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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146 Comments

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David Geffin's picture

good thoughts Doc, i agree - this is a good exercise.

Will 99% of people ever bother to do it? Nope. This is the issue for many modern digital shooters today - they'll shoot grab shots and wonder why they aren't happy with the results but never both to do much about it.

A film camera forces people to at least exercise more discipline. There is no escape from it. It's why many people hate film, but it's why i'm loving coming back to it after shooting digital for so long.

Jaron Schneider's picture

I think it's extremely important to shoot film for a while at some point in your career, though for me I would not move entirely back to the medium.

Completely agree. I started doing the same about a year ago just to improve in all the areas you mentioned. And there's just a character to film that is pretty incredible.

In fact I just uploaded a few film stills to the portfolio area of my profile to show some film love...

Richard Roesler's picture

Film Is Great and like you said "Film forces you to work different “photographic muscles” much harder than when shooting digital." Still have my F1, a 4X5 and 3 1/4 Speed Graphics. but sadly no time, it seems to ever shoot film anymore. I did get a cover up in 2012

Matthew Taggart's picture

Great article. Again from a video world, it's so easy to shoot a scene to death with a million takes. I agree there's nothing stopping you from treating your digital camera like a film camera with only a certain amount of film, but it's hard to trick my brain into thinking that way. If more film makers learned patience by shooting only what they need to survive, I do think it would make movies, films, etc. better. And the same goes for still photography obviously.

David Geffin's picture

Thanks Matt, and i agree - as a videographer and editor, the patience and other virtues of training my eye are directly applicable to how i shoot. I am shooting less and trying to squeeze more narrative value out of what i am shooting. Also works wonders when editing, as it means i've already tried not to overshoot, do don't have tons of footage to scrub through.

Matthew Taggart's picture

It's funny because last night I was working on a project where we shot about six takes of the girls running feet. I'll grant you the first take wasn't the greatest, but we definitely didn't need six takes! It's made editing that project a nightmare! And I'll admit, I have an ego enough to think I'm pretty cool only getting the essentials but being good enough to have a great completed project.

Brian Anderson's picture

You can always "Time Warp" your digital camera like the following blogger did ;) My friends and I have started a flickr just for photos taken with a digital camera in this manner.

http://ikennd.ac/blog/2014/08/photography-challenge-time-warp/

David Geffin's picture

Brian that Time Warp challenge of yours is great, I've heard of others doing the same - great concept! Your sentence here:

"A more startling realisation though, is that even when not doing this challenge I should be taking less photos, not more."

is really something that I've also come to realize, and mention in the article.

I also loved the part about going to ask for a 1GB card, can just imagine the reaction you got :)

Nice article, thanks for sharing!

Hans Rosemond's picture

Really cool article! I've actually started bring along my film camera with me to shoots. After I do a look with my x-t1 I go through a roll of 120. For those who haven't shot film, you don't know a real viewfinder until you've looked down into a 645 of 67 camera. It's transcendent. All other 35 mm style viewfinders pale. But more importantly, you feel the shot. You're in there composing. Focus is alive. Borrow a mamiya rz67 if you can. Just for a day. It will change everything.

The RZ67 is probably my favorite film camera to use now. It truly is night and day looking through my 5D viewfinder and then through the RZ. (It makes full frame see like a tiny point and shoot camera..lol).

David Geffin's picture

haha great shot. I haven't shot much with an RZ67 but man, the viewfinder is really another thing - puts you into the photograph.

what's the name of the polaroid camera in the vid?

David Geffin's picture

Land camera, model 250

Any article about those oldschool polaroids? Which one to choose and etc.?

Tam Nguyen's picture

Awesome post man. Though I bet the cost of developing must be massive.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Tam - it's about $7/ roll to develop and i'm probably doing 3 rolls a month right now, $20/month, about $250 / year. Add in the cost of film ($5/roll, so about $15/month, so an additional approx $180 - $200 / year). For that cost (probably $400-500/year) and the pleasure and experience i get from film right now, it's well worth it.

Sounds fine. I would go with a Nikon F3 or a Canon EOS3 if I were going to use film more often. Many lenses available for much less than Leica costs.
For Mark - just HOW is digital 'much better for the environment'?

Chris Knight's picture

Great article, Dave! Really great shots!

David Geffin's picture

thanks Chris, really appreciate that!

Claude Laramée's picture

Kudo for the vid. Emily does wonderful work. The topic itself can take us into endless debate... I'm from the film era. I would buy 50 ' rolls of b&w film + empty canisters ( 5 cdn cents a piece) :-), the process was expensive shooting 4x5 specialy . I spent too much time with a Durst enlarger and smelly Fixer bath, trying to keep my developer at + or - 1/2 F. for 21 minutes when shooting rock concerts on GAF slide film at 1000 ASA ... Yep, a lot of things I don't miss ( It was hard without the autofocus or the 15 frames/sec). However the sad reality is that clients or art gallery curators wants the "results". They don't care how much blood, sweat and tears you went through, that you discipline yourself or not !
Finaly I did keep some good habits from working on film, like cropping in camera, shooting less but better !
And yes, an M6 sounds good even with film :-)

David Geffin's picture

thanks Claude, sounds like you've definitely been around the film block a few times!

Liked that you kept up the good habits from shooting film - i think this is what i'm enjoying - learning good habits, and doing my best to work out the old not-so-good ones!

Spy Black's picture

Well, let's get s few things straight here...

"I’m no longer weighed down with gear"
Not for nuthin', but the accompanying photo attached here is, more or less, what I walked around with almost daily back in the 70s. Plus a tripod.

"Post processing an image takes 30 seconds, not 30 minutes"
When film was all we had, post-processing could take HOURS, not minutes.

"Film is timeless"
One of the biggest fallacies of film is that it is somehow eternally archival. This is the biggest load of crap that I have ever heard of. Film needs EXTREME care to keep. This goes TRIPLE for color film. If you don't take extreme care of film, it will rot. It will scratch. It can be eaten by microbes. It can be destroyed by humidity. I can go on, but you may get the idea. A good chunk of early photography from the late 1800s-early 1900s, still and motion, has been lost forever, for many of these very reasons. Don't kid yourself for one second. Film is fragile, and making analog copies will degrade the image quality. This is not to say you can't keep film, you can, but it needs a lot of care.

Digital, on the other hand, will keep indefinitely. Storage mediums may come and go, and you'll occasionally need to transfer from an older medium to a newer one, but the data remains intact. Only operator error can screw it up.

Don't get me wrong, I love film. I grew with it and shot with it for decades (and still occasionally shoot, as a matter of fact, I plan to set up a medium format rig with it). I hope it survives as a fine art medium (a long uphill battle). The one great thing about shooting with film is that if you shoot long enough and consistent enough with it, you'll always know what your picture looks like before you ever press the shutter release.

But things don't look good for film in the long run. It's an unfortunate side effect of the complex technology needed to manufacture and maintain it, versus the demand for it.

Film is dead. Long live film...

David Geffin's picture

haha i <3 you SB! You definitely make some good points indeed - and yes, i guess it can weigh you down just as much as digital (love that shot btw!).

I think your sentence here:

The one great thing about shooting with film is that if you shoot long enough and consistent enough with it, you'll always know what your picture looks like before you ever press the shutter release.

sums up how i feel right now. For me anyway, having shot digital for a while, it's too easy for me at least to become lazy. I hate how i shoot something, look at the LCD, it looks great then after some marinating time, you upload it to LR and see it's not nearly as interesting or strong as you first thought. With film, on a roll of 36, i've become much more selective, and out of 36 images, i generally get a few i'm happy with. My "keeper" rate is FAR higher than if you'd have given me 36 digital exposures to shoot.

I think it's the process that i'm really enjoying above all else, that is something you cannot beat.

Spy Black's picture

Yeah, I think people should try working with film who may not have done otherwise. We've been in the digital age long enough that there will be a few who have never used the medium. It may be a bit confusing or annoying at first if they're used to instant gratification, but just as an oil painting isn't a watercolor, I would hope they can enjoy the medium for what it is.

Love the article.
Although I still mainly shoot with my DSLR, I started using manual lens instead more often these days, the process made me slow down a little, and those old classic manual lens could produce amazing image quality. ..well that just me.

David Geffin's picture

thanks James, i know some people who have done the same. Manual focusing lenses helps a lot with my video work too, again something directly transferable from the old, manual focus film days to the modern digital world.

Ralph Berrett's picture

I do miss the alchemy of the darkroom, a computer monitor and epson printer is not same as watching an image appear in the developer tray.

The thing I do miss about film is the physical product of negs and slides.Digital seems so transitory. From my perspective people with a film background tend pre visualize images better before taking them. People with a pure digital background tend to be more reactionary. People with film backgrounds also tend to be more comfortable when the need arises to shoot manually.

I think of digital as being able to sculpt with light or similar to sketch artist would call pushing a line by using the instant feedback to adjust the shot.

Form me personally most DSLR cameras did not match up to my Nikon F5. It was not until the D2x did feel like it was getting close to parody and finally the D3 to surpass it.

My basic feeling is DSLR cameras have passed their 35mm counterparts, medium format film and digital are getting close to parody and film rules large format.

I the best way to learn shooting is start with film, because there is no safety net and it forces you pre visualize your shoots. If i was to design a digital student camera it would have the ability to turn off image replay and only show you the historgram of course there is gaffer tape for that. ;)

Thank you! I feel like a fish out of water shooting film. You should see the look on a client's face when you wrap up the "have to get" shots, whip out a camera older than my mother, and unfold the bellows :) (To my credit, vintage photos will work fantastically for his marketing campaign if they turn out)

Photography is very instinctual for me when working with film. It's a lot of guesswork but the smell of old cameras and chemistry instantly puts me in a creative mood. I suppose that's because I learned photography as an art form rather than taking a highly technical approach digitally. I approach the way I shoot differently with film or digital cameras. Film I tend to overshoot because I want to make sure I got what I wanted. In the darkroom I don't print everything because some negs aren't worth wasting the paper. I am not happy some of my favorite films have been discontinued, mainly Kodak HIE, because digital is nowhere near the same as that film. I've spent hours trying to replicate it in PS. There are 2 rolls in my fridge that I bought years ago and have been hoarding for the perfect infrared day.

For me, the digital process suffers from the same issue my drawing and painting suffered from... I don't know when to stop messing with it and ultimately overwork the piece in post. So film is great because you can do a lot with it, but it's limitations prevent me from doing that. At the same time, I really like being able to not have other limitations. I don't worry about not having the right film speed and all that.

I don't think Fotosnipers are made for digital. I want one though!

David Geffin's picture

your'e welcome Jennifer, and interesting how you say you tend to overshoot film (i get where you are coming from there, even though i'm finding the opposite approach myself)

Love how you still have 2 rolls in the fridge - make sure you post up shots here and email some to me so i can see when you do decide that perfect day has arrived :)

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