Does Shooting Film Make You a Better Photographer?

Does Shooting Film Make You a Better Photographer?

The film versus digital debate has raged on for over a decade now. Digital cameras are so capable that it seems silly for anyone to go back to an archaic medium like film. Film is slow, expensive (sort of), lacks many game-changing features found in today's digital cameras, and has lower resolution (sort of). But it has some qualities to it that make it an entirely viable medium for working photographers and enthusiasts alike. One of which that I firmly believe in is that it will make you a better photographer. 

Cost

Let's talk about the arguments against film. The first of which that many cite is the cost. While yes it is true that a 36 exposure roll of film can be had for the same price as a 16 GB SD card, you may not find it to add up to the cost of digital entirely. I have the advantage of not having a lead shutter finger, but your mileage may vary here. If you factor in the cost of a good 35mm SLR, like the F100 which I've owned a few of, can be had for around $200 in the current market. It uses the same lenses as any full-frame digital Nikon. So let's say you get a 50mm f/1.8 which is around $217 at the time of writing. You now have a "full-frame" camera for less than $500. Now for the film itself. If you want to save some money you can shoot black and white and develop it yourself. As developing costs can be a significant portion of the cost of shooting film, this can really add up. Let's say you're shooting color though for the sake of the argument. You can buy 40 rolls of Fujifillm Pro 400H for about $420 at the time of writing. That's 1,440 frames at $0.29 per frame. Considering developing is $6-12 depending on which lab you use we can increase that cost to $0.51 per frame if the roll is $8 to develop. Considering I rarely shoot more than 125-150 frames per shoot, that's not a terrible amount of money for someone that shoots like I do. It's far less economic if you bring medium format into the equation, but there is a noticeable increase in quality with larger formats so I find the tradeoff to be worth it. And I know, a used full-frame digital camera can be had for under $1,000 and memory cards are cheaper than ever, but choosing to shoot film is no longer a rational decision in the digital age. 

The Look

Love it or hate it, film has a look to it. The best way I can describe it is the way that highlights and shadows roll off differently. Because it's light sensitive material and not a digital interpretation of light, I find the tonal transitions to be more natural and when you combine that with the grain (not noise, there's a difference) present in any film, you find something unique. In all fairness, digital cameras are amazing and the files can be made to mimic film very closely. This argument is arguably invalid because of that, but there is a unique look to both tone and depth of field transitions with film, especially 645 and larger, that digital doesn't quite mimic in my opinion. Jonathon Canlas has some prime examples of that look in his work. Plus lenses like the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 are just magical combined with a big 645 negative. If you're shooting full frame, you might be happy with Lightroom presets. For those of us that can't get over the crazy rendering of 6x4.5, 6x7, and 6x9 though, film is the go-to medium as digital medium-format cameras well exceed the price of full-frame DSLR options.

Image Quality

35mm film will never compare to digital as it stands today in terms of resolution. No matter how you scan it, it just can't keep up with a D810, D750, or whatever other camera you might be shooting. Once you jump into larger sizes like the medium formats and large format though, even a flatbed scanner can deliver enough detail to print several feet wide. I recently printed a 24x36-inch print from Portra 160 out of my Fuji GSW690 and scanned with the Epson V600 and I don't think a D810 would have been much sharper. Considering I paid less than $400 for that camera on eBay, $200 for the scanner, and $5 or $6 for the roll of film, I'm impressed.

Dynamic range can be a touchy subject as well. And depending on who you ask you'll get an entirely different answer. It really depends on what film you use. With slide films like Velvia or Provia, you need to be extremely careful with your exposure as the effective range of exposure that holds detail is about 5 stops. On the other hand, Kodak Ektar, a newer color negative film, can get more than 10 stops when exposed properly. Most color negative films behave similarly in their wide exposure latitude. Of course, the film has to be exposed correctly and developed accordingly. You don't have the ability to adjust the exposure as much in post as the scans are TIFF files that don't have the flexibility of raw files. This means proper exposure is critical, which brings me to why I bother shooting film and why I think everyone should try it.

It makes you pay attention. Let's forget about cost for a bit and think about the excitement of looking at your images and editing them after the shoot. With film, unless you live near a lab, you're going to have to wait a few days. On top of that, you likely have fewer frames to choose from. This in turn makes you think a lot more about the composition in each shot as well as exposure, props, and hair/makeup. You have to make the frames count since you can't simply shoot, notice a small mistake, and then tweak to fix it. And because you can't see what you're getting on the spot you'll have to learn how to use a light meter which will absolutely help with your digital shooting as well. It's been said a thousand times over but film forces a level of discipline on you as the photographer that is simply not there with digital cameras. I learned photography on digital and never cared to use a light meter until I picked up my first Mamiya 645 to take to the studio. Now, I don't go to a shoot without one.

My argument is this: try it out and see what you learn. At the absolute worst, you lose a few dollars on film and realize you don't need what it has to offer and that's fine. For me however, I was able to improve about everything I've been doing through film. Regardless of what medium I'm using I think so much more about positioning, ratios, composition, and the final image as a whole since I can't really "fix it in post." Many will say I'm wrong, but I truly believe that a manual film camera will show who knows their stuff and who doesn't. And for those like me that didn't know as much as they thought, it's an amazing, albeit somewhat costly, learning experience.

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24 Comments

At first, I thought "It doesn't make you a 'better photographer', just a 'different photographer'", but after I read the article, I understood how and why film photography can improve a photographer to be better than he was before using film. You've pointed something important and even though I won't be using film, I will pay attention to the points you've made. Thank you for this

Definition of "better" rated by popularity or "subjective point of view"... or some third "objective" criteria?

Clickbait nonsense aside, there are great photographers who learned a lot during the film days, and there are plenty who started with analogue who don't "got it".

I think you're making the same mistake a lot of people do, thinking that it's about the gear.

Your last paragraph is really the answer to "make you better?". People like Joe McNally, Annie Leibovitz, Joel Grimes and so on who started in the film era "see" the shot and have a good idea of what they'll get before they look at the LCD. In the film era, you had to have that skill or you couldn't do the job.

Today, we can all learn the same with digital by gaffer taping our LCDs for personal work, and shooting JPEG to narrow the latitude. Every 36 frames, stop for five minutes to "change rolls." When shooting "for real," of course, use the LCD and RAW, just like the aforementioned shooters do today in the digital world. Interestingly, Joey L started in the digital age, but he seems to shoot like a film shooter; I'd be curious how he developed his skill along those lines.

Lovely examples. The Mamiya 645 is a great system camera. Very fluid. Lots of excellent inexpensive lenses. MF lenses render differently lenses for FF or smaller formats. While you can get very automated 35mm film cameras (F4, F6...), I prefer a more manual approach. As for monochrome, I've never found a conversion for digital that will provide the same qualities as Hasselblad SWC shooting Ilford PanF. It's not an issue of gear. Film and digital are really different media.

Interesting. Although I photograph with both film and digital cameras, I'm not sure I'd say that shooting film makes you a better photographer. Certainly, film shooting by necessity gives you a different awareness of the process, but I don't think that necessarily translates into more artistry. Imagination and technique count for far more than what photographic medium you use. Where I do think shooting film helps, especially in this digital age, is as an expansion of your technical tool palette. As a process that is akin to cooking, film photography involves different skills and different visual and tactile manipulations. These happen to appeal to me and as such make the process alluring.

Craig Brabant's picture

I have always been a speed demon photographer. As such, better than half of my pictures didn't mean a thing to me. I took photography in high school but that was it and was so long ago. Funny thing is, I bought a digital baby, T2i (Canon) and that made me want to go back. Back to developing my film and printing large prints, no lab (we don't need no stinking labes(that's the best I could come up with for ryhms with badges). For me it has to be large format, so I can make large prints. The problem, photography is gone! Local college only offers digital. Just reading this article and the comments half of which is written in Russian, or might as well have been. I know I have a photographer's eye, it's driving me crazy, I just don't have the knowledge anymore and the resources are no longer there. Thankfully I still remember how to spell photgrephy. Damn.

E Port's picture

I don't understand how using tools that are less safe and more complicated will make you a better photographer? We are not good at multitasking (source: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794 ) so the last thing I need during my shoots are more layers of translation. I think your main point of getting things right in camera IS going to make you a better photographer. Just don't see what film has to do with that advice.

Spencer Lookabaugh's picture

I find film to be relevant to that because you have absolutely no choice but to be certain of exposure, composition, etc while shooting. Technically the same could be said of the digital Leica M that has no screen on it, but that's a tad out of most budgets. But you're correct in that film is not the difference between getting it right or wrong it camera, it just helped me to pay more attention.

In a perfect world, you would be absolutely correct. The problem is, we (humans) need tools to get things done. Your choice of tools dictates your workflow. By forcing you to work slower and more methodically, film will help you to develop the skills not required by digital.
Of course you can force yourself to do these things with a digital camera but will you?

E Port's picture

Thanks for asking Patrick. Being an arch photog, we are of the most methodical types of photographers out there. We use gear heads and tilt-shift glass because getting things right in-camera is our obsession. Some shots can take hours of work through, so no extra force is needed!

I do a lot of industrial photography so I know what you mean. I think we are the exception, though.

no thanks. i started with film many many years ago and i'm all set with it. the cameras cost is about the same now so you only have the pictures that adds to the cost. i will keep my D3. i would hate to develop 5-600 photos from a shoot.

Santiago Borthwick's picture

The same can be said about venturing to other formats, Square, different aspect ratios... And it makes you break your old habits forcing you to see things in new ways!
The limitations on film definitely force you to learn more, and pay attention. Recently got into large format, and i'm learning so much! the fact that the image is upside down is also doing something to my brain, getting me to see things in other ways, not take proportions for granted, and look at composition in a more abstract way, less crippled by the way i'm used to see.

Film definitely can bring a lot to the table for those of us who learned on digital platforms.
It's not better per se, but the limitations force to learn and see things in new ways!

David Vaughn's picture

I actually worry much less about exposure with film than I do with digital. Yes it might not "technically" have as much latitude especially at the darker end, I can overexpose a film like Portra by 3-4 stops with very little affect to the actual image.

This is especially useful with older medium format cameras like the Pentax 6x7 that only has a very rudimentary light meter.

Dan Howell's picture

Honestly, I think this argument can only be made by the young or inexperienced. I'd wager that I have shot more film than you ever could. My last few years shooting film as a full-time professional, my film and processing bills were more than $10,000/year (and about $15k my last year). That dropped to virtually $0 when I purchased a Hasselblad H1 and Leaf digital back (which paid for itself in two years). Upon reflection, I wish I had gone digital-only at least a year before I did. The only film I have shot since then has been Polaroid Type 54 on special occasions.

The romance with film, in my view, is with it's failures, not its success. Every quality that is associated with a particular film is a limitation to the contrast, dynamic range, highlight suppression, grain size, etc. No one film has all of the qualities that people seem to have an emotional connection with. It is simply not a practical choice for the work I do, fashion and commercial. I.e., none of my clients would accept film capture for anything other than a special one-off novelty.

The argument about overshooting also falls flat to me. I had several 100 roll days when shooting catalogs. Until you are talking about 8x10 I don't see film achieving anything that digital can't.

I can definitely state that digital photography has made me a stronger photographer because of two strengths: quick feedback loop and greater control of the output. Digital as allowed me to take more chances and take more photos that are closer to my intended vision. I am able to deliver my clients a more finished and usable product. Digital has allowed me to shoot (or maybe more accurately produce) in situations that film capture wouldn't. My images are more color accurate and useful to my clients. My archiving is more organized and accessible. Etc, etc.

Jozef Povazan's picture

I replied here earlier today with a bit harder way then I think was propriety so just want to share a joy to photography instead no matter what anyone things is correct regarding this film-vs-digital matter. Thank you for understanding and enjoy photography since that is what brings us here. Wish you all a great weekend. Cheers.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I totally see all your points, but just as a counterpoint, I don't think he's really talking about shooting film commercially. As a shooter of both, I would never shoot film for a commercial client for a couple of reasons. First, it's impractical. Second, my clients wouldn't want me to. Not everyone (indeed, probably not many at all) are reading this article considering whether to use film to shoot catalogue work. Those days are over.

But for personal, non-professional work, or fine art work I don't see anything wrong with shooting film at all. The issue we are having is putting a value judgement to practicality. If you are shooting for yourself, to enjoy yourself, issues of practicality are out the window as it's a leisure activity. By its nature, it's impractical. The most practical thing to do would be to use your cell phone and call it a day. By the same token, using real paint instead of photoshop is also impractical, but in my opinion it's still worth doing if it's your passion.

As for overshooting, that's something that can be done either on film or digital. The difference is in the penalty you pay and the way in which you learn after doing the shooting. The more time it takes you to make an image (I'm not talking about slowing down to take the image, but actual start to finish from composing to print), the more likely you are to pay attention to your process. If I spray and pray on digital, I'm less likely to remember what I did to get an image I liked than feeling the failure of a wasted roll or sheet of film. Of course, good note-taking can be done on either digital or film, but I would say that one is more likely to pay closer attention when the stakes are higher. It's just human nature.

dale clark's picture

I know this sounds backwards. I went digital very early in the process. Lot's of limitations on top of lower resolution (color, lighting etc). In fact, at the time, film seemed more forgiving vs early digital. I think shooting digital early on really helped me improve my skills due to initial limitations. With that said, I did concentrate more on getting perfect set up with film and then just go with it. I never did use polaroids for instant checking of setup. Now I can shoot....check things out, adjust accordingly.

I am a photography enthusiast. I still shoot with my Canon A-1 that I bought new in 1980; July 2013, I bought a used New F-1 so I could share lenses. December, I bought a Canon 5D III. Although I don't make any money from my photography, I certainly realized the ROI on my A-1.
With two film cameras, one is loaded with B&W and the other with color.
I was at an air show and six rolls of 36 exposure film was my budget. Prior to the start of the Air Force Thunderbirds performance, I loaded a new roll of film; during their performance, I had to load a new roll of film. Fortunately, it was during a lull in their performance where they were regrouping.
I have found that on occasion that I have had to switch my DSLR lens from autofocus to manual focus. I wish that my 5D had the split-image/microprism to aid in focusing.
But I enjoy photography, film and digital.

Kirk Darling's picture

I'm going to repeat something Dan Howell said:

"Digital has allowed me to shoot (or maybe more accurately produce) in situations that film capture wouldn't."

Digital frees me from the limitations of the film process to more closely create what I see in my mind. Even working professionally, I can break out of the film box and take risks that I could not take with film. I can create more perfect art with digital. Shooting film compared to digital is like painting a portrait with a box of 24 Crayola crayons.

So I'd dispute the article.

But, maybe the point is in something else Dan Howell said:

"I think this argument can only be made by the young or inexperienced."

Scott Mason's picture

In the end it comes down to reciprocity still being reciprocity - the basic elements of exposure are the same. Yes, being able to nail an exposure without seeing it (in the case of film shooting ) means something and can definitely make you more aware of and handy with exposure.

However, think about all of the new features on lenses and bodies digital has. Can you imagine someone who has only shot with a basic film body trying to figure out complex settings like focus modes focus areas, etc? When you look at it that way, a film-only shooter would be a fish out of water trying to photograph tricky situations on digital. There is definitely a learning curve when switching over from film to digital.

Kirk Darling's picture

Reciprocity failure...something else I haven't worried about since shooting digital.

Dennis Murphy's picture

The author forgot to mention that shooting film can also cure a variety of ailments like embarrassing rashes in nasty places and can miraculously cause hair regrowth for shooters with male pattern baldness (most film shooters).
New studies are being conducted to see if shooting film is actually a solution to global warming.

I wonder how long we will be having this discussion? Probably long after film goes the way of the cassette tape... Is an mp3, better than cassette? Is a CD better than a record? Is it worth the discussion? Film is a lovely medium to capture images, and has a look to it that comes with a great deal of work and time. I shot film for years and year, multiple episodes of silver oxide poisoning from too much time in a darkroom with not enough ventilation. At the end of the day I love looking back at my negatives and slides, but do I wish I could have them all in digital format? You bet I do! Do I look at them and wax poetic about the look and feel and bla, bla, bla... no. Do I shoot digital different than film? Not really. But maybe willing to take an extra shot here and there that I wouldn't have taken with film just to make sure I got it right. Everything else has been said above... If you like film, shoot film, but these ceaseless articles trying to show how one is better than the other? Is oil paint better than watercolor? How about pencil better than India ink? They are different, can we leave it at that? Need to try something different? Shoot film for a while, or maybe pick up some paints and and paint brush...