Shooting Film In India: A Beginner’s Guide
Why Am I Writing This?
My name is Ajit Nathaniel and I’m a Hyderabad-based amateur photographer. Though I have been taking pictures for over 10 years – I got my first Interchangeable lens camera in 2019. A random conversation sent me down the path of manual focus lenses and in 2020 I took my first steps with shooting film. For much of 2020, I have spent a lot of time buying cameras, managing service, sourcing film, and having film processed. During this time, I have struggled with sourcing cameras and film, and have had bad experiences with unscrupulous dealers. In engaging with the community, I have found that the number of people taking up film photography has exploded, and everyone who is new to this art in India has faced the same challenges. I have to summarize my experiences in a beginner’s guide to save others the pain and expense that I suffered. This article is based on my experiences shooting 135 (35mm) film. However, this information holds good even if you’re looking to shoot 120 film.
So, you want to shoot film. There are a lot of resources on the internet that talk about first steps you should take, but being in India poses its own challenges.
My advice as a first step would be to engage with the community. The Film Shooters India group on Signal is a community of experienced photographers, processing professionals, high integrity dealers, and newbies who are an invaluable source of information, support, and equipment. Pretty much all my problems ended when I engaged with this group in March 2020. There is also the Film Photography India Facebook group, but as a beginner, the Signal Group is the best option because the admins demand accountability among those offering commercial services. Click this link to access the Film Shooters India group on Signal.
Don’t believe the Hype. In reading internet articles about cameras and film, it’s common to find an opinion that seems to be quite consistent across user groups. However, I often find such opinions to be unfounded. It seems that someone somewhere makes a statement, and this statement is echoed across user groups and forums until it becomes accepted as a fact. A case in point is Kodak Eastman 5222 (Double X) film. Multiple articles on the internet state that this film is “unforgiving” and that you need to “nail exposure”. However, in practice, I’ve discovered that this film has wide latitude and is one of the most versatile films out there. I now shoot this film pretty much exclusively, exposing it anywhere from ISO 200 to ISO 3200 and get outstanding results. You’ll find such unsubstantiable claims about Russian lenses and cameras, Nikon lenses from certain eras, Ricoh cameras, and so forth. In fact, nowadays, whenever I hear an authoritative sounding opinion that I’ve read in three places online, I take it with a pinch of salt – unless there’s tangible evidence to back it up.
Choosing a Camera System
Don’t think of your equipment as a single camera. Think of it as a “system” comprising cameras, bodies, lenses, flashes, tripods etc. As you grow in skill and want to push your capabilities, you’ll need gear and accessories. “What system” will be the biggest decision that you take, because as you get deeper into a particular brand or lens mount, you’ll spend more money and switching will become expensive. As an upside though, if you pay sensible prices and maintain your gear well, you’ll be able to sell your analog gear for about the price you paid. This is not the case with any digital kit that you buy.
A great place to start for people who want the “film look” would be the simple Point & Shoot cameras. However, in my personal opinion, the quality of output that most of these cameras deliver does not justify the cost. With the current retail prices of film, and the costs of professional processing and scanning, each roll of 36 exposures will cost you between INR 1,000 and INR 1500 by the time you have your scans. The costs go much higher if you’re having analog prints made. This is not to say that there are no decent Point and Shoot cameras available – cameras such as the Nikon L35AF, Olympus XA, Nikon 35 Ti, and Fuji Klasse have awesome lenses and are capable of producing beautiful pictures, but their prices have long passed reasonable and are at the upper edge of absurd.
So, in my opinion, for the prices you pay for film and processing, it makes sense to opt for the control, versatility, predictability, and consistency of a Single Lens Reflex (“SLR”) or Rangefinder system. Popular 35mm SLR systems include: Nikon F, Canon FD, Canon EF, Minolta MD, Minolta Alpha, Pentax K, and M-42 Screw Mount. There is one predominant rangefinder system – the hallowed Leica M – mount. There is also the Leica 39mm screw mount – also known as LTM or L39, but these cameras tend to be quite old and are rapidly appreciating in price.
I shoot SLRs. In my personal opinion, shooting in India, the two best SLR choices are Nikon and the M42 screw mount.
I shoot Nikon and consider it to be the best because the basic Nikon mount (the part where the lens and body connect) has remained nearly unchanged since 1959. The company has consistently manufactured high quality lenses since the late 1940s, and most Nikon lenses manufactured since 1959 work with little or no modification on most film or digital Nikon cameras manufactured since then. Nikon’s “Nippon Kogaku” or “Nikkor” branded lenses from the 60s, 70s, and 80s deliver high quality results comparable to lenses made today. Though prices are rising rapidly, vintage Nikon lenses are still affordable, and even the most underrated ones – such as the 50mm F2 or the 28mm F3.5 are fantastic performers.
The M42 screw mount is another great mount to consider. A wide variety of inexpensive cameras such as East Germany’s Praktica and the Soviet Zenit have this mount. Better engineered bodies were made by a number of Japanese companies such as Asahi Pentax, Cosina, and Chinon. The advantage of shooting the M42 system is the vast array of inexpensive lenses that are available – right from the Helios 44 – noted for its “character” to Asahi’s Takumar range that just like the vintage Nikkors, compete with the best 21st century optics out there.
This is one of the most complicated parts of shooting film. Most film cameras are between 20 and 70 years old and come with their own sets of problems. You will rarely find them sold with guarantees and many dealers will demand absurd prices on the grounds that these cameras are an “antique piece” or somesuch. All of this talk of “antique” is complete bollocks.
Hundreds of millions of film cameras were produced in the 20th century. Most of these were valued as prized possessions and were well cared for. Do not get pressured into paying a high price for a film camera because some dealer says that it is rare. Another similar or better camera will turn up in just a few days or weeks. There are some cameras that are truly uncommon. Unless you aspire to be a collector, I would suggest that you steer clear of these as they’ll probably use an obsolete film format, and if they were produced in low numbers, repair skills and spare parts would be in short supply.
In terms of selecting a camera, choose one that is mechanical, with low dependency on electronics. Mechanical cameras are easier to service, while the failure of a critical component can render an electronic camera useless.
One thing that I have noticed about SLRs coming up for sale in India is that they all seem to be well-used. This is likely because these were used by professional photographers and may have been through thousands of shutter actuations. Make sure that you buy it from a dealer who will take some responsibility for the functioning of the camera. Do NOT buy a camera listed as “as is” or “buyers risk”. In my experience, this is the surest way of getting a paperweight. If you’re buying a camera from an Indian dealer, make sure that he has a good reputation and that he takes ownership for issues with what he sells. The Film Shooters India Signal group is a great place for a reputation check.
Over the past year, I have been most satisfied buying cameras from Ebay sellers located in the Ukraine, Germany, and Japan. I have found that cameras bought from Germany and Japan are often well cared for and all the lenses that I have bought from Japan are spotless – in near mint condition. I have chosen to buy from highly rated sellers – having over 100 transactions and a rating of 98% or higher. In over 30 transactions, I have found these sellers to be of high integrity and willing to fix problems. Also, Ebay’s resolution system works heavily in buyers’ favour.
In April 2020, Japan halted mail shipments to India, and these haven’t resumed. DHL and Fedex shipping is available, but these are expensive. However, I have been able to buy cameras via a site called buyee.com that ships by Sea Parcel. The goods take about 2 months to arrive, but their Protective Packaging service ensures that the goods arrive in reasonable condition.
In buying from overseas, be wary of the shipping method used. Shipping by DHL or FedEx is expensive, and you must be prepared for unexpected charges. In a recent incident, a shipment from Japan worth about INR 6,000 was retained by customs in Delhi, and DHL’s procedures resulted in nearly INR 12,000 in duties and other charges before this package was released. People have faced similar issues with Fedex too. The best way to receive cameras from abroad is by tracked mail parcel. These come through India Post, and customs duty is rarely charged on smaller parcels. However, at times when duty is charged, you have to pay it in cash to the postman.
In all, shipping is one of the biggest risks that you’re likely to face. Even packages marked fragile and shipped by courier services such as DTDC and DHL have been abused, and the contents damaged.
“Boss Level” in buying film cameras would be going to well known stores such as FotoImpex in Berlin, David Chan in Hong Kong, or Sukiya Camera in Tokyo and flying back with your cabin baggage full of goodies!
You get what you pay for is true for film cameras more than anything else. The prices that I have paid for film cameras from Japan and Germany may be higher than local prices, but in return, I have received high quality merchandise that has been good to go from the time I took it out of the box.
One you have a decent camera, start thinking about film. In the long run, this will be the most expensive part of your journey with film photography. Before I even started with film, I found my creative voice in Black and White, so this choice was very simple for me. While Film Photography is going through a true renaissance overseas, and film is available at attractive prices, the situation in India is complicated. Retail photo film distribution in India is a monopoly, controlled by a large importer and distributor of digital photography equipment. This company is the sole India distributor for Kodak and Ilford, and has priced film very high. Thus retail prices for film in India are 30-100% higher than the US or Europe. As you take your first steps in film, buy a few rolls by retail to see what works for you, and once you have zeroed on the specific film stock that works for you, find ways to economize.
Here too, the Film Shooters India group will work for you. A number of high-volume amateurs import their film in bulk – this results in savings of 30-70% compared to the retail prices of film in India. The past few months have seen “syndicates” of film aficionados who import bulk rolls and share costs. This is by far the best way to economize.
Boss Level in film purchasing would be for you to buy 100, 400, or 1000 foot bulk film rolls from overseas sources, and load your own 36 exposure rolls using a bulk loader. If you get here, be nice and share. Until the monopolistic abuse of the retail photo film market in India is addressed, such cooperation and collaboration is the only way that film photography will survive and grow in India.
Processing Your Film
This is the easiest part of film photography in India. In the past few years, a number of people have started offering film processing services at very attractive prices. Expect to pay between INR 200 and 500 for processing a single roll of 35 mm film. Scanning of negatives for digital consumption ranges from INR 250 and upwards per roll.
If you shoot Black & White film, you could start processing film at home with a small investment in processing tanks and chemicals. One of my film photography mentors – a former newspaper photographer – often reminisces about processing hundreds of rolls of Black and White film in hotel bathrooms during the course of his career. Processing colour is arguably more complex, but with a little practice, you can get there too.
Boss Mode in processing your film would be developing your own chemistry – whether it be something quirky like Caffenol; or a tweak to common developers such as D76, D96 or Pyro. all the chemicals you would need for constituting a Black & White developer are easily available from chemistry supply stores.
This is a major concern for film photographers in India. Since the decline of film photography, the number of people who service film cameras has reduced drastically. The resurgence of the craft has bred a crop of charlatans who claim to be able to repair these cameras and often do a very poor job of it. As of today, there are a handful of well-known technicians in Bombay, Madras, Pune, Delhi, and Calcutta who are still able to do a good job of servicing cameras. Here too, the Film Shooters India group will be of help. If you need a film camera serviced, post the name of the camera you wish to get repaired, and someone with a similar camera will surely reach out about their experience with a particular technician.
If you get a camera that hasn’t been used for a while, send it to a skilled technician for a cleaning, adjustment, and lubrication (“CLA”). These steps will enhance your user experience; protect the camera from undue wear and tear; and will ensure that your camera works the way it should.
Do NOT attempt any kind of self service, even if you’re a mechanically minded person. These cameras contain tiny components, screws that can drop, springs that can bounce away, and gears that need to be assembled in a certain order. There is a high probability that you will botch the attempt and destroy the camera. The internet is full of bad advice such as using WD 40 or other reagents for a temporary fix. Your film camera – even if it is a crusty Zorkii – is a finely engineered mechanical device, and deserves the time and attention of a skilled technician. Also remember – keeping technicians in business and ensuring that camera repair remains a viable career is crucial to the survival of film photography.
Take it slow. This is the true joy of analog. Network, build relationships, enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the right camera; waiting for your film to be processed; and waiting for your prints. Cherish your film cameras, no matter how inexpensive, as they’re a limited resource that’s depleting thanks to hoarders, age, and neglect. The India film photography community is small and vibrant, but rapidly growing do what you can to help us thrive.
Welcome to the art of analog photography!