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How to Use a Film Camera

Ratnashri Dutta Jan 2, 2019
Hold on to the memories that you are creating now. How, you ask? With a camera, of course! Because, someday you would want to relive them. Using a film camera is no big deal. Furthermore, the tips here will simplify it for you to a large extent.
You can never turn the clock back, no matter how much you wish to, or how you long to go back to your childhood days, graduation day, your wedding day, your child's first step, etc. But still, sometimes, when the heart craves, it wants what it wants. Going back to those days is impossible, but we can surely relive them, thanks to cameras and photographs.
The camera, really, is a boon in disguise. Without it, all our precious memories would have been lost forever.
Even though this is the age of digital cameras and video cameras, some people still go the old-fashioned way and use the 35mm film camera, as they believe that a film camera captures a picture better than the digital cameras.
Sadly, some people who are brilliant with digital cameras, do not know how to handle a film camera. Here are some tips that might come in handy to those looking at understanding the features it has on offer and the different ways in which it can be used.

Step 1

First and foremost, you should know the basic controls. Here's a list that makes using and navigating a film camera extremely easy.

Shutter Speed Dial

  • There are mainly two types of shutters; the leaf shutter, which is located just behind the lens elements, and the focal plane shutter, which is located in front of the film plane.
  • The shutter speed dial sets the shutter speed, or the time for which the film is exposed.
  • It also controls the amount of time the light takes to strike the film.
  • In the new models, the shutter speed is marked as 1/500, 1/250, etc.

Aperture Ring

  • The aperture ring is a small opening, present near the front of the lens.
  • It dilates and contracts to control the amount of light which passes through.
  • Aperture is controlled by the aperture ring.
  • This ring is marked in the standard increment and nearly all lens have the settings marked - f/8, f/11.
  • This ring is usually present on the lens, but not always.
  • Larger the aperture in your camera, more is the light that will be let into the film, hence, that would mean less depth in the field, or, in other words, a small part of your scene will be in focus.
  • On the other hand, if your aperture size is small, then less light will enter the film, due to which the depth of the field will be more, i.e., a larger part of your scene will be in focus.


The light that falls on to the lens helps it direct the focus on the film plane.


It is the small window-like structure, through which you look at the subject that is to be captured.

Mode Dial

It sets the various automatic exposure modes. The name might however be different on each camera.

Focusing Ring

  • It helps in adjusting the focus of the lens to the distance to your subject.
  • The distance may be marked in both feet or meters, and sometimes it may also be marked as infinity.

Rewind Release

  • While shooting, the film is locked, i.e., it can only move forward, but not back into the canister.
  • The rewind release button only unlocks the safety mechanism.
  • It allows you to rewind your film.
  • It is usually a small button located at the base of the camera body.

Rewind Crank

It winds your film back to the canister, located usually on the left hand side of the camera. Some cameras do not have this mechanism as they do it automatically, or come with a separate switch.

Step 2

If you are using a camera that uses batteries, change the batteries first. The batteries for these cameras, usually disposable ones, are not very expensive.

Step 3

Make sure that you check beforehand whether the film has been inserted in the camera or not. If the camera is already loaded, and you unknowingly pop open the back, you ruin a part of the film.
Try winding the camera on. If it refuses to open, push the shutter button first. If the camera has a rewind crank, you will see it turning. This will show whether the camera is already loaded or not.

Step 4

Be very careful while loading your camera. Load it indoors and not under direct sunlight. Based on the way in which a film is loaded on to the camera, there are two types. Rear-loading cameras are easy to load. They have hinged openings, which open to expose the film chamber. Just put in the film canister into the chamber and pull out the film leader.
Sometimes, in certain cameras, you may need to slide the film leader into a slot, present in the take-up spool; while in other cameras, you just need to pull out the leader, till the tip of it lines up with a colored mark in your camera. Now close the back of the camera. In some cameras, it automatically winds on to the first frame.
In others, you might have to take two to three random shots of nothing in particular, and wind your camera on. If your frame counter reads 'above 0', then keep winding it until the frame counter reaches '0'. Some of the older cameras might even count down, hence you will have to set the frame counter manually to the number of exposure that your film has.
Make sure that your film is loaded properly. Bottom-loading cameras are not that common, and it's difficult to load these cameras. You have to cut your film physically, so that you get a longer and thinner film leader.

Step 5

Set the film speed. Some cameras might consistently over or under-expose by just a certain amount. To determine this experimentally, shoot slide film.

Capturing a Subject

Step 1

Your camera will mostly be an auto-focus camera, as they have been since the mid 1980s. They are easy to identify, too. If your camera does not have a focusing ring or a manual or auto focus on either side of the lens, then you have an auto-focus camera.
Just press the shutter half way, gently, to focus on the subject of your choice. Once the focus is set, which you get to know by the beeping sound, take the shot. On the other hand, if you have a camera with a manual-focus single lens reflex, then keep turning the focusing ring until the image in the viewfinder is sharp.

Step 2

Next, you set your exposure. The fully automatic exposure cameras are the easiest to handle. If your camera has no shutter speed and aperture, then your camera is the one that gives a fully automatic exposure.
Some cameras will also have the aperture-priority automatic exposure, which allows you to set an aperture and then choose a shutter speed. Set the aperture according to the light you need for the depth of the field, and leave the rest to the camera.
There are cameras with shutter-priority automatic exposure, which allow you to choose the shutter speed and then it sets the aperture automatically. For the fully manual cameras, you need to set the shutter and aperture speed yourself.

Step 3

Keep taking pictures till the roll or film is over. You get to know that when either the camera refuses to wind on, or, when winding the film becomes difficult. Once your roll is over, you take it out by pressing the release button and then turn the rewind crank in the directions indicated on your camera.
When the film is about to end, the crank stiffens and then it becomes very easy to turn it. At this stage, you stop winding and then open the back of your camera and take out the film.

Step 4

Give the film for developing at a good photography shop. Then reload your camera again and capture more memories. You may even buy beginner's photography guides, which will help you learn more about handling a film camera.
For more help regarding photography and film cameras, you may refer to some great photography books that offer help to beginners and amateurs.