5 Ways Shooting Film Makes You a Better Photographer

In a world where digital photography is ever-present, film photography often takes a back seat. But this analog medium actually has some crucial lessons to teach all of us, if only we're willing to listen.

I can walk out the door right now and take 3,000 photos, all with different exposures, colors, and resolutions, but in this world of infinite possibilities, there's something I'm lacking: direction. Often, when faced with an endless supply of options, we find ourselves, as artists, struggling to create. That's where film photography comes in.

Film provides us with a clear set of restrictive limitations that despite holding us back in many ways, can actually help prevent creative blocks and offers up a set of rules in which to follow. This strengthens the technical knowledge of the photographer in many aspects, as well as its ability to allow creative artistry to flourish. So, let's take a look at the first reason why shooting film makes you a better photographer.

Limited Frames

Let's take arguably the most common form of the film a roll of 35mm as an example of the limit of exposures per load. The average roll gives us 36 frames to play with. This limit, frustrating though it is, is actually quite useful for us artists. It forces our hand to maximize photo opportunities when met with them, because once that roll is filled up, you have to switch. If you don't have another roll, then it's game over for the day.

My pack of Fuji Velvia 50 gives me 36 exposures in daylight-balanced, ISO 50 sensitivity. This is best used for bright outdoor locations and landscapes, so I'll have to use up all 36 shots before switching rolls to capture portraits indoors under standard tungsten light.

36 exposures may sound like a lot to some, but once you take into account the use of special techniques such as experimenting with filters on the same scene and bracketing shots to make sure there's at least one photo that comes out correctly exposed, then you quickly run out of space.

However, rather counterintuitive, this limitation on how many shots you can take is rather advantageous. It forces the photographer to come up with their own set of internal rules and encourages discipline to follow them. Focus, camera settings, and a keen awareness of the depth of field and motion blur will all be deeply ingrained before taking the next photo, because the film photographer won't want to waste frames unnecessarily. It's a useful technique that many artists use across the board to help them when they suffer a creative block. Somehow, this limitation gives us something to get our teeth into and work with.

Stick With It

How many times a week do you do this? You start taking photos indoors at home, then venture out to the garden to have a play, and you (or your camera) switch ISO sensitivity to combat the change in light levels. Not only that, but you may switch white balance to counteract the orange hue your light bulbs give off inside to make things look slightly more realistic.

Sticking with the roll of film in the camera enables photographers to practice a discipline and deeper understanding of how to capture images using what you've got available, rather than being flexible enough to shoot in all conditions.

Well, it's not quite as simple as that with film. Your roll is preset to a specific ISO and white balance for every frame. So, if you want to shoot inside, you'll use the tungsten-balanced roll, or outside, you'll need to pop in daylight-balanced film. So, taking just a couple of shots inside and then heading out to the garden becomes infinitely more complicated unless you use two camera bodies.

Rather than being a hindrance, this restriction can again aid the photographer. By sticking with what you've got loaded in the camera, you're forced into a one-track mind. This allows a deeper thought processes to take place, instead of flitting from one thing to another like a pinball machine — a finely carved rut in which to practice skills in one area more thoroughly than one might with digital, before moving on.

Say What You See

One of the starkest contrasts between film and digital photography is the timeframe between taking the photo and reviewing it. With digital, it's instant, but when you go analog, it can be hours, days, or even weeks. Aside from the clear disadvantage, this creates a deeper connection between you, the camera, and your subject.

The small margin of error that comes with film photography means that you'll develop a better sense for quality, quantity, and direction of light on your subject. You may even pay specific attention to the in-built light meter.

There's a small margin for error when it comes to exposure settings, because any adjustment you make during the photo-taking process is then committed to film and can't be undone. That's what makes you a better photographer. Being in the moment and thinking through your creative choices before committing, even if just a few moments, will reverberate through your digital photography too and give you a deeper sense of what you want to achieve from the shot.

Study the Light

The permanence of film forces you to pay more attention to the light, whether that's the quality, quantity, and direction of light in your scene or how much light you're letting pass through onto the film itself. There's less room for error than digital where you can go back over your settings and experiment almost infinitely.

With film photography, you'll find yourself paying more attention to the light in a scene because you can't review it on the rear screen afterwards like with digital. There's also an urgency to study the light meter or take meter readings for incident or reflected light on a subject.

When analyzing the light in a scene, you'll likely be using your in-camera light meter more. Exactly the same principles apply when working in digital too, so it'll pass straight over to your everyday work with contemporary cameras. However, you may also find yourself using an external light meter to measure not only incident light (the light that hits your subject) but also the reflected light (the light that bounces back off the subject and towards the camera). This is especially helpful for portrait photography, where exposure values relate directly to skin tone and clothing.

See the World

Optical viewfinders on film cameras just seem so much more expansive than DSLR or mirrorless cameras. That extra large view of the world is like a window, connecting you with your environment much more closely.

I'm sure there are many exceptions to this one, but from what I've seen, the older the camera, the clearer the viewfinder. Devoid of complex grids, huge autofocus points spread across the viewfinder from corner to corner, and even spirit levels, I can just see more of the world in front of me than with my modern counterparts. I connect more with my subject, whether it's a person or a mountain range. I speak about this a little in another post, but I prefer the clearer, wider field of view, a place where I'm not infringed by limited electronic viewfinders, which are restricted by refresh rates and color gamut.

Conclusion

Essentially, what I'm saying with this piece is that although film photography is restrictive, binding, permanent, and wholly unforgiving, it's precisely for these very reasons that it will make you a better photographer if you practice it. Because it's exactly that which will make you better — practice. Taking the time to connect with your subject, to love the feeling of creating your own piece of work, to link science, technology, and art together is where the magic truly lies. I know you'll become a better photographer if you use film in this way, because there's no other option but to get better (unless you want to spend a ton of money on film and development costs).

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19 Comments

Tony Clark's picture

I started my career in the film age and shot a lot of E6, it made me think about exposure and how to process it. I also remember shooting a model test and having 36 exposures to capture a look with the first six frames lost to the clip test. I'm curious how new photographers would handle that situation today after shooting digital.

Jon The Baptist's picture

I resonate with this.

I didn't have many years in my career shooting film, however in art school, I was in the last class that still had to turn in everything on 4x5 transparency or 35 B&W. The best Nikon digital camera at the time was the D100, Canon had the D30 and D60, can't remember if the 10D existed yet..

I do remember a portrait shoot that got botched becasue the lab equipment failed with my rolls in the machine at the time, that sucked.

I also remember the smell of cat pee/fixer as if it was yesterday.

Carlos David's picture

Complete and utter hogwash. I was shooting film in the 80's 90's and 2000's, from 35mm and 120 all the way to 8X10... not a single point in this article is valid. You become a better photographer by Practice and Education.

1. Limited Frames - Buy a 2 Gb Card.

2. Stick With It - How many people are constantly fiddling with their WB during a shoot? With film I carried a range of ISOs with me at all times. I could swap out a roll in the middle and put it back later .. losing a single frame for insurance.With digital 90% is shot at 5000k. Always RAW.

3.Say what you see. Clearly digital gives you previsualization at an unprecedented level. We used to shoot polaroids back when for the same effect with film (and for insurance)

4.Study the light. - Nothing is better at studying light than the instant feedback of digital, flatten the (learning) curve, by seeing instantly the effect.

5. See the world?? - Turn off all the screen info .

Jacques Cornell's picture

I disagree. The author is not saying that shooting film is the ONLY way to learn these things, but I concur with his assessment that it can be enormously helpful. Shooting film taught me many lessons that would have been harder to learn with digital, much as shooting with primes and manual exposure taught me things that would have been harder to learn with zooms and AE. I don't disagree with your 5 points above, and you are welcome to offer up your own experiences, but calling this article "complete and utter hogwash" is uncharitable and willfully dismissive of the experience of many other photographers, some of who may be better and/or more experienced than you.

Carlos David's picture

There not one advantage to film. Not one. The article tries to list 5 points where having film is an advantage over digital .. which are easily repudiated. I used hogwash to be charitable in fact, I have an extensive vocabulary. As a professional photographer all I shoot is manual. EVER. Please relate how using primes make you a better photographer. I'm actually curious. ;-)

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Sorry but thats not true.

You can get any limitation that film gives you on a digital by choice. ANY of them.

But you can get non of the advantages digital gives you on film.

I started with photography in the late 80ies, its true you learn a lot on the hard way when money is involved in every shot.

But nothing beats the learning curve a digital camera with instant feedback can give you.

If you cant learn on a digital, you for sure cant learn more on a filmcamera and you should just get you another hobby.

Jacques Cornell's picture

What, EXACTLY, did I say that's "not true"?

Leo Tam's picture

The only reasons to shoot film is that you like shooting film cameras, and you look the look of film - some people try to look for justifications - teaching people the mechanics of photography is so much easier on digital - that instant feedback lets the student know how their settings affect their photos right away - wanna slow down and shoot less? Keep the camera off "continuous"

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

exactly

Jacques Cornell's picture

"The only reasons"
This kind of broad assertion does little for your credibility. I have already described other reasons. A little humility goes a long way.

Andrew Eaton's picture

I think i have become too lazy for film, i miss the easy access of my uni colour and b&w dark room and lots of time to use it. But the amount i can pull around Digital Raw files to my will after the event is a hard habit to break :-) Maybe i will do some more some day

Jacques Cornell's picture

"So, taking just a couple of shots inside and then heading out to the garden becomes infinitely more complicated unless you use two camera bodies."
This used to be a real hassle for wedding shooters.

Also, I'll take this article one step further and say that making your own darkroom prints can be REALLY helpful in learning about tonal relationships (B&W) and about color casts. I scanned film and made inkjet prints for several years before getting my first digital camera. And, I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to eliminate color casts in my prints. I could see that something was wrong, but my brain could not interpret what my eyes were seeing. It wasn't until I took two semesters of darkroom color printing at a photo school that I could begin to understand whether what I was seeing was a few points of cyan, magenta, yellow, or whatever, and only THEN could I correct my darkroom and digital prints to make them look right. It then took me a few more years to realize that the artificial light under which I was evaluating my color prints was warping all my color judgements.

Carlos David's picture

Completely agree about printing .. because no one is talking about color theory in the digital world, so the whole relationship of colors to one another is a mystery to most. In the wet lab it was a direct feedback. My favorite was the DURST RGB Enlarger vs all the other CMYs (typically Beseler).

Alex Ragen's picture

Here are 5 reasons to shoot digital: (1) No limited frames. (2) No problems if WB or ISO changes during shoot. (3) What you see is what you get, IMMEDIATELY. (4) See no. 3. (5) See whatever you want in the viewfinder.
Making photography more complicated doesn’t make someone a better photographer. It slows down the learning process and makes someone a more frustrated photographer.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Another ridiculous article from this “photographer”, I’m biting my tongue really hard, but sufficed to say, he has no respect from me for all the garbage he posts.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

The article is interesting, even though questionable. I don't think that its a specific way of shooting that makes you better photographer. You can shoot film and be average, you can use Photoworks to edit photos and be rather good, you can buy Lightroom presets and still suck at editing, etc.

derek j's picture

it seems like all of this intentional handicapping could also be done in the digital world.

Sam David's picture

I spent most of the first months of the pandemic resurrecting three ancient film cameras -- a YashicaMat from the 1960s, a Miranda from the 1970s and the warhorse Nikon F4 from the 80s. I did not give up my Nikon D750 and D700, but working with the film cameras made me use them better, in a more thoughtful manner. Working with film again made me more patient, more committed to getting the exposure right in camera, more intentional in making the composition work.
And let's cut the nastiness, friends, this isn't politics -- it's photography.