3 Ways That Starting in Film Made Me a Better Digital Photographer

3 Ways That Starting in Film Made Me a Better Digital Photographer

There was a recent meme that took a jab at photographers from the generation of the pen tool in Photoshop. It personified us as old ladies with walkers being escorted out by a younger generation with their AI tools. In the comments, someone remarked, “Let’s see how these young bucks would survive with the 1999 version of Photoshop.”

I laughed so hard that I wondered if I was transitioning to the “back in my day” age group. I reapplied my wrinkle cream as I added the comment, “and a film camera! They would never survive.” Well, give me my walker because back in my day it wasn’t so easy to take successful pictures. These are three ways that starting in film photography has made me a better digital photographer.

Being a typical penniless college student meant that I had to be very careful how I spent my money. In my film photography class, it cost a lot to print even one image. First, the cost of the film, then the cost of the liquids to develop the film. Then came the big killer: the paper. Each sheet cost around $1. Mind you, this $1 was when gas was $0.98/gallon, and the minimum wage was $5.15/hour. So, printing even one image cost a bit of money. On an academic scholarship and working mornings and nights to make ends meet, I literally could not afford to take bad pictures. It was simply too expensive. After a few rounds of throwing failed images out and watching my money go down the drain, these are three lessons I learned quickly.

1. Starting in Film Photography Made Me Compose My Shots Carefully by Looking at the Edge of My Frame

When photographing, people often look at the “positive space” of their images: the main subject. It may be a person or an object. I often see photographers taking images without considering the edge of the frame or the negative space. Once they see the shot pop up on their LCD, they suddenly see the soda can leaning against the wall in the background, for example. When I shot film, I didn’t want to pay $4 to see that can. I quickly learned to look around my image, doing a quick check on the 4 edges of my frame before taking the picture. Looking at your negative space as well as your positive space when you’re shooting is a great habit to pick up and will save you time in post-processing.

These are some photos which I took for Casiellero Del Diablo. On the left is a good example of not looking at the edge of the frame. The area on the left distracts from the image and looks sloppy. The two images on the right are examples where I looked all around the image and framed it well.

2. Starting in Film Photography Taught Me To Shoot for Highlights

Many digital photographers know this rule, but if you’ve ever shot film, you’ll really feel the pangs of overexposing your highlights. Nowadays, we have such pixel-rich images, we can pull back our highlights with more ease. When developing film, you had to cut a piece of opaque paper and attach it to a wire. You then had to quickly move the contraption back and forth over the overexposed portion to block light from hitting the print while the rest of the image received the light to develop. You can see it done here at the 4-minute mark on the video:


After repeating that process many times and throwing out those precious $1 sheets of paper one after the other, you learned quickly to expose your highlights correctly.

This starter kit which contains some of the items nedded for developing film is $182.95 on B&H

Although you can more easily bring back highlights with the RAW images we have now, if you blow out your highlights and try to bring them back it can lead to an unrealistic HDR look. I see this a lot in landscapes where photographers blow out the sky and try to bring it back in post. The image that will be easiest to work with is one that is exposed for highlights. If you have dark areas of your image, it’s easy to brighten those without compromising the image color or quality. If you overexpose your highlights, it will show in your final image.

3. Starting in Film Photography Taught Me To Plan My Shoots Beforehand

In the digital age, if it’s a week that I’ve just been buried by life and I’m hanging on a thread, there have been rare occasions where I’ve walked into my product studio, picked up the product, and just “started playing.” What typically ensues is an hour or two of taking shots that are not up to my standards, stopping the shoot, grabbing my notebook, and tackling the process of ideation. I start over the right way. I sit with the product, think, look at competing brands, take notes, sketch ideas, and lay out a plan for the shoot. I may or may not have to pick a few props up and restart the next day. When I do it right, how I do it most of the time, I plan the entire shoot days before I pick up my camera. I prepare my studio the day before and have everything planned and laid out for a successful day.

This is a page from my ideation notebook and the final image.

Whether you’re a product photographer, landscape photographer, or portrait photographer, planning your shoot will always lead to more successful results. It could mean researching the market and finding a way to create imagery that doesn’t exist in that space. It could mean researching the area of the wedding or driving through the Saturday before at the scheduled time of portraits. This would allow you to see where the light hits and get inspired for the best images you can have at 2:30 pm with that dreaded afternoon sun. There’s nothing worse than having a spot picked out for portraits and realizing on arrival that the sun will not give you your desired look in that space. With film photography, we didn’t really have the luxury of taking a dozen pictures before deciding “it wasn’t working.” The development process itself took hours for one roll of film. You had to have a plan that would work before you started. Taking the steps to plan your shoot beforehand will result in better pictures and better use of your time in the digital age.

A few of my photographer friends.

Of course, you don’t have to have any experience in film photography to be a talented digital photographer. There are plenty of self-taught digital photographers around the world that produce work that is vastly more impressive than mine. However, no matter what your background is, I hope that these three tips will help you take more successful pictures and will minimize your time in post-processing.

As always, my favorite part of my articles is in the comments. Did you start in film photography? What is a valuable lesson you learned from that foundation? Do you look at your negative space before you take a picture? If not, I hope this is a habit you will adopt. Let me know your experience and thoughts in the comments.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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"Why would you shoot film when digital is so much more convenient" comments in 3...2...1

The article doesn't suggest that anyone should shoot film.

Two classes in color darkroom printing finally taught me to understand color. Before then, back in the late 1990s, I was already working digitally with a film scanner, and I couldn't, for the life of me, discern what kinds of color casts my digital scans and prints had.

I love to hear that!

Michelle it is nice to remember the past, but to become better film photographer you could study how to paint. It is 20 years I am shooting digital and there are photographers who shoot digital for 5 years and I an not half as good as them 😉

You are too modest, Zdenek. The images in your portfolio are exceptionally good. I love the long exposures and soft lighting. If you're anything like me, it's not that other photographers are necessarily more skilled, but that we may not have the time and devotion toward making photos that other people have. Photography can be very time consuming.

Thanks a lot for your understanding Edward! Yes... It really could be time consuming, but I think that in my case it is mainly for one reason only. I got new camera... Expensive one to the one I took my best photos with... I've upgraded camera, and lenses, but I was taking a lot more risk with the old and cheap camera and that was a key point how I used to differentiate. Sometimes it is really better to stay on old gear with limitations then buy expensive new "dream machines" to get lot less fun out of it... Not talking only about cameras now 😉

Edward Kunzelman is right about your work! WOW. I may want to loop you in on an upcoming project I'm doing. I think that all art disciplines contribute to being a better photographer. My concentration in college was painting so I definitely agree with your thoughts. And again, the article does not say "If you start in film, you will be a better digital photographer." The article is "3 things I learned by starting as a film photographer..."

Thank you so much Michelle! So you have all what it takes then. Headline just sounded to me like that articles "why you should buy film camera in 2024" 😂 sooorrry 😉

It's no problem. All I need now is a hands-on shooting session with you and I'll be really versatile!

You took the words right out of my mouth :-)

Did you have your beginnings in film?

Think before you shoot... is always a good idea. Your points are well taken. The faster we can get from a thought to a well composed finished print, with less wasted time and materials, is worth considering. I'm not entirely convinced though that film costs were significantly higher than digital. A good film camera could last a lifetime. Nowadays, my Nikon D800 is considered a dinosaur.

Just a couple days ago, in an Fstoppers article, the author stated that any camera made in the last five years could give you equally good image results. But does that imply a camera older than five years can't? Regardless of the answer to that question, most professionals regularly upgrade gear in a manner not typical of the film era. And that's especially applicable to printing equipment. There aren't many liquids that cost more per ounce than the price of inkjet printer ink. And, good grief, seems like every other day I'm having to replace a print head... and they're not cheap. After about eight years, I'm faced with the decision of whether to repair or replace the printer. Oh well... just another $4K. Nothing is built to last any more. Especially printers. Ooops... starting to sound like an old timer. But it's true... I just replaced a refrigerator that we had for 40 years. Highly doubt the next one will last half that long.

One more story from memory lane. The grandma who was reminiscing about using the pen tool to select an object... doesn't seem so long ago. I had a customer in the early days of Photoshop that manufactured after-market automobile wheels. I didn't shoot the photography but I did the catalog design which involved knocking out the background in each picture... hundreds of them. I tried hard to make the magic wand tool work but it just wouldn't give me a clean edge. So one after another for days I'd make my path around each wheel with the pen tool. Not just the outer edge of the wheel, but the holes in the interior of the wheel too. I still see chrome wheels in my sleep.

I guess my conclusion is that most everything is faster and easier these days, but whether it's cheaper and we're better off is debatable. If one concludes that the technology is cheaper, then it's probably also true that we get paid less now for any sort of graphics work than back in the old analog days.

Yes this is an excellent point Edward Kunzelman . I still have my grandma's A1 which I learned at and if I had it cleaned it would still be in the same shape as when I first used it. Great thoughts as always!

Another great article! Very practical advice about planning ahead whether it's in your studio, or going to the venue to check it out. I know this is not always possible, but when it is, it surely helps to get the results you want.

I wish I could afford to shoot film :(

I'm glad I learned to photograph with film for all the reasons stated. Back then, a 36 exposure roll of Fujichrome Velvia cost close to $30 (Canadian) with processing, meaning it cost nearly a dollar every time you tripped the shutter! If I got 3 or 4 "zingers" out of a roll I was happy while the majority of slides ended up in the "round file". That fact alone slowed most film shooters down and made us try to get the image as correct as we could in camera regarding composition, framing, exposure etc. as there was no post processing to correct and fine tune things.I'm retired now and after over 15 years of storing my film equipment in the closet I pulled the trigger and purchased new ($$$) digital equipment. I'm now shooting with a mirrorless camera and being able to preview the exposure, light balance etc. BEFORE tripping the shutter is life changing! Funny thing is, I find myself shooting as if I were still using film, meaning slow and deliberate. I guess old habits die hard but I don't think that's a bad thing.

Perfectly expressed!!! I am the same. I shoot slowly. I look at the edge of my frame. I plan things. Like you said- every fail cost money! Glad you're joining the digital team! Happy shooting

I have now a challenge for my studio staff. I will dig out my film cameras. Thank you for a lovely article.

That would be a VERY interesting team building assignment! Many cities have darkrooms now that you could rent. It would be fun to do a roll of film each and see what they learn. Thanks for reading and leaving such a lovely comment Tessa Varney

Interesting. In all my years of shooting film (29+) I exposed for the shadows and developed for the highlights….

Fun article. I would add cropping, or rather no cropping. When making those prints grain was always an issue. Cropping would just make it worse. I learned to compose critically so as to be able to use the entire frame. Later when shooting cinema it helped to see the frame. You can't really crop when shooting a film.

Oh that's an excellent one too! Thanks for adding that

I entered the world of digital photography not with a digital camera but you might say by a backdoor linked directly to film photography.

During the mid to late 1990s after a traumatic injury I bought a used PC and had a couple of my best film images scanned and began to teach my self the ins and outs of the digital darkroom. Digital cameras were expensive and still in their infancy especially compared to what is available two decades later.
In time I not only learned to digitally process my film but also the necessary upgrades to more efficiently process my images. My first scanner enabled me to scan hard copies and film but only had an optical resolution of 400dpi, eventual upgraded to a dedicated film scanner. I took many of the principles I’d learned not only in photography, but also a brief time as a consumer electronics service and repair tech. I was able to apply these lessons, principles and knowledge to the digital darkroom and beyond along with my inherent natural of thinking outside of the box.

As a tradition analog/digital photographer I firmly believe you want to achieve you best image in camera whether on film or electronic sensor, because there is no do overs, no going back, especially in nature photography. Been there, tried that and it didn’t work one of the top photography lessons.

Whats your background like in photography michelle?