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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michael buehrle's picture

i started on film in the 70's when all there was was manual. i stopped shooting film years ago. i did not do my own developing even though i know how too. for me the cost of film is just too high compared to digital. it's goona cost you about $10 a roll of 36 for film and developing. digital is basically free. each camera needs batteries and the actual camera and lens so that is not a valid reason. when i shot film you had to pick and choose what you shot since you only had 36. i can get thru 36 in 3.5 sec now if i need too (nikon D3) if i don't like them i just get rid of them, no cost. there is a time and place for film, i get that, but for your average shooter it's not practical anymore. that's just my opinion.

Tony Blake's picture

Always nice to read an article about film. It's where it all started for me and I have become lazy for sure. Due to my client base with deadlines means its digital all the way... I still have all my film cameras. Mamyia 645, Twin lens, Nikon 90x, Pentax p30 etc etc. It might be time to get the film out again. Even if it's to slow me down for a while. Days and Days in front of the mac can take its toll... But hey that's the business. All good...

Nice article. By the way, I do use the TAIR on all my digital cameras (but without the sniper)

Carlton Canary's picture

I love my rz67. Will it replace my canon as my main workhorse. Not anytime soon. But that isn't the point. I simply love the process of making images with it. I love the way looking through the waist level finder makes me consider my shot a little more. I like the sound of the shutter. I love my 127mm lens (which I cant seem to find an appropriate replacement for on my canon) and the way it renders faces. At the end of the day, using it just makes me happy and keeps me fresh for my next client gig.

great article. thank you.

i think things 1-6 basically make your case. the principle of scarcity forces a more conscious decision to "spend." its that consciousness that native-digital shooters never learned. fewer of them are truly "in the moment" because they're going to try to get it all and net the best moments in editing. but the truly magical moments still happen in nanoseconds, and if you can't aniticipate them and capture them in one shot, you can't capture them in 100 shots either.

when its not my job to shoot a wedding (like when im a guest a friend's wedding) one of my favorite things to do is take my hasselblad with one roll of film; the goal is to deliver 12 magic moments in 12 shots. if any native-digital shooter wants to train their mind and index finger to the highest level of photography, pretend you've only got 36 images on your next assignment. its tyranny. but you will discover so much more precision.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Neil - and what a lovely idea that is, of giving them 12 magic shots! Think i might do the same next time i'm at a friend's wedding, thanks for the inspiration!

louis dube's picture

since digital came the main tool, people have stop to be photographe, they are more retoucher than photographe i heard a lot of we will do it on PS. than came the guy go to the camera store buy a t3i create if facebook page and VOILA! a pro photographe is born know nothing about basic alway on pro mode (p mode(m.a.s.p) go to client ask 60$ to shoot model and kill the price of real photograph. i bought and Mamiya RZ67 pro II 90 and 250mm lens never have better fun whit 700$ to make photo its not the old camera hand feeling, its the shutter noise, the moment you have to think what your doing, the appreciation on your negativ, when the came back from the local shop, its the real noise on the picture...
David i understand everything talk on this article

David Geffin's picture

Thanks Louis....and if you ever feel the need to sell the Mamiya, let me know ;)

louis dube's picture

i bought it 5 month ago its a charm XD, i bought a digital scanner (plustek opticfilm 120) 5300dpi(186mpx) or 10600dpi(648mpx(22.4go per picture) 24feetx30) so ask me in 5years for your mamiya ahahaha

Great article Dave!

Land cameras are pure instant film awesomeness!

Dennis Sulz's picture

Used film for the last 30 ish years. Only do digital when customer want quantity and film for quality. The people who claim digital is clean have they ever seen where their old computers go ? And they say they can process them for free. Here in Canada we have to buy our computers and there is nothing free about that. And to be environmentally friendly I can use coffee and washing soda to develop my film and use 3% diluted vinegar for stop bath and them use sea water for fixer. Been there done that for experiment and works fine. Can that be done with digital pics ?... I think not...And don't people who shoot digital miss DOF without spending hrs fixing it on your computer ?

Well can you use coffee, washing soda,and vinegar to develop color film? No, you must use stronger chemical such as bleach.

Penny Adams's picture

Great article Dave, and I too began shooting with a 35mm and with film in High school. We had a lab at school and processed our film at lunch times.
I loved reading all the comments and suggestions. As you know I shoot both digitals, and film and I have a soft spot for polaroids.

David Geffin's picture

Hi Penny, nice to see you here! Thanks for the comment, and more big girl camera shots please ;)

Anonymous's picture

Thank you david. Much I agree with here. I am contemplating going back largely to film photography, particularly medium format.I started shooting weddings in 1975 with a pentax spotmatic and one standard lens.Manual focus,manual wind on, changing films,limited film speeds,Relying on simple metering in camera supplemented by guess work.I believe I could still shoot a wedding usig my spotmatic and not even using a light meter. It would be a bit of a slower process than today's shooting..I would struggle to focus tough as my eyesight is not as good as then. Autofocus film cameras, when they came in extended my use by date.

David Geffin's picture

Thanks Geoff, glad you enjoyed the piece.

I have been a silver photographer and printer for about 40 years and remain so today. I shoot digital only very casually - for holidays and such. I agree with much of your commentary, but have several comments:

- Film ASA lies. If you have well calibrated meters, thermometers, and so forth, the real ASA of most monochrome film is around half of what is on the box. I get best results when I shot at 1/2 ASA and underdevelop around 20%. I adjust these depending on the scene subject brightness range. cf "Zone System ".

- Analog lightmeters lie. They will return an exposure intended to make whatever you've pointed them at look middle gray. You have to adjust accordingly.

- There is no reason 35mm cannot be tack sharp and every bit the equal of anything digital on the market.

- Film still holds a much better dynamic range than digital.

- If you REALLY want to have your mind blown, shoot some larger formats like 6x6 or 4x5. You'll never shoot digital monochrome again :)

- There isn't a digital output medium that remotely compares with a well made silver print. I don't care if its the best IPS monitor on the planet or an inkjet printer with 5000 cartridges. It's not the same and silver wins every time when you compare (well made) silver prints against any of the digital outputs.

- Both capture mechanisms have a place, but I continue to work exclusively in silver simply because I cannot make digital do what silver does, and does far more cheaply.

David Geffin's picture

Great points, thanks for chiming in with your extensive experience FM, appreciate it!

Oh and as to the other comments here about environmental impact. Monochrome chemistry is fairly benign and so heavily diluted that - even at large scale use - it's a fairly low impact as I understand it.

What is not low impact are the billions of metric tons of electronics manufacturing and disposal byproducts: Lead, lithium, many variants of plastics, the various solvents use in the flux/solder/cleaning processes, and so on dwarf anything we'll produce in a chemical darkroom.

Moreover, this generation of electronic digisnappers are designed for a short lifetime and then disposal. There is no reason, in principle, why Nikon and Canon couldn't build a camera platform that could be user
upgraded with new electronic and sensor packages, but they don't because there is more money to be made
selling you a whole new system regularly. Contrast that with your M6 or a Hassy V body that are built to
last generations (and do). Their environmental impact is a one time thing. As just one other example, a brand new Toyota Prius has a larger carbon footprint than an old Chevy truck getting 10mph because of all these manufacturing/transportation related carbon costs.

David Geffin's picture

Absolutely - we live in a disposable digital culture. Those of us spending $3k+ on a camera body know we won't be shooting that thing in probably 4-5 years time, certainly not in a decade. Will i still be buying professional digital gear? Absolutely, but my love of film and the cameras that shoot it has certainly been rekindled.

johnnymartyr's picture

"You become more aware" I think this sums up everything! Shooting on film requires, not gives the option, of being well disciplined and deliberate whenever a camera is in hand. This improves all aspects of ones ability to communicate through images. Thanks for the article!

Well ... I´d like to call BS. As much as I love film - I actually made my first steps in photography with it - I really, really doubt that it´s an apt tool for todays environment. Exceptions may be made for special assignments when an AD requests film or you simply have the room to shoot that way. But in most other cases, turnaround time these days has to be less than 24 hours. Which, in most cases, won´t be enough to properly shoot film. Since digital has gotten better than analogue, film is no more than a stylistic device, if anything. You definately won´t see the difference in print and most probabaly won´t see it online, either. That boils it down to how one shoots and the discipline involved. Since I learned my craft shooting analogue, I know how much money this costs. And that hasn´t changed with digital. Because every image I shoot, I have to view afterwards. Which takes time. Which costs money. So I don´t shoot what I don´t need - simple as that. Also, I couldn´t give less of a F*** about the differences in sharpness of analogue vs. digital, a good picture remains a good picture no matter the absolute sharpness. Choose your tool, but do not let your choice make you one. Productivity first.
(I still have the medium format Mamiya I learned this craft with ... but my actually important work is done digital these days)

David Geffin's picture

As i said, i'd never give up my digital workflow for the reasons you mentioned. I don't care as much for the look as i do to be reminded of the process of capturing a moment with. I learnt with analogue too, but it makes us lazy if we aren't supremely disciplined. For many who learnt on digital, they may never have had this discipline to begin with.

Tim Foster's picture

Try a larger format.

Yes, that´s visible. But again, it reduces the use of film vs. digital down to a stylistic device and/or something an AD or editor would request specifically. And in my case, as a photojournalist, using 4x5 or even larger material (sadly) has a chance of about 1 in 4000. But the idea is enticing, maybe I´ll give it a shot one of these days. But my bread and butter has been and will be digital. And most probably DSLR.

Kyle Ford's picture

I couldn't agree more mate. This is the exact reason I shoot film.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Kyle, glad you enjoyed :)

Seoirse Brennan's picture

Film is really nice but good film is hard to get here in Brazil where I am. (Arse of nowhere)
But when I travel back home to Ireland, Im gonna get myself a variety of film and a nice Leica R7 and bring it back with me to Brazil.
Thanks for the great piece.

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