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

Previous comments

I used a Zenit Photosniper 40 years ago. The sales rep for Zenit in the UK lived opposite to my house and was very free with his gear. Typical of Russian equipment of the time it was clunky, jammed sometimes but was effective. I also lived near a motor racing circuit and would go 'shoot the cars'.

Focus using the front screw under the lens was easy and because you could jam the butt into your shoulder the camera was steady.

Somehow, nowadays, I think this may be a dangerous camera to use as it may be mistaken by a law enforcement officer, or even member of the public, as a gun. Shooting with this may even get you shot. Anyway... happy days

BTW... I saw one of these at a car boot sale a while back. It was a bit beaten up so I didn't buy it but is was under $75.

P.S. The Zenit on the Photo Sniper was special in that it had an additional shutter release on the bottom of the camera which was activated by the trigger. I'm not sure how you could ( effectively) rig a digital on this camera with such a bottom release.

I've never stopped shooting film. On my last outing I carried my brace of Nikon D200's, a Nikon F2AS, and a Nikon F3T. Both film cameras loaded with Ektar.

J. Guevara's picture

I'll never give up on film. I do like VSCO and Nik Collection, but it just doesn't compare to shooting film, especially Kodak Portra 400 (overexposed) and Ektar. I just picked up a Kodak Pakon f135 Plus scanner and it gets excellent skin tones, zipping through an uncut negative strip in 5 minutes! Maybe its not the care of Richard Photo Lab, FINDLab, et al. but it is convenient and the scans look damn good. As your article points out: less time in post, more time to shoot and enjoy the process. Yes, I still love and use my Nikon D700 for many jobs, but I almost always have my Konica Hexar AF with me. As a medium and a process, film is invaluable. #BelieveInFilm

Caleb Alvarado's picture

Finally a article for film! awesome stuff. I always tell people, want to learn how to take better photographs? Use film.

Exactly the reasons I switched to film.
Although, I'm not really less weighted down, since I usually carry at least two cameras with me - one medium format, one 35mm. :D

Fantastic article and glad it's getting so much attention. I began shooting film in the 80's and jumped to digital in 2008. I went through many phases of digital (DSLR, MFT, etc). I switched back to film about a year ago and haven't looked back. It has a look and feel that I really admire. I do keep a digital around (for novelty) and for shoots that don't matter. I use film for the important stuff and just love the results. Yes, I spend quite a lot for development - but that's part of the challenge like you said. I makes you think more about each shutter release - but really, that's the only cost (film/dev). My equipment was all built in the 1950's and 60's and it's held up to time - and I no longer suffer from GAS like I did with digital. I love my daily kit so much - and the results even more. Thanks again for a wonderful article. Film is far from dead.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Ray, glad you enjoyed the article :)

This a good perspective on shooting film. There many good points made by other readers here in the comments. Film really is a way to slow down but so is turning off the screen so you can't chimp or tapping an index card to it, and challenging yourself to shoot in increments of "36". I challenge my students with this all the time.
Finally, shooting with film is really interesting if you can afford it. In the end the true magic of film, what makes it so special, so unique is when you develop it yourself. That's where you really connect with its ethereal soul and truly understand the art of making pictures.

I enjoyed reading the article; I didn't need any convincing. I still shoot film with my Canon A-1 that I bought new 34 years ago; I bought a Canon F-1N last year so I could share lenses. But I disagree with #7, not being weighted down with gear. Your Leica is a rangefinder; my Canons are SLR. I have 3 prime lenses, one is a 400mm, 1 zoom lens and a "potato masher" flash; both the Canons have motor drives. So my setup weighs a bit.
I bought a 5D Mk III this past December and it has more controls than my film cameras; so yes, shooting film is much simpler.

Anonymous's picture

I never stopped shooting film. Nor will I as long as I live. While I enjoy it, I am NOT a very good photographer because of, or in spite of, my film use. I believe digital helped me get better than I was, back in the film age, because of the instant feedback. But to truly get better you need to read. Words speak louder than pictures in this instance. Once you read and understand what goes into making a good, or even a great image, you grow. You try it. You fail. You come back and try again and maybe this time, you succeed.

It's all about thinking. Anyone can point a camera - film or digital - and get a nice image. Today's cameras seldom let you down. But that's not photography. That's letting a machine do all the work for you. Getting really great images, consistently, takes knowledge and forethought. Film use definitely reinforces that.

When the shot is truly important, you'd better know what you're doing. That's true for both film and digital.

David Vaughn's picture

Film is great, but you also have t take into account your resources and the practicality of shooting film.

I'm moving in 4 days into a small apartment. I have neither the know-how or the space to develop the film, so even if I do manage to create a space that I think is completely dark, then I run the risk of ruining my film due to my lack of training in developing film. Yes, much of it is about trial and error, but trial and error is expensive, and I do not have the funds to spare on my mistakes.

And sending the film off gets expensive as well.

I want to shoot film (especially large format), but the loss to gain ratio is just too much right now.

I live in a small apartment as well and no longer have darkroom equipment... I think my beaker now holds kitchen utensils. But I found a small community ed type art school that has darkrooms. $70 gets you 8 weeks of unlimited time in the darkroom. You bring film and paper, they have everything else. Community ed classes still teach both digital and film for under $200 for a 6-8 week class, including darkroom access. Many cities have public darkrooms, you just have to know where to find them.

Yes, trial and error is expensive. Some mistakes ruin your stuff. But many of the alternative processes were discovered by mistakes or "I wonder what would happen if..." And sometimes you have happy accidents. I had a roll of film that got wrinkled on my reel and ruined a couple frames. Somehow, I ended up with these perforation marks through some other frames and it looked so cool.

You don't need a darkroom to develop film - you can do it all in small sealed tanks, loading the film into them in a changing bag then pouring the chemicals in and out. It's very straightforward, if you're doing B&W anyway.

Personally I develop myself, then scan the negatives (on a Canoscan 9000F flatbed - inexpensive, gives decent results that are fine for web use or small digital prints) and then any which I particularly like I take to a darkroom in a community centre (£2.50 an hour) and make nice analogue prints with their equipment.

Fernando Garcia's picture

When I took photo in college, we learned the whole process of b&W film. It was an incredible learning experience and I recommend anyone to try it. The challenge, however, is that film processing in a darkroom is extremely tedious and time consuming. Not to mention the cost is exorbitant. I love film and that whole process of developing C41 film, learning to unroll, roll and develop all with your eyes essentially closed. It can become a very intimate and personal process. Then you run the risk of ruining your film if you mix poorly or if light leaks. Ahhh the traps of film developing ... it will make you better but there is a huge trade-off. As I said I love film but it isn't practical or easy or cheap. my two sense...

Anonymous's picture

I went through the calvary of megapixels, dynamic range, cmos, full frame and all those messes that some try impossing.
To support your proposal, there are still many films for sale, developing b&w at home just requires patience and returns pleasure, and c41 and e6 processes are still serviced.
But to go further; 5 bucks are enough to get an old camera and take photographs. And if they are not bad enough (to counter quote Capa), take the lens off and make a hole (we do the rest...Kodak said).

Miles Bergstrom's picture

I recently started shooting film again as well, and can agree with almost every single reason listed. Nothing beats some of the night shots I've done on Fujichrome of cities. Everything just feels like it has a bit more life.

The only issue I find is digitizing the film without paying an arm and a leg for it. I had a friend with a scanner but have since moved away from them and am having trouble finding ways to digitize my film. Anyone have any suggestions for that?

David Geffin's picture

I'm using an Espon V550 - cost all of about $150 and is great, highly recommended!

Chris Blair's picture

Great up on Film,but love my digital workflow too much to ever go back. I do love how shooting film slows you down. Good article, thanks for posting.

David Geffin's picture

Welcome Chris - i'd never leave digital either, in fact i think the skills we can learn (or re-learn) from film, cross over very nicely.

It's great for the hipsters that didn't get the Fx.

I'm reminded of many of these points every time I'm back in Portland, OR and find myself lusting over the all-film offerings at BLUE MOON CAMERA AND MACHINE. Incidentally, someone asked where to process and print film, there…definitely there! http://www.bluemooncamera.com/index.php

No. Not ever. This is a folly when you realize that there are very few true photographic printers out there. And the rest.... Scan. So now you are digital with a generational lose. So ridiculous.

Excellent article about something I struggle with right now. I started photographing weddings in a documentary style in 1997. That was of course on film, and I feel light I captured so many more real moments back then. I hand-printed 8x10s in a bathroom darkroom and I loved delivering a hand-made product. I would go back to film in a heart beat, but unfortunately, there are no photo labs in my state, which means having to mail order everything (or do all the processing and printing myself, which I don't have time for I feel). I really don't want to risk sending irreplaceable wedding film through a shipping service, so I guess I'm stuck with digital for the time being. I am however trying to learn ways to shoot my digital SLRs like film cameras (not shooting 4,000 images every wedding, slowing down, waiting for moments, etc.). Thanks for the great article!

David Geffin's picture

You're welcome Jason, sorry to hear you have nothing in your entire state. Maybe you could offer film as an additional premium service for your clients, as well as the digital stills they get, and include secure tracking/shipping with FedEx/UPS. Minimizes risk of loss, and even if the negs are lost, you have the primary digital files? Just a thought :)

The whole idea is pretty dependent on one's experience and habits, and it's a mistake to think that everybody shooting digital does the same things or that they do them for the same reasons.

For example, a lot of what you say about film versus digital could also be said with regards to comparing a guy with a budget for shooting 20 rolls of film versus a guy with a budget for shooting one roll of film.

Certainly, many of these things do apply to a lot of photographers, but not all of us. Take the issue of noise. It just makes me laugh when I hear people arguing over which camera has the least noise, because I can't help remembering how I used to push Ektachrome 400 two stops to 1600 for shooting high school football, back in the early 80's. The worst DSLR around with the highest ISO is still 10 times less noisy than that old film.

But then again, back in those days we used to argue about which film was grainier, so maybe things haven't really changed that much after all.

Westley Jerdon's picture

So tired of hearing this argument.. Lol.

Most can't even tell the difference when properly edited..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=WiwsOaDBZkQ

David Geffin's picture

As i said in the article, it's not the look of film (or digital) i so much care about - it's the process of how you make a photograph.

Anonymous's picture

In all this there is some nostalgia.
Processes are different of course; even some people like printing platinotypes.
But the question is what can you do with a film camera that you can't with a digital one. If anything.
The obvious answer is enjoyng the principles of photography.
When, for example, you listen a vinyl instead a cd, ther's no much you can learn.

You can shoot as slow and deliberately as you want with digital

David Geffin's picture

It's horses for course Fred. You can think what you want about the article, but this is based on my personal experience. That's the beauty of an opinion, everyone can have one, and it doesn't necessarily have to match your own :)

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