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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130 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.

Michael Holst'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.

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.

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.

Michael Holst'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!

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.

"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?

Michael Holst'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.

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.

Michael Holst'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?

Will Murray's picture

No.

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

Michael Holst'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.

Will Murray'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.

Michael Holst'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.

Will Murray's picture

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

Michael Holst'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.

Will Murray'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.

Will Murray'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.

Will Murray's picture

Read my second response "dude".

Will Murray'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.

Will Murray'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?

Will Murray's picture

Is this "national state the bleeding obvious day"?

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