You’re Making a Mistake if You’re Not Telling Your Friends to Start With Film

You’re Making a Mistake if You’re Not Telling Your Friends to Start With Film

Photography is a dream job for many, and everyone thinks we’re so lucky to do it. To that extent, they also all “would love to get more into photography.” While we get pretty good at sifting out which of our friends are actually serious about that goal, here are a few suggestions for how to get over the biggest barrier to entry by starting with film.

Sure, we’re well into the 21st century. As such, digital photography is something we all immediately assume. But getting a digital camera isn’t necessarily the easiest (i.e. cheapest) way to start, even if it’s cheaper in the long run. However, our friends don't often get to see the long run if they don't stick with photography, because they never get truly inspired. Many of us — myself included — recommend to friends to just go out and buy the cheapest camera they can and start shooting. Or even use their iPhone. But those options often set people up for failure.

Shot on Kodak Tri-X

The Problem With Digital

The biggest barrier to entry with actually getting into photography as a hobby (or more) is not the picture-taking itself. My public relations specialist sister takes more pictures in a single night out with her friends than I do all month. Photo-taking is not her problem. Her problem in getting truly inspired by her own photography is in the lack of quality (no offense to her: I'll explain soon). And this is where beginners struggle when it comes to digital photography.

Where digital photography shines is when you know how to edit. Digital sensors capture all this incredible detail in a raw file and let you pull out amazing color on demand. But to do this, you have to spend at least 10 minutes connecting your camera, importing your images to your computer, loading them into Lightroom (assuming you already know how to use it or are good with figuring out software on your own, which isn’t common with many photographers who are just starting out), and then have to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour editing a shoot (we’re working quickly, here), all while naturally knowing what your photos need — which you know because you’ve edited so many photos before, right? Not for your friends.

Shot on Kodak Ektar 100

Instead, beginners blow over $500 on a starter DSLR setup and publish the most flat, boring, tungsten-light-muddled images onto their Instagram feeds. Maybe they even wonder why their images don’t look so amazing and add filters on top of their images, bringing them down to the level they were already at with their phones anyway.

The Film Solution

Film has a multitude of advantages for anyone starting out. But first, let’s get the bad out of the way. Of course, you have to expose your photos pretty well. This isn’t that different than shooting digital for those just starting out, because you likely won’t have that much exposure latitude with a cheap digital camera anyway. But it’s still something to think about. Also, shooting film does require buying the film and processing and scanning services. But the pros outweigh this con for beginners (more on this later). And that’s about it.

The great thing about starting with film is that the color work is done for you. You choose a film based on what you think looks nice (there are countless examples online if you need them), and the processing and scanning work provides a file that needs all of zero minutes of work before you’re ready to post on the ol’ IG. Each and every time, as long as you have a decent exposure, your friends will be thrilled with the results — shocked, in fact. They will still need to train themselves in finding compositions that are interesting to the eye, but the color work — one of the hardest parts of photography — will be completely taken care of.

Shot on Kodak Ektar 100

Additionally, film photography is easier than people think. I see this all the time: so many people want to try film, but are afraid because “it’s hard.” However, this thinking is simply naive and stems from the feeling of actually messing up a tangible, finite resource: the film. But messing up a frame — or even an entire roll — just doesn’t happen that often. Will it happen more in the beginning? Sure. But this fear that you will mess up 90 percent of your first images on film is completely misguided. You and your friends will be absolutely fine — happier, in fact, since the images you do get will all be so much better than those your other friends get back from their digital cameras and don’t yet know how to edit. Be sure to get a camera kit that has some kind of built-in meter (it’s just easier to start with) or learn more about the Sunny 16 Rule. But that should be all you and your friends need to start shooting film successfully.

Amazingly, shooting film actually cuts down on waste. Forget about “slowing down” because you’re shooting film. Sure, you do slow down a bit. But the best part about this is that you are simply being more selective in your choice of captured images. You won’t rattle off six needless copies of the same shot that you end up hating because you’re testing your camera’s maximum rate of fire. And in the end, you’ll find those film shots are 90 percent keepers (likely up from 10 percent with digital).

Shot on Kodak Portra 800

Finally, while some are worried about the cost of film, film photography is actually cheaper for beginners. A $400-$600 digital camera setup is still a chunk to put down up front — and all for a starter APS-C camera and kit lens. A film camera, on the other hand, can be had for anywhere from $100 to absolutely free depending on what bargain hunting you do on Craigslist, at thrift shops, or through eBay. Odds are one of your friend’s grandparents even has an old camera they can use. Just $15 more gets you your first roll of film, processing, and scanning. So for an average of probably $50 or so, you can help your friend get amazing results that will entice them to get more into photography as opposed to mediocre results that will have them regretting their $500 DSLR purchase.

Yes, it might have seemed odd to present the idea of starting with film in 2019. But with better color, a more affordable barrier to entry, and the general satisfaction of doing it the “real way,” shooting film will give your friends the best chance of actually falling in love with photography, and not being intimidated by it if you can get them over the first hump.

Shot on Kodak Tri-X

Quick Film Gear Tips for Beginners

  1. Get a simple and affordable camera with a built-in meter to start. People talk about the popular Canon AE-1 or Nikon FG (which I started with in 7th Grade), but plenty of Pentax (like the K1000) and Minolta cameras out there are just as good and can often be had for less. But you can find a steal of a deal on any of these if you look around a bit.
  2. Don't worry about big zoom or telephoto lenses. Start with a simple 50mm lens with an f/1.8 or f/2 aperture. Even an f/2.8 aperture is fine, but all of these should be fairly affordable. You can likely get the best deal by going for a kit, where the body and lens are included together (in which case, don't worry so much about which lens to start with — just get out and shoot).
  3. If you want to get more into film and are looking to move beyond 35mm, look into buying an affordable medium-format camera such as the incredible Mamiya M645, or even rent one if you're not sure yet.
  4. Start with affordable film, but stay away from film that expired a long time ago if you're just starting, as you likely won't get consistent results. You can get a ton of deals on film on eBay (try for $3 per roll or less) for films like Kodak Ultramax, Kodak ColorPlus, Fujicolor C200, or even Lomography and black and white films.
  5. Find affordable processing, and don't be afraid to mail your film out. I run Film Objektiv, which also offers only high-quality scans, but at a good price. But we also have a Film Processing Price Comparison Chart for the U.S. that we highly recommend using to see what's in your area.

Have additional questions about getting started with film? Ask away below!

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128 Comments
John Koster's picture

I know this is a common theme among some photographers to start with film for all the reason stated and because it makes people supposedly think more about composition when there are a limited number of frames to work with. While I respect your opinion, I'd never start anyone off with film unless they explicitly stated they wanted to do film. Digital is better in every respect, color is just as good if not better, and if people do the work to understand photography and learn it as a discipline, they will learn composition and light as they go. I know there are lots of people who started out with film (me included) and you do learn a lot of basics that perhaps a digital beginner might skip over, using film, in my opinion, is nowhere near as easy and straightforward as digital. It represents another way to create a dichotomy and a way for film shooters to feel happy in their club.

Deleted Account's picture

Eh. "Digital is better in every respect" Still subjective. Learning photography for someone very fresh into the medium, should be more about fundamentals than anything else.

"you do learn a lot of basics that perhaps a digital beginner might skip over, using film, in my opinion, is nowhere near as easy and straightforward as digital"

I think you hit the nail on the head with why people suggest film with your statement above. Digital, with all its advanced tech, makes it easy to skip over things that help make a better photographer. A newbie should be encouraged to take it slow.

Someone learning to develop their own video games probably wouldn't be starting out on the most advanced engine and software. They'd probably write something simple.

Mike Ditz's picture

Are there examples of the easy things to skip over when learning on a digital camera? Other than how to load a roll of film :)

Matt Williams's picture

Understanding ISO, aperture, shutter speed - essentially basic exposure. With fully automatic cameras, beginners can easily take decent photos but know nothing about how aperture affects DOF and exposure, how ISO affects exposure and noise (and DR), how shutter speed affects motion, etc. It's much harder to dig into a camera's settings (because there are so many) and master the basics.

Film cameras, at least most of them - prior to the autofocus era, operate entirely on SS, aperture, and ASA (ISO). And all of that is right there in front of you - aperture on the lens, shutter speed on a dial, ASA in the film. And using something like a match needle meter pretty quickly shows you how changing different settings affects exposure.

Film cameras like the K1000 are the ultimate basic photography tool. Zero frills or features beyond the basics. And for beginners, a basic tool is much easier to understand and master than a complex one.

I started out shooting digital, but it wasn't until I started shooting film (AE-1 was my first camera) that I understood (and learned quite quickly) the basic stuff. That translated over to digital of course and helped IMMENSELY.

Mike Ditz's picture

In addition to about 8 other modes all digital cameras have manual mode.
All of the settings are shown on the LCD panel. All the exposure variables can be seen easily on a laptop, the LCD.

If I was teaching someone I might show a film camera without film in it to show how a shutter works and the mechanical f stops.

But still we go back the week or so to see the results of changing exposure, aperture, focus, DOF, shutter speeds etc....I don't really see how that helps people to learn the basics.

Deleted Account's picture

Digital allows a lot more room to "fix in post" which might make someone a better digital artist but doesn't foster as much photography skill.

Digital also promotes a spray and pray mentality in beginners driving a quantity over quality style of shooting.

When learning a new discipline, I believe going slower will help solidify a strong understanding. But I'm only commenting as another point of view to people who think shooting film is a waste.

Is it the only way to learn? Nope!
Is it the best? That's subjective.
Can it be a great way to foster a skill? Totally!

Mike Ditz's picture

I just think both "fix in post" and "spray and pray" are kind of red herrings that will never die.

I don't think shooting film is a waste. In fact I shoot film once in a while no more LF only MF and 35mm. Currently I am using old Polaroid cameras.That is frustrating challenge.

People can "go slow" with a digital camera. But the immediate feedback of seeing your mistakes when shooting manual is a great way to learn what all the settings mean and for example, how come shooting handheld at 1/4 second is not going to work in most cases. Make intentional mistakes, they don't cost anything!

Then after shooting digital for a while if someone wants to learn all of the frustrations, rewards and challenges of film then they will already have a good foundation in the technical side.

I would rather work in Lightroom than a Darkroom. But that's just me.

Rakesh Malik's picture

No, you completely missed the point.

People starting with film will either learn discipline or be driven out of photography, both of which are good things.

Shooting with film forces you to learn to previsualize your images, and to do that you need to understand light and learn how to truly see. Most people starting with digital turn into editors rather than photographers, because they have no incentive to be careful, just shoot.

There are the occasional folks who learn that discipline about getting shots right in camera even though they started with digital, but they're rare and most aren't taught anything beyond the two rules of generic image production: 3-point lighting and thirds.

The point in learning on film is that it's harder than learning with digital.

Guy Incognito's picture

"People starting with film will either learn discipline or be driven out of photography, both of which are good things."

Gotta laugh at "driven out of photography". A bit of obnoxious gatekeeping, don't you think?Not to mention entirely arbitrary, why not demand people start out with Daguerreotype?

Deleted Account's picture

Honestly? With all the complaining about over saturation of competition in photography markets? A little gatekeeping isn't necessarily the worst thing it's not the means to a better end but has it's place in the current industry.

I don't think anyone is trying to draw a line in the sand as you're suggesting with the Daguerreotype. We are just coming to the defense of a point made by the article.

Guy Incognito's picture

Starting out as a film shooter guarantees absolutely nothing. Film advocates just assert this idea that you become a better photographer if you either start in film or shoot film regularly and they offer no evidence. Every point they offer in its favour can be countered by the mirror example.

For example: "films makes you slow down because the shooter knows every frame costs money/they have a limited number of frames". OK, perfectly reasonable point, but you could also argue it might lead people to become too conservative with their choices meaning they miss shots they would have taken if they were shooting digital. If you take a dud shot in digital, no big deal, if you miss a great shot in film, well, it's gone.

I like film - in fact, I love it - and I hope more people realise its value but articles like this or similarly arrogant, rude or otherwise misleading arguments for film hurt it.

Deleted Account's picture

"Starting out as a film shooter guarantees absolutely nothing."

Where am I claiming that it guarantees anything? Starting out on digital also guarantees nothing. I'm not trying to make any absolute points other than defend that there are good reasons to start out with film. There are how many ways to skin a cat?

Deleted Account's picture

No.

Making things difficult is not a great way to get people to shoot.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

This!

Deleted Account's picture

I don't see this as about getting people to shoot. It seems more like an issue of getting them to shoot well.

Deleted Account's picture

Yeah, cos prompting them to shoot film, making the whole process disproportionately expensive, time consuming, and inconvenient, thereby drastically increasing the likelihood they will quit photography, is a surefire way to "get them to shoot well".

And let me make this clear; I love film, I still own all my film cameras, and I still shoot with film.

Deleted Account's picture

I totally understand your point that it's harder to shoot film. I'm just going to have a hard time feeling bad for a photographer who quits because they don't want to learn a new approach to the craft. After all... there are WAY too many photographers anyways.

Deleted Account's picture

The proposition was not that photographers should shoot film, the proposition was that beginners should start with film.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't really see the difference here or where any difference matters. A beginner is someone who would be an eventual photographer. Giving them the suggestion to try film as a way to hone their ability to pre-visualize a photograph is not an outrageous thing to do...

No where in the article is the author calling for an abolishment to shooting digital for beginners. It's just making a case for it to be a good option when a beginner asks.

There are already SO many "photographers" shooting expensive DSLRs who are just shooting whatever, applying filters and making junk.

Matt Williams's picture

I would argue film makes things incredibly simple. Digital cameras are complex tools with tons of settings and features. Film cameras are not. And the learning curve on film isn't nearly as steep as it is with digital. You can learn everything about how a K1000 works in a few hours. Good luck doing that with a Nikon DSLR or Sony or Canon.

The only thing simpler than a film camera would be a digital camera in full auto mode, which doesn't teach you anything beyond the ability to practice composition.

Deleted Account's picture

I made precisely two comments. Nowhere did I use the word "complex".

Matt Williams's picture

And....?

Complex things make things difficult.

You said difficult. So I noted digital cameras are complex. Hence increase in difficulty.

Deleted Account's picture

How about you read what I wrote. Then you can respond with a different non sequitur under someone else's comment.

Matt Williams's picture

Jesus Christ dude. You said film makes things difficult.

I simply replied that I disagreed and explained why I think it's simpler.

No need to be so defensive. Good lord.

Deleted Account's picture

Read my second response "dude".

Deleted Account's picture

So we are abundantly clear; taking time out of a busy schedule to travel to a lab twice is an absolute pain in the arse.

Or maybe you think beginners should be developing and printing and/or scanning themselves.

Matt Williams's picture

Or maybe they can mail their film to one of the many labs around the country, who then develop, scan, email the scans, and return the negatives.

So that's literally one trip to the post office/collection box, or even just your mailbox.

Deleted Account's picture

Which is still a pain in the arse.

But then I suppose being unemployed, time and effort means nothing to you.

Incidentally, Melbourne has two labs, Sydney has two labs, and Brisbane has one lab. I suppose that's "many".

That aside, just how expensive is this process?

Matt Williams's picture

You're a real a**hole aren't you?

Deleted Account's picture

Is this "national state the bleeding obvious day"?

Daniel Medley's picture

"You said film makes things difficult.

I simply replied that I disagreed and explained why I think it's simpler."

Simple does not necessarily make things easier. The equivocation between "simple" and less difficult doesn't make sense.

In my opinion, anyway.

Timothy Roper's picture

Just like at the gym. People need to stick with the 5 lb weights--they're much easier!

Deleted Account's picture

"Just like at the gym..."

Now it's just getting stupid.

Deleted Account's picture

No.

Johnny Rico's picture

Just have your friends shoot Jpeg then. I love the casual plug for Film Objektiv at the very end that explains the bias and how this is an editorial style ad.

Guy Incognito's picture

Personally, I cannot think of a worse way to drum up business than trying to sell film to newbies.

You would have a better chance converting skilled digital natives or luring back old-school film shooters before you'd convince complete newbies to invest in this. Hipsters who wear an old Yashica Electro 35s could be a market, but they won't be buying much film as they just have the camera hanging around their necks for show.

Deleted Account's picture

It's hard to take this comment seriously

Guy Incognito's picture

Because?

It's worth me noting I do shoot film and own multiple film cameras (I even have one of those Yashicas). I started out as a digital shooter & when I think back on how I taught myself, if I had the extra burdens of film I am not sure I would have stuck with it as long as I have & I doubt I would have invested anywhere near as much money as I have.

This is a self-serving article pushing a bad idea which is more likely to hurt film than help it.

The FStoppers community is rarely united in much, but judging by the comments here everyone agrees the premise of this article is rot.

Deleted Account's picture

Your reply is a much better articulation of your point than your previous comment. I still don't agree but at least it's not full of over-generalization.

Guy Incognito's picture

Where did I over-generalise? The hipster jibe? To hell with those posers. There is a reason everyone loathes them and its because they are the worst type of pseudo-intellectual, culture co-opting, self-righteous people on the planet. They literally do what I accused them off: taking well-loved items and styles from other cultures and use them as empty affections.

My other point about who is more likely to be enticed by film is not an over-generalisation but an opinion on who would be mostly likely to be attracted to shooting film. In my view, complete beginners are by far the least likely because of the cost of entry, the learning curve, the punishing cost of mistakes, the maintaining of older equipment; pulling a aprt and old film camera or lens for maintance would be intimidating for most film shooters let alone newbies. I am sure there is more.

Ryan Cooper's picture

This is one of those topics where I couldn't possibly disagree more. I've seen this argument a lot that scarcity makes photographers more focused on composition. I have yet to see any evidence of it. In fact, my observation is that for the most part, it does the exact opposite. It makes new photographers risk-averse to experimentation because each time they push the shutter it costs them money. Thus, they are vastly less likely to experiment and when they do experiment the feedback loop is an eternity so the opportunity to test a creative theory then evaluate if the test succeeded or not and adapt is wildly longer. As a result, film photographers learn slower and more often than not plateau lower.

While there are photographers who pushed the film to the limit, the vast vast vast majority of film photographers over the years are very conservative with things like composition. The advent of digital was like pouring gasoline on the fire of creativity and that shows in how much more interesting work is being done, even by amateurs, today.

Take even great photographers who's career spanned film and digital. Joe McNally, Jay Maisel, etc. You can pretty much draw a line between their film work and their digital work because the moment they picked up a digital camera, the quality of their work skyrocketed.

I'm not saying you can't be a great photographer when shooting film. Rather, the point is just that film works AGAINST the photographer in terms of creative growth.

Jim Tincher's picture

This;

"they are vastly less likely to experiment and when they do experiment the feedback loop is an eternity"

Which is why I use to take detailed notes on date, time of day, exposure settings, sometimes even compass direction or if I had to "PUSH" the roll. That was the only way to recall what you did per frame as you would sometimes do "bracket exposures" ect....

For newbies that are truly interested in photography, learning to shoot manual will probably be the greatest thing they can do to understand what they are doing. It would be extremely helpful to them if they had someone to help mentor them.

michaeljin's picture

Have them shoot JPEG+RAW and the picture profile you select will do the color work for you as far as the JPEG goes. There are also plenty of excellent film emulation presets that can be purchased that will do this, too, and compared to the cost of purchasing film, developing it, and scanning it, presets like Mastin Labs or RNI will save you tons of money while giving you excellent results. Alternatively, encourage them to buy a Fuji camera which has fantastic built-in film simulations if they enjoy that look.

I like to shoot film, but even as someone who grew up around it, it adds a ton of complexity on the front end that you don't have to think about with digital photography. The lack of immediate feedback makes it far less forgiving for a beginner to use. Unless you're shooting black and white, the inability to change your white balance also means that you have to take color into consideration and use corrective filters to compensate (if you want to be doing things properly). The cameras are older and increasingly difficult to get serviced. The development process adds another stage of complexity if you want to do it yourself. If you don't want to develop the film yourself, you need to find a good lab which is not always easy. Costs will rack up quickly if you're not developing yourself. And no, shooting film does not mean you end up with 90% keepers. People are just as capable of taking garbage photos on film as they are on a digital camera.

You know what really demoralizes beginners? Spending money on a roll of film, spending money for development and scanning, and realizing that you just spent $20 for 36 photos of blurry or improperly exposed cats and flowers. Even worse is getting a blank roll back and knowing that you spent money on nothing because you didn't load the roll in your camera properly. People aren't born knowing how to do photography so it's likely that you're going to make a LOT of mistakes before you start to get meaningful results. Analog photography will punish beginners a lot harder for those mistakes than digital will.

Mike Ditz's picture

I have all made all of the mistakes with film

Darren Loveland's picture

All really good points. You piqued my interest on the first paragraph, is it possible to import the raw and JPEG file of an image and have lightroom render the preview of the RAW file showing the JPEG settings and characteristics?

Mike Ditz's picture

I am not sure it's a mistake. I think it is harder unless the person wants to shoot film.

If cost is the question I just sold (for a friend) a Canon Rebel 3 with 2 kit lenses for $230. That would be the total investment for a beginner. IMO it's a pretty great camera. Buying a $100 K100 is cheaper than the Rebel but they then need to buy film and processing. $10-15 per roll. forever.

I think an easy way to teach my friend exposure would be to show them the proper exposure, and then under and over exposed frames. While at it I can show what different shutter speeds and apertures do.
I can also show what different lenses to and compare side by side a 28mm photo and 50mm or 135mm also in about 20 minutes. for 0$. Instant feed back is a great teaching tool. Waiting a week for the film top come back...not so much.

Ed C's picture

You're making a mistake if you are telling your friends to execute on every cockamamie idea that internet bloggers come up with.

Ed Di's picture

I don't think many people will agree with your idea.
Failing is part of the learning process, digital allows you to do this more cheaply and gives you immediate feedback.

Timothy Gasper's picture

This was how I taught young students getting into photography. Had Nikons, Minoltas, Pentaxes,Canons and Olympuses...all film cameras from the 70s. It is important to learn how the camera functions, to use correct exposure combinations of f stop and shutter speed, how and when to use exposure compensation (if available) and most important...the properties of light. They had so much fun and were filled with curiosity and then a desire to learn and explore more.

kentanaka's picture

Sorry, but this is just nonsense in every dimension. If you enjoy the cosplay aspect of shooting film then by all means enjoy yourself. But otherwise the expense and out-datedness of chemical photography will not make you a "better" photographer, nor your photographs more sophisticated or richer.

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