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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Previous comments

It feels like you’re slightly out of touch with some of the more in-depth feelings a lot of people have toward shooting film.
I shared my thoughts on the film vs digital argument here - I’d be quite interested in your thoughts!

Benton Lam's picture

You're looking at it strictly as a photographer who's photography is their day job, which those arguments probably make a lot of sense.

My day job is in front of a computer 8 hours a day. Being in front of LR isn't something I particularly enjoy.

I see that you incorporate batch apply an effect to counter the argument that you're spending a ton of time on getting the look. The retort to that is even with batch apply, you're still going to tinker with every single one of them.

Aside from what a lot of others have pointed out, that people enjoy the process of film, it's also that you need to do the majority of the decision up front. You have to decide what your exposure is going to be, because there's limited dodging and burning in the darkroom. You can't just pull the exposure slider any which way.

For you, better means technically sharper, more options in post.

For me, who shoots both, I enjoy my film shots often more, both during the shoot and the final product. I have shots that are more than sharp enough, out of a Canonet QL17 with the renewed Ektachrome. Or I could get an unexpectly vintage look out of the FPP retrochrome, from my normally just as sharp OM lenses.

My digital shots are also sharp, but they're clinically sharp. Sterile, at times.

And shooting film isn't necessarily luxury - B&W isn't expensive at all, easy to process, and it was a lot of fun.

The closest fun experience I've had is actually the XF10 / X-E3.

There are shots that I would not immediately attempt on film, such as the attached shot. It was a continuous drive, underground lighting, and a lot of luck. But the concept to execution to final product is front heavy. I didn't spend eons on tinkering in LR, or drastic composite in photoshop.

I could, with a light meter, give this a stab with a roll of something at ISO 800, a F3, and a motor drive.

I created an account hear after reading this garbage.

First of all, a 6mp camera looks like garbage next to a 35mm frame. Also if you try creating the largest possible print while retaining details... 35mm wins. Say what you want, but scanners matter, ie. An Epson v600 is no drum scanner.

Now let's talk about resolution. Resolution of a digital scan depends highly on the scanner. Lenses would not be adapted to mirrorless if they were crap.

In terms of "not needing to edit" say what you want, but the fact is a straight scan with autosettings, usually comes out not bad. However, when you actually print in the darkroom, editing is a natural part of the process. Also, not editing means you didn't remove dust, fiber, etc in post. You're missing that.

I shoot a lot of expired film and print on expired paper. It is highly inexpensive! The luxury is not sitting at my computer all day, not the cost of film/paper.

You've proven nothing. Better luck next time.

Patrick Hall's picture

What 35 mm film stock will look better than a D850 file printed at 6’x4’? The dynamic range of film is 12 stops compared to the dynamic range of near 15 on the D850.

Brian Stricker's picture

So what you are saying is that the digital capture of the film is what makes the image? So, if you are capturing the captured image digitally why not just start digitally to begin with? Unless you are comparing film prints to digital then you are just comparing 2 digital images.

And the luxury might be not sitting in front of the computer but if you are actually developing and printing your own work you are standing in a darkroom and in front of an enlarger. If you are not developing your own film and then printing you could do the same with digital...either shoot jpeg or send your files out for processing.

Greg Desiatov's picture

Who shoots on a 6Mp camera these days? My phone has a higher resolution than that!

The average has gotta be at least 20Mp now and that looks great at A3

Martin Melnick's picture

They both have positives and negatives (pun intended). I always bring a 35mm with me in my digital camera bag. For me, I've found a return to film slows down my approach and helps me to enjoy the moment I'm capturing far more than digital ever does. I wouldn't shoot with film for a multi-thousand frame commercial shoot because it isn't practical. But, when I'm feeling a need for a simpler machine and deeper connection to my subject matter (or a more organic look), I opt for film. I think they both serve a purpose in the capturing of art and our work - they shouldn't be at odds with each other.

Lee Morris is obviously suffering from insecurity and feelings of inadequacy so much so that he has to put down anyone who does things differently from him. I shoot film and digital and I enjoy both for different reasons. I really wish idiots like this would not be given the space to spew their trash and just let people do what they enjoy! I’m certain his next article with be that mirrorless technology is a fad and that anyone who is not packing a 10lb full frame Nikon is a fool.

Yeah, well I will have a chat with Lee about who he allows to write articles for his website.

Must be a slow news day. Is other people shooting film hurting what you're doing? I'm stoked on the resurgence of film. I hope people don't buy into this article too much or one day there won't be film for anyone to shoot. (look at where Fuji FP100C is headed.) Live and let live.

I do not understand many of these comments.

«One can do things with X that one cannot do with Y»
Almost entirely untrue. The one or two exceptions are simply because I haven´t tried hard enough.

«Film has a certain “look” which digital cannot achieve.»
Untrue. …And I do not need a filter or preset to achieve it, either. Once one understands the response curve of ones favorite emulsion, (and your silicon of choice) it can easily be mimicked in DarkTable, or RawTherapee, (or Lightroom, if that´s what floats your boat), with silicon, (assuming one understands ones raw developer of choice).

«X is always cheaper than Y.»
Nope. I am a systems analyst. I did an analysis. It varies. Emulsion can be cheaper, and silicon can be cheaper.

«Emulsion forces you to slow down.»
True. Absolutely true. …But silicon allows one to go fast, (and one can always take ones time with silicon, if one likes).

«X saves time, but Y is time consuming.»
Depends on how one processes X or Y. It can go either way.

Personally, I will continue to shoot professionally with silicon, because when working for clients, I like to sit down and relax. …But I LOOOOOOVE going to the darkroom with chemistry. [INSERT OLD JOKE HERE]“I know we have chemistry. Let´s go into the darkroom and see what develops.”[/INSERT] So for fun I would grab a film camera and experiment. I remember when I did my first B&W slides. Loved it. [I need a projector].

It is just the feeling of achievement from building something with ones own hands. I could buy a shed from Ted´s Sheds, and have them install it, or I can buy some concrete, lumber, siding, fasteners, roofing material and hardware from Home Depot, and build my own. (Don´t forget the home owner´s permit). Yep. That was fun. Custom designed. Ted has nothing on me!

Who gives a shit. I was shooting film probably before you were on planet earth. I'm full-fledged digital but my film camera collection is growing.

Jarrett Hunt's picture

Gets popcorn

If film's not for you, it's not for you. So what? Why would I care that your prefer digital? People who shoot film don't sit on the fence debating it while looking at their bank balance. They do it because they like it, and they likely shoot digital as well, so you're not exactly "enlightening" ignorant film shooters about the magical world of digital. If you don't like film, don't shoot it. No need to alert the media about your preferences.

"High-end clients are willing to pay a premium for portions of their wedding to be shot on film. "
That's one reason. Convince the client that it is a special luxury item and they will pay more for it.
Others do it for the process (pun intended) sort of like a Japanese tea ceremony, there are easier ways to make tea but that's not really the goal.

Eddy Waddel's picture

Film will out look any digital editing .. the only difference is digital is business oriented in terms of fast delivery.. You can grab a great film camer .. EG: F3 Nikon and a lens for about 300$ £350. Ain’t giving it up

Patrick Hall's picture

Haha my vinyl records don’t sound worse than digital copies unless of course they are scratched or have dust on them. I agree that most of the time if you A/B them the difference is negligible but I like the art, the physical copy, the idea of listening to 25 mins at a time, and of course the physical display of having a record collection. Plus if I ever have kids, it’s kind of cool to pass down your favorite music to them.

That being said, film def doesn’t hold up to digital in my opinion. I see why people enjoy using film as a hobby but the idea that it’s “easier” than digital is ridiculous. It also drives me crazy when people say “learn to master film before moving to digital” or “I like that digital forces me to slow down because I only have 24 frames!” Buy a 128 MB card fool!

Deleted Account's picture

Shooting film today (most of the time with a Leica…) is pure snobbism…

chris bryant's picture

I think digital (plus photoshop) is fauxtography.

Deleted Account's picture

And you think we weren't retouching the photos before Photoshop?
When I graduated in photography, in 1977, I also took the photo retouching exam.
Photoshop arrived only 11 years later
Using the film today is a bit like sending your mail with pigeons... yes, it can be fun...

chris bryant's picture

Yes, you try dropping in that new sky in the darkroom on a colour print.

Deleted Account's picture

Have you an idea of what it was possible to do before the advent of Photoshop?

chris bryant's picture

Yes, gone through all this so many times its boring. Now try dropping in a new sky on a colour print in the darkroom.

I have done it. Granted, with Cibachrome, and it was not the sky, but other background, but the technique is not any different.

Most of the terminology used in Ps comes straight from darkroom techniques.

chris bryant's picture

True, but much, much, much easier and quicker in PS. Or maybe because my printing stills were not very good. I did make some good RA4 and BW prints straight from the film, prolly because I aimed to get everything right in-camera.

Brian Stricker's picture

Since most "film" shooters are viewing their work digitally they are still shooting digital. They just add another step in the process and instead of using a camera to capture the image they rely on the quality of the scanner for the result.

Makes me wonder if a better comparison would be taking a film negative and a digital file printed as a negative and scanning them. Wonder that digitally captured "film look" would be the same on both.

Lee, completely agree with everything you’ve written! I’d expand on processing of the film to say that nearly all labs scan the film in the printing process, and unless custom printed, their machines will make an evaluative decisions of that scan. Only a few offer DNG or TIFF files from the scans. But at least they do it on calibrated monitors🤣🤭.

Blake Aghili's picture

"DEPENDS" ... many use cases digital is better ... and there are use cases that film is better. I do both.
My PhaseOne is the only thing that can get close to equal to my Large Format Sinar, film 4x5 , drum scanned. However my Nikon D850 cannot. And then my Hassey 120 film just the 3-D pop of people on film looks better than Nikon D-850! It does ... but yeah there are scenarios like a wedding that I cannot risk/afford to shoot film, so I shoot it digital .

I do photography for art and for fun ,, I shoot digi and was bored with the perfect computerised images , now I shoot film , use a light meter and develop my own stuff, not bored , challenged and engaged , kit aside for a something to do as a past time , art and fun... shooting film is awesome from researching and picking your film stock , to learning the zone system and development processes makes it a much better and fun experience than the immediate perfect experience digi offers .. the slowness of shooting film , using old kit , finding bargain bodies , lens and accessories and developing negatives and prints is a full more complete and more satisfying experience .. film is art an form .. digi is an industrial process .. digi is for pros ,, film offers a better experience for the rest of us .. the images you can get are good enough . Whether it be 35, medium or large format ... slow down, learn and enjoy , shooting film is like owning and driving an old vintage car or motorbike ..

She says that she "spent" $20k on film, but she also used it and marked up the prints so hopefully the $20k brought in more than $60k in prints. Even back in the film days the mark up was 50-100%.
Today if you are selling shooting on film as a magical, artisanal, one of a kind, luxury item to high rollers, name your price.

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