5 Reasons To Go Back to Film

I went back to shooting film recently, and I couldn't believe how different the process was. It isn't just taking a photo without the live view screen, it really is a different world. A world that you should experience if you want to improve as a photographer.

Film photography has been around far longer than digital photography, that's kind of obvious. But it's not always about actual film, there's glass, metal, paper and more physical media which you can use to produce a photograph. However, I'll be using the term film as a catch-all word to denote analogue photography here.

Shooting film has had a vast improvement on my photography skills, many of which were unexpected until I started shooting with my film camera again, the Nikon F100

I started out shooting 35mm film when my dad first handed me a point-and-shoot when I was six years old. I was incredibly lucky to be in a position to take photos at such a young age, and despite nearly using the entire roll of film before we even got to our destination (the train station) I'd already started to learn some of the five reasons I think you should give film photography a go.

Whether you used to shoot film like I did, but have since moved to fully digital, or perhaps you've never shot film before, I encourage you to pick up a film camera and give it a go. I did this recently and was blown away by the amount of stuff I was missing shooting digital exclusively for so many years. Despite what anyone else says I find it is different from shooting digital and it can hone some very important photographic skills you'd otherwise underuse. So let me describe my five reasons why you should get back into film.

1. Discipline

Film photography forces me to become much more disciplined in my approach to shooting. I have to triple-check my exposure settings, perhaps use a light meter to analyze the scene, and before all that I have to make up my mind whether I'm shooting indoors or outdoors because the white balance of the film is preset — there's no switching part-way through. I can't even take a test shot first to see what my settings yield because I can't view it and I'd also be wasting a frame on my roll.

Because of the planning I have to put in place before I head out, I've found a higher degree of success. The permanence of film means there's less flexibility when it comes to editing, especially if you use a lab to develop your prints and don't do this part yourself.

2. No Do-Overs

The cost of film deters photographers from shooting too many frames in one go. With rolls of 35mm limited usually to just 36 exposures it makes sense that you'd pre-plan your photoshoot and camera settings before clicking the shutter release

Speaking of permanence, that's one thing that makes a huge difference to your approach to photography compared with the limitless nature of digital. Once you've taken the shot that's it, depending on how many rolls of film you have. Just like taking that trip of a lifetime to the place of your dreams, the image can't be taken again once you've run out of film. Because of this, I found myself being much more careful with my trigger finger. Only letting off frames when I'm completely happy with everything in front of me.

This isn't to say I have a cavalier, spray-and-pray approach to shooting when I have my digital camera, but because I have all the memory space I could want, it doesn't bother me if I have to delete a frame. Whereas, with film, I can feel each shot costing money and time to develop so I'm much more precious with my shooting.

3. Stay in the Moment

With the absence of any kind of live view rear screen, I found myself taking the shots, then putting the camera away and engaging with my surroundings again. Whether that's the incredible landscape I was standing in front of, or interacting with my dog when out on a walk. I didn't get time to "chimp" because there's nothing to look at, so because of this, I felt more connected with whatever I was shooting. In turn, this allowed me to see what I was really wanting to capture, the essence of what made my subject interesting to me. Therefore, I feel that I was able to be more authentic with my photography and able to capture more of what was of interest to me.

4. It's Inexpensive

Yes it's true a reputable, high-end SLR analogue film camera can set you back a lot of dough, and the Nikon F100 pictured here runs for around $200 secondhand, but there are plenty of cheaper alternatives that will be suitable for those just wanting the occasional film shoot

Sure, you can spend loads on high-end film cameras and top-quality film, but there are plenty of secondhand, cheap SLRs and compacts out there so that anyone can get started for just a few bucks. There are even some incredibly decent lenses out there for a fraction of the cost they were when new. Film isn't all that pricey either if you're not looking for the highest quality. I understand that some may say that it's expensive per shot, but if you're just dipping your toe in the film photography world it isn't that bad to get a few rolls and snap away. You could probably pick up an SLR, lens, and a roll of film for around $25 if you look in the right places. You could just about buy a memory card or a bag for that these days.

5. Infinite Resolution

Technically, there's no limit to the detail you can capture with film as you aren't beholden to pixel density, image resolution, or bit depth. That means ultra-realism and sharp edges that digital cameras just can't compare with. Technically, the resolution is infinite with film so no matter how much you "zoom" in there'll be no aliasing of edges. However, there are limitations in other respects, for example, film grain and dynamic range. Film types vary though, and getting the right one for the type of photography you want to do is crucial to improving your work.

So those are my top five reasons for why you should get back into shooting film, or if you haven't shot film before, why you might want to consider trying it. It's honestly not like digital, there are many more restrictions but because of those limits, you can turn yourself into a better photographer. One with a sharper eye, more connected to your subject, and more disciplined over every shot. Head back to digital afterward and you might just find your workflow has changed. I know it has for me, I now have to sift through far fewer photos when editing in Lightroom at the end of a long day, and that saves both time and money.

Lead image made in part with content by Evan Amos used under Creative Commons

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96 Comments

Reginald Walton's picture

Maybe reason 3 and 5 make some sense, but definitely not 1, 2 and 4.

Brendan Kavanagh's picture

I disagree. I still sometimes shoot film and I'd say that most of the above makes sense.
I would, however, disagree that shooting film is inexpensive.
My OM10 (1981 vintage with a silver nose Zuiko) cost me £25 about five years ago and it's still serving me well. Nowadays £25 wouldn't buy you a broken camera body.

Reginald Walton's picture

Well, if I'm doing a paid event and I don't get the shot just right on the first try, I like have the ability and the room on my cards to take as many pics as needed, but that's just me; I don't mind the technological advances we've made. And besides, I don't have the time to stop and change rolls of film during fast moving events.

Brendan Kavanagh's picture

I'm not suggesting that you should carry out paid jobs using a film camera. In fact, I'm not really sure why you're telling me about that as it's not at all relevant to my post.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Film for sure doesnt have infinite resolution

Robin Routh's picture

Shot film full time for 25 years, 35mm, 120, 4x5 and 8x10. Been shooting digital for the last 20. None of your reasons hold water with me. Just the lack of film stocks easily available and no labs is enough to seal the deal. And, I can make digital look just like film, so why should I shoot it? Sorry, but the train left the station long ago.

Marc F's picture

Sorry, but what kind of digital equipment are you using now instead of your 8x10 camera to get that quality? Is there something with a 8 x10 sensor?
I missed the train because I am not able to buy a ticket for it.

Robin Routh's picture

I use a full frame dslr for all my work now. Really have no need for an 8x10 (or even a 4x5) anymore because about 80% of every thing I shoot ends up on a computer screen. To be perfectly honest, most of what we shot on 8x10 chrome was overkill. Very few separation houses and printers coiuld ever really match one. Ever try to match an 8x10 chrome in four color process? And perspective control can be done through software. From what I see, that full frame dslr is at least equivilent to 120 film if not larger. I don't live in a large metropolitan area so the lack of lab and even camera shop resources would make it nearly impossible to produce a commercial shoot on film for me any more. And let me convince a client to take the time and the expense to have drum scans made of all their frames so they can use them. Now talk about varible ISO, no filtration, cheaper lenses with more focal lengths available, etc, etc.

If you are making a living with a camera, quality is closely related to what you can sell it for. Using film these days isn't going to make me any money or save me any time. And it sure isn't going to improve the quality of what I'm shooting.

Marc F's picture

I agree. If you are making a living with images that end on a computer screen, a DSLR is all that you need. And no time wasting and lab related bad surprises…

Robin Routh's picture

As an aside. The basic reason we shot 8x10 in the studio back then was so for catalog work we could shoot product at as close to 100% in size for the finished printed piece. Four-color separations were produced optically then and the best quality came from doing things at actual size. When we shot ads, we shot to very tight layouts so we would tape overlays to the ground glass that showed copy and logo positions. Scanners began to show up (the local film house spent $1millon on their first one and then replaced it 2 years later with a better one for $250,000.) With drum scanners, size wasn't as important so we dropped to 4x5's and eventually 120 (used a Fuji 67 that had swings and tilts). Retouching consisted of large dye transfer prints and airbrush artists or emulsion stripping large transparencies. Then SciTech machines showed up with digital post at $500 per hour (and it took hours) and then Apple and Adobe showed up with Photoshop. In the meantime Kodak introduced their lorez DCS cameras and then the digital train started. I shot both digital and film till the Nikon D2X. After it was replaced, I never shot film again.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

The experiences you described sound familiar. I spent some time doing retail catalog work where we had to shoot to size, even the small insert photos (sometimes smaller than 35mm area) using 4x5 film for the sake of film thickness. The graphics house made gang separations and couldn't mix the thicker sheet film with roll film.

This article was fun to read, although parts of it sound like the wishful nostalgia of a person too young to have lived through an era. Kinda like me wishing I could have lived in the time when all men wore fedora hats.

Rob Waller's picture

Sounds like the halcyon days of product photography to me Robin. I would have loved to have been a photographer shooting 8x10's back then. I bet the they were hard (but fun) times.

Jeff McCollough's picture

It's not very cheap to develop film.

Robin Routh's picture

I still have an 8x10 camera, my only film camera. Tri-X is about $12 a sheet. The only local lab that will run it charges $18 per sheet. I have an 8x10 poloroid back and processor. Think that was $20 sheet if they still make it. And then I have to scan it anyway.

Marc F's picture

I develop my films with instant coffee (without sugar), vitamin C and washing soda. This developer is called “caffenol”. It’s easy, funny, cheap and not toxic, and gives good results.

philip morse's picture

While I do both, I like the smell of film and loading it into a camera is like rolling a doobie, so hands on. You didn't mention that film does better with highlights. I usually compensate for that with digitals by underexposing and pulling out the shadows in LR.

David Illig's picture

“I like the smell of film…”

If I want a nice smell I bake cinnamon buns. BTW, how do you film guys dispose of the toxic effluent these days?

Tom Reichner's picture

As a wildlife photographer, I shot film for many years. I was continually frustrated because I was seldom able to get photos that matched what I had witnessed in real life.

Once I started shooting digital in 2007, I was so happy! I was finally able to take wildlife photos that approached the 'quality' of what I was seeing with my own eyes. No longer were my photos a disappointing, sub-par version of what I had seen with my own eyes. Even when it was cloudy and there was little light, I could still get a nice sharp picture of a running deer or flying bird, complete with finely resolved feather or hair detail.

I can't imagine going back to a medium that doesn't allow me to capture what my eyes are seeing when I am in the field with wild animals. Digital was the most liberating, exciting event of my life! Why would I give that up to go back to something that doesn't allow me to capture all of the images I want to capture, in any conditions I want to capture them in?

I don't want discipline nearly as much as I want more high-quality images. Results are everything. How I get those results means little. It is the images themselves that I am going to enjoy for the next 30 years, not the 'process' of shooting with antiquated equipment.

Robert Edwardes's picture

Why does every film shooter say it cost less then leaves out the cost of film and development. This makes it seem they just are making it all up.

Douglas Liebig's picture

Well, since you asked...
Film photographers say that because you prepay for your images with digital. If you buy a new R6 for $2799. You can buy a LOT of film and develop it all before you reach that amount. If you buy the R5 for $3899 you can buy and develop $1100 more worth of film. Currently, you can buy 3 rolls of 36 exposure each = 108 images for $15. A Patterson tank and a changing bag for $32. Cinestill C-41 powder developer kit is $28, it'll develop up to 24 rolls of film.
So, 8 three packs (24 rolls) of 36 exposure film costs $120 giving you 864 images. Add the developer for $28, and you're up to $148 for 864 images. If you shoot ten times that for a total of 8640 FILM images, you've still only spent $1480 plus the $32 for the tank bringing the total to $1512. Of course, you will actually need multiple Cinestill C-41 kits because you won't have all 24 rolls shot before the chemicals expire. Let's say you need 15 kits for all those rolls, that still brings your total to $1932.
Oh yeah, don't forget, the digital camera cost above didn't include the memory card either and those aren't cheap :-)

Robin Routh's picture

I had a dslr that had to have a shutter replaced at 400,000 frames. That's the equivalent of around 11,100 36-exposure rolls of color transparency film. At $20 per roll for film and processing (actual cost is probably more) that comes out to $220,000 (for one camera. I use 2-3). Wow, that's cheap. Granted, I have the cost of cards and hard drives, but nowhere near that. I remember the days of shooting catalogs and on a three day shoot with rush processing, clip tests and push/pulls I would easily have $6-7000 in film and processing (in the days where I had an in-town professional lab with 2 hr turnaround). And don't forget the polaroids.

Oh and then there were the 8x10 studio days where we shot minimum 5 sheets of film per shot plus polaroids, which came out to about $1-200 per shot with processing.

Mike Ditz's picture

I remember assisting in studios shooting 8x10, looking in the trash and seeing like $500 worth of Polaroids. I was getting $125 per day...

Robin Routh's picture

Yes, when you look back at the Polaroid waste, it's mind boggling. On many if not most studio jobs, the Polaroid cost was higher than the actual film cost. And of course most of it was thrown away.

Marc F's picture

R6 for $2799?
I am still doing film photography (medium and large format) because I have not yet won the lottery to be able to get a $40,000+ digital Hasselblad to replace my current film one. And with $40,000 I can instead even pay for a taxi to bring my 120 films to the lab and take them back when I need.

Robin Routh's picture

Why the $40,000 Hasselblad when a $2000 dslr will do the equivalent of a 120 film frame for reproduction, if not larger?

Marc F's picture

120 film quality with a $2000 dslr?
I doubt it. A Canon Eos R6 has a 20 Mp sensor.
A 36 mm × 24 mm frame of ISO 100-speed film was estimated to contain the equivalent of 20 million pixels, or approximately 23,000 pixels per square mm. Based upon this pixel density, a medium-format film image can record an equivalent resolution of approximately 83 million pixels in the case of a 6 x 6 frame, to 125 million pixels in the case of a 6 x 9 frame. In the case of large format, 4 x 5 inch films can record approximately 298.7 million pixels, and 1,200 million pixels in the case of 8 x 10 inch film.

Robin Routh's picture

I can have a file from a D750 for instance and a drum scan (if you can get one) from a 120 chrome (of which I have thousands. I shot a hasselblad and a Fufji 6x7 for about 25 years every day.). The dslr file is as good or better than the 120 scan and normally cleaner. I don't make this statement from numbers, I make it from experience. The file from that $40,000 Hasselblad will blow both away at full res. Most of the time, that extra resolution is probably of no use, however. For website and even magazine resolution you will be throwing most of the information away. 8x10 transparencies on a light box were gorgeous. I never saw a four color process that could match match that in print. Same idea.

Then there is the situation I was in today. I shot hand held in a pottery studio under available light. I shot at iso equivilent 3200 and had completely usable files. In my film days I would have had to bring in a lighting crew just to get an exposure. You can for sure do it on film, but it's a helluva lot harder and more expensive. BTW, have you ever tried to push film to 3200?

Marc F's picture

“ BTW, have you ever tried to push film to 3200?”

- I have done it once a long time ago, I remember letting it almost 30 minutes in the developer. Some frames were not bad, but I won’t do it again with 35mm film.

Robin Routh's picture

Nancy Brown made a living doing it.

Marc F's picture

“ The dslr file is as good or better than the 120 scan and normally cleaner.”

One of the advantages with digital is flatness. The sensor is always perfectly flat and at the correct position. The problem with film is that it bends, is sensitive to moisture, temperature, winding tension, pressure plate imperfections and vibrations. All that cause the image to be less than perfect, less crisp than it should be, especially with bigger formats. Maybe we should use again glass plates…

Robin Routh's picture

Ah the unmistakable pop we used to hear once in while as a large sheet of film moved in the holder during a long exposure or during multiple strobe firings. Wasted that sheet. Used to have to tape sheets into holders.

Mike Ditz's picture

Ugh...

Robert Edwardes's picture

But what if i get a Nikon D3500 for $600 like i said you got to make a lot of shit up to make the argument for film like ignoring all but high end DSLR cameras

Robin Routh's picture

You make a point. Sensor technology is to the point that even the lower priced dslrs have sensors that surpass 35mm film quality. In fact, sensor wise there isn't a huge difference between the $600 camera and the $2500 one. In the higher priced body you are paying for better mechanical build, faster AF, faster processing, etc. The actual images that can be produced by the two are remarkably similar.

Michael Steinbach's picture

Douglas, you are leaving out all of the printing costs or scanning costs (which makes it digital once removed) from the equation. Not to mention the time involved in the processes. And where do you get optical printing done theses days anyway? If you’re doing it yourself, include the ALL of the darkroom equipment, including the room space dedicated to it.

David Illig's picture

Nonsense.

A M's picture

Buy a bunch of 4gb cards, turn your screen off and shoot to card. Don't download anything until you get home. Save your money. Digital has better dynamic range and you can always make your images have "lower IQ" to get that film look. SAVE! YOUR! MONEY!

Romeo Vasileniuc's picture

Tomorrow we’ll see another article: 5 Reasons to Switch Back to Digital. WTH.

Daniel Medley's picture

5 reasons to go back to driving a model A Ford ...

For the love of all that is holy, stop it with the nonsense. There's a fine line between trying to be provocative and just being stupid.

Daniel Grossman's picture

I'm an old guy. I am not much of a photographer but I've loved the hobby and the craft for 50 years. I learned on film and I love the look of and the clarity film but all the reasons the author gives for using film are exactly the reason not to use film. I agree, it will probably improve one's photography learning on film but the advantages of digital and mirrorless are many and I can't imagine going back. Using film is fun and I suppose I could see myself breaking out my F100 for old times sake but if you have to make a living with photography I don't know.

Pete Myers's picture

Nice article Jason. I love film, and shoot it professionally. Thanks for advocating that more people try it.

Julian Ray's picture

For me the "5 Reasons To Go Back to Film" are:
1. Look
2. Look
3. Look
4. Look
5. Look
Nothing else looks like film. Yes you can fiddle around with LUTs, Filters, Overlays, etc but nothing looks as good (or bad :-) as actual film.

Mike Ditz's picture

Do you print in an optical darkroom?

Julian Ray's picture

Oh God how I wish I could but where I am now just getting things printed is a real challenge. I do miss both the process and the results.
Do you?

Michael Steinbach's picture

Then you are quasi digital. I shoot a roll here and there but the best I can say about it is that it’s nostalgic.

Jan Holler's picture

Do you not falsify your statements before you write them down? All of the five are perfectly reasonable arguments for any kind of photography, also digital. Even the fact, that reason 5 (infinite resolution) is completely wrong, does prove this. And such weak arguments as 3 do not really help.

Three remain. 1 is a matter of course for every photographer. 2 also helps with digital. You have to pick much less later. And 4 is just nonsense. You can also buy very cheap used digital cameras.

My tip: Maybe an old typewriter will help when it comes to good articles. You have to think about every sentence, every word, before you type it.

Roger Lanyon's picture

JH, you have won the internet for today! Great tip. I will be digging out the old Underwood typewriter soon.

Paul C's picture

That to me is THE arguement - films slows me down and makes every shot count. It gives a creative kick. It is the "maunal typewriter" of photographic creativity.

But when going out with a film camera - I look around me and see dozens of images that would look great with digital - but which just won't ever get taken with film !

Donald Flint's picture

Meanwhile, I still have a couple rolls from my AE-1 and Elan II laying around years later, because the last place in town (Walgreens) that had a machine got rid of it, and mail-in processing is expensive. Doesn't exactly make me eager to load up a new roll.

Steve Smith's picture

Photography is strictly a hobby for me. About 18 months ago, I broke out my Ricoh KR-30SP (bought with my tax refund check circa 1984) and rekindled a friendship. I have two DSLR's and four 35mm film cameras. And I use and enjoy them all. So that's reason enough for me to shoot film.

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