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Most Frequent Mistakes in Film Photography

Updated: Mar 25

One of the greatest excitement in film photography comes from not knowing exactly how your photos will turn out. You wait and you wait to finish your film roll and have it developed to finally see the result. The less exciting part, though, comes when you realize that your long-awaited photos have been ruined by one too many mistakes.


Unlike in digital photography, when shooting film your mistakes take up a literal permanent space in the form of a 24mm x 36mm box that is the film frame. It is not as simple as deleting a photo and retaking it. The moment is gone, and some 30 exposures later, here you are mulling over your mistakes and trying to figure out where it went wrong.


Not to worry. We’ve all made mistakes taking photos with a film camera. There’s no shame to it. It’s a part of the journey to becoming better at what you do. Still, to become better you need to understand your mistakes and learn how to avoid them. So what are the most frequent mistakes when shooting film?


Incorrectly loading the film


This one arguably hurts the most. There is nothing worse than thinking you’ve been taking pictures regularly with your film camera only to realize later that you have in fact taken absolutely none because you loaded the film incorrectly.


One of the most common issues with loading your film lies with the take-up spool. When loading the film, you need to make sure that the take-up spool actually latches on to the film, allowing it to properly advance as you take your shots.


The back of an Ilford Harman Reusable Camera
You need to make sure that the film latches on to the take-up spool as highlighted above

With some SLR cameras, like the Minolta SRT-303, for instance, there is also a slot in the take up spool in which the film leader is supposed to go. This helps to ensure that film roll advances as you are taking the photos. So if you forget to latch the film leader on to the slot (like I did once!), it is likely that your film roll will not advance properly and you end up developing an unused film.


Once you have loaded your film roll in the camera there are several ways to know if you have done so correctly. With automatic winding cameras, try taking a shot and checking if the counter moves to the next frame. If it does then you are good to go. Otherwise, if your camera requires manual winding, you should feel some tension when rotating the film advance wheel and it should also come to an automatic stop. If the wheel keeps rotating and you feel no tension then you know you have not loaded the film properly.


Forgetting if the camera is loaded with film


Yes, it happens, especially if it’s been a while since you last took photos with film. Now you’ve definitely ruined the current exposure and perhaps overexposed a few others as well. But there is a good chance you’ll be able to save some still!


Next time you feel the urge to open up the back of your film camera, don’t. First, make sure to check the frame counter -- if it’s not at the default “S” then it is most likely loaded with film. Otherwise, help yourself by putting a reminder that the camera is loaded with film. Most SLRs have a little pocket on the back where you can slip a piece of the packaging that the film roll comes with. Meanwhile, most point-and-shoot cameras would have a little window at the back that would show if you have (and what type of) film inside the camera.


Point and shoot film camera
Point and shoot cameras often have a little window at the back that shows if you have film loaded

Dust and dirt


This might seem obvious, but I’ve done it myself plenty of times so I’m just going to say it again -- you need to keep your lens clean to make sure you get clean and sharp photos. If you see black dots and particles in your photos that look like they don’t belong there, they are most likely dust and dirt. Depending on its scale and placement, you may or may not have this fixed in post-processing.


On the bright side, if the dust and dirt are on the scanner or film negatives, and not on the camera lens, you have an easier fix. Just remove them and rescan your negatives.


Cloud and sky as photographed by a film camera
You can see black hair-like feature on this photo that could have been avoided if I had just cleaned my lens properly

Not being still enough


If you often use the automatic setting on your camera, you might not always be aware when you are shooting with a slow shutter speed. But essentially, a slower shutter speed is automatically selected under low light conditions in order to compensate for the lack of light. Consequently, any camera shake is going to be evident and will result in blurry photos. So you need to take extra caution to be absolutely still when taking your shots.


To do this, practice your photo-taking stance:

  • Have both feet planted firmly on the ground

  • Make sure to eliminate as much space as possible between your upper body parts, and have your elbows braced against your body for extra support

  • When you’re ready to take your shot, squeeze the shutter slowly, instead of jabbing it in a rushed motion.


Blurry photos taken by a film camera
Blurry photos can be an indicator that you were not still enough when you took them

If you are taking your photos under extreme lack of light conditions, then you might even want to consider using a tripod (or other solid surfaces), or the self-timer if it is available on your camera. Another option could also be to use a shutter release cable, hence eliminating the need to have our flawed hands on the camera.


Forgetting if you've shot with your film already


When you've got a few film cameras and film rolls lying around, it can be tricky to know if a particular film roll is a fresh unused one or if you've shot with it already. This normally happens to me in either one of the two ways:


A. The film roll is still inside the camera but the frame counter points to a - or 0, indicating that it's either been (automatically) rewound, or it hasn't been used before.


B. The film roll is not inside the camera, but the amazing yet sometimes limited brain just can't recall if the roll is used or not.

The good thing is that the fix here is quite simple. Diligently take out your rolls after they are used and store them in an organized fashion and this should not be an issue.


But what happens if you forget to do these and have to take a guess in terms of whether the film roll has been used or not? A few things can happen here. One, you can end up taking the right guess and everything goes accordingly. Two, you take a wrong guess and end up developing a blank film that has not been used. Or, you end up double-exposing a film, resulting in an odd bunch of photos, or, as some may call it, a happy accident :)


Double-exposed photos mixing the scenes of an Italian piazza and people learning to surf in Bali.
Having forgotten if I've shot with my film roll, the wrong guess resulted in double-exposed photos mixing the scenes in an Italian piazza and people learning how to surf in Bali.


Being too cheap with your film


When shooting digital, you don’t have to worry about taking dozens of shots of the same object. In fact, you would be more likely to do so to better your chance of getting that perfect shot. You can easily view the photos afterward, pick your best photos and remove any unwanted ones. The same cannot be said when shooting film. The Kodak Portra 400, for instance, can cost up to €15 for a roll. Indeed, film rolls are not cheap and each one limits you to a max of 36 exposures. As a result, film shooters tend to take fewer photos for fear of wasting frames.


You shouldn’t let this fear limit you and damage your hit ratio. Don’t be scared to take multiple shots of the same object. Try a different angle, experiment a little. You might not have another chance at capturing those exact same moments, so don’t let a good photo slip away because you were being too cheap with your film.


Now you know the most frequent mistakes in film photography and have learned some film photography tips with that. Hope you never have to go through the pain of making them in the first place, but if you do, you’ll know better for next time.



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