How Film-Based Cameras Work, Explained

film camera

We’ve become reliant on digital cameras since they are so easy to use. But have you ever wondered how film-based photography works? Read on to increase your photographic knowledge—or to develop an new appreciation for your point and click camera.

Film-based cameras, to some, are a relic of the past. Simply an old technology made obsolete by the new and improved. But to many, film is an artisan’s material, and a photographic experience no digital system could hope to ever recreate. While many photographers, professional and amateur will swear by the quality of both film-based or digital cameras—the fact remains that film is still a valid way to take great photographs, and a fascinating way to learn more about how photography works.

Photography Recap: Light, Lenses, and The Elements of Exposure

We’ve covered the basics (and them some) on how cameras work before, but for readers starting here (or those readers wanting a refresher), we’ll start with a tour of the basics. Cameras are, in theory, fairly simple. Modern cameras and lenses have had so many years of improvements in technology that it may seem ridiculous to call them simple, even if they use photographic film instead of incredibly advanced modern light sensors. However, despite all of these advances, all cameras have one reasonably simple goal: gathering, focusing, and limiting the amount of light that reaches some sort of light sensitive material.

Cameras are all about capturing and recording an instant of time by creating some sort of chemical or electric reaction with the photons (light particles) beaming down or bouncing around in any given photographic moment. These instants of captured light are called exposures, and are controlled by three major variables known as the elements of exposure: aperture, length of exposure, and light sensitivity. Aperture refers to the amount of light blocked or allowed in by a mechanical diaphragm inside the camera’s lens. The larger the number on an aperture setting, the smaller fraction of light is allowed to the sensor. Length of exposure is calculated in seconds or fractions of a second; usually this is called shutter speed, and controls how long light sensitive materials are exposed to the light.

Light sensitivity, like it sounds, is how sensitive to light the photo sensitive material inside the camera actually is. Does it take a little bit of light, or a lot to create the perfect exposure? This is sometimes referred to as the “speed” of the film used. “Faster” films can capture images with less light, therefore creating proper exposures in much smaller fractions of a second. “Slower” film requires more light, and therefore longer exposure settings. Light sensitivity, often referred to as ISO, is a significant starting point, because it’s one of the first things a film photographer has to consider, while it is often an afterthought for digital photographers.

Film Sensitivity versus Light Sensors Sensitivity

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Digital cameras have settings for light sensitivity. These settings, often known as ISO, are numerical settings occurring in full stop values of 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. Lower numbers are less sensitive to light, but allow for better detail without a lot of grain appearing in the shot.

Film Cans

Film cameras have an ISO standard that is very similar to the Digital camera ISO settings—in fact digital cameras use a standard based on the film sensitivity standards. Film photographers would have to plan in advance the sort of light environment they were planning on working in, and choose a reel of film sensitized to work for various ISO standard light conditions. A high ISO film setting of 800 or 1600 would be good for photographing in lower light environments, or fast-moving objects using fast shutter speeds. Lower ISO films were those usually used in bright, sunlit environments. Photographers would have to work in whole reels of the stuff; there was no adjusting ISO on the fly if light conditions changed. If you couldn’t achieve a shot by changing your other elements of exposure, you’d likely not get the shot. Changing ISO meant changing a whole reel of 35mm film, as opposed to today, where it simply means pushing a few buttons.

Latent Exposures and Light Sensitivity

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So, yes, we have established that there are various films with various levels of sensitivity to light. But why and how are these film sensitive to light in the first place? The film, in and of itself is pretty basic. It can be thought of as a transparent carrier for light sensitive chemistry, which is applied in microscopically thin sheets over this carrier spaced out over long rolls, or various other film media. (35mm is far from the only photographic format, although they are all very similar.)

In both color and black and white film, layers of chemistry (often silver halides) that react to light are exposed to create a “latent image.” These latent images can be thought of as pictures that are already been chemically activated, although if you looked at it, there would be  no visible evidence that the exposures have been created. Latent images, once exposed, are brought to life through a developing process that takes place in the darkroom.

Darkrooms: Creating Images with Chemistry

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Because film cameras can only create these latent images, films that have been exposed go through a process called “developing.” Developing film, for most, meant dropping off rolls of 35mm film, and getting back prints and negatives. However, there are two whole developing steps between the film drop off stage  and the print stage. Let’s briefly take a look at how film is developed.

Photo films, even after being exposed, are still in a state of light sensitivity. Taking bare film out into an environment with any light in it will ruin any and all exposures, as well as making the film completle unusable. To work around this, films are developed in what is known as a “darkroom.” Darkrooms, unlike what you might expect, are usually not completely dark, but are lit with filtered light that films aren’t as sensitive to, allowing developers to see. A lot of films, black and white in particular, are not as sensitive to yellow, red or orange lights, so darkrooms will have colored light bulbs or simple translucent filters that fill otherwise dark rooms with tinted colored light.

Edit: Films are actually developed in complete darkness in film tanks, as they are sensitive to all the whole spectrum of light. Photo papers are usually less sensitive to certain parts of the spectrum and are developed in the darkroom.

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Color and black and white films use different chemistry and methods, but they employ basically the same principles. Exposed films (both color, black and white) are put in baths of chemistry that chemically change the microscopic bits treated film (“grains” of photosensitive silver halide, etc). With black and white film, those areas exposed to the more light harden so that they do not wash away, while the darkest areas exposed to the least light wash away to transparent film. This creates the signature “negative” look, with light colors swapped to black and dark areas swapped to clear transparency. Once the film is developed in this first bath, it is quickly rinsed in a “stop bath,” usually just water. The third bath is a chemical “fixer” that arrests the developing process, deactivating the chemistry on the films, freezing the developed film at its current state. Unfixed film can continue to develop without being stopped fully with a bath of chemical fixer, changing the image over time. Chemical fixer is a fairly hazardous chemical, and usually negatives are washed in another basic bath of water after fixing and dried.

Color films undergo a similar developing process. In order to create full color images, negatives have to be created that produce the three primary colors of light: red, green and blue. Negatives of these colors are created using another set of familiar primary colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. Blue light is exposed on a yellow layer, while red is exposed to a cyan layer, and green to a magenta. Each layer is tuned to be sensitive primarily to photons of specific wavelengths (colors). Once exposed, latent images are developed, stopped, washed, fixed, and washed again in much the same way black and white film is developed.

Back to the Darkroom: Printing with Film Negatives

Good shot of an Photographic enlarger.

We’re not out of the dark yet; in order to turn a film negative into a print, more photo sensitive materials have to be bought, this time for printing. Unlike modern digital photography which is handled by digital printers, film-based printing is more or less repeating the same photographic process over again to create a true color image from a photo negative. Let’s take a quick look at what it takes to create a single film-based photographic print.

Film-based prints are all done on special sensitized, chemically treated papers that are sort of similar to photographic film. At a glance, they look and feel a lot like inkjet photo paper. One obvious difference in the two is that inkjet photo paper can be taken into the light—photo sensitive paper for film prints has to be worked with in the darkroom.

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Prints can be made either by placing strips of film directly onto photo sensitive paper (ever heard the term contact sheet?) or by using an enlarger, which is basically a sort of projector that can cast light through negatives to create enlarged images. Either way, the photo paper is exposed to light, with the film blocking parts of the light and exposing others, and, in the case of color film, changing the wavelength (color) of the white light of the exposure.

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From there, the photo paper has its own latent image, and is developed in more or less the same manner as films, as the chemistry is somewhat similar. The only difference is that black and white/colored tones appear from the exposure when they are developed, while films are washed away to transparency when the exposed parts are developed. This is the major difference between images in photo paper and on films—photo paper gives you your finalized, naturalistic image.

Creating Rich Images with Film Based Processes

Having had years to develop techniques, new chemistry, and technology, photographers have gotten very skilled at creating dynamic and rich imagery with these processes—most of which may seem almost needlessly complicated to modern point-and-shoot style photographers. These image making techniques, in the hands of skilled printers and developers, could create rich, amazing images, as well as compensating for loads of problems encountered while shooting. Did you overexpose your shots? Try underexposing your film. Is the detail in your highlights washed out and thin? Make like Ansel Adams, and dodge and burn to create better highlights and shadows.

Film photographers may have a complex, challenging method compared to shooting with digital cameras and printing from Photoshop. However, there are some artists that will likely never give up film, or perhaps those that will never work exclusively in digital. Film, with all its challenges, still offers artists all the tools and methods they need to create great, high-quality photographic work. Film also provides photographers the tools to resolve more detail than all but the most advanced, high resolution digital cameras. So, for the moment, film still lingers on as a valid, rich medium for photography.


Image Credits: Film Camera by e20ci, available under Creative Commons. New DSLR by Marcel030NL, available under Creative Commons. Film Cans By Rubin 110, available under Creative Commons. Kodak Kodachrome 64 by Whiskeygonebad, available under Creative Commons. Bathroom Darkroom By Jukka Vuokko, available under Creative Commons.  Darkroom BW by JanneM, available under Creative Commons. DIY Darkroom By Matt Kowal, available under Creative Commons. Contact Sheet One by GIRLintheCAFE, available under Creative Commons. Darkroom Prints By Jim O’Connell, available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 06/27/11
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