Is Shooting Film a Waste of Money?

I think film is overrated. Let me try to prove it to you. 

Now, before you call me an ignorant millennial, I do want to mention that I started shooting film in high school, continued shooting film in college, and I shot and edited my own film in my grandfather's custom darkroom. I've personally never owned a medium format film camera, but I've assisted multiple photographers who shot with both medium and large format film cameras. I've compared film side by side with digital. 

There's no doubt film has a certain "look," but most photographers continue to spread rumors about film cameras having better resolution and dynamic range. This was true when DSLRs shot 6 MP, but now, digital is better in almost every way. Even if film was higher resolution, most lenses made for film cameras are not nearly as sharp as today's lenses. Don't believe me? A few years ago, I had a meeting with one of the executives of Hasselblad. He explained that all of their lenses has to be completely redesigned to handle the increased resolution. He also pointed out that no matter how sharp a lens is, a roll of film will never lay as flat as a digital sensor, meaning that each shot will be slightly different on film. 

The other strange argument that film shooters use is that they prefer shooting film because they don't have to edit their photos. This means one of two things: they are saying that the "look" of film is all of the editing their photos need, or they are saying that the lab is doing all of the post-processing for them. These arguments are silly to me, because you could easily do a batch effect on all of your digital images to make them have a "look," or you could hire someone to retouch your digital images. 

I do still think there are reasons to shoot film. Lauren Jonas, who is in the above video, has used film to stand out in a saturated wedding photography market. High-end clients are willing to pay a premium for portions of their wedding to be shot on film. In a world where literally everyone owns a digital camera, you might have to do something "different" to stand out. 

Perhaps the best reason to shoot film is simply because you like it. Most luxury items are technically "worse" than their more popular competitors. My buddy's luxury watch can't keep time as accurately as my phone, and he spent over $10k on it. Patrick Hall spent thousands of dollars on vinyl records that literally sound worse than digital files (don't me started on this).

But we're human; sometimes, we like to feel special, and we're willing to pay a premium for it. I'm sure I spend money on tons of things that would be ridiculous to you. I'm not mad at people who shoot film, but let's not pretend that it's better than current digital cameras.

I've been wanting to make a video for years where I try to make digital files look like film and I was always going to use Alien Skin's Exposure software. It's a coincidence that Alien Skin recently started sponsoring our videos and was also willing to sponsor this one. The software is 100% free to try, but you can use the code fstoppers at checkout to save 10% if you decide to buy. 

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Scott Basile's picture

For a lot of us it's also about the process. We can debate image quality all day long, but making shit by hand is just fun.

Patrick Hall's picture

This is the one argument I can agree with!

I think there is some differences in film and digital between high or low exposure photography. If you haven't seen the video Bill Lawson uploaded to YouTube about 21 steps of exposure, you should look into it. Yes, if you want to hit the everyday, standard exposure photograph, there is not much of a difference. But if you shoot 10 stops above standardized exposure, digital givens you a completely white photo and film give you a high exposure but not fully blown out. And in low exposure photography, digital does pick up a good quality for low light situations and film gives a very dark different look. Again, this is the 5% of photography that most people may never expose themselves to.

Patrick Hall's picture

Do you have the link? I always heard early in the digital era that film could capture about 12 stops of light and maybe the D70 could do 10. Now most of the cameras can do much more than 14 with the D850 doing about 15. There really is no comparison now.

David Senoff's picture

Below is the link. The bottom line is over exposed film is ALWAYS better than over exposed digital and under exposed digital is ALWAYS better than under exposed film (period).:

"As you can see, a way-too-overexposed digital photo becomes pure white and unusable while its film counterpart is still surprisingly acceptable. On the other hand, a way-too-underexposed film becomes a cloudy black mess while its digital counterpart still provides some semblance of a photo.

“I think that digital has a usable dynamic range of minus 6 or 7 to plus 2,” Lawson says. “I thought that at minus 8 stops, the grain made the digital image unusable. Of course, this is subjective and your opinion may vary. And different digital cameras may yield different results."

One of the reasons that I'm seeing a lot of professional photographers shooting film is control, in the digital world you have made the image making process a little too democratic. There is a peanut gallery watching the monitor and telling you what to do in real time, when shooting film you are in control and lack of being able to see the image to review leads to being more creative and spending more time on the shot to make sure you have it a couple times not when the AD or CD says you have it and lets move on.

Lee Stirling's picture

I am not a professional, just a photography enthusiast, hobbyist, and opportunist. I started shooting digital and would shoot just about anything from family vacations, travel, kids' sports, portraits, and landscape. Over the last couple years though, I have moved to shooting mostly film. I love the aesthetic choices available to shooters by simply using a different film. I love the process of shooting and developing and scanning my own film. It feels real, tangible, and it makes me proud to do it. What I like most about shooting film is the sheer variety of options available when it comes to film formats, film cameras, lenses, developers, and the process. There is a very low bar for entry into film shooting. You can spend $5 on a thrift store point and shoot camera, then be off and running. There are decades and decades worth of used film cameras and lenses to choose from, most available for extremely cheap prices. You can build a Nikon kit, a Canon kit, a Minolta kit, an Olympus kit, a Pentax kit, a Bronica kit, a Mamiya kit, or multiple kits for much less than the price of a new entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera. It's easy to own lots of film gear that allows you to tailor your shooting experience based on the camera/lenses you choose to shoot on a particular day. As others have said, there's very little up-front cost to shooting film, but more back-end cost when you consider the costs of purchasing more film, developing costs, home lab investment, or professional scanning. For me, it's just different timing for when my money is spent. I don't necessarily think film images are better than digital images. I just like the process, the choices, and the low up-front cost of shooting film. To me, that's where the fun comes from. Remember, I'm a hobbyist so it should be fun!

Terry Waggoner's picture

If you want a photographer who knows what they doing..........find one that shoots film. If you hire one that shoots digital they'll need a computer to fix their mistakes..................

Respectfully submitted........

Patrick Hall's picture

Haha or just shoot jpeg and dump it to your client’s hard drive (I still offer this option which saves me 100% of the editing time). With two memory cards, digital is much more reliable. With film the film could be bad, it could be miss handled, mis loaded, lost in the mail, ruined at the lab, potentially ruined by X-ray. Augh...the nightmares

Terry Waggoner's picture reliable? I've had Camera's fail. Memory cards fail. External hard drives fail. Computers fail............not to mention the software failure. The use of film and digital came be justified and condemned. It depends on your predilections.

btw.......I shoot and enjoy both. I just took exception to Lee's championing one over the other.

Respectfully submitted

Patrick Hall's picture

Yeah but with digital you literally can have a backup throughout the entire process. If you shoot weddings you have two cameras (should on any job), you can have two cards in each camera, multiple hard drives, multiple on site and off site storage. With film, you literally have just the film. Sure you have your images scattered over 20-100 rolls of film but at any one time those have to be mailed to be processed.

I see what you are trying to say but there is no way film is equal or less risk than digital. Over time the organic film will degrade too.

Terry Waggoner's picture

I, for one, would not agree to shoot a wedding and wont disparage those that do ........and there are other jobs where digital is best........sporting events, paparazzi, press coverages when the spray and pray attitude rules the day. If one chooses digital over film. Fine. I just don't believe one is more superior that the other. Just to be original post was about the photographer....not the equipment.

Degradation occurs in the digital world as well.............hell, for that matter.........time has degraded me as well.


Where does the idea that photoshop is only for fixing mistakes come from? I can do a bazillion things better in PS than ever was possible (for me, YMMV) in a darkroom.

There are plenty of photographers who both know and don't know what they are doing shooting film. And digital. It's a big tent.

Terry Waggoner's picture


"plenty of photographers who both know and don't know what they are doing shooting film. And digital." How very true but the so called pro photographer who shoots digital, and is bad at it, seem to last longer. You make a mistake shooting film........your done.

btw.........I shoot and enjoy both.


You Mileage May Vary - What is true for me may not be true for you.

Jim Hofman's picture

I like the analogy: If you want a loaf of bread you can buy it at a bakery - so why do people make their own bread? It's about craft and accomplishment at the end of the day. I shoot both digital and film and there is definitely a time and place for both. Sometimes I slow down and enjoy making my own bread.

Rob Davis's picture

I wonder how much money digital shooters waste trying out new combinations of bodies and lenses trying to capture that magical look they see in photography books that were shot with film.

It is fair to point out that there’s often no need to ever replace a film camera. Almost all of them can be serviced to full working condition. Every roll of film is a brand new “sensor.” You will have to do a CLA every once in a while in its lifespan, but that’s usually $100-$200.

I shoot both. Both have their pros and cons. Digital is definitely sharper and cleaner, especially beyond ISO 100 on 35mm film or ISO 400 in medium format. If you’re a cropper in post, don’t shoot film.

The one thing Lee doesn’t really factor in here is time. Film costs more money, but it costs less time. You send it to the lab, get your scans and you’re done. Send them off.

With digital, most of the work happens in post. There’s definitely an economic case for shooting film in certain situations. I wouldn’t shoot sports or young kids with film. A head shot though? Absolutely! Getting a cheap Mamiya RB67 and good roll of black and white for a headshot is totally affordable. Maybe you’ll shoot two rolls. You’re looking at $20-30 developed and scanned. Depending on what your billing yourself out at, that’s saving you a couple of hours fiddling in post to get that “professional” look.

John Ellingson's picture

Reproducing the look all happens in the photographers head. It has little if anything to do with equipment or the chemicals or the software. A talented can produce that "look" with either film or digital if they truly understand what it takes to make it. I find I have far more latitude with digital images than I did with film. I still have many of my prints from film days. I could reproduce the look of any of them with digital imaging. One of the things I have learned is that if you truly want high quality prints from a digital file you need a professional printer to do it. I have found a bare half dozen of printers in the US that can deliver the true archival gallery quality large prints I sell.

Patrick Hall's picture

It’s funny, when I look at most of my photography books from 2005 and earlier, I usually think how bad the images look. They are all blurry and not sharp. The reason they are classic is because of the photographer and the subject matter but for me personally the raw quality leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s like listening to early Elvis and Beatles records; they are classics but man is the music production and recording practices so rough. I’d love to hear some of those Stones albums played exactly as they are but recorded with modern equipment. Imagine hearing Charlie Watts with a properly miced kick drum!

Rob Davis's picture

It’s always interesting to me what moves people and what doesn’t. My first thought was that there are a lot of photography books with horrible print quality. I have two Weegee books and thought his pictures were horrendously lo-fi(still interesting) until I got the better book.

If you enlarge a 4x5 negative to 8x10 it’s so crisp it looks like one of those Harry Potter living pictures.

You definitely can’t do a lot of the techniques we see in the Fstoppers featured images. You can’t focus stack landscapes. You can’t easily do a sky replacement. Hard to do a completely blemish-free, flyaway-free beauty image (though and good makeup artist can get you close).

Still, I think there’s something magical that happens when constraints are applied (see: George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg).

"Depending on what your billing yourself out at, that’s saving you a couple of hours fiddling in post to get that “professional” look."

Aren't you fiddling with the scanned film images once you get them back from the lab? If the negs are perfect SOOC so then should the digital images also be perfect? Once you leave the optical path then the scanned and the digital images are going to need some fiddling. If you use an enlarger there will even more fiddling!
To get a truly high quality scan of a 6x7 piece of film can be $20+ each depending on resolution.

Digital is superior to analog in so many aspects that this shouldn't even be discussed but shooting film is different. You ride a race car and chopper to get different experiences and so you shoot digital and analog to broaden your horizons but also expose yourself to different approaches to some problems. Ultimately, that's the way to, nomen omen, develop yoursef.

I've been a professional photographer since the 1990's much of that time with film from 35mm - 8x10. Film is fun and stuff but there is no way I'd use it for a professional gig, to expensive, to slow, to finicky. Also if you are shooting film and then scanning and doing digital work to it, you do not get what shooting film is. Film is a two part experience the first in the light the second in the dark, if you are scanning film and doing digital work you might as well just shoot digital.

Rob Davis's picture

I think about half of the people who shot a lot of film when that was the only option who are thrilled to go with digital. The other half are still die hard film enthusiasts. I live in a photography town though and there’s a great network of business and photographers that make it as painless as it can be.

I think you are right but the ratio is 10% die hards and 90% digital. A lot of the labs closed and the others are not running E6 with a 2 hour turnaround anymore. Clients want to leave the shoot knowing they have the shots they need.

yep gone are the days of multi labs running 24/7 with a 2 hour turn around for e-6.

Ha! I thought you were serious, then I read the part about digital music files sounding better than vinyl. Now I realize that your calendar just needs resetting. This is May 31, not April 1 (April Fools Day).

Patrick Hall's picture

Read my comment above about vinyl. I’m convinced it doesn’t sound better or worse than digital. Many times the digital files sound better esp if remastered from the original tapes.

Ryan Davis's picture

I myself like to get my old Pentacon 6 out every six months or so because it forces me to consider every shot- I’ve only got a dozen per roll, and each shutter click costs about $2. Film is far less forgiving than a RAW file, and the P6 has no electronics whatsoever. There’s nothing to tell you how to balance aperture, exposure, and ISO- you have to do all the calculations yourself.

I find that this forces me to think and see with rigor, whereas digital lends itself to some self-destructive habits. It’s much easier to make flawed shots “good” with digital, but great shots require the kind of thought that film encourages more than digital.

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