Why You Should Consider Giving Film a Chance

Why You Should Consider Giving Film a Chance

I still try to learn, as much as I can, as often as I can, especially in the world of photography. No matter how much more experience I manage to gain or how many people I get lucky enough to work with, I think I will always still feel like a beginner who is just learning the craft. I was fortunate enough to begin my adventures into photography with a great darkroom class. My experience behind the camera quite literally started with black and white film and using enlargers to bring my images to life.

Now that I am more experienced, with a slightly bigger budget for equipment, it is all too easy to jump straight to my digital formats and go nuts with shutter. Digital is easier, it's quicker, and there is a much larger room for error. The fact that you can literally look at the image you just took is one thing that completely changes the game. You don't have to double check your settings as much, you don't have to make the same intense calculations, and you don't have to be so selective with what and how you meter your subjects. It's simply the nature of the medium. Digital photography has changed the way that most people navigate photography. That's hardly a bad thing. Quite honestly, it's amazing to see how the advances in digital capabilities have expanded people's capacity for creativity.

Shot on a Canon AE-1, using Fujichrome Velvia 50.

The image above is one such shot where I forgot to double-check my settings before clicking that shutter. I don't really have a good excuse. My camera was mounted on a tripod, I had a cable release connected, and I had a light meter with me. I had adjusted my shutter speed to create a different effect with my image, but I had completely forgot to adjust my aperture and then to check my metering. With a roll of 36 exposures, the idea is to make every shot count, you are paying for every single shot. Every mistake literally costs money, and I ended up paying for this one. That my friends, is the whole point, it's a good reminder to me that I need to take each frame seriously and that my settings really do matter.

But, of course, there are always the shots that really come through on each roll of film. Those are the shots that I am truly proud of. I worked hard, for every single shot and the hard work payed off. For me, it is always a lesson in discipline. I don't have the time or money to shoot everything that I see. I have to pick and choose my subjects and I have to take the time to make sure that my composition is really something that I want to capture.

Shot on a Canon AE-1, using Fujichrome Velvia 50.

Shot on a Canon AE-1, using Fujichrome Velvia 50.

I am fairly surprised at how often people will come up to me and ask for advice on getting started with a career in photography. Again, I still feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of my own career as a photographer. To anyone who asks for such advice, I always tell them the exact same thing: I advise everyone to go grab a film camera and several rolls of film, do some reading about their camera and about shooting film, and then just go shoot film. I still shoot film as much as I can. I have found that taking the time to go and shoot film quite literally helps me be a better photographer whenever I get behind the digital camera again.

Shooting film forces you to think about your shots, to calculate your shots, and to pay the price when you fail to take in all considerations for the shots. That is precisely the reason that I encourage people, specifically those just starting their journey as a photographer, to give film a chance. It will help you gain a better understanding behind the mechanics of photography. It will also give you a deeper appreciation for the things that your digital camera is capable of.

Shot on a Canon AE-1, using Kodak T-Max 100.

Shot on a Canon AE-1, using Kodak T-Max 100.

Besides, all of that aside, film is just fun to work with! If feels real when you load it into the camera, when you wind that crank and finally press that shutter and feel the entire camera body vibrate when it captures your image. I highly recommend trying several types of film. Try shooting in black and white as well as in color. Pay attention to how light is transferred into the analog formats and see how the image transforms from what you saw in person to what your film captured.

You can check out eBay, Craigslist, and other online thrift websites as well as your local thrift stores to find good working film cameras. Personally, I like to buy all of my film from B&H Photo, they carry all the film stocks that I like to use and their shipping is quite fast. If you are brand new to working in film, I would recommend starting out using some faster speed films such as an ISO 200 or 400. Shooting at lower ISOs can be a little trickier until you get a good feel for how it is to shoot film.

Film can be daunting, but it can also be a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding. I like to take my film cameras with me wherever I take my digital cameras. Even if the session itself absolutely necessitates digital images, I like to sneak a few film ones in there just for fun and for the practice. Snagging a couple frames on film will not likely bother any of your clients; in fact, it might just impress them. I could talk about shooting film for days on end, but those are a few of my favorite reasons for keeping that format alive. I would also encourage any and all of you past and current film shooters to comment below with any other advice you have for those starting their adventure in film.

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27 Comments

I enjoy shooting with film for much the same reasons as you describe, but also for more than just the taking of photographs. I like chemistry, I like developing and wet printing and can do all of it myself. Many photographers taking up film may not feel that way. That means using labs, and that works against what many of us have got used to with digital cameras - namely complete control of our image from capture through processing into printing. Nice dry and manageable control too, with mistakes easily undone. Film is far less forgiving, and I fully understand why many photographers want nothing to do with it. But you are willing to embrace the chemistry, you'll find much the same pleasures - as well as something of the unpredictability - as you get cooking a good meal.

I too used a 35mm camera (Honeywell Pentax) & developed B&W film & made prints in our high school darkroom in the early 70's. Gave it up after high school cause I didn't have access to a darkroom & I sucked at taking photos with color slide film. Now I shoot digitally and use B&W film emulation software. I'm a better photographer than ever & I DON'T miss using film!

I think that the discipline that you develop when every shot counts and every thing is "in camera": exposure, composition, focus, etc. Particularly as a traveler, with limited film, and no local supply available. Yes, I shoot digital now, but when I've set up the shot with the discipline from shooting film for fifty years, my use of digital post manipulation is often zero. Unlike acquaintances, who shoot the shit outa everything in sight with a shrug, and say "I'll fix it in post." Of course film presents problems, see my post below. GW

I love film and all the different types of film. Except that it is not as sharp as digital. I have both a Nikon and a Mamiya 645 and although the images look great at lower resolutions, it just does not hold up at larger sizes compared to digital, even when using the same exact lens.

You’re doing something wrong then because my mamiya RB67 is sharp as hell. Scanned on a drum scanner or imacon it definitely rivals a digital sensor.

I love Velvia.......it has its own feel and look. Looking at all the photos hanging on my walls, the overwhelming majority are velvia and that simply says it all.
Thanks for the article, it reminded me of so much.

Justin Berrington's picture

I’m getting my first film camera in a week or two. A bronica sq-a medium format. My mom works for a company that hires people with cerebral paulsey to work at several thrift stores. One of the store managers knew I was into photography so they put aside these two pelican cases full of gear. Two camera bodies, a prism view finder, 3 lenses, several film backs for 120 and 220 rolls, a grip, some rolls of film, a Qflash model x2, a norman 200c and 200b, a norman head with extra bulbs and other miscelanious stuff. All for under $100. I was floored when she sent me the pictures. And just today a friend of mine was cleaning out his new foley/adr studio and found two Beseler 23c II enlargers he wants to gift me. I must say I feel very fortunate and am really excited to get this gear out. I’ve been studying for a couple of weeks now and it does seem very different from what I’m used to with digital. But I have a feeling that it’s going to make me a more mindful photographer.

I used film for 40 years. Processed B&W and color as an amateur and later as a pro.
I don't miss it.
In the early days the magic of the darkroom was a delight. Later, when I owned and operated a commercial lab the equation changed.

Now I want a great image as a result of my efforts. Digital gets me there quickly and at higher quality no matter how awesome you ever thought you were with film.

It doesn't matter what I shoot with. I enjoy photography.
I started out shooting film with a Canon A-1 in 1980. I never had a darkroom, but I enjoy shooting with my A-1 and New F-1 that I bought used in 2013. With two film cameras, I have one loaded with B&W and the other with color. In 2013, I bought a Canon DSLR. I treat my 5D III much like a film camera; I turned off image review and I set the white balance manually.

"Shooting film forces you to think about your shots, to calculate your shots, and to pay the price when you fail to take in all considerations for the shots."

I could have sworn I posted this already but with a little self discipline the same is achieved with digital.

There are some valid reasons for shooting film but that isn't one of them, and yet that is the common reason given. After, all, if one has the self discipline to choose to use a tedious, inconvenient and expensive medium such as film, and they continue to do so, then they should have the self discipline to be more thoughtful and calculating with digital.

Peter Mabli's picture

The author means that you literally pay a price for a failed exposure (he references that earlier in the article), whereas a failed exposure on digital is free. Putting price into account forces him to be more thoughtful with each shot on film. That was his point here, not that you can't replicate the same disciplined exposure process in digital, just that it doesn't cost you anything not to.

I was addressing the "forces you to think about your shots, to calculate your shots" part of of his comment by saying that that can also be * "achieved" * with digital. Failure is the opposite of achievement.

My point is to debunk the biggest reason given to shoot film by film shooters of today.

Peter Mabli's picture

Yes absolutely; thinking about and calculating your exposure can certainly be replicated on digital. There's no inherent reason why a photographer shooting digital would be reckless or a photographer shooting film is more calculative (you could shoot one or two purposeful shots on a D850 in a day, or spray and pray on an F2 with a motor drive). The possibility of failure, and of paying for and learning of the failure way after the moment has passed, focuses some photographers and is one reason why they see value in shooting film.

Another reason some photographers shoot film today is because they want to. It's their preference, and they don't need to justify it or have their reasons "debunked". The whole "x vs. y" thing is a little silly. You can do one, or the other, or both and find some value.

The "learning of the failure" is not uniquely limited to film photography. As for "paying for the failure," the focus should be on achievement, not failure. When the fear of failure oddly becomes a person's motivation for doing something well then their priorities and motivations are screwed up.

"Another reason some photographers shoot film today is because they want to. It's their preference, and they don't need to justify it or have their reasons "debunked.'"

Because "they want to" is not a reason. I wasn't addressing someone for not stating their reasoning for shooting film. What I was addressing, and debunking, was a stated reason for shooting film. That's a normal function of any properly working discussion forum. You support his flawed reasoning and I don't. That's all.

"The whole "x vs. y" thing is a little silly. You can do one, or the other, or both and find some value."

A value based on obviously flawed reasoning has no value.

There is also little objective value in film compared to digital.

Peter Mabli's picture

A person can find value and meaning in a process even if others don't. How myopic and egotistical it is to think that if you don't find purpose in a particular method that someone else can not. Their priorities and motivations are not yours to decide, and certainly not to be judged as being "screwed up".

Some photographers can find value in shooting film and knowing that each frame has a cost to it; it can focus their efforts. That's what the author was saying. It doesn't need to work for everyone to be useful to some.

I haven't been addressing the subjective.

Peter Mabli's picture

The argument is that for some people, using film can focus your efforts because each frame costs money is a valid point. You disagreeing with it is subjective.

If one's motivation for taking photos is to produce the best work possible then one would not need to resort to using an archaic, slow and expensive medium and process. If a person feels the need to do so it is not because it is a valid and logical need. Because someone feels something doesn't make it valid and true.

Peter Mabli's picture

If one's motivation for taking photos is to produce an image that is emotive than the medium is moot. It is valid and logical to express oneself through photography, and one can possibly improve oneself by trying the author's recommended process, which by the way, you originally quoted out of context and did not fully comprehend and still have yet to address or admit to being wrong about. Uh-oh, I've seen this before...

Rex Jones's picture

That was exactly how it was supposed to read. I'm glad that is how it came through to you. Shooting film is an opportunity, those who shoot film can see the opportunity any way they would like. You, quite clearly, gleaned the precise opportunity that I see in shooting film.

Rex Jones's picture

Hahaha, that is perfect!

Peter Mabli's picture

Thanks! Great article and photographs, by the way. Your image of the forest shot on Velvia was particularly striking. The scattered splashes of yellow really draw the eye.

I agree. Making a great photo is a thoughtful process (most of the time).
RAW files give us a certain latitude but proper exposure and lighting make a huge difference.

The early days of digital with only TIF or JPG files forced people to confront their faulty technique. It also astonished many who shot negative film who presumed that they or their camera was wickedly accurate in calculating exposure when it was the lab that was pulling their fat out of the fire.

I cannot tell you how many pros complained to us that the new digital cameras did a crap job of exposing their images. Suddenly their flashes were overexposing by 2-3 stops.

Christopher Eaton's picture

Sorry, but I have zero interest in shooting film again. The only thing I miss from the film days is working purposefully with a 4x5 camera... that's why I've introduced the mindset into my digital photography. But film, nah, I'll pass... not just because digital is now better, but is far more environmentally friendly.

Peter Mabli's picture

Valid point on the environmental impact. But if you have a hankering for film again and want to try a home chemistry experiment, I'd recommend searching for caffenol developing online. You can develop bw film in instant coffee, washing soda, and vitamin c. Pretty friendly to the environment, and a lot of fun.

It's not that I'm still shooting film, but that I have a large collection of slides from both my own cameras, but also my Dad's. Literally in excess of a thousand. Not many by digital "shoot everything in sight and you'll get some great shots" standards, but a lot to scan and then process. I started with a Kodak Brownie in 1953 and moved through a number of cameras until digital came along. My mom and I would set up her darkroom in a back room with the windows taped over. Both my Dad's and mine cover more than 50 countries before modernization overwhelmed them, and some have historic value. They are sitting in a gun safe (needed the space)until I finished rebuilding my house, a five year project that turn into 20. BTW: we both shot Kodak Ektachrome almost exclusively. I'm retired from teaching and am now writing.
I HAVE TO DIGITIZE! Not just want to, and I can't wait.
I I've been looking at B&H and had picked out a $1,500 machine with multi-slide trays and then read the reviews: "Can't use any slides that aren't mounted in current plastic frames." Well, shit! I have paper mount in various states of decrepitude, strange aluminum mounts,from several countries, and NO plastic.
I'm writing without the notes I took, but the B&H guy recommended a flat-plate scanner he said some places are using. How does one separate images scanned together? It didn't sound plausible for quantity scanning.
I need some advice from pros who've already met the challenge.
THANKS GW