Why You Shouldn't Learn Photography on Film

We often hear that learning on film is a quick way to learn all of the basics, because every mistake will cost you money, but I recently heard a differing opinion that opened my eyes.

Photographer Mik Milman recently talked about the problems that can arise when learning photography on film and brought up some fantastic points, the biggest of which is that learning photography is much like learning any other skill; to get better, you have to practice. And to practice, you need to do it a lot. The idea of shooting every single day is going to help you more than shooting a few expensive frames a week. 

It doesn't matter how much you read about exposure, framing, shutter speed, or aperture; the best way to improve is to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Milman is far more eloquent than I (Or any other YouTuber, really) in explaining this, and he brings up a lot of great points. It's hard to shoot every day in order to improve if every frame is costing you money. 

What do you think of his conclusions? Did you get your start on film? If not, do you shoot film now? Sound off below!

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45 Comments

Previous comments

@Chris Sampson: "For those who grew up in the digital era, this may not be true for them and yes I encourage playing with analog equipment but otherwise it’s not the key to learning anymore than me requesting students master cuneiform writing to know how to do journalism."

That is not an adequate analogy. Cuneiform refers only to the physical recording of text but not the content of the writing, whereas as journalism refers to the latter but not the former.

Chris Sampson's picture

It does apply entirely. The art of photography isn’t about they tools used to complete the work rather they choice of what to commit (the content)

Anyone can write but might not be a journalist and anyone can click a shutter and not be a photographer. The tool is not the task but a means to complete the task.

Eric Robinson's picture

Yet another pretty silly article that again centres on kit as being some kind of answer to the perpetual photographers conundrum, how to take great images. Learning photography or any other craft or art does indeed require practice but it also requires a number of other important parallel activities where no camera, film or digital are required.
Research; finding out what makes an image tick, by looking at and studying the work of the photographic greats and dare I say it artists. It’s all been done before, but you as a photographer have to work out what photographic direction you will take to differentiate your work from your contemporaries and from that of the past.
Thinking; wrapping your mind around your photographic intentions before you pick up you camera, as opposed to just doing it is possibly the most important activity any photographer can take part in......and it’s not easy!
Evaluation; looking at your images and asking yourself if they live up to and meet your photographic intentions.
Let’s not fool ourselves cameras.....all of them are pretty simple devices, with shutter and lens. The hard bit is not your choice of kit or settings but knowing and understanding your photographic intentions, or to give it another name plugging in to and releasing your photographic creativity.
This paint by numbers approach to photography that preaches, if you use this camera, with this lens and this light along with these other bits of kit you will produce great photographs is totally rubbish and misses the whole point. I’ve seen great images produced with a dustbin or cardboard box each with a hole in it along with some light sensitive paper on the inside.
Becoming a good photographer requires you to spend some time thinking about your intentions before you take any images. Whether you then use a digital or film camera or even just a shoe box with a hole is completely irrelevant.

The shoe box with a hole is a brilliant way to learn photography. Building your own camera obscura and using it to take some photographs will indeed teach you everything you need to know to per sue this hobby and more. There is a lot to learn about photography well before you even take your first meaningful photograph.

Eric Robinson's picture

It could be, but the point I’m trying to make, possibly not very well, is that the photographer should be spending some good quality time thinking about photography and the kind of photographs they want to produce, while evaluating what they do shoot. Randomly running around clicking with a shoebox, film or digital camera on its own just ain’t going to do it. Spending big bucks on gear or having a high shutter count does not make you a photographer. For example I know this guy who bought himself a top of the range 50MP camera, uses the spray and pray approach and now calls himself a professional photographer!

Anthony Tripoli's picture

i started on film, but never took anything serious, it was just snapshots of friends

when i got a DSLR 10 years ago i really started to learn a lot because i could see instant results, so playing with off camera lighting and stuff became more regular

i now shoot film almost exclusively (other than certain paid gigs)

the big difference for me now is that on digital i find the shot/angle/light i like and i blast like 50+ frames at a time, where with film i only get 10 shots a roll when shooting 6x7, and so i spend a lot more time composing and thinking before hitting that shutter, and i rarely shoot more than 2 frames of a similar pose/angle/etc, so i get a lot more diversity out of my shoots and i tend to get better results because i am thinking heavily about every shot and if it's worth burning 1/10 of my roll for.

both have their strengths and weaknesses, but i am a firm advocate that shooting film will force you to think about and learn good composition a lot faster

Why not do both!

I always say: Reject the tyranny of the “or”!

Timothy Turner's picture

Whether you use film or digital is irrevelant, the mission is the same, to get a picture printed and framed if so desired. If you are using slide film there is nothing like laying your slides on a light table and seeing all those colors come alive before your eyes.

user-206807's picture

I have worked for nearly 30 years exclusively with 4 x 5" and 8 x 10" films.
Maybe something I learned.
And yes, it was very expensive (film + process).
Working with digital has opened up new possibilities for me, at a minor cost, but I'm not sure it's better.

Alan Brown's picture

I used film for years. It is difficult to learn when you outsource printing, waiting weeks and then wondering if the washed out result was due to your setting or a cheap photo lab. I actually reverted to taking processing slides, but even then you had to wait to see results and by that time the moment you wanted to capture had passed.

The one thing I can comment on is that with film you had to be more attentive and consider each and every setting. I do have to take a step back from time to time with my DSLR and pause to reflect while shooting.

With the advent of the DSLR the novice has a greater freedom to experiment and to view/adjust the outcome in almost rel time.

Ngaere Woodford's picture

Some of us HAD to start on film as there was no other option!!! haha

Why is it always have to be absolute with you? "Shouldn't Learn Photography on Film"? Shouldn't? Not everyone is the same, dude. (Just like in the other article you proclaim that "Collapsible On-Light Reflector Is the Best Light Modifier for Speedlights". Dude, there is no such thing as the best light modifier. There are different light modifiers which give different looks/resuts/effects.)

For someone who doesn't have a lot of patience and someone who may not be as passionate about photography at the beginning, learning on film would probably too frustrating and discouraging. For these people, learning on digital would probably be better.

OTOH, because of the time and cost of film and film processing as well as the physical limit of the amount of film one can practically carry in one shoot (vs. one tiny SD can hold hundreds/thousands of photos), every frame of film is precious. And because every frame is precious, it forces you to slow down to think and feel more of the photo you want to shoot before you push that shutter button. You get more involved and deliberate with your photography this way. Thus, for someone who is patient enough and passionate enough, learning on film would probably be more beneficial.

Timothy Turner's picture

I made a "light bender" from white foam board for 50 cents

Timothy Turner's picture

The camera you are holding is a Pentax 67, it uses 120 or 220 film and makes 10 or 20 exposures.

Serge Chabert's picture

This kind of article is only there to provoke and pit digital photographers to film photographers. None is better than the other. Just do your thing. There is no best way to learn photography. Film or digital, who cares?