Ok, I confess, it’s not quite free. But you’re not paying anyone for a course. This is a tip for doing photography training at home, by yourself, with very little cost.

The best thing you can possibly do to advance your digital photography, is buy yourself a super cheap, super old film camera, with zero automation! You’ll find yourself reconnecting with all your core photography skills.

Agfa Isolette I - 1950s full manual 120 medium format film camera
Agfa Isolette I – 1950s full manual 120 medium format film camera – trying to get good shots with this will improve your digital photography!

This is a 1950s Agfa Isolette. It cost me $20 on ebay. I bought a roll of 120 film for $3, shot my way through that and got it developed and scanned at a photography shop a couple of miles from me for $12. 

Total cost: $35. It’s the best photography training I have ever done.

You don’t have to get an Isolette, there are a lot of different options available to you. Look up “vintage folding camera”, or “tlr” (twin lens reflex), or similar on ebay and see just how options there are available. If you scroll down to the bottom of this article we’ll run through some of the different types of vintage camera you can get for very little money.

Here’s why shooting on film, and especially with very old cameras, is such great training:

  1. You have to think really hard about composition
  2. You have to work out the exposure yourself. 
  3. There’s no autofocus. You can’t even see if your focus is right. 
  4. It’s small and portable
  5. If you get everything right, the photos are amazing.
  6. If you can create amazing photos with this camera, digital cameras will be so easy by comparison

Composition

Using this Agfa Isolette forces you to think REALLY hard about your composition. 

On a roll of 120, shooting 6×6, you’re going to get just 12 frames out of your film. It’s fiddly to get it in and it’s fiddly to get it out. And it’s time consuming and costs a bit of money to get it developed and processed. So, believe me, you’re going to make every frame of that count!

Add to that the fact that there is a really poor viewfinder on the Isolette. It doesn’t really represent what gets exposed on the film in any meaningful way. So the best way to compose for the Isolette is to use it as often as you can so you just know what sort of frame it hits.

Exposure

There is no automation, no sensor to tell you what settings to use, nothing. Everything on this camera is manual. 

So you’ll need to get yourself a light meter and work it out. Do this for a while and you will find that you start to get very good as estimating lighting and exposure.

Using a light meter and manually adjusting your exposure also forces you to be very precise and decisive about what you want lit in your scene and how bright you want it to be.

If you’re lighting a portrait then usually you would want the portrait subject to be the focus and to be properly lit. But do you want them bright? Well lit? Or dark and moody?

You’ll take a light meter reading near their face, but what do you then do with the numbers you’ve got? Do you set your camera for exactly that reading? Or not? 

Those are the sort of decisions you will have to make if you’re shooting on a camera like the Isolette. Do you think it sounds daunting? Or scary? Or maybe you’re reading this thinking “I don’t have time for this”.

Maybe you don’t have time for it, but I have found a few moments here and there to try out some shots. It took me about a week to get through my first film, which is only 12 shots. I would usually take 12 shots in the first few seconds of a shoot. I would take more than 12 shots just testing the lighting!

Focusing

Ok this is an area where the Isolette is potentially not as helpful in your photography training as it could be! The thing is that folding cameras like the Isolette have no focusing help at all. You can’t see through the lens, you can’t even see through a separate focusing lens, like you can with a TLR (twin lens reflex) camera.

Focusing on the Isolette is done entirely by distance. There are measurements on the focusing ring on the front of the camera, in feet. If your subject is 8 feet away from you, then you set it to 8 feet and you should get them in focus! Although you won’t know until you get the film back of course.

What is interesting here is how it helps you as a digital photographer. Clearly, being able to accurately estimate the difference between 8 feet and 10 feet is not particularly helpful to you.  

But what is interesting is what you then need to do to limit the importance of getting your focusing accurate to within estimated inches. And this is all about how wide you open the iris.

Learning about depth of field

On my first film I put through the camera, about 20% were out of focus. I hadn’t accurately judged the distances and so they were all fuzzy.

Towards the end of that first film, realizing that shooting with the iris wide open at f3.5, I was running a serious risk of getting things wrong. For reference, from the point of view of depth of field, an f3.5 lens on a 6×6 medium format camera is equivalent to about f2 on a 35mm camera. Seriously short depth of field, and slim chance of getting it bang on without being able to see anything that the camera is seeing!

[Note: if you’re interested in medium format photography, whether that be digital or analog film, do some searching for equivalence of f-stops and depth of field. You’ll find an amusing array of confusion around the internet, with people who aren’t getting it arguing with people who do understand it and tings getting heated in almost every discussion forum!]

Now that I’ve figured out just how short the depth of field is on this camera, I have changed how I use it. I am shooting with much higher f-stops to make sure the accuracy with which I focus is of lees importance.

Creativity and planning

All of these various complication with using this camera, along with the quirks of medium format 120 film (only 12 shots per film), mean that I am making a much bigger effort in the planning of my shots.

One of the big symptoms of the age of digital photography is that people don’t plan things properly any more. We (myself included) will sort of 75% plan a shoot, knowing that you can review your work on the day and make tweaks as you go along. Obviously that’s not an option available with film, you take your shots and you won’t know until they are developed whether you got it right or not. Getting great shots takes a lot more planning. 

Those of you who grew up on analog film photography will be rolling your eyes now… damned kids!!

Students of the digital age

I started on film, way back in the 90s, so I’m not a total child of digital. But back then I wasn’t really putting quite so much effort into my photography. I was very much a natural light photographer. Today my teenage self might haughtily describe what I was doing as reportage… but really I was just snapping without too much thought or intent.

I got some interesting shots, but nothing to show off. I passed my courses. What I am most proud of is that back then I was developing, enlarging and printing all my own stuff. Something I cannot even claim to be attempting these days. I have half a plan to start developing my own films, but no plans to even think about prints.

The upshot of all this is that I have never had the true discipline of a pure film photographer, so this is all new to me. And I am truly enjoying what it is doing to my work.

Personal Photography Projects

One of the big things I’m getting out of this camera is that I’m using it for personal work only. And personal work is something I usually neglect.

I have done almost no personal work for the last four or five years. Everyone tells you that personal projects are really important to your development, and I believe them. My issue with personal projects is firstly time… I just don’t have any! And secondly that I have no real platform for sharing that kind of work. And, although it shouldn’t, this kind of stops me doing it.

The obvious platform for sharing personal projects is of course social media. But I have a real love-hate relationship with social media. Mostly hate actually. 

Social Media – the root of all evil

I enjoy using things like Instagram for seeing other people’s photographs, and for sharing some photos on my personal insta page of my family and kids. But I find it really tough sharing professional work or work that I am actually proud of.

I have a real issue with “likes”. As if my work is judged and assessed based on how many likes it gets. And yet I find myself continually lured into the trap of desperately hoping for more likes. 

But as we all know, the number of likes an image gets is nothing to do with whether it is any good or not. You’ll see great photographs disappearing into the void, unnoticed and uncelebrated. While some truly appalling work gets lauded as the greatest photography since Cartier-Bresson.

Anyone else have this problem with social media? As I said, I don’t mind using it for personal stuff, but when it comes to professional work, I feel that not only do I judge things on how many likes photos get, but I feel that everyone else does too. So I almost don’t want to put myself out there, knowing that I will never win the war of likes.

Sharing your work

Ok, here’s a promise to you… I’m going to get over my issues with sharing stuff on social media. Because whilst I think that personal projects are just that – personal – the act of taking photographs to share is very different to taking photographs which will never be shared. Are there photographs that are taken to never be shared? Does anyone do that?

I’ll start sharing my 120 stills on the BudgetProPhoto Instagram page, so you can see what I’m up to!

And if you guys happen to turn your attention to analog photography as a pro training method, then drop us a line, or leave a comment here, let us know. And tag us in your Instagram uploads – @budgetprophoto.

Different types of low-cost vintage film cameras:

  • Folding cameras – such as the Agfa Isolette series (as above), Zeiss Ikon, Zeiss Nettar, Kershaw, Voigtlander Bessa, Houghton Ensign, Kodak No 2 etc. Folding cameras are, as the name suggests, cameras that fold! The lens and shutter system in on the front, the film at the back and a flexible bellows in between, which folds down to make the camera compact and easy to carry.
  • Box cameras – such as the Ensign All Distance Twenty, Zeiss Ikon Tengor, and the infamous Kodak Box Brownie! As it suggests, these cameras are basically a box.
  • TLR – twin lens reflex. Similar to single lens reflex, except that there are two lenses – a viewing lens and a “taking” lens. Loads of examples of these – Yashica D, Yashica 635, Yashica Mat, Rolleiflex, Rolleicord, Zeiss Ikoflex, Photina Reflex, Voigtlander Brilliant etc.
  • SLR – single lens reflex, same as every camera that has been manufactured in the last 40 years, right up until these new mirrorless cameras started taking over the world. You can literally find SLR cameras in every shape and size, and covering almost every price bracket. Very old, functioning Hasselblads can set you back up to $800 for a non-special example. Whereas a you can pick up a 1970s Pentax for about $3.

Of course I’m missing out a LOT of stuff here. But it’s a start. Go google stuff, check out ebay, see what’s around.

That’s all for today! 

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