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
David Geffin's picture

you;re welcome Seoirse, i'm sure you could get some shipped there too (at a price no doubt, but in today's connected world i'm sure B&H will ship just about anywhere!).

PS - "arse of nowhere" LOL!

Austin Trenholm's picture

I don't think you HAVE to shoot film in order to slow down, really see images, pick selects in camera and basically get better. I just think film FORCES you to do that. But if you are mindful I think you can bring yourself to shoot this way with any camera. I feel like that is what I have done over the last year. I will agree that shooting polaroids is just plain fun, but I think the real fun part is prints. One thing I've tried to make a point of doing is ordering prints of my work. Even for no reason Whether it is personal work or weddings. Having prints out to look at is awesome. I would challenge people to shoot in this method even with a digital camera of any kind, not just film. I promise it is possible.

Going back to film for me would feel like going back to not using computers, or the Internet for finding information, or editing or going back to using a telephone only connected to a wall-socket. It would just be time-consuming, ineffective, annoying at times, and on top of that take up a lot of space, require more paraphernalia (film, chemicals, baths, copy machines, etc. etc.) - and all the waste material, from chemicals, from making bad copies, from cutting the photo paper, and the risk of ruining film. It all feels like a waste of money, the environment and most importantly; time.

David Geffin's picture

Unless you don't do the developing yourself. I'm lucky, i have the option to have my film developed for me then just scan it myself.

Randy Saunders's picture

Old school (Film) has its advantages for sure much like audio recording tape has in the studio. There is a warmth and depth to audio tape that digital recording doesn't have much of. Many audio recording studios are using both analog (tape) and digital. So it makes perfect sense to use film and digital capture. Great article.

Edd carlile's picture

I have moved over for a little while....just got a Polaroid land camera 450 and a Fujifilm GA645 MF. Some things I need to check out.

Film rules.

i had an uncle who claimed no one really paid attention to what was on the telly anymore because we were too busy channel surfing, and that back before we had remotes you'd absorb what was on and be really bored before you made the effort to walk over to the telly and switch channels. i'd laugh at him and click the remote.

i think a lot depends on your photographic path. if you are a veteran of the film days and you learned your skills back then, you'd periodically fall back on that to remind yourself of the important basics that you might have let slip with the ease of using a DSLR. but if you started to learn your stuff with a DSLR (like me) and hadn't had much experience of film, i don't think going back to film would really do anything for you, because it never did in the first place. i bought myself a DSLR a year and a half ago, and it was my first serious camera. before that i'd had a couple of digital compacts and way before that a couple of small fixed lens compact film jobs. so i never really learned anything from film. the only reason i'd buy a film camera today is if i could develop the negs myself and mess around in the darkroom 'cos i think i'd enjoy that creative process.

i have a couple of manual lenses, a KMZ Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 and an Opteka 500mm f/8, but i got 'em not because i enjoy slowing down and forcing myself to work systematically (in fact i hardly use the 44-2 anymore 'cos it's just too frustrating without focus-peaking on my 600D), but because they were so cheap.

i'm not sure how you figure film equipment is lighter than the digital stuff. a lot of those old bodies and lenses are much heavier than todays kit.

and if you rally want to slow down and discipline yourself, get a memory card with just a couple of GB, leave your laptop at home, and shoot full-size RAW. that will probably be the equivalent of a 12- or 18-shot film roll.

fred lefeuvre's picture

Great article, but I'm not agree with 9. ... If you print out your film yourself, you can spend more than hours to "post process" it in the darkroom, as you do in front of your computer
It is still half of the job ;)

I took a similar path myself about four months ago and concur with what you write. Film has been a path back to the joy of photography for me after over a decade of shooting exclusively digital. Thirty five rolls of 36 frame black and white film shot in this brief time, all home developed, attest to how much I am relishing this rediscovery. I, too, will never abandon digital but film is now going to be a constant companion.

Dean Gatenby's picture

Film does it for me over digital, though i still love the flexibility of digital. Film has many advantages over digital and visa vesa, i totally it agree it makes you a better photographer...

and now we have the Kodak Vision 3 5219 cine film available for photographers known as Cinestill i love it even more... the highest quality film known to man in your 35... best...

Love 35... there is a steady surge in its popularity just like the recent one with vinyl... you have to and should appreciate the original art form it was created as for without it megapixels would never exist.

Cheers for the article... Photosniper ordered :)

Ryan Patton's picture

I actually just picked up my first ever film camera, a contax t2, for many of the same reasons you listed! The barebones feel you get with a film camera is certainly a welcome refreshment!

Also I apologize for going somewhat off topic but as I try to start shooting more film, I can't help but think that picking up a film scanner would be a wise investment. If you have any recommendations for a good entry level scanner they would be greatly appreciated. Either way loved the article, great read.

2 years ago I took a trip down to Puerto Vallarta and took along my Canon F1 and, new at the time, my Voigtlander R4a rangefinder along with 10 rolls of film. I also had my DSLR and for the most part found that my film shots were better overall. But I also noticed my digital shots got better throughout the week. I could never explain very well why the film photography was helping me overall as a photographer but your article nails it. Whenever I find my work getting 'sloppy', out comes a film camera.

Laura Gonzalez's picture

Great article! Your points are precisely what I tell people why I am going back to film. Digital always leaves me with the feeling that " it can be better" . Never felt satisfied with the results, particularly on my beloved b&w. I am now venturing into medium format and have recently acquired a TLR, good to feel creative again not just thoughtless shooting.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Laura, glad you enjoyed the article. Enjoy the TLR and medium format :)

Rolf Schmolling's picture

well, I shoot 100% film for a number of very much personal reasons:

a) beautiful gear. Nowadays I can afford a beautiful Nikon F2 Photomic (hacked with added night lights), a Zenza Bronica ETRSi (645) or (do weight lifting with) a Mamiya RB 67 Pro S. The lenses which fit them are much much cheaper than their more modern – albeit plastic – siblings. That gear is non-automatic. Built-in light meter doesn't count (I use a handheld meter). Aperture rings do what they have done for ages, no lil' wheelies and LCD-screens. Note I am writing about analog cameras still. That all-automatic-autofocus-way of taking picture is just not for me. I do understand the limitations of my approach and the convenience of the automatics and speed… but I do not feel at home with it. This is not nostalgia because I do not go back, my short try-out with an affordable (but dated) Nikon D70s showed me the limitations of that system. And a Nikon D700 or Hasselblad or PhaseOne digital medium format system or else is just out of my reach. I might feel at home with a Hasselblad 503 and digital back but who can afford these?! And then there is crop-factor which seems to change and affect the way I would shoot. So I vote for a very much affordable renewable sensor in FX-format: 135 and 120 film… Actually my Zenza Bronica ETRSi (645) nowadays is my all-time camera with speed grip and unmetered prism and the Zenzanon-PE 1:2.8 f=50mm (like 30mm in 135) just plain perfect.

b) Quality. Unfortunately I do not own a darkroom, no time or space (and money too to set it up or get a room for it). I donated my darkroom to local school some years ago (a decision I do regret today) but I do develop my own black / white. With the developer of choice I can both pull my beloved Tri-X 400 down to @100 or push to @3200 which means I can and do use my ETRSi like any 135 camera. I love the subtle grain I get with Tri-X 400 as well as the sharpness. The digital images I have seen just feel different, there seems to be a certain cleanness I do not like. So that special quality is not pixel-peeping “image-“quality but my own perception. I still hope to find someone I can share a darkroom with here in Hamburg, Germany…

Rolf

Who stole my tie?
Zenza Bronica ETRSi (645) Zenzanon-PE 1:2.8 f=75mm on Tri-X 400 @400 developed in Spur HCD-S + HCD-2 (2 min 30 sec. agitations then stand; 5:30 min 30 sec. agitations then every minute 3 times, 22°C).

Medium format portrait.
Zenza Bronica ETRSi (645) Zenzanon-PE 1:3.5 f=150mm on new Kodak Portra 400 @200, developed and scanned by FINDLab, USA.

Hafencity Hamburg. August 2014.
Mamiya RB 67 Pro S Mamiya K/L 1:3.5 f=127mm L on Tri-X 400 @400 developed in Spur HCD-S + HCD-2 (2 min 30 sec. agitations then stand; 5:30 min 30 sec. agitations then every minute 3 times, 22°C).

Believeinfilm

Great article, coincidentally I purchased a old rangefinder film camera today. I'd love to see a follow up article on options on processing/scanning film.

Kendell Healy's picture

Great Article - thank you

I love film and try to mix thing. A russian Tair on a small dslr.

I am a bit late to this article as I goggled it and I agree. I took it one step further. I dropped my Canon 7D and Sony Alpha 850 to shoot almost all film when it comes to photography. I inherited a mint condition never used Canon New F1 with all of the extras and a Canon A1.......and a bunch of very lightly used lenses and started using them. I got addicted to film and now have over 500 rolls in the fridge. I have also added about 20 new FD lenses to the 8 I already had including almost all of the L series lenses and have not only done some great shots professionally but as a hobbyist as well. This article is truly inspiring to me and all of the reasons you listed are why i haven't stopped shooting film ever since. It's been ten years now and Im shooting with everything from a 200mm Closeup macro lens to the 800mm 5.6L and everything in between. This shot for example is done with an Ae-1 Program of a cheetah at the zoo. I used a standard 70-210 F4 Zoom lens at the zoo. I did very little editing because I make sure the image in the frame looks good and the color saturation was already there. It was shot at 400 ISO with an F stop of 11 and a shutter of 1/125

Wade Tobin's picture

Great article and I agree 100%. I too went back to film a few years after buying a Nikon D80 which it's self now a dinosaur. My F5 is primary gun with a Canon Ae-1 and A1 as back ups - the ones purchased and learned on back in the 1990s. In short, walking around with a DSLR my mind and focus (no pun intended) seem waver. It's like what's the point, just shoot and delete where needed. Yawn. With film, it's all about knowing your gear and making every shot count and after developing, you'll have physical copies which will last decades. In the future with digital who's going to hold onto or remember SD cards or their purpose? With negatives or positives, one can see exactly what's there.

For me film is the answer for my work which spans 19 years. Why? Simple, my work is 100% fashion and beauty of all sorts. Clothing looks better and skin tones are to die for. Recently a client who reluctantly hired me because I produce on film said (after seeing my digitized film work), "I never want to see my clothing produced digitally. Film is truly so lovely, all is above excellent". Print any kind is also better, IMO. My work is either on Mamiya RZ67 Pro or Nikon F5. Sample image attached :)

I have the same Polaroid camera

"...High speed burst frame rates that make cameras sound like gatling guns..." Really? Ever heard of motor drives and bulk film backs?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ab9-m4Sp2s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNqKCp9DxQQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ysmx9Nxj9M

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTyFHnqa8NU

Anonymous's picture

No one is any position to tell people they do not know what they "should" do.

Great article! I really enjoyed the read. It's funny how society is going now. First vinyl makes a come back and now film. I started photography 10 years ago on digital and have always shot on digital, until 3 months ago when I decided I was getting bored of the whole digital process and I just didn't enjoy the look of digital photos.

I did my research and bought a Nikon FE, rolls of Kodak Tri-X 400 and all the developing gear I needed to develop my own film. I also invested in a 35mm Minolta scanner. 3 months on I am so proud to say I taught myself how to shoot and develop my own film photography. The whole process is magical and I can't believe it took me so long to do it. Just pulling out a film camera on a shoot, people stare with respect. It's a great feeling.

I've posted a few of my 35mm film portrait.