Why I’ve Gone Back To Shooting Film...And Why You Should Too

Why I’ve Gone Back To Shooting Film...And Why You Should Too

Our DSLRs have confused us. We obssess over the wrong things. Sharpness at 400%; bokeh characteristics of lenses produced from what-must-surely-be prancing magical unicorns; high speed burst frame rates that make cameras sound like gatling guns; 4k resolution to shoot better cat videos; 100 auto focus points that still won’t focus on what we need them to; and noise performance at 400,000 ISO. Absolutely none of these will make your photographs better. Shooting film will though, here's why.

Last month, I bought my first film camera in a decade. A Leica M6. Yep say all you want to say about Leica users (it's probably all true), this camera has changed the way I shoot, and been the single best investment in any piece of gear in years.

I grew up shooting film as a kid and we actually had an attic darkroom, thanks to my dad’s hobbyist photographer leanings. Shooting on film again isn’t some indulgent trip down a nostalgic lane though. It has snapped me out of the digital malaise and reminded me what it means to actually make a photograph.

What on earth am I actually talking about here? Well, our DSLRs turned us into the equivalent of photographic sloths. We wander about with too much gear, sluggish pulling the camera up, staring at our LCDs and wondering where all the love and emotion went.


Ok I’m being somewhat ridiculous, but I’m sure some of you out there in the back row are nodding in solidarity and agreement.

It’s not just me that feels this way. Last month I shot some video for Emily Soto for her NYC fashion photography workshop. As you can see from the video I shot, what is amazing to see is how much film features throughout the learning experience. The polaroids, the Impossible Project film, and even the medium format and large format systems the attendees had brought along themslves – it all added to the overall aesthetic of the style of fashion photography that was being taught. Sure digital was being shot too - everyone had their DSLR, even a digital medium format camera was in attendance - but there was a definite sense of excitement when people shot polaroid and revealed what had been captured.

The ability to shoot thousands of RAW images to a single card, to take a dozen images in a single second and to basically shoot as much as we want with almost no direct costs involved is turning us into brain dead zombies. So what can we do about it?


Is Film The Answer?

Film is just the medium. I don’t care so much about the medium (although I do love the look of film) - it’s the process that interests me.

Film forces you to work different “photographic muscles” much harder than when shooting digital.  Here’s the ten things I’m now doing differently through the process of shooting film:


1.) I’m making selects in-camera, not in Lightroom

Film forces you to think about each shot, because each shot costs money. Film and developer costs are about 30 cents each time I click the shutter. That finite value of a limited number of shots on a roll, and developer expense makes me assess if it’s worth it before the shot, not try to weight it up after the fact in Lightroom. Less time in front of the computer, more time shooting makes me happy.

My new workflow for Lightroom - more fun than my old workflow

2.) I feel "the moment" more, and get a true sense of achievement

"What on earth is he smoking?", you're probably wondering? Well hippy'isms aside, you have no idea what you’ve got. No way to check an LCD. Each shot must be made to count (even if it doesn’t, there is a sense it should). Your confidence about “the shot” increases as you get more shots that work. When you get the developed film back and see you nailed it, there is no better feeling. Digital doesn’t come close to this sense of achievement. This isn't about being elitist and shouting from your moutains "Look at me, I am the greatest photographer in the city because I understand how to shoot film!". It's about better understanding exposure, motion and light - and how that can help you in the digital world.

Contrary to popular belief amongst my photographer friends, I was not hiding in the bushes while shooting this image

3.) You become more aware (particularly of backgrounds, light and composition)

This is easily one of the best skills I’ve become attuned to, and it’s translating into my digital stills and video work. Shooting black and white only has got me thinking much more about background and composition, and how light is falling on my subject. It’s adding greater depth to the images I take.

Background separation and subject movement are all coming together to produce what is essential an image of what I'm seeing looking in one of New York's dirtiest puddles. Beautiful moments captured amongst the finest dirt that New York has to offer!

4.) I am being forced to better understand light

Although my camera has a built in light meter, I’ve become accustomed to different shutter and aperture settings in different lighting conditions. At first it’s a little tricky, even if you shoot manual in your DSLR. I also have a greater understanding of my reciprocals and have become much more adept at quickly adjusting shutter and aperture simultaneously, all of which translates into the digital world very readily. This is about being ready to capture moments while others are still fumbling with dials and settings.

After i took this shot, this guy reached level 2000 of Candy Crush and fist pumped the air for 20 minutes straight, but this was the last shot on my roll so I missed the action.

5.) I can anticipate the moment better

My lens is manual focus, the camera is a rangefinder. I shoot at a snails pace now. This is a good thing. This is a great benefit of shooting with film, because it forces you to try and pre-visualize what you want to happen. If you are shooting sports, weddings, people or anything that is not still life, this is an essential skill to hone. The best photographs tend to be the in-between moments, those unexpected instances. Being quicker to anticipate these is a great skill

This image combines so many things I love - reflections, New York streets, a slight tilt used with restraint, and an old weathered man with awesome facial hair in some sick-looking mirrored shades looking somewhat perplexed. Ah, the things we love and are drawn to shoot!

6.) I’m much more patient

I live in New York - any time I get a chance to practice patience, I take it. The more time I spend doing any type of photography, the more I realize it’s about shooting less, slowing down and observing more. Sure, there might be times you want to shoot off a huge number of frames each second, but if you’re trying to convey an emotion or evoke a mood, I think it’s far more worthwhile to wait, watch, direct a little and have a clear vision in your head AHEAD of what you shoot, rather than shooting and looking at images, trying to work out what you were trying to say. Shooting film is a cure for the over-shoot-because-we-can digital sickness I often find infected with.

This was one of my first shots with film after a 10 year hiatus. It took me forever. Fortunately the subjects in this shot didn't move a muscle. They might have been dead and propped up, I have no way of knowing, I hope not. Either way, fortunately they were still enough for me to compose around them

7.) I’m no longer weighed down with gear

I cannot tell you how transcendentally magical it is to carry one lightweight film camera and one lens, a 35mm. I’m not only lighter, but I can see and frame an image with my eyes before I even pull the camera up. Shooting one camera and one lens allows you to pre-compose with practice, and is a great way to practice photography without shooting a single photograph. “Know thy tools so they get out of thy way” was some famous saying someone once probably said, and it’s definitely true.

Not being weighed down means you can respond when the action calls for it! Like this shot, when I saw a horse walking a woman along a New York City cross walk (a much more common occurrence in this city than you might otherwise think)

8.) Between sharpness and a better photograph, sharpness loses everytime.

I love sharp digital images, don’t get me wrong, but I firmly believe our ongoing obsession with it is causing us to overlook our connection to the image. I mean, who doesn't love poring over lens charts? Over sharpened, perfect images are like digital razors to my eyeballs. Imperfection is beautiful. Sharpness doesn’t make a good image, it can make a good image better (if used tactfully) but focusing on just getting something sharp can make an image lifeless and boring. I love the emotion of motion blur, and grain in film, it gives us something organic that connects us to the images we see. We're humans, not robots, and some of the images I see could easily have come from the brain of an awesomely-cool-looking-yet-emotionally-barren android photographer.

Is this image sharp? Sort of. Does it convey a man who looks trapped and caged like an animal? I think so. Do i prefer the way it makes me feel over how sharp it is or isn't? Definitely.

9.) Post processing an image takes 30 seconds, not 30 minutes

Because I love the natural look of film, I’m rarely spending more than 30 seconds on each image when I am messing with them in Lightroom. I’m not spending as much time in front of a computer, I’m just shooting more and that’s what makes me happiest.

If this was a digital file, I'd probably still be at my computer pulling 18 slides around, wondering what looks better. As it is, I now have more free time to wait on subway stations, trying to frame people in small squares while surrounded by other small squares. I know where I'd rather be! (I'm not sure why, but at least I know where I'd rather be)


10.) Film is timeless

Whichever way you cut it, you cannot beat the look of film or it’s archival properties. It’s why Scorsese, Abrams, Tarantino, Nolan and other Hollywood directors pulled together last month, to try and save Kodak film stock. Sure, it’s dying – Kodak film stock sales have fallen 96% over the last ten years, but the fact it’s still around, and still in demand by many top directors says a lot about the special place film has in many of our hearts

Film - making beautiful people look naturally beautiful since 1851 (or whenever film was invented). Thanks to this young lady and to Lindsay Adler for allowing me to shoot her model after their awesome editorial shoot together

Here is an image of the lovely patient Spencer, from Emily Soto's recent NYC workshop. She only had to hold this pose for a mere 18 minutes while I fumbled around while I manually focused a rangefinder and tried to work out how to expose correctly (I'm joking for comedic value here - it wasn't that long at all, probably about 16 minutes in reality)

Final Thoughts

So am I done with digital? Of course not. In the space of a few days last week, I shot a Polaroid land camera and a Phase medium format camera. Different tools, different jobs. 

Here I am traveling back in time with Vic Soto's Polaroid film camera...


...and then later the same week, shooting into the future with the awesome that is a digital 50megapixel Phase. Remember - use what works best for the job at hand - or if you fancy a challenge, don't, but that might be harder

Will my film camera replace my digital camera? Not on your nelly. That’s not the point of the article. Digital is great, but with all the cheap advancement in technology and limitless opportunity it brings, it can turn us into stumbling, photographic zombies if we're not careful.

I am thoroughly enjoying the process of film again because I feel like I’ve been snapped out of the digital daze. It’s not so much a trip down memory lane but rather, a useful sharpener for my photographic skillset. You don’t need a Leica. A few hundred dollars gets you a cheap 35mm film camera, a lens, a basic-but-effective film scanner and some rolls of Tri-X to get you started. It’s hardly a serious financial risk and I’m wholly confident you’ll get a sense of at least some of my experiences. At the price of a cheap second hand piece of glass, what have you got to lose? 

When was the last time you saw a digital camera look this cool? Exactly. Case closed. Go shoot some film. (side note: if anyone DOES have a digital camera mounted on a thing like this, please post in the comments)


Thanks: all images used are my own apart from the two of me - thanks to Vic Soto and Manny Tejeda respectively for each of those. Thanks to Lindsay Adler and Emily Soto for their kind permission to shoot some film test shots during their shoots last month.

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Manny Tejeda's picture

Great article Dave! I still think you were creeping in the bushes. lol. As someone who learned on Digital, I might have to take a step back and add a film camera to my portrait kit and shoot both for clients and fun. That sniper camera is too badass for words.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Manny, give it a go, i guarantee you'll be hiding out in bushes with me in no time. Uh, i mean.... ;)

Nice article but film - meh! Did that way too long and love digital over film any day of the week. Plus much better for the environment.

Hello Mark,
I do think the 'better for the environment' statement will need to be checked and confirmed. If you're talking chemicals into the drain, it is harmful, but if you look at the chemicals used to manufacture the sensors of digital cameras, it's about equal. Also with digital, you have batteries that need to be made, and they also use harsh chemicals. Then, from an eco-friendly stand-point, digital cameras are heavier. The shipping of them around the world surely use a lot more fuel compared to if it were film spools and empty film camera bodies. Also, if it wasn't for the convenience factor of digital, you would have less photographers in the world, and then less cameras to manufacture and less film developed, less chemicals used. Just saying. I use both, but if I had to marry one, it would be film.

The amount of chemicals used to manufacture one sensor + one battery for one digital camera is not going to be equal to the amount of chemicals used to process many rolls of film over over the life of one film camera. Far more chemicals will be used in processing the film of even a casual amateur photographer.

As far as shipping my camera(s), I don't ship them around the world or anywhere for that matter. It was a one time fee from B&H to me. I really doubt that amount of fuel consumed to ship one digital camera to a buyer is going to be all that much more, if any, than to ship one film camera to the buyer.

Better for the environment?

Digital cameras go obsolete and and destined (programmed) to work improperly after a few years! My dads canon AE-1 still works flawlessly and I shoot probably 1/1000 of the frame with digital so the chemicals aren't in question here. Also, most universities will take them (provided they have a chemistry lab) and render them neutral and processable by water plants...

Electronics are NEVER "cleaner" for the environment, specially if the power for them comes from coal power plant (like most of the US...)

I have always wanted to try film but I thought they were in the process of no longer manufacturing film. Also, who processes the film.

you do

David Geffin's picture

Jeff, not sure where you live, but here in the US you can still get film processed and printed in drug stores. I use a small developer/printer in New York, who charges $7 a roll of 36 exposures.

Anonymous's picture

Any way you can share who that is? I'm looking for someone in the city who can actually develop my negatives and not get fingerprints on them lol.

Some companies have discontinued certain films because there wasn't a big enough demand. They were typically specialty and pro films. The most common films are Kodak and Fuji color 200 and 400 and they are perfectly fine, and cheap to start with. Kodak and Ilford make a c-41 process black and white film (monochrome film that can be processed with color chemicals) and it's kind of fun but the prints don't always turn out well because it's still printed on color paper which turns out a little more cyan or magenta. If you want a real treat, try slide film. Fuji Velvia has amazing color but it's unforgiving of high contrast so you need to keep that in mind (and they still make this contrary to what some people have told me, I bought a roll and had it processed last month).

As far as where to get it processed, most drug stores still have one hour labs. Most camera stores either do in house or send it out. I am finding that most stores are losing knowledge on film and chemistry so I double check everything. Many pro shops have extras you can do with the film, like pushing or pulling, or cross processing.

Thanks everyone. I am having my father send his old Konica auto s and am planning to give it a try.

My sentiments exactly! Film is so much more magical than digital, and going back to film every once in a while can be extremely rewarding for our individual photo process. I have been wanting to break out my medium format Bronica for a while now. I'm feeling motivated now!

David Geffin's picture

Do it Josh - then post up the shots in your port here so we can check em out!

I shoot with both a dslr & phase back, but nothing ever makes skin tones & bright lighting sing like medium format film. It has a creamy smooth glow, that you cannot replicate with digital, and just handles highlights, unlike digital.
Caveats? Plenty:
Unless you're developing B&W at home, you need to pay a good lab to get the best results. That plus the film cost can easily be $2/click. Talking about slowing down and thinking before you shoot! Also, it's much less forgiving in low light, shadows & underexposure can result in a bland & gray mush. Lastly, it's obviosly not for anything you'd want to composite or heavily retouch.

But you can get a mamiya 645 used for just a few hundred bucks, and there are some less expensive labs popping up such as Indie Film. I highly recommend trying this route for anyone that shoots natural light portraits.

David Geffin's picture

Excellent points Geoff - now, where can we see some of those medium format film shots you've got us all riled up about!? Post some please!

Not her best smile, but trying to capture a 2 yr old on film is another caveat.

David Geffin's picture

So cute! Thanks for sharing and nice shot!

QuintaQuad 54's picture

While I completely understand the point of your article, every one of the points you make (except for #10 and that too is always improving in the world of digital film emulations) can apply to shooting digital, as well. It merely requires something that many today lack...discipline. This is the bane of almost everything today due to technology. One of the prices we pay for it...with convenience comes laziness.

However, laziness can be overcome with discipline allowing one to take advantage of the benefits of technology. Film merely "forces" one to adhere to these tenets you mention, at a cost I might add. I prefer to make a conscious effort to adhere to those tenets on my own rather than being forced to do so by the limitations film imposes. For me personally, the advantages of digital far outweigh the "benefits" of shooting film that you have listed here. At the same time I understand that some may need this forced limitation in order to improve in those areas and become a better photographer.

As for #9, for me PP is half the fun of photography. I enjoy it as much, if not more sometimes, as I do shooting.

In the end, each to their own...I'll stick with digital. Thanks for the informative article...

Ha! Same train of thought while I was writing my post! Didn't see it until I submitted.

2-Thumbs-Up... ;)

David Geffin's picture

you're welcome, and I get where you are coming from. It's horses for courses - some lack discipline as you say. Me personally, i prefer the process of having limitations put on me (cost of film, limited number of shots per roll, developing costs) which causes me to think much more carefully. This isn't about being disciplined or not, it's about a different process. Definitely appreciate your comments and insight though, thanks for sharing :)

I think everyone should try film long enough to acquire this discipline. You get SO much more of any dslr when you return from film... (though I am still learning!)

I have nearly the same feeling. We all agree that photography, just like any other form of art, is a language which enables us to express ourselves. Film, darkrooms, scanners, sensors, LR & PS, are only tools, sometimes equivalent, sometimes not, each one with its own strenghts and shortcomings. I welcome the idea of shooting film in order to learn (or refresh) a different tool, but I don't agree with the fact that shooting film is the best way to refine composition or lighting skills. I am an absolute nobody in the photography world, so I can only speak based on my really limited, amatourish experience.
I totally agree that less is more, less weight, less gear between you and your photo, less distracting features. Truth is, with digital you are not forced to use all the bells and whistles bundled with your gear.
I shoot in manual mode, not for the pleasure of fiddling with the dials, simply because one day I needed to balance flash exposure and ambient light, and i found it easier to do in manual mode than using priority modes. When I decided to practice manual mode, I also thought that if I used priority modes in balancing ambient and flash light, tweaking it through exposure compensation, my brain would have started to adapt to the exposimeter of one particular camera, with a lot of wasted experience at the first camera swap.
I started to study flash techniques a couple of years ago, and I notice that in these two years I learnt to "feel" ambient light quality way better than in all my previous snapshooting career. I doubt that film would have been so effective in leveraging my lighting skills, I feel exactly the opposite, the possibility of trying and instantly reviewing lighting setups on my notebook with a simple Eye-Fi card slapped into the card slot, or to try different camera settings and judge them on the fly is a terrific learning tool.
I also found myself shooting basically my two cheap primes (35 1.8 and 50 1.8 on APSC), not to force myself in a focal length gage which elevates my creativity, but simply because they are compact, light and allow me to shoot with a shallow DOF and/or at lower ISO.
At the same time, I am an autofocus freak for a simple reason: my standard shooting conditions are my kids running and jumping and shaking, and in these conditions I have to catch the light, frame my photo, check the background, focus on the eye of the subject, recompose and shoot while the subject is living his life. 3D tracking and a short burst are the best tools I have found so far bundled with my gear for these shooting conditions.
Back to the process, my photos mostly suck, but it's not a consequence of the digital workflow, it's simply because I don't have enough will/motivation/time (in order of importance) to let them not suck.
On a side note, what I really don't get is the "true sense of achievement". I can understand it, as I can understand the sense of achievement someone could feel of smoking a cigarette or collecting old motorbikes, but I doubt that writing on a Moleskine in front of the sea with a cigar and a whisky glass leverages your writing skills more than writing on your laptop in front of the sea with a cigar and a whisky glass.

David Geffin's picture

haha, i really enjoyed your comment Arturo, especially the last sentence about the cigar, whisky and moleskine etc - absolutely agree and thanks for taking the time to write that out.

Good points, and definitely agree - there is no way i'd necessarily want to choose manual focus over my DSLR for certain situations where i need to get an image shot quickly. However, i think the skills we learn from going more slowly - like anticipating moments - can help transfer into the digital world.

The "sense of achievement" idea comes from quite simply seeing something in your head, and then shooting 1 or 2 frames and capturing that, in an environment where you have to be quickly focus, judge lighting conditions, compose etc. Of course - we can do this in the digital world - but the tools we have sometimes make us lazy, or inept in spotting smaller things, or the inbetween moments that take a snapshot and make it a great photograph (or even just a better photograph).

I think this is what i'm trying to convey - film will never replace digital for me, but it helps sharpen us to the point where we can become better photographers with our digital equipment.

Thank you David for your answer. Believe me, I completely agree with you about the "slow down" approach as a way to force us to think about every choice and possibility behind our creative process. Speaking about film, I personally fear the fact that by the time I can review the results of my choices I completely forget the choices that led to the photo I have in my hands. Not that film isn't a great tool for learning, as a matter of facts generations of past and current great photographers learnt this way, I only believe that current technology gives us more effective tools, it's our task using them in the right way. For sure my point of view is biased by the fact that I shot very little film in my life (some rolls of random shots at 13 yo on an old Ricoh, a Sears KS-1000 I think, my aunt gave me). Again, this has nothing to do with other perfecty valid reasons to shoot film, like aesthetic, artistic or technical reasons, or the simple pleasure of doing it (which may be a pleasant discovery for digital shooters like me).

Noam Galai's picture

Great post Dave! I want to take your film camera for a ride!

David Geffin's picture

thanks Noam, you're welcome to give it a go next time we meet for wings!

I disagree. Film is a novelty.

However, you're on the right track. I think DSLRs are too much for a lot of people. I recently tossed my DSLR kit in favor of the Fuji X system, and I feel exactly the way you do. It's liberating. The X100S has changed my entire approach to photography.

So it's not film, it's just getting the right camera in your hands.

David Geffin's picture

Perhaps - but as someone who also shoots with an X100S, i don't think it replaces what I'm doing when shooting film in the M6. Different tool, different process, different way of exercising how we see. I love the X100s but film simply takes more work, more time, more diligence and more effort. I might be shooting the same sorts of things in the same manner, but man oh man is the approach to how i get there different.

Hmm. I think this is a very good article from the artistic sensibilities it's trying to... uh... expose (sorry!).

However, it also alludes to a sorry fact that many photographers (people in general) aren't disciplined enough to do this without spending a penny, Yes, you can play "I have a film camera" with your DSLR, just follow these easy steps:

a) stop pimping...completely... by turning it off in camera!;
b) do all the settings like you would on a Leica, including turning off auto-focus;
c) choose a prime and stick with it the whole day or shoot;
c) limit yourself to 32 shots with 2 in front and 2 in back as "gifts" if they come out.
d) import all your shots into Lightroom with any preset of your choice from DXO Film Pack (as an example; you can set these recipes up beforehand by yourself w/o DXOFP);
e) print contact sheets and pre-cut 4x5s of everything.

Finally... be happy with what you've achieved artistically, learned in the process, and most of all disciplined yourself to do again soon.

Caveat: none of the above will or can replace the pure beauty of film (specifically grain) or the feeling of a Leica in your hand. However apart from the Leica... it can come very close artistically... and it's free*.

*OK... other than toner and paper.