A Guide to Capturing the World on Super 8

Cast your mind back to the last time you travelled. How did you document that trip? 

Perhaps you dragged along your shiny digital Canon that allows you to take thousands of photos but requires an equal number of lenses. Maybe you used your disposable film camera that’s basically become a part of your identity now (ha ha... don’t look at me). Most likely, you used your smartphone for every conceivable moment you experienced to the point that now, two years later, you’re scrolling through the same 18 photos of yourself eating the same bowl of pasta from the same Umbrian restaurant and debating which one you should keep because your phone is on the fringes of breaking from near irreparable storage issues! 

*Breathe* Woah. What a mouthful. That was a lot to force into a sentence, I’m sorry... but I guess now you know how full your phone feels.

Photo by PNW Production

Look, either way, I’m here to spread the good word. There is an alternative way of recording your adventures and capturing those smaller, purer moments that your phone certainly has a habit of overlooking. I’m talking about Super 8.

Origins of Super 8

Super 8 is a motion picture film format that originated in the mid-1960s, receiving notoriety for its revolutionary status in how it captured day-to-day life. See, before the invention of Super 8, your grandma and grandpa didn’t have it as easy as we do now when recording a leisurely day out at the beach. If, say, f your grandpa wanted to get a good shot of grandma dipping her toes in the water’s edge, that boy had to absolutely grind for that shot.

Cameras, before the introduction of Super 8, were big, clunky beasts that needed huge rolls of 16-millimetre film to be manually threaded through them. This action would leave the film prone to possible accidental early exposures from light and the elements. It would also mean you’d need to carry more than just that dainty little beach bag around if you planned to use the camera.

Then along came Super 8, a design that changed it all.

In the midst of innovation in 1960s America, the New York World’s Fair of 1965 saw Eastman Kodak release the Super 8mm film as an improvement upon the original Regular 8mm film. Super 8 film stretched out to 50ft in length, but you would never guess it, because its revolutionary design enabled the film to be compressed into a compact plastic cartridge. This also allowed the film to remain safe from light and the elements. Gone also were the days of manually feeding your camera with film – all of it was literally right there in a case that you could just slot into a much smaller, lightweight camera. All you had to do then was point, press and shoot, then voila – all your memories could be eternalised. It was really that simple.

Happy grandpa. Happy grandma. Happy memories, all around.

Photo by Dushawn Jovic

How to Find Super 8

When it comes to how I commandeered my own Super 8 camera, my partner and I found one being sold on Facebook Marketplace a few years back. It was a Rank Aldis 815.

When I finally got the camera, it came in an ancient, yet neat, leather camera bag full of discarded freebie batteries and a protruding old man smell that assured me the camera had been forgotten about long ago. 

As for Super 8 film, in Australia, can be fairly hard to come by and, for that reason, pretty expensive. Be prepared for the possibility of a fetch quest-type scenario. I luckily found Super 8 being sold at my local chain camera shop though, which surprisingly had a large variety of stock. 

The majority of Super 8 film sits at about $60AUD a cartridge. The most typical, easiest and accessible type of film I find is Kodak VISION3 50D Colour Negative Film. This is probably your best bet if you’re just starting out using Super 8; it’s standard and offers the best and finest-grained colour negative film. There are also the grainer reels, VISION3 200T and 500T, with the former being best for indoor filming and the latter for lowlight. I would get into the Black and White stock as well, but in an effort to keep this simple, we’ll leave it for now.

Photo by Connor Betts

The Functions of Super 8

You may be wondering what VISION3 50D Colour Negative really means anyway and if it’s necessary knowing this information in order to use a Super 8. Well, it is and it isn’t. 

Super 8 was always meant to be accessible to families and amateur filmmakers, so the device and its film is made as easy as possible to use and its technical jargon isn’t quite necessary when playing around with the camera. Although, if you want a peek behind the veil to understand exactly how the machine works then here it is: the 50 represents the speed of the film (or ISO if you’re a digital person) whilst the D refers to daylight, hence this is film best shot in daytime. If it were to say T instead of D, it is in reference to Tungsten balance which means the film is best used indoors or in lowlight, illuminated by artificial light rather than daylight. There is also the difference between Colour Negative and Reversal film, but again, in an effort to keep ourselves from confusion, if you are ever given the option between the two, just go straight for Colour Negative. Reversal is less forgiving to beginners, whilst Colour Negative is a more flexible and approachable film stock.

With all that said, Super 8 is pretty easy to load straight into your camera. Like I mentioned, the film sits in a cartridge and hence can be loaded in whenever and wherever you’d like. Do be careful of any debris that may land in your camera. It would absolutely suck to film over a matter of months, get that film developed and then find your hair burnt into the frame like I did.

Another big problem I initially faced with the camera was the motor and its batteries. I was worried that perhaps the film wouldn’t run even though it sounded like it was. Since a slither of film from the cartridge is always exposed at a time, I found a quick way to not only test the motor, but also to check whether or not the film was actually rolling. With a sharpie, I placed a small dot on the exposed film, closed up the camera, let it run for no longer than a second, opened it up again and then checked whether that dot was now gone. If the dot was gone the film was rolling, but if it was still there then something was wrong with the motor. It’s a worthwhile test to conduct and eats up hardly any of your film. 

Of course, opening the camera will expose that little bit of film to light, but that only adds a burn aesthetic to the beginning of your movie and you can either dispose of it in editing or keep as a cool little intro.

Some cameras will allow you to alter the frame rate which, of course, will give you a shorter or longer film, whatever you choose. Some cameras will also give you an estimated time of how much feet of film you have left to play with while shooting. Mine, unfortunately, doesn’t do that. So, instead, whilst I film, I keep a little logbook and document what I shoot to create a somewhat reversed run sheet. I’d recommend doing this either way, because it helps you better remember what you have already shot, what’s worth devoting time to in terms of filming and, ultimately, figuring out how to end the film when you recognise it’s getting close to the end of the reel.

Eventually, when the Super 8 finally reaches its concluding frames it will begin to make a sound that no longer emulates its previous running noises. You will know the sound when you hear it, and that will confirm to you that it’s time take out the cartridge. When you do so, do remember to check that smaller slither of exposed film that I mentioned earlier, because usually it will read “EXPOSED” if the film is completely spent.

Photo by Lukas Schroeder

How to Develop Super 8

Look, I’m not going to lie to you, developing Super 8 is the trickiest and most expensive part of the entire process. It’s not as easy as just going to your local camera shop, dropping off your film and waiting a week for it to appear in your Dropbox. 

After a week of researching and also just going around the city asking for help, I came to learn the only notable place in Australia that properly develops Super 8 film is a little studio in Victoria called Nanolab.

Now, Nanolab is not a physical place you can go to in order to drop your film off. Instead, Nanolab is a small operation where you literally have to post your film over to their studio for them to process it in house. I won’t get into all the nitty-gritty about what they offer and the information you need when developing with them, but they simply have you just fill out a small online form regarding details about yourself and the requirements for your film processing, and soon enough your film is on the way to development. It’s quite self-explanatory when you just read it properly. It’s more the payment side of things which can feel the most difficult.

Just beware that processing Super 8 burns a hole in your wallet. Again, I won’t get into specifics, but the pure expense of sending a film roll over to get developed by a small independent company for three minutes of footage is insane to some extent. But when that film arrives in your inbox a few days later, it’s all so totally worth it, I swear.

Photo by Michael Heise

Why Super 8 Though?

Super 8 is very much a relic of the past, I don’t disagree. But that’s also kind of the point.

Cameras have, for the longest time, been our greatest asset in the war against transience. We naturally fear the passing of time and our inability to engage peacefully with eternity. Digital photography changed that, killing time and enslaving infinity through digitisation. But where’s the fun in eternity when it exists in a barrage of photographs on your phone that you will never delete or ever look back on?

Recently, my partner and I road tripped over lutruwita/Tasmania and I filmed the majority of our adventure on Super 8. We will always recall the grand and fulfilling experiences we shared, like visiting MONA or hiking Cradle Mountain, but then there’s also the smaller, quieter moments that Super 8 managed to remember for us. Like the way the ocean waves rushed against the cliff fronts outside Port Arthur at twilight, or how a creamy white fog clashed with the clover green fields of the Huon Valley whilst we were cider tasting. Those are the moments we so easily forget, but they are also the moments we cherish most at the time. Because they’re the memories that aesthetically make time feel more precious. They make time feel more infinite.

At first glance, they may not seem remarkable, nor magnificent or even worth cherishing, but they bear a certain aesthetic that constructs the raw feeling of memory – the raw feeling of existing in that one perfect moment.

See, eternity is a desirable asset, but it comes at a high price. Perhaps that for which we value most in the infinite exists only momentarily.