a different take on learning film photography.
The Film Photography Handbook
I would classify The Film Photography Handbook as a reference. It is also the most text-oriented (more words than images) of the three books. The chapters on cameras, emulsions, and exposure address key concepts at a helpful level of detail. For example, a good introduction to medium format photography is given, but little about the specifics of any given camera. The exposure chapter addresses the basic concepts of f-stops, metering methods (incident, reflective), and types of different meters, including apps. The chapter on film covers the usual topics: ISO, types of film (e.g., orthochromatic, panchromatic), and adds good coverage of specific emulsions.
Developing, printing, scanning, and mounting are the areas where The Film Photography Handbook shines. These chapters offer in-depth discussions of various developers (including a recipe for caffenol). There are tutorials (with images) on loading film into developing tanks, developing, troubleshooting, pushing, and pulling. The post-processing chapter covers scanning in detail using Epson Scan software. As someone who started developing and scanning after haven taken a darkroom class, I wish they had suggested this book as a course text. In fact, the chapters “In the Laboratory,” “Post-Processing,” and “Presentation” alone are reason enough to buy this book.
Mastering Film Photography
Unlike The Film Photography Handbook, Mastering Film Photography is image-oriented. Beautiful images are found throughout the book. Of course, it has the perfunctory chapters on camera type and emulsions. The film chapter has slightly more detail about color film and much less information about specific emulsions. Mastering Film Photography shines in the chapters on exposure, flash usage, and filters. The images really help bring out the concepts discussed in the text. The exposure chapter is one of the best and easiest to understand that I have encountered. The section on meters and apps is thin, but the rest of the chapter is a good introduction to the fundamental concepts.
The flash chapter is a basic introduction with enough information to give the reader an idea of what is involved, techniques, and types of flash units. However, this is not the chapter to use to master flash photography.
I really like the filters chapters. It has enough images to clearly illustrate how filters affect the final image. Also, the section on ND (neutral density) filters has enough detail that one can immediately experiment after reading it. The book’s penultimate chapter is dedicated to pinhole photography. I’m not sure how large the audience is for this content, but it does separate this book from similar introductory works.
Like Mastering Film Photography, Shooting Film is also image-oriented, which makes sense for a photography book. While Shooting Film has the standard chapters on camera types and such, each chapter also includes a “Pro View” insert that adds the author’s personal views and experience to the generic discussion. So, for example, instead of just a review of camera types, we get to hear which cameras she owns and why she likes them. Such insights might be helpful to those still choosing a camera.
The emulsion chapter has as much about film types as The Film Photography Handbook, as well as the author’s explanation (Pro View) of why she prefers specific emulsions. Here again, I found the personal insights interesting if not helpful because I have used most of those discussed. But for someone new to film, the chapter might offer valuable insights. Coverage of metering, filters, bracketing, developing, and printing offer basic insights, so this is not the text to use to gain in-depth knowledge of these topics.
A brief section on advanced techniques gives examples of zoom bursts and creative light flaws (e.g., leak, flare), pushing, and such, but they have just enough content to make one seek out more elsewhere. The “Film Communities” and “DIY Camera Kits” sections offer content that is unique among the three books. Film Communities has a collection of websites devoted to film blogs and news and a section on stores that offer products for film photography. Each listing contains sites that took me months to stumble on, so these lists are definitely a worthwhile inclusion. I can’t say much about DIY kits, as those hold no interest for me.
The final section contains brief case studies of various photographers’ paths into film photography. They are very short but make for pleasant reading, just as the Pro View sections found in each chapter. I would say reading about the author’s journey within the field of photography is one of the book’s main attractions.
These books overlap enough that it is difficult to make firm recommendations. And, obviously, my views are influenced by my learning film photography for the last three years. Here goes nothing:
Shooting Film is a good bet if you are an absolute beginner who just bought your first camera and know nothing about photography. It is a gentle introduction that covers all the essential topics, illustrates them well, and provides a list of websites where one can interact with other film photographers and access film-related products. The Pro View sections also make for good reading.
If you have been using your camera for a while (have maybe 20-30 rolls under your belt) and want to try more advanced techniques with meters and filters, or start using a flash, then Mastering Film Photography has information you can use. Multiple exposures, metering for highlights or shadows, when to use a yellow filter—if you have been thinking about these topics, this book offers succinct explanations with good images.
Ready to Develop and Scan
The Film Photography Handbook is best for those who have experience shooting film, are versed in the basics, and now wish to start developing, printing, and scanning. It covers these topics with sufficient depth to get one started. Also, there is plenty of advanced content–I’m seriously considering making caffenol.
Want to Exhibit at the Guggenheim One Day
Want your name on a marquee? If so, a thorough grounding in photographic principles is in order. I recommend Photography, Sixth Edition by London and Upton because it discusses all important topics in-depth and in the context of film photography, including studio lighting, the Zone system, composition, and other advanced topics. While it is an introductory text, it provides all the concepts needed to learn more and grow. It remains my hands-down favorite photography book for film.
If you want suggestions for more specialized books–still life, macrophotography, Zone system, studio lighting, and such, take a peek at the General Photography Resources Page here on EarthSunFilm.
What photography books do you like?