Film Photography Still Has Its Place but Won't Make You a Better Photographer

Film Photography Still Has Its Place but Won't Make You a Better Photographer

To preface all of this, I shoot film 90% of the time (if not more). I firmly believe that my work is more meaningful because of it. I also believe that we all have our own thoughts/opinion and there is no universally observed benefit to shooting film.

For being a medium that has been around for decades and has been almost completely overtaken by digital in the photography market, it still receives a lot of attention. In just the past few months, there have been multiple articles on the topic of film photography. One of which argued that experienced photographers are making a mistake if they do not suggest film as a starting place for aspiring photographers. In another article, Lee boldly stated that film “is overrated.” While I must admit I conceded more points to the latter of those two, I could not disagree more with the conclusion.

To Lee’s points, film work is rarely as sharp as digital – a decent modern camera/lens set up would be sharper than 35mm scanned by an Epson V600 or camera. Film work has just as much of a need for editing as digital shots so the idea that they’re easier and/or go "unedited" is simply untrue. Finally, the "look" of film is not so easy to pin down and just about any film stock can be emulated.

Cost

To that I would also add the cost of maintaining photography as a hobby or business. The cost of a 32gb SD card can easily be had for less than a roll of slide film and with film, there’s also the additional cost of developing. So, for 35mm, you could easily be out $25 for 36 exposures whereas with digital, the initial investment is enough to carry you through thousands of exposures. In the end, the cost of your film photography business or habit will continue to grow just to be able to take photographs whereas with digital, costs are generally associated with upgrading or expanding ones equipment.

With that said, I still prefer to shoot film. I found that with digital, the ability – almost compulsion – to shoot more and more in hopes of getting those winning shots eventually eroded at the importance of any one frame. Indeed, I would argue that with every additional shot I took of the same thing in the same situation, the more diluted the meaning each frame became. While the same behavior can be found in film just as well, it’s much less likely given the incurred expense of each exposure. However, that is not to say that the cost of a frame is a sort of penalty applied to indecision leading to more confident and decisive exposures. In fact, the compiling costs could hold back a new photographer from exploring every avenue of their interests.

Sharpness

In response to the sharpness comparison, I would agree that a high speed film in my Nikon F2 is likely going result in a more grainy and less sharp image than a digital camera could produce at the same ISO. However, the argument of modern lenses as the source does not necessarily hold up when comparing a digital camera to an autofocus film camera. The Nikon F100 can observe the same benefits of sharpness and modern coatings of new lenses just the same as a new Nikon DSLR. Moreover, medium format and large format cameras can produce incredible detail. An 8x10 image has approximately 60 times [(8*10)/(1.42*0.95)] the surface area compared with a full frame camera. Further, a 4x5 camera’s surface area is approximately 15 times larger, a 6x7 is nearly 5 times larger, a 6x6 image is still 4 times larger, and the smallest medium format image (645) is still more than 3 times larger than a full frame digital camera’s sensor. The additional information collected in these larger than full frame formats translates to additional perceived detail when compared at the same size output.

In addition, the method of scanning of negatives can make a huge difference in the resulting image. Drum scanners are well known for pulling out more detail than one might have previously thought possible. Then there are some other big names in scanners, Noritsu and Frontier, that produce excellent results and are used in some of the biggest labs in the country. Finally, there are the more economical choices like a flatbed scanner that could be had for right at $200 and/or repurposing a digital camera do "scanning".     

“Look”

Anyone who has shot film enough knows that different film stocks are wildly different. As such, there is not one such aesthetic that could be considered the “film look.” And I would argue each film stock could be emulated for any digital image. Then there’s the argument that it’s easier because film is “unedited” which simply does not happen. Color negative film unedited would look like a weird, orange-ish image. And if it was cloudy outside when shooting, white balancing would be a must unless you wanted a strongly blue tinted image.

There is, however, a natural component with film that cannot be emulated (i.e., the response curve). The response curve for a digital sensor is linear which makes it substantially better for long exposures and better for retaining detail in the shadows. Most film on the other hand have a logarithmic response curve which is why there can be an issue of reciprocity failure. As a result, it is extraordinarily difficult to overexpose film beyond the point of no return.  However, every film stock is different and how they respond to over or under-exposure is different.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I do not believe that shooting film would make anyone a better photographer. I also don’t believe that the previously stated points should keep someone from trying it out. Personally, I found that my digital work was without purpose. In the grand sea of amazing photographs available at everyone’s fingertips, my work will never stand the test of time and be sought after for generations to come (or even this generation). Instead, I wanted work that meant something to me. By that time, I felt like there was a slightly sterile, plastic-y feeling about my digital work.  Picking up film again for the first time since I was younger, I found myself drawn to that work. I was creating photographs I felt a strong personal connection with and that’s what I wanted.

I do not expect to sway anyone one way or the other. I do, on the other hand, hope that this article presented both sides of the argument enough to give someone a fair understanding of what to expect should they want to start shooting film. Who knows – you may find yourself shooting it more than digital!

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41 Comments

Mark Wyatt's picture

Hi James:

Good thoughts and images. I do enjoy both digital and film, but tend too be shooting more film at the moment. I like the look of certain film stocks (mainly using Ilford FP4+ and HP5+, plus a little color). Film has been under development for 150+ years, and was sort of cut short by technological changes (digital sensors) when it had achieved a very high level of aesthetic and technological refinement and capability. In the world of art, convenience and productivity (two pluses for digital- digital did not take over for aesthetic considerations, but certainly digital is now in the realm of film, and has at least future potential to exceed it) are not always the main drivers of usage of a medium (many people still paint for instance). Sharpness is not always the most important attribute of an image. For commercial photography often it is, but not necessarily for aesthetic images.

I think using film can make you a better photographer. I would say the more photographic mediums you experience, the better you would become. Also, if you can feel confident (due to the experience of achieving your shots) with a shot without previewing it instantly, then certainly this at least validates progress in your photography. That is not to say you may not occasionally miss a shot because of something you did not catch. That is part of the film experience.

James Madison's picture

Mark - I agree with much of what you've said and I appreciate that you mentioned missing a shot as 'part of the film experience.' Believe it or not, it one of my favorite things about film. The fact that you may well have missed documenting an experience and you won't know it until you see the negatives and/or scans really makes the successes feel that much more special.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Nice piece, James. Good title as well ‘-)
Film is expensive and that let me to slow down and become less reactive. Also it helped to de-crop my approach :)

James Madison's picture

Thanks, Alex. I hope you keeping enjoying it!

Alex Yakimov's picture

You are welcome, James.
Lets hope for the sunny weather tomorrow. Got to try velvia 50. 😀

Tony Clark's picture

There is no "best" when it comes to photography. What is your individual style, how you deliver images to a client or simply shooting for yourself are just a few of the questions one needs to ask themselves. I started in the early 90's and learned to shoot using Polaroid, E-6 and TRI-X film. I also remember shooting with a RZ67Pro and seeing the transparencies on the lightbox and the beautiful grain of the TRI-X pushed a stop. Fast forward to the instant gratification of shooting tethered to CaptureOne and the client looking at the computer display.

These days, I don't know if I have the patience to wait on the clip test let alone the drive to a lab that offers such a thing. Remember the time when you could buy a used medium format kit with a couple lenses for about $3K? Oh, how times have changed and those photo budgets have gone the opposite direction.

James Madison's picture

I can honestly say that viewing a new roll of 120 transparency film for the first time is perhaps the most addictive thing I've ever experienced in photography. And I love Tri-X though I could stand to play around with it more as I've only pushed it once I believe (maybe twice...).

I would argue that the requirement for patience is part of what makes it special. Albeit, it likely contributes as to why it isn't appropriate for client work if that's what you do. Have you considered shooting through a roll or two for your personal work?

This is the right take - I like film simply because I love how certain films look (Provia 400x, ektachrome 100vs, portra 400!!!) and how some film cameras are such a joy to use

35mm isn't that great if you want a detailed image - it's okay at best, and flatbed scans don't do it any favors

I never liked the argument that film made you a better photographer because of its limitations - it sucks when you have ASA 100 film and the sun went away. You have to take notes because there is no instant review. You need to wait until your film was processed before you can comment on your photos - "oh, I spot metered the highlight, but I placed it in the mid tones" "oh, I should have dropped the fill flash another stop". I don't like the argument that it slows you down - you can slow yourself down with digital too. I also hate how film in this decade implies imperfections - the faded prints look became an expectation, along with grain, and light leaks

Enough of my ramblings - look at a well lit portrait done on portra 400 - look at a slide on a lightbox! That's the reason to shoot film (for me)

James Madison's picture

I've never shot with Provia 400x nor does it seem like it is still available. I'm a huge fan of Provia 100F - it's my favorite transparency film for 120.

For the Portra family - how are you on Portra 160?

400x was axed by Fuji a few years ago - was less saturated than 100F and played nicely with skin tones (less magenta)

160 Portra is a little too flat for me - but others have great luck with it, and it looks great as a wedding film (handles the classic white dress/black tux problem well) and I've seen great studio work with it - not much experience otherwise, I just like the rosy skin tones of Portra 400

This is actually what I exactly feel about film photography right now
I have just started learning to shoot films and develop them in the Darkroom this month. I gotta say, after this many years of shooting digital, I felt like film somehow just feels better, and the photos I take actually makes an impression. The sharpness that film lacks is exactly why I love it. I have a Sony A7R III, with 42 MP, things just way too sharp. I now am shooting with a Pentax K1000(beginner camera lol), at first I didn't get used to not able to see the photo after taking it, and it was frustrating at times. But after printing it for the first time in the Darkroom, the next time I went out to shoot, all those feelings of frustration went away, because I cannot wait to get back to the Darkroom to see the image come out on the print paper.
Also, I love the process of seeing the negatives come out after finished developing them, and printing them, seeing the images appear in the developer fluid, man there is just no better feeling than that (especially when you nailed the exposure and focus). It just feels so magical. Right now I only shoot Ilford HP5 because I am trying to learn film in a class. Really want to try out Portra 400 and Cinestill in the future.
(Any recommendations for film stocks to try out?)

James Madison's picture

That's awesome. I love the K1000 - I used to keep only 3200 ASA film in it (Ilford Delta until TMAX came out) for shooting around the house when it was too dark for my 400 or slower films located in my other cameras.

Suggestions? Portra 400 has its reputation for a reason. It's worth shooting through a pro pack of it for sure. If you really want to be enamored with film, shoot a roll of slide film; Ektachrome or Provia would be a great starting place. Get them developed at a place that will also mount them and you'll understand why several people in this comments section have brought up transparency (a.k.a. slide) film.

I spent like 20 years shooting film, 35mm - 8x10 and I am glad that now I have a choice.
I don't think that shooting less has ever worked for me. I may have an idea in my head how I want to shoot something. If I only shoot it the way I imagined it I'll get a good photo. I then shoot some variations of that idea and often I end up with better photo. If I can explore a little sometimes I get something unexpected.
I had a photo teacher who called it "What Else?" , the theory was that once you had the planned for shot in the can you don;t go home you try something else with that idea, a different lens or angle, different light, what else can I do to improve on my original idea. Often I get something better, sometimes the first idea was the only way to do it.

I like pictures of the dog...

James Madison's picture

Do you still shoot film or have you completely moved over to digital?

In medical research, arguably the most common phrase is "So What?" when you've finally got your idea down on paper. It's a similar concept - the initial idea should be treated as a starting place/launching pad, not the end result.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

I would say that as far as learning process is concerned, film photography can definitely make one a better photographer. Take two people who know nothing about photography and give one a DSLR and let the other grab an all manual film camera with few rolls of film. Then come back later and see which one understands better concept of proper exposure, aperture, shutter time, ISO, etc.

James Madison's picture

While that's true, it's predicated on the the film photographer using an all manual camera and the DSLR photographer shooting in all Auto mode. While I agree it's more likely a new film photographer would know of and understand the exposure triangle than another new digital photographer, anyone with a digital camera and interest in the physics of how cameras work (i.e., the exposure triangle) is just as capable of learning as anyone else.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Certainly anyone with digital camera is capable of learning all of the above. Capable but not forced to, as in case of a manual film camera.
To be perfectly clear, I am not speaking here just hypotetically. My first camera was Nikon FM10. I had to sit down and learn basic of exposure before I ran first roll of film through it. Some people I know who started with DSLR, were shooting away in "green" mode for a long time before they decided to understand process a bit deeper.

James Madison's picture

You and I have had similar experiences except my first camera was an old Minolta X-370. However, I see a lot of value training your eye for framing, composition, etc... and I think that someone not having to deal with aperture, shutter speed, and focus is more likely is spend time honing their other skills and cultivating their passion for photography.

And then you have those people who get into photography with a mirrorless camera and old, vintage lenses where at best they can use aperture priority mode, still forcing them to learn the exposure triangle. I have several friends that got started this way and I think they've learned just as much as they would have from an all manual film camera while still getting instantaneous feedback.

Daniel Simon's picture

I would disagree - though I love shooting film and learned on a cheap 120 camera back in the 1970s, having been a teacher for over 2 decades now, the most important aid to learning is feedback upon which you can reflect and build. The space of time between taking and seeing the image in film photography makes this very difficult - in order to learn from one's mistakes, one would have to write down every camera setting and weather and light and time and location etc setting. OK, that may be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that in my years of teaching, learning on a digital camera with instant feedback available is much, much more effective. As James says above, learning on a digital camera does not necessarily predicate only using automatic modes. Great article btw James.

Mark Wyatt's picture

Interestingly, when I shoot film, I shoot fully manual- often with a handheld meter. I am very comfortable doing that and have done that for many years. When I shoot digital, unless I need a specific effect (e.g., shallow depth of field, high or low shutter speed, etc.), I tend to shoot automatic and use the EVF to gauge my exposures.For instance I tend to expose more for the skies (to avoid clipping clouds), and then using post processing to bring up the foreground (shooting RAW of course). I tend to fish for the right exposure (by moving the camera up towards the horizon until it looks "right"). Since it is a digital camera, the exposure is recorded, and I can go back and see what I did, but often I do not need to do that. For students I can see a lot of value in that as you indicate.

A point I made in my original comment on this story does favor film, "if you can feel confident (due to the experience of achieving your shots) with a shot without previewing it instantly, then certainly this at least validates progress in your photography". Maybe the point would be that advanced students could gain a lot by testing their confidence and using film, but I suspect that they would have to use a fair amount of film to gain that confidence.

James Madison's picture

Well said, Mark.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Yes, feedback is a problem with film and I have to agree 100%. That's why IMO when Leica came up with a digital camera without a screen I thought it was their biggest fail up to the date.
So let's compromise - how about a digital camera with manual only settings? :) Is there anything like it out there?

James Madison's picture

Ha! I can't imagine that camera would sell very well... But who knows?

James Madison's picture

That's a very interesting, point, Daniel. I could easily see where the delay of feedback would make learning less effective and potentially making the entire experience more frustrating to someone attempting to get into photography. However, with the ability to take shot after shot after shot, it's almost natural to pursue "the" shot and take hundreds if not thousands of pictures. Blessing and a curse I suppose... haha

I'd like to argue the contrary - you can learn a lot faster on digital about exposure - you have that instant feedback - if you don't just blindly shoot, and being able to see your photo helps you learn - no need to wait until your photos get developed and printed (and negative films let you be as sloppy as digital does anyways)

Tim Foster's picture

6x7 will make you a better photographer. 35mm is a waste of time.

James Madison's picture

Is there a particular reason you say that?

Tim Foster's picture

There's just no real technical or aesthetic advantage to 35mm film over digital. Medium and large format are a different story.

If you can't shoot 6x9 I guess 6x7 is ok. :)

James Madison's picture

Ha! I've never shot 6x9 before. I suspect the resulting images are wonderful.

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