The cheap bastard guide to (film) photography: introduction

The cheap bastard guide to film photography

If you’re a beginner that never touched a camera before or a digital shooter that wants to dip his toe in the vast pond of film photography you may feel overwhelmed with the amount of choices you face.

After all film cameras have been around quite a bit, so you may find them in all shapes, formats and prices. Where to start? This guide is for you!

I will treat each film format separately, and recommend when possible at least three alternatives: under 50€, under 100/200€ and under 500€. Like I said the choices are many, so I will exclusively talk about cameras and lenses I personally used, or of which I’ve seen examples first hand.

By the way, while 500€ is not by any mean cheap, you have to put things in context: it is still the average price of a good quality compact camera, and less than the price of a decent smartphone.

Especially if you are a complete beginner, you may have trouble just choosing with which format to shoot. There are no rules set in stone, meaning that you can use a large format camera for street photography or shoot landscapes with a 35mm. But below are the most common choices:

Street photography & Reportage

This is the realm of 35mm film. You may also consider “fast” medium format rangefinders like the Fuji GS645.



In this case medium format is your best bet.



From 35mm to large format, mostly depending on the style you want to pursue and if you prefer dynamic or more static, posed shots.

 Pentax 67


At least medium format, if not large format. That said, a master like Galen Rowell used 35mm cameras for portability.



You will need probably lots of movements, so shooting large format is recommended.


When it comes to choosing what kind of lenses you want to buy you should look at a critical selection of your pictures – the ones you like the most – and compile a small “statistic” of the focal lenght you used the most.

If you are a total beginner you better do the same, but using pictures shot from photography masters or, at the very least, you’ve selected from sites like Flickr, 500px etc. and dividing the results for wide-angles, normal lenses and tele – just check the EXIF datas.

And now a preview of how this series will develop – the links will become active once the corresponding post is online:


Part I: 35mm
Part II: Medium format
Part III: Large format
Part IV: Films and developers
Part V: Digitizing the pictures


Next time we’ll start with the 35mm.


How to: semi-stand development in Rodinal

Foma Fomapan 100 in Rodinal semi-stand 1+200

Full disclosure: I’m badly biased in favor of Rodinal.

If you don’t know it (but it has been around from the end of the 19th century…) it is one of the best black and white film developers out there, and these are its pros and cons:



Amazing tonalities with almost any film
Super-sharp results
Infinitely scalable contrast
It lasts years without spoiling
Ultra cheap – you need only tiny amounts of it


For the same reason of point 2 of the PROS list it will emphasize the film grain


The – only – con(s) needs a bit of explanation. First of all it depends quite a bit from your agitation scheme too. Secondly more than enlarging the grain the Rodinal tends to render it in a sharper and more “honest” way, giving the single grain clumps a peppery aspect.

Given that, like I said, this developer it is going around from the late 1800s the original Afga patent is long expired. So you can actually find “Rodinal” sold under a lot of different brand names, but almost every one will refer to it, somewhere in the description, with its original, “real” name. And if you want you can also make it yourself, in the best DIY spirit, starting with a bit of paracetamol (a hint: search the web for “Parodinal” if you’re interested in the recipe).

Shanghai GP3 in Rodinal semi-stand 1+200

I like to use this amazing jake of all trades of developer at almost any dilution, depending on the light on the scene, the film I’m using, how lazy I feel that particular day and so on.

At this regard I will publish in an upcoming post a list of films / developers combinations that in my opinion tends to produce really beautiful results, so stay tuned. But a combo is my bread and butter, the one to which I default more often that I care to admit.

I’m talking obviously about the one mentioned in the title: Rodinal semi-stand at a dilution of 1+200 – yes, it is not a typo, TWO-HUNDRED; I said it was ultra cheap to use! In practice you dilute 5 milliliters of Rodinal in 1 liter of water, and you’re set. With this amount you can develop up to 2 rolls of 135mm or 120.

The full procedure will be carried in semi-stand development, and in detail it is composed of the following steps:


Step by step

1  Pre-soak = 5 / 10 minutes (depending on the film you use)
Fill the tank with water and let it rest; change it a couple of times until it comes out clear

 Developer = 2 hours (yes, 120 minutes)
Agitate the first 30 seconds, and then again invert the tank a couple of times at the 60 minutes mark (this is to avoid the bromide drag, a border effect similar to a bad sharpening halo between high contrast regions)

3  Stop bath = 1 minute
Just plain water; it is an optional passage, mostly to prolong the fixer solution life

4  Fixer = 4 / 5 minutes (depending on the dilution you use)
Agitate the first 10 seconds and then 5 inversions every 30 seconds

5  Wash = use the Ilford archival method
Fill the tank and do 5 gentle inversions, then refill and do 10 inversions, refill one last time and invert the tank 20 times. This will guarantee – per Ilford research center – archival quality without wasting water

6  Photoflo (wetting agent) = 2 minutes
Use 2 / 4 drops of Photoflo – or of a neuter PH dish soap -, fill the tank agitating it for 1 minute to create foam and let it rest for another 30-60 seconds

7  Hang the film to dry

8  Scan the film


Shanghai GP3 in Rodinal semi-stand 1+200

What makes the semi-stand development in general, and in Rodinal more so, special is the enormous quantity of information you can pull out of your films. The semi-stand process act as a compensator, so you will be left with a huge, and vastly customizable after scanning, tonality scale on your negative. Just to be clear: a digital file, even an HDR one, doesn’t come near not even in the least. At the same time, though, thanks to the characteristics of the Rodinal, you will not sacrifice the details; quite the opposite.

Summing up: you will get the true, only and original “raw” file that, after careful scanning – preferably with an high end scanner or using a digital camera with my method -, you will be able to interpret to your heart content, sure that each and every light value you may need will be on film – so no more blown out highlights, blocked out shadow or stepped histograms!

And as added bonuses not only you will have a lot of room to spare at the time of the exposure, even if you like to “guess” the exposure or using the reference card inside the film boxes; but you will also get to enjoy the time you would otherwise have spent agitating the tank with your significant other / friends / children – take a pick!

Give it a try, and I’m sure you will be hooked.


How to adjust infinity focus using a camera as a collimator

Rolleicord III

When you buy an used camera, especially a very old one, chances are that the focus will be out of whack. Sometime it will be off just a bit, other times a lot.

The procedure to adjust it varies from camera to camera, but in every case you will have to find a suitable target – i.e. a subject truly at infinity – to achieve a correct focus.

This, especially if you live as I do in a city surrounded by mountains, can be a bit difficult. One of the best way is focusing on the full moon; unless you are into astronophotography you will not find on Earth – literally – a subject more at infinity than the moon. Unfortunately to do so you will have to wait for a night of full moon, hoping that will not be cloudy and that nobody will take you for a crazy person 😉

Luckily there is a much simpler, if less known way: using a collimator. “What? And I should buy an expensive piece of equipment just to check my infinity focus? No way!” – I can hear you all saying. What you don’t know is that, if you happen to have a camera and a tele lens, you already own a collimator…

Here you can see a focus check performed on a nice Rolleicord – the poor man version of the Rolleiflex TLR cameras. All you have to do is:

1) tape a piece of ground glass* with a couple of lines marked on – a pencil will suffice – to the film plane of the camera whose focus you want to check (with a TLR like the Rolleicord you will have to check, obviously, also the viewing lens). This is critical: remember to tape the ground glass with the matt** side against the film plane.

ground glass attachment

2) point a flashlight – preferably a LED one because are way brighter – or a table lamp straight into the ground glass; the lens has to be at full aperture and the shutter locked with a remote release in B or T

shining a flashlight in the back of the camera

3) point your other camera with a tele lens set to its infinity stop and at full aperture mounted on straight into the lens of the camera you want to adjust. Focus the lens on the camera you want to check to infinity. When / if the lines on the ground glass will appear sharp well, congratulations, you have lab-perfect infinity focus. Otherwise you will have to adjust your camera – not the “collimator” camera! -, following the specific instruction for its model, until you can see the lines are sharp.

checking the focus

To adjust the viewing lens of a TLR you follow the same procedure, except that this time the flashlight goes straight on the ground glass in the waist level finder.

checking the viewing lens

For this job a Sony Nex is perfect because it lets you zoom up to 14x, so you can actually see the surface grain of the ground glass; with such magnification spotting even minor faults in the focus becomes trivial. I tend to use mine with a cheap but really good Minolta MD 135mm f/3,5, that on the Nex is equivalent to a 200mm on a full frame.

Now the Xenar of my two old Rolleicord are sharp as a tack! Talk about old lenses…

*I’ve seen pretty much everything used for this purpose on the net, from scratched cd jewel cases to masking tape. Please, do yourself a favor and by a piece of real ground glass for a couple of euro! The plane of focus has to be perfectly flat, so jewel cases or – worse – tape do not work… After all you haven’t shell out all that money for a high quality camera to take unsharp pictures!

**Troubles identifying the matt side? Orient the glass to catch the reflection of an open window: if you can clearly see the window image in it this is the glossy side, if you can just see a “blob” of light then that is the matt side

How to take pictures in the mountains

Madonna delle Armi

Taking pictures in the mountains is probably the most daunting task in landscape photography. It is difficult to get good results because you will face a lot of extra troubles. Here I will summarize the most important points, but keep in mind that mountains can be wildly different from each other. For the landscape photographer it is not the same, for example, if the mountaintops are full of trees or bare; in the first case to get a successful panorama will be nearly impossible.

1: Weight weight weight

This i perhaps the most important point, often overlooked by folks used to take pictures in more “easy” places. Unless you plan to photograph only in the proximity of your car, you will have to keep the weight at the minimum. This does not mean buying expensive, especially designed new gear (sorry guys, you will have to find another excuse to justify the next purchase to your wife). This means thinking before leaving home and “study the terrain” to choose the right tools for the job.

The only exception to the no-new-purchases rule is the tripod. Most of us when we choose a tripod buy the most stable, and this often means an hefty one. For the sake of your back, and to be able to enjoy the hike, you will better served by one of the many light-but-still-stable tripods out there, like the Gitzo carbon line (expensive), a Benro Flat series (stable, light, cheap and it folds flat) or even a wooden one, like the Berlebach’s models.

Tree trunks

2: Messy

With “messy” I’m not referring to the obvious presence of dust & dirt in a mountain environment, but to the fact that thanks to the sheer amount of branches, plants, weeds etc. will be difficult to “crop” a clear, nice, minimalistic framing. Taking beautiful pictures of places like a desert or the sea, by comparison, is a breeze. In the mountains you will find, no matter what, some distracting element in your frame. Sometimes you will be able to cut it off, either figuratively or literally (things like a straw or a blade of grass, for example).

Oftentimes you will have to modify the framing again and again…till you get it right. In the worst possible outcome you will discover some “unwanted presence” only at home, when you will be looking at your freshly minted pictures on the 21″ or 30″ screen of you home computer, instead of squinting at them on the 3″ display of the camera.

 Rovalicchio stream


3: No gold light

Yep, usually during the best hours for photography  – dawn and sunset – the surrounding mountains will block the sunlight, so your subject will simply be unlit or in deep shades, not coated with a golden glow. Still, depending on the location of the subject, in some place it may be convenient to shoot at gold light hours. Maybe the light will not be so warm (but with a bit of post-processing…), but the shadows will be long, dark and fascinating all the same. As usual with mountain landscape photography you will have to know the subject!


4: In the woods

Taking pictures in the woods has advantages and disadvantages. For one, you will have to worry less about the light; often the best days are the one with an overcast sky. On the other hand, a sunny day can be pretty interesting too, even if more often than not you will have to merge multiple shots – making an HDR – to avoid blowing the highlights.

In the woods the messiness often reaches sky-high levels. You will have to be extremely careful with you composition. Another difficulty will be to keep the tree trunks straight. For this can be very useful a shift lens, or a large format camera.

5: Panoramas

Technically, shooting panoramas is trivial nowadays, thanks to excellent software and digital cameras. But if your view is obstructed by trees or weeds all the technique in this world will not give you a picture. So it is paramount, again, to know the subject, ideally scouting the location in advance. Sometimes Google Maps and the like work like a charm for this – just remember to enable the isometric (altitude) curves. And do not discount automatically the various “panoramic points”; yes, a ton of people take pictures from them, but they will most likely not have your fantasy nor your expertise.

6:  Macros

I’m not a fan of the genre, so I’ll keep it short, but is probably one of the most fruitful (photographic) manners to spend time in the woods. Without walking too much you will be able to meet a lot of opportunities for beautiful images.


7: Lens & Cameras

This will depends on: a) the knowledge you have of the subject / place; b) your stylistic preferences; c) the quality level you need. This days, for the average (even professional) user this will mean a DSLR or a mirrorless with 2-3 lenses and a tripod. Obviously if you’ve got an Hasselblad and a PhaseOne back be my guest! But then: why are you reading this post?

Use of a tripod is mandatory, not optional; especially in the woods the light is pretty thin, and you will often want to close the aperture to extend the depth of field. Cranking the Iso will not do the trick, and moreover the tripod will be essential to compose a “clean” picture in the visually messy mountain environment and to make multiple aligned shots – to merge in a panorama or in a HDR image to compensate for excessive contrasts.

I tend to stick with one of those kits:

a) 24mm or 35mm shift + 85mm or 105mm

b) 20mm + 35mm shift + 60mm + 180mm or 100-300mm.

I usually carry the “b kit” if I don’t know the place I’m going too well, to cover all my bases. At the opposite side of the spectrum, when I know the place I’m going well enough, I often wind up carrying specific piece of equipment / lenses; this because I have a clear idea of the kind of pictures I’ll going to shoot.

8: Stitching

Stitching is really easy now, so I strongly suggest you give it a try. Landscape photographies often thrive on the detail, so a better quality is always welcome. The only caveat here is not to shoot for the sake of a big, detailed picture. You have to visualize the resulting image in your head, then shoot its “sections”, not the other way around. Otherwise you will end up with a series of wonderfully detailed, boring images – been there, done that.

Mist on Pino Collito

9: Bad weather

Bad weather is often the best backdrop for your pictures. But it is bad for you and for your cameras. So, first thing first, be sure to be safe, warm, dry and well hydrated; only then think to take pictures. You will have to protect your cameras and lenses too. The simplest and cheapest solution is to buy some transparent plastic bag; you can use whatever bag you like, as long it is watertight, but given how cheap the photographic ones are it doesn’t make sense to skimp on a few bucks. I’ve bought Optex branded bags, and they are really well made, with a nice cord that you can tighten around the lens-hood.

Another good idea is to keep a few packets of silica gel in the bag / rucksack compartment in which you keep your camera and lenses, this to absorb moisture. And, especially if it is cold, don’t forget extra batteries! For multi-days hikes I use a solar power charger. It is not fast, but you can hung it on the backpack and it will charge its internal battery / accumulator as you walk; then, in the evening, when you stop to camp, you will connect the camera batteries to the accumulator and let them charge.

10: Seasons

The “creative” problems you will have to face will not be the same in the various seasons.


  • The winter is probably the most easy, photographically speaking. The landscape is less messy, and if there is snow is pretty easy to spot beautiful, streamlined compositions.

Spring in the Tasso Forest

  • The spring is, at the opposite, the messiest season: there will be an awful lot of things growing at the same time, and they will ruin your frame if you’re not careful.


  • In the summer most of the vegetation will often turn yellow because the lack of rain. The trick here will be – as always – be able to capture the essence of the season.

Autumn in the woods near Lorica

  • Autumn is the most photographed season ever in the mountains, and for good reasons. The colors of the leaves make for wonderful pictures, but for the same motive will be difficult not to shot trite photos.

Bonus point: Hiking gear

Just a few sparse recommendations.

Use a normal, hiking rucksack, to carry your gear. Actually I use a leg bag, or a modified Lowepro waist pack (click to see the post), to carry the lenses so I can have a fast access to them.

Lowepro waist pack converted to a leg bag

I keep the camera mounted on the tripod, and I carry the tripod on my shoulders “locked” between my neck and the top of the rucksack frame (and old A.L.I.C.E. “large” military backpack).

Wear comfortable hiking or trial shoes. To enjoy the hike your feet will have to remain dry and rested!

Take always with you a compass. Aside for orientation purposes you’ll need it to understand how the light will fall on your subjects.

For safety reasons carry always:

  • Extra clothing. The weather in the mountains can turn in a moment, even only at a local level.
  • Led flashlight.
  • First aid kit. A few band-aids, a disinfectant, a gauze and an elastic bandage will do; a small tube of Krazy Glue / SuperAttack (both a kind of cyanoacrylate-based glue) is awesome to keep wounds closed and to repair gear.
  • Lighter. Yeah, I know that you don’t smoke, but what if you got lost and have to light a fire to warm you?
  • Knife. Not a Rambo-like sword, just preferably in one piece, technically full tang, with a sharp blade maybe 3″/3,5″ (7/8cm) long.
  • Extra food. Walking requires a lot of energy, and carrying all those extra photographic gear will make you hungry.
  • Cellphone and / or PTT radio (“walkie-talkie”).
  • Whistle. Way more efficient than screaming to attract attention in an emergency situation.

Strada delle Vette, heavy rainA few meters of American Tape (the gray, tough one) rolled on a stick or a pencil are perfect to fix broken gear in a pinch. I use it also as a band-aid, with a piece of gauze underneath, if the slash is too large for a normal sized band-aid.

Finally, a small screwdriver – or a multitool – that fits the screws on your tripod will be often invaluable. The vibrations of the car tends to loosen the screws, so the tripod legs have the habit to come out at the worst possible moments! Usually the best tripods are shipped with a small screwdriver for this purpose.

And now good pictures to everyone!

How to scan films using a digital camera

Overview of the setup

If you’ve not read this previous post so far give it a skim:

Best film scanner: Canon 5D Mark II vs Drum Scanner vs Epson v700

You will see what level of (very high) quality you can expect using a digital camera as a scanner, as long as you setup everything nice and properly aligned – don’t worry, it’s really simple!


The setup

The nice thing about this technique is that you will be able to extract all the information on the film even with a low-res digital camera, as long as you can increase the reproduction ratio and get used to join multiple files in one, like when doing a panoramic image. For the details please take a look at the previous post linked above.

The setup, like I said, is really really simple: you will have to put you camera vertically on top of the film – taped on a slide viewer – using a metal lens hood that act as spacer / camera support / light screen. Then you’ll use the Live View to focus on the film grain, and the self timer set at 2 seconds or a soft shutter release to avoid vibrations.

The setup

Like I said the secret is taking multiple shots of each film frame, and joining them in a panoramic software.

How many shots will depend of:

> the reproduction ratio you (and your lens) will use

> how much detailed the picture is

> the resolution of your camera

> the sensor size of your camera (full frame, aps-c)

Generally I use a 1:2 enlargement ratio on medium and large format film and a 3:1 ratio on 35mm and I get more or less this results:

– 35mm = 4 / 6 shots
– 4,5×6 = 3 / 6 shots
– 6×6 / 6×7 = 6 / 8 shots
– 4×5″ / 13x18cm = 20 / 30 shots


How to take the multiple shots…

Multiple shots

…and the resulting image

 The resulting image

The shooting session lasts generally 15-30 seconds for each complete picture; how much time the computer will need to join the shots will depends by the computer processor power and amount of ram, other that by the number of shots to be joined. But for you to have a rough estimation: my 2011 iMac, with 24Gb of ram, generally takes 30-50 seconds to join 6 shots and up to 10 minutes to join 30 shots.

Using an higher reproduction ratio is more time consuming (you’ll need more shots to cover the same area), but as a result you will be able to get the most detail from the film. Just check this few examples, in which the Canon setup is used at various reproduction ratios and compared against a well respected flatbed scanner, the Epson v700:

Epson v700 scan     Canon multirow scan

Epson v700 sharpened scan     Canon unsharpened scan

Epson sharpened scan     Canon unsharpened scan     Canon unsharpened scan 3:1 ratio


The tips

This is all for the general guide, now some tips:


– don’t try to focus at full aperture; even an excellent lens like the Zeiss Makro Planar has its problems, and all your pictures will look like mush. Close the lens a couple of stops from the maximum aperture to focus (remember, set the Live View to compensate automatically for the light loss if you want to see anything at all!)

– if possible focus on the film grain, not on the details; this way you will be sure to extract all the information there is on film, and it is easier; if you don’t seem able to see the grain just look at a dark out of focus area, the grain will pop out!

– focus independently each frame; even if they are on the same strip of film they will require more often than not an adjustment in focus

– for maximum sharpness tape the film to the viewer, tensioning the film itself a bit to ensure maximum flatness; use painter’s paper masking tape, the one that leaves no residues


– if your computer is powerful enough shoot in raw; you will benefit not only from more detail, but also from extended dynamic range and better gray / colors

– close the lens a couple more stops from the one you used to focus – till f/8 or better f/11 – to take the shot. This way you will hit the best spot of your lens and avoid vignetting related issues

– take a custom white balance on the viewer surface, without the film. This way the colors will be almost perfect without the need to mess with the curves later in Photoshop or Gimp

– shot in manual mode, to have the same exposure and density on all sections

– “expose to the right”, i.e. overexpose until the histogram for all the colors almost touches the right side of its window; this will ensure that you will have less noise as possible and that you will exploit the entire dynamic range your camera is capable of. Be careful to not overexpose too much – another good motive to shoot in raw


– shot in some kind of order (clockwise, counterclockwise, whatever), to avoid forget same part of the film frame; after a while it will became routine, and you will become very fast

– to avoid scratching the negatives put them down with the shiny side up – it’s called “protective layer” for a reason; having the opaque side – the emulsion – in contact with the viewer surface will avoid the formation of Newton rings too

– if the picture you’re about to “scan” has got few details – vast areas of sky, water or out-of-focus zones – take closer knit shots to help the panoramic software identifying some meaningful “anchors” to use in the merge

– if you don’t have a slide viewer, but you’re comfortable around electricity, you can easily adapt to the same use an old scanner transparency adapter or build one of your own (plenty of DIY projects like this on the web)


The software

What panoramic software you want to use is your choice, there are hundred of them out there. The only important thing is that it has to let you join the files in a “matrix” fashion, not only in rows. Here some of the one I tried or use, and a few notes for each one:

– Adobe Photoshop function Photomerge: really good 90% of the times. Use the “reposition” option, because you are not shooting a panorama, so there is no parallax error to take care of. Its biggest downside is the lack of the possibility of manual corrections; on the bright side it is still one of the fastest panoramic software I ever used, and it was able to “digest” without a hitch even 110 files at once.

– ArcSoft Panorama Maker 5: really good for those 10% of the times in which Photomerge goes nuts. Its biggest drawback is the impossibility to maintain the 16 bit in the output tif. Quite cheap (13,99€ on the Mac App Store).

– Kolor Autopano Pro 3: as good as PhotoShop CS6 or slightly better. A lot slower, though. On the other hand it can batch process entire folders of files recognizing automatically which files to merge in which panorama. Not so costly, just 99€.

– PhotoStitch: this one comes free with every Canon digital camera. It would be really good, except that has a strong tendency to crash if used with 6 files or more (at least with Canon 5D mark II files, could also be some kind of incompatibility, I don’t know). Same problem of Panorama Maker, meaning that it doesn’t support a 16 bit output. Better, it supports 16 bit on paper, but the resulting tif files will be an ugly mess.

– Hugin: free and extremely complete. For the same reason a bit complex and intimidating at first, even if it’s present a sort of “assistant” that it’s supposed to guide you. Excellent for general panoramic photography, I found it a bit of an overkill for just join a few shots like in the technique discussed here.