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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michael andrew's picture

I am a photographer and a surfer with a dog so I have a devotion with the outdoors, as a result I am obsessed with vans. I own 2, a 1985 westfalia and a 2016 camper built out large Ford Transit. In every possible efficiency category from fuel to comfort to safety the New ford Destroys the old rusty VW van. However, during trips with the VW and when we get to a campsite or a beach everyone always loves the VW much more noticeabley. I personally FEEL happier in the VW.

I guess what I am trying to say is that you can always use technology to make things “better” and more “efficient” but it doesn’t necessarily make the “way you feel” doing the thing or using the thing more successful or more right.

Best film I enjoy shooting with is Polaroid

I enjoy photography. It is not a vocation for me; computer programming is. Photography for me is a creative release. I got my first SLR camera in 1980, so I started when there was only film. I enjoy photography and it doesn't matter if I'm shooting film or digital. July 2013, I added a used Canon New F-1 with the AE Finder FN and AE Motor Drive FN for $400; the value of the F-1 kit has held its value and even increasing in value. With my A-1 and F-1, I've solved the conundrum of shooting color or B&W. In 2012, I photographed the entire year in B&W; I used various B&W contrast filters during the year: yellow, orange, red, and green. It took about three months before I was able to visualize in B&W. December 2013, I bought a new Canon 5D III kit (24-105L) for $2500. I don't know what using a B&W filter on my 5D would do, but I don't convert color to B&W. I will shoot film alongside digital on occasion.

I'm sure that if film and its processing costs Lauren $20,000 per year, that she passes the costs onto her clients. Lauren didn't mention how much post processing she does on her film images, but Lee, it looks like you took some time to get the "film look" from digital. How much time would you spend to nail the "film look" since time is money. Sure, with practice on nailing the film look, that will shorten the post processing time.

It is not hard to reproduce. spend the time to do it once, you got it nailed. Next time, apply the settings, and you are done.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I admire people who want to learn and are intrigued by film. I can see why they get attracted. Personally, after 35 years in photography I have zero intention on going back. Last piece of film exposed was about 17 years ago.

Greg Wilson's picture

Yes, it is. If you want film look then there are specialist companies who have digitised it all. RNI is the best known but also there are a few others.

The truth is that even really experienced film photographers fail the blind tests and can't tell the real film from the quality simulation.

If your working professionally you need to keep up with the latest styles in most cases. As a TV cinematographer going digital is not only a requirement but keeps you current with looks you could never get with film. Film still has its place but more and more for love and art, very limiting media. BTW very little content in this article, but great add
for Alien Skin

The difference in quality is marginal, film is a lot more work and the results less immediate.
But film can be fun and the deliberation can help the aesthetic.
It's horses for courses and personal taste.
Cheers, Nick

John Tyson's picture

meh. people and opinions are two things I never cared for.

vik .'s picture

Well if you look to a backlit 6x7 color transparency and don't feel nothing special then is a waste of money and time :)

Alfred Anheier's picture

It's really simple: as a pro, you don't have a choice but shooting digital, unless you're being paid an extreme premium to do otherwise. I've learned on film in the 70s and 80s, shot medium and large format, and like the craftmanship. Digital is the only way to go to make money in todays economy. However, I'm circling all the way around to my roots, and I'm enjoying the hobby the way it made sense to me back then. Crafting one print at a time. Sweating the details of developing and exposure. ON MY TIME. Because it's a hobby again, thirty-plus years later. So, it's really a non-issue.

Sean Gibson's picture

The fact that you're even discussing image quality, means you are missing the point of shooting analog.
You either appreciate the mechanics and design that go into a tool your using or you don't.

When I'm shooing for money I use digital because it's always going to get the job done. When I leave the house for any other reason, I always reach for one of my film cameras.

Everyone gives their reasons for liking to shoot film, so here are some of mine:
1. The cameras are all so different compared to digital. Each one is a unique experience to shoot with.
2. Using different films (and sometimes expired film on purpose) is fun, not knowing exactly what you are going to get in terms of colors etc.
3. I like spending less time on the computer editing images.
4. I usually wait until I have a lot of film before developing, which means I often forget what I shot 2 months ago and love picking up my film to find out.
5. I'm finding that if you're into street photography, people are often much more open to letting you take their photo if you start out the conversation with: "I'm just trying out some new film..."
6. It's a freaking challenge. It has given me a huge appreciation for some photographers of the past knowing how much harder it is to shoot street, action or photojournalism photography on film.

If you haven't tried film yet, ask yourself this question: Would you rather do a lap around the Nurburgring in a 2019 Lamborghini Aventador or a 1965 Shelby Cobra.

Cobra - go pick up a film camera tomorrow.
Lamborghini - don't bother

What is underrated is darkroom work. Actually getting out of the computer chair and moving around, mixing chemicals and creating something on paper for once that is not created from a computer. And having it be made from silver dyes and not inkjet drops or pixels. Also still using the same camera from 1988 for film while I've been through about 20 digitals since (that aint cheap and neither is all of the ink cartridges which drone out the same exact print time after time...kinda boring imo)....

Lauren Jonas's picture

I never sought out shooting on film because I was concerned about it being the sharpest, least grainy option. It came down to style preference. I was able to get a close match on a digital camera but it got to a point where I was spending hours behind a computer trying to make it look like film. Just like you can't imitate Coca-cola, you can't replicate film at a 100% match... so in 2013, I picked up a Contax 645 medium format camera.

It was something that made me feel... as Beyonce would say "drunk in love". I felt high the first time I got my images back from my lab. There is nothing like nailing a moment during a fast paced environment. It is one of the most gratifying part of shooting with film, especially at weddings. To this day, I still get that giddy feeling.

This argument of Film vs Digital is like trying to compare Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. They have a common goal but their styles are totally different. Lee and Pat have a commercial, studio lit look and I am over in the light, airy and romantic category of styles. BOTH are beautiful in their own way. With all of this said, I will forever be grateful to Lee and Pat for taking me under your wing and teaching me all the ways!! <3

If you want everything done for you and you just want to push a button than digital is the way to go. My wife loves her Nikon DSLR.
But if you want to really take pride in your photos you should use film. And if you want to have beautiful enlargements go to medium format or large format. With film you choose your film speed, shutter speed, exposure, and what specifically you want to focus on. Also forget scanning your negatives and using a computer. Use a darkroom like my idol Ansel Adams. I have 16x20 prints of Yosemite done in the darkroom myself. My wife’s Nikon could not even come close to the sharpness of my prints.
Photography is a hobby and a passion. Why would you want to cut you passion short
I use multiple medium format cameras but main guy is a Mamiya RB67 Pro S.
It’s all about fun and taking your time and enjoying your hobby.
Maybe I’m just too old to change myself I would never go to digital. How much skill do you really need to push a button and everything is done for you. Might as well use your phone.
And as far as your digital CD compared to vinyl I have CD’s and records of the same music. The CD’s can’t touch the quality of the vinyl and I played them for multiple persons and they all hear the difference