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It’s About Time You Started Shooting Film

It’s About Time You Started Shooting Film

Film photography has been enjoying a strong revival in the last few years. If you’ve yet to try it, it’s about time you jump on the film photography bandwagon. 

Why Shoot Film?

That’s a great question. Film photography is more prone to mistakes because of the delayed response in seeing your work. On a per shot basis, film photography can be more expensive. Depending on the type of camera that you have, the metering may or may not be dependable or accurate; it may not even have an internal meter at all! What’s more, the equipment needed to shoot film is not necessarily less expensive compared with digital; yet, given their age, they are substantially more likely to break. So yes, there are many reasons to not shoot film. However, the question was “why shoot film,” and to that, I say there are many reasons. 

For one, and this is what many people love most about film photography, it slows you down (for better or worse) and forces you to think more thoroughly about each and every photograph. In a world where digital cameras and phones can take photo after photo after photo with seemingly no end, an external pressure slowing you down can be quite an attractive change of pace. Thus, for many photographers that get into film, there’s an intentionality to it that is difficult to be replicated in digital photography. 

In addition to an exercise in patience and precision, shooting film offers the opportunity to practice understanding and embracing accidents and missed opportunities. Lastly, film photography offers the chance to simplify your photography processes. One of the few — possibly the only decision — is to choose what film you want to shoot. The first question is, depending on the photographer, whether you want to shoot color or black and white. Even within color film, there’s the question of slide film or color negative film. Once you’ve decided between the film type, there’s only the question of what film stock you want to shoot. Once the film is loaded, your decisions have essentially been made for you for the next 10-36 frames unless, of course, you are shooting large format or a medium format camera with interchangeable backs.

Lastly, and I suspect that this will be the argument that I will get the most kickback on, a nice 35mm film camera can be had for considerably less money than a nice digital camera, and film cameras will hold their value better over time. If you were to buy a brand-new (or even a used) digital camera today, one year from today, it will be worth a good deal less money. As time goes on and there are more and more digital camera models are released, the technology in your camera will be worthless and less. Film cameras, on the other hand, are not affected by such market changes, and as such, after a year, whatever camera you buy should be worth about what you paid for it on a bad day and more than what you paid for it on a good day. Further, while shooting film can be considerably more expensive for someone looking to shoot thousands and thousands of photographs, many people, myself included, rarely shoot that much. So, for those people looking to get into photography but unsure of whether they will stick with it, film can provide an opening into the world of photography at a lower cost. While it is true that affordable crop-sensor cameras also offer a budget-level entry, their value as used gear plummets compared with that of film gear, which is presumably already as cheap as you’ll be able to get it. 

Why Now?

The answer is simple. There are more and more people starting to shoot film again every single day. In a world where cell phones can act as competent digital cameras, the same cannot be said for film photography. Going with film comes with the je ne sais quoi of film that cannot be had with a cell phone or digital camera. As a result, the limited stock of good, still functioning film cameras is dwindling little by little every day. As a result, and as you may recall from one of my previous articles, prices of film cameras are on the rise and do not appear to be decreasing anytime in the near future. 

With all of that said, I’ll again pose the question: “why now rather than a year from now? There are a number of reasons, the most important of which is that if you don’t buy the camera you’ve been eyeing now, it’s only going to be more expensive later. If you’re anything like me, it’s always frustrating to know that you could have had the same thing for less money if you had only bit the bullet a little earlier. The second reason you should go ahead and pick up a camera is that there’s a reason film photography has become more and more popular over the years. Until such time as you shoot through a few rolls and feel what it’s like, you cannot understand what all of your buzzes are about. Sure, you can read about why people love it and you can think you understand but until you get your hands-on experience, you will not understand. Perhaps you shot to film a couple of decades ago before you have since made the transition to digital cameras, to you I would argue that it is not the same experience anymore. It’s true that the cameras haven’t changed and some film stocks haven’t changed, but the world around those cameras and stocks have changed. The world that we currently live in thrives on the immediate gratification of seeing photos as you soon as you take them, and as mentioned at the head of the article, the change of pace is quite attractive.

Lastly, and this is in my eyes the most important point, if you were to get into film today for the first time, you could be part of the possible sea change the photography world is experiencing. As you may recall from some of my previous articles, I am a vocal supporter of film photography and would like to see its longevity; however, I sadly do not see this happening unless large-scale camera manufacturers decide to return to building affordable cameras ranging from 35mm to 6x7. Sure, we have Intrepid and a number of others that have been thriving at making large format cameras exclusively. View cameras, however, are not particularly beginner-friendly, and every sustainable market needs affordable, entry-level models that can attract new people to the hobby. It is in this belief that I hope, should enough people decide to return to shooting film entirely or even partly, the market will respond before it is too late. 

What do you think? Are you a film photographer? If so, what would your advice be to someone looking to get into it? If you’ve yet to dip your toes in the water, what has been holding you back?

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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Back in the day I would try to get outputs as clean and true to life as possible; these qualities are a feature of digital, and by that standard digital spanks film, and so I stopped shooting film (after much resistance) - I think this is a significant part of the reason old men scream loudest against the idea of shooting film.

Now that I have started shooting film again, I embrace the imperfections* of the medium as a feature as opposed to something to be worked out.

*With respect to imperfections, I will never view dust spots as anything but a flaw and and light leaks as anything other than a critical failure.

With respect to the camera cost question, digital is more expensive on the front end and film is more expensive on the back end (although, a lot of film cameras aren't so cheap anymore). Manufacturers convince us that new camera is a must, old cameras have their own qualities in terms of their lenses and are collectable by virtue of their existence. It's a complex question, and I'm uncertain as to how meaningful it is. However, digital (for stills) is mature technology, and therefore there is no reason you would need to buy a new camera for a couple of decades (unless it fails).

I agree with you about embracing the imperfections. I don't like dust but light leaks don't bother near as much as they used to. And while it can be disappointing to see that maybe the focus or exposure was just slightly off, I see it as a learning lesson.

Light Leaks are useful and fun for artistic effect and experimentation. I would be fairly pissed if one showed up in a photo I wanted "clean." Easy to solve though - One should test their gear thoroughly. If people want to do light leaks and expired film type effects, there are plenty of $25 - $50 beater cameras that can do that.

I loved film when that's all I had. I never worried about noise or dust, never chased the cleanest shot - Even spent some time playing with 800 pushed to 1600 and embracing the grain.

The cost though... Wow... It wasn't an issue at the time, but in hindsight it held me back. Having to conserve how many photos I took because of the processing cost was, in hindsight, a major restriction to my creative output.

I'll never touch film again.

I hear you. I just paid $25 for a single roll of Portra 800 in 120. Fair to say I'm not shooting a lot of film.

$25 for one roll!? That's so expensive...

(Australian) Yeah, no kidding. I grabbed two out of the fridge, one went back. I also just paid $77 AU for a pro pack of Portra 160 in 120

That's still a lot of money... My goodness

It’s $20 at Ikigai atm, have a look.

But is it climate friendly to revert back to film?

The rate of growth in aggregate material exterminations vastly outweighs any contribution an individual can make. Just enjoy your life.

To entirely revert back to it? No clue. I don't know what effects film manufacturing and processing has on the environment much less how it contrasts to the production of digital cameras and all of their parts. I am confident though that buying new things for the sake of having new things does more damage than good - even if the new thing is environmentally friendly.

All in all, on the hobbyist level, I cannot imagine the manufacturing and processing of film moves the needle much if at all compared with all of the other damage being inflicted onto the climate.

Here's the big problem with film: I'd have absolutely no outlet for my work - I'd be building another boat in the basement.

I can put my digital work on a POD and actually sell one now and then. I can blog about it and get a few hits. My friends can admire it on facebook. I have at least a dim possibility of it being seen and even liked.

What do I do with film shots? Just scan them? Do I post-process those scans? Is that still 'film'? Doesn't seem impressive, somehow...

I'm old, I should be on this bandwagon. But where would it take me?

I would imagine it would take you to the same place your digital work takes you. It may even take you further as it could set you apart!

lets see... yes, yes and yes.. film will give you a different look even scanned..esp if you start shooting larger formats... so yes..you can still put it on a POD, have people see it and maybe sell it..and guess what..in 50 years - your negatives will still be around... where will your digital originals be in 50 years??????

Vivian Maier might disagree.

Does it...?

I thought about giving film a try, I have plenty of F mount manual glass I could use, but when I looked into it decided it's not worth the cost.

I can't buy film locally or get it developed. I would need to order the film online and wait for it to arrive, then after shooting package it and send it off to be developed and wait for it to return. This will cost me nearly $1 an image and extra for prints. Throw in the fact I take a lot of photos I'm not happy with and it just feels like a complete waste of money.

While developing my own film could be fun, I have no place to set up a dark room either.

For environmental reasons I hope film remains a niche market for hobbyists and antique collectors.

Maybe it would be cool if someone developed a new type of film with a non-toxic, water-based chemistry.

Are you certain there's no one that can process it somewhat locally? I wouldn't be surprised if there's a shop that's still doing it somewhere not far from you. As for processing your own film, it's not that difficult and you don't need a darkroom. I process my B&W in broad daylight most of the time. You just have to load it in darkness which is why we have changing bags*

There are many places where film is no longer processed locally. Around here (middle TN, Nashville area), Dury's was the last lab within a few hundred miles and they succumbed to the effects of COVID and permanently closed. Also the last camera store in the state that I know of - there might be one in Knoxville, maybe Memphis, but both are a few hours away.

This is why I only shoot b&w, because I can (easily) develop and scan myself. I also generally don't find color film to have the same advantages over digital that b&w does.

Umm, yeah, no. I've shot tens of thousands of frames of film. Don't care to go back. And the slowing down part? Try shooting a bunch of large format (still have all my old 4x5 stuff). If you've never shot with one, you have no idea how to take it slow.

Oh, I do have a 4x5 and I love it! My fiancé on the other hand hates sitting still for as long as it takes to set up!

I shoot film and digital. I can make all my digital images look like film in LR/PS. None of my friends are impressed when I shoot film vs. digital. They only care how they look in the photo. In the field I usually see young people shooting film. When I talk to young people about why they are shooting with a film camera, they tell me they think it's cool and like the way the images look. They also usually send their film out for developing and scanning and then post to Instagram. So basically you are shooting film to get a digital image that you can get on on a digital camera. It all makes little sense when you take the "coolness" factor out of shooting film. I shoot with a TLR that's been in the family since new. I do my own developing and scan a high resolution version of the image. I often question why I'm doing this when I can get identical results with a digital camera. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy the whole process, but it's counter-intuitive and makes no sense if you're not making darkroom prints and learning that craft. It is not time to start shooting film. I will guaranty that you will lose interest in the process soon after and you will be selling your gear on Ebay. Shooting film is a complete process from loading your camera to drying the finished print. Anything less is not shooting film.

Shooting with a TLR? That's fun! What model?

Rolleiflex 3.5T. My wife's dad bought it in Germany in 1958 when he was in the army. Was stationed at the same base as Elvis Presley at the time. No pics of Elvis, though.

Oh wow! He was stationed in Friedberg!?That's so cool! I was just there back in Feb

Also - Nice camera! I'm glad to hear that you're still using it, even if you question why you do so. haha

I agree with pretty much everything you said. I'm old enough to have started out with film when it was the only option. While I wouldn't suggest depriving any person from using film, it does seem a bit trite to do so when the images will only be scanned. The beauty of film (B&W, at least) to me was the process that led to very rich prints, especially on fiber paper. As you pointed out, there's little point in using film just to get a scanned digital photo.

Funny enough, even though in an earlier comment I said that I'd never touch film again I might be interested in B&W (medium format I imagine) if I had the room for the processing.

When I shoot for B&W in digital (always in colour), I'm seldom satisfied unless there's some grain present. Even when the photo is a high key image. Perhaps that's a carry over from my film days?

Sounds really interesting but if I took over any more space I may well find myself single! ;-)

Eh. There are plenty of people, myself included, that still make wet prints. There's nothing quite like them. I don't enjoy the smell of a darkroom so much holding a well done print makes everything about shooting film worth it to me.

I've given a bunch of people film cameras who showed interest in shooting film - all of them love the slightly underexposed, direct flash look of point and shoots. All just shoot whatever film is the cheapest and doesn't care what the stock is. A few of them wanted film to shoot in manual, but judging from the shots I've seen, I don't think they know what the meter does - as long as they're having fun

Having taken road trips in a 67 Pontiac, I can honestly say that so long as I'm not in the south and it's the middle of summer, I would take that car every time!

Just bought a used Pentax PZ-1P film to go with my Pentax K3 & KS-2 digitals and sharing a few FF lenses between then all (especially Samyang 135mm F2.0).

Slowing down for film has made my digital capture process better and more intentional even though it is different (exposing for the shadows with film and highlights with digital).

Especially fun sharing lenses.

I hear that. Glad you're enjoying it!

I started my career back in the 35mm film days on cameras like the Canon A-1, AE-1 and Minolta Maxxum 7000, and whilst they were enjoyable back then, I would NEVER go back to it.

From my point of view, it's a relic of the 20th century that belongs in the past, and I will never be going back to it.

Ha! A relic indeed. So long as they still work, they deserve to still be used.

To me, shooting film is purely nostalgic, similar to keeping old cars or other stuff. It's nice to see, nice to remember those days, but impractical or expensive (or both) by today's standards. Starting with question where to process the film (Asia is digital), up to scanning (shop delivers jpg or tiff without chance to influence the settings; scanning at home throws other questions up about equipment, software, film holders etc) just to get the images into the computer. Not even touching the topic of learning from settings etc (where does the film store exif..?)
Digital: put the card into the reader, done. If I need something close to film look there are tons of presets, done. To each his/her own, film is gone for me.A nice memory, though.

Film, schmilm. As the author himself states, everybody is doing that. Clearly now is the time to start shooting wet plates. Every claimed advantage of film — it slows you down, it makes you think harder, it forces you to embrace accidents — is even more true with wet plates. Plus, there's the bracing challenge of carrying a dark tent and chemicals, and the mental discipline of planning ahead to sensitize the plate and then expose it while it's still wet.

Clearly, everything that film enthusiasts love about film is even better with wet plates. Ah, the glorious inconvenience! In fact, wet-plate photography is so inconvenient that nobody will be terribly surprised if you never successfully produce any photographs at all, giving you all the one-upmanship benefits with none of the work.

Then again, maybe now is the time to give up the whole practice of propping up your photographic self-esteem by embracing artificial technical difficulties so you can pretend that makes you special. But oops... then you wouldn't have anything to stand on except the quality of your thought and your determination to realize your vision. Sounds hard, doesn't it? Much easier to buy a film camera and start writing blog posts...

Thanks for your article. I am a fan of both digital and film and i have a small collection of 11 film cameras,

I've just spent £600 on a new lens for my Canon EOS 70D and £50 to buy a Pentax MX with 2 zoom lenses, shooting with both currently but not at the same time. For me, both are very enjoyable to use although the MX is on its first round of film in my hands so I've yet to find out its working condition.

I process and print my negs digitally most times and find it just as fun as doing it all in a darkroom with the film club i belong to.
So for me, it is 6 of one and half a dozen of the in enjoyment. Printing, mounting and framing all done by me at home - frames being pre-made.

My first exhibition with an Art group was fairly successful but due to covid (Grrrrr😒) following ones have been postponed till further notice.

If you are interested this link will take you to my collection taken mostly in Brighton and London.

That's true. That's honestly now come to pass, well nearly for me.
One year on almost to the date, there I was, a few weeks back looking at and tempted to buy the Canon R6 but had to add to the price, the lens adaptor at a hefty price for what it actually is.
So I wisely saved myself getting into a 2,500 debt and made up my mind just to put a lot more effort into improving my photography with what I have. 😊

No it's not about time I started shooting film. Been there, done that when that's all there was decades ago. No desire to waste money doing it again. Pretentious title designed for clicks. Not cool.

Hipster trend in my opinion. I think "some" young photographers that have started out with digital and only know digital think that shooting film gives them some sort of coolness clout. Nothing wrong with learning film photography and keeping it alive. I think that's a good thing but it doesn't need to be a chip on one's should or medal on their chest. We older folks that started out with film when there was nothing else, will never see film the same exact way that a young person that started out with digital. Especially in the last ten to fifteen years. By the mid 2000s image quality of DSLRs was looking better and getting cheaper every year. Plus adding more features and then video. So if you got into photography, say 2010, then you got into it when it was pretty mature compared to the late 90s and very early 2000s. By 2010 digital pretty had much replaced film for the most part. Not everywhere or in every situation of course, but for the mainstream, yes.

I do agree with you that film makes you take the time to think about your composition and settings with a limited number of shots as opposed to almost limitless shots and all the other gratifying attributes of digital photography. If one has the money and desire to shoot film they should. I have no problem with that. If it's a person that has only shot digital I think they would learn a lot from shooting film. But to shoot film just to be hip or a snob is for the wrong reasons. And no matter how passionate you are about film James, Your title put me off and from what I can tell some others too. Not the way to encourage people. On the other hand, you didn't call it Analog Photography and I applaud you for that. And if you don't have a set of color filters for your black and white work get some. ;-)

BTW, I started with film in the mid 80s with a Chinon CP7m and a Sigma 28-84 lens. I still have
it along with a Nikon FE2 with auto winder and lenses. So if I ever get the urge I'm ready. ;-)

Or you simply admit that photographing with old cameras is just like vintage cars, steam trains or sailboats. In principle the modern equivalent would do the job better, but it just got so much more charm :)

I just started shooting film about a month ago, and even in the year I waited to bite the bullet, prices for cameras I wanted are too high for me to justify.

And I will say, shooting film sucks. So many obstacles in the world today. Film is expensive and has to be either cheap crap from wal-mart, or the good stuff with inflated prices because it's imported from the US. Cameras are unreliable and old and expensive if you want anything decent. The entire economy of film photography is based on hype. You just sit around hoping to God that the camera you want to buy doesn't get brought up in a YouTube video, or else the price will spike. Developing is expensive and high-resolution TIFF scans are stupidly over-priced.

But ultimately, film so so incredibly fun that I really don't care about the negatives. It's a really fulfilling experience, and I love it.

"But ultimately, film so so incredibly fun that I really don't care about the negatives. It's a really fulfilling experience, and I love it."

The right reason to shoot film if you are so minded. Very well put.

How do you backup your negatives? Just in case your house catches fire..

I forgot who it was but a very famous PJ from the 1940-80s thought about that and wanted his lifetime archive to be stored in a very safe place. Living in NYC he chose a safe deposit box in a bank, a bank at the World Trade Center....

Yep, love it...

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