Why Film Photography Is the Only Right Way To Start

Why Film Photography Is the Only Right Way To Start

When I started out in photography, I started learning on film. While it was very much in the digital era, I still shot film. The reason being it was what was available to me at the time, and buying film stock was not as expensive as it is now. Shooting on film has taught me a ton and has helped me be a better digital photographer. Here is why beginners should consider film photography as their first step in the journey.

We are living in the postmodern digital era where AI is the new frontier of image-making, and everyone carries a camera in their pocket. Why would anyone want to shoot film in this modern environment? After all, the stereotype now is that film is mostly for the millennial hipsters who shoot whacky still-life images and street portraits. At the same time, film can be a great tool for many photographers, especially beginners, as it allows you to slow down, focus on getting it right in-camera, and, lastly, forget about postproduction. Below are these and more reasons explaining why film photography is a great way to start.

Balancing Patience and Mindfulness

The greatest thing about film photography for me is that it allows you to focus on balancing the number of frames you take per scene. There is only a limited number of pictures you can take, which means that every shot has to count. It is very easy to just spray and pray with a digital workflow, which can be detrimental to our creativity. Each picture on a film camera is a carefully considered decision. When shooting film, you are forced to slow down, observe what’s around you, and ultimately, think about the reason you’re taking this picture. All of this results in you being more attentive to the environment around you and more sensitive to mistakes. The outcome of this sensitivity is that you are able to take better images on a digital camera and miss fewer shots.

Another thing that film helped me nurture is a sense of anticipation and excitement. Waiting for the lab to develop my rolls was the most exciting feeling in the whole process as you can only guess how the images will turn out. The developing process itself can be full of unexpected results and surprises, both bad and good. All this creates a very unique result in the end, which would be quite hard to think of and achieve in post-production. This teaches beginner photographers that happy accidents are something to be excited about and not upset about. Anticipation and delayed gratification are something that is missing from the modern photography environment. This showed me that photography is about the journey and not necessarily about the result at the end.

Learning the Fundamentals the Hard Way

If you want the full film experience, get a camera from the 70s without a built-in meter. This would not be my recommendation, but you can go for this option if so inclined. My first camera was a Canon EOS 300, which had a meter built-in, and the film would rewind automatically. This made the process easier while also keeping it pure. I could learn to expose with the meter suggestion, shoot both in auto and manual mode and learn how to work a professional camera. The important thing was to make sure to get it right, which was hard without immediate feedback. The only thing that kept me in check was the meter. I quickly learned to meter by eye, and now I can easily walk into a room and say exactly what settings I need to expose a picture. Another important factor is that if you mess up exposure, you don't have as much room to play with unless you know how to push and pull film stocks. It’s a whole art, and it really is not for beginners.
Additionally, the absence of post-production makes the process a lot easier than the digital one. When starting out, there is a lot to learn, and arguably the most important thing to learn is how to use a camera, and now how to retouch pictures in Photoshop. Each film stock has a distinct look that helps create that authentic film color grade. This makes the picture ready as soon as the film is developed. Film stocks are hard to replicate on a digital camera, so why try to fake it when you can make it? My favorite film stocks are the classic Kodak Portra 400. It is ISO 400, which lets you shoot in lower light conditions while producing very muted and smooth tones that complement portraits very well. Another one I like a lot is Kodak Tmax 100. This is a black-and-white film that is great for capturing contrast and rich black-and-white scenes. If I were to go back to shooting film, these are the stocks that I would mostly use.

Embracing the Authentic

Film is tangible; you can literally pick up your pictures and see them come alive in real life. The sensation of making film prints the authentic way is hard to compare to anything else. The physical nature of film—loading, winding, hearing the shutter, advancing, and developing—all add up to give a more pure experience. This is an experience that you must have when becoming a photographer to understand the value behind your work. It is easy to simply shoot a bunch of digitals without thinking too much. The experience is more authentic on film, which makes it that much better. Having to slow down and think about each frame makes photography intentional and pure. I had a similar experience only when shooting on medium-format cameras. Being forced to slow down made me create better images. Now I try to create such things with a digital full-frame system.

Closing Thoughts

As for suggestions for film cameras, I would recommend anything from the 90s that has a built-in meter. For example, the Canon EOS 300 is a great, cheap way to get into photography, and you can add any EF lenses to this camera, making it a great future-proof investment. Such a camera often costs anywhere between $20 and $50 and sometimes even comes with a kit lens. It’s a rubbish lens, but it will take pictures.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.
LIGHTING COURSE: https://illyaovchar.com/lighting-course-1

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The gatekeeping and faux-elitism that this website fosters and encourages... sigh.

Totally disagree! Film is technology from the day before yesterday, expensive, cumbersome and produces many more problems that you learn nothing from than that you would learn and internalize the basics with.
Just get started with digital technology, preferably with a system camera where you can see in advance the effect of choices you have made in the settings. You don't buy anything for that nostalgic adoration. And I should know, I'm more than old enough to have lived through the time when 'digital' was a distant dream.

Yea why would anybody just starting to learn be better off with instant feedback and be able to see their adjustments real time. Why would it be a good idea for them to have a live histogram to see how adjusting iso, shutter and aperture move in real time when you adjust them. SMH Hipster nonsense. There is no nobility in pain.

Digital rewards experimentation by providing an instant feedback cycle to iterate and improve upon.
Film punishes it by making every click of the shutter a cost and a timely effort to iterate on.

Why on earth would the latter be better for learning? All film does is cement the idea into a new photographer's brain that failed experimentation is expensive, they should avoid risks.

I'd argue the worst thing you can do to foster someone's growth in photography is to introduce the idea that they must learn on film. If they are interested in it, great, but it is obsolete for a reason.

Illya, you are a fine photographer, a skilled writer, and a master clickbait author :)

There is definitely some truth in this article. I think film is great for discipline.

All valid points, except missing one very BIG thing when it comes to learning.
Film makes the distance between action and learning from that action much greater. Simply from the fact that you can not easily relate the taking the photo, the light conditions, settings and all those key factors with the photo you end up with. The learner has to travel back in time and try to remember. From a learning perspective, this is hard.

Mirrorless in comparison, lets you mostly see what you get - right in camera, right then and there. Shorting the journey of learning.

There are ways of slowing down also with digital cameras, discipline is not inherent to having to wait for a printed photo...

This is such utter bs. You can learn more in a day with a digital camera than you can in a year with film. You also don’t need to know Latin to be well educated. Retro fantasy.

It really depends. If you learn from film, you pay at the register for your inattention, so you have to plan everything ahead, from film type purchase to the lab option or scanning because. We did it with slides because that was the only way but we sure made it work by accepting to learn the process. Those who didn’t want to learn stayed out of photography but that was a deliberate choice. When the process is acquired it’s just second nature so the discipline of zero mistake is a pretty good school.
Most people I know who have adopted digital photography, either because they never knew the film days or because all a sudden digital was a new option for them to learn photography didn’t master the process in a day. In fact for many years, you didn’t have youtube and it certainly wasn’t over saturated with photography tips like today for quite many years. So people shot jpg because they didn’t know better as in just because and nothing else, no self motivation, but Raw processors were there from day one. With digital you can start very sloppy and get images by searching for tips all day on Youtube. Imagine that you knew nothing about photography. You buy a camera and now, you have to figure out your way in a massive collection of youtube channels broken into episodes made so you never learn the full thing, never learn how they connect because they are designed for you to keep coming back. Plus there is a gigantic amount of useless, often erroneous distractions on those channels so I don’t see digital being faster than learning with film. Film can also be acquired very quickly, depends on self motivation.
I think it’s 50/50, but neither has a real advantage and that’s probably why photography schools have been making a little come back too..

You’re conflating photography and technique. You learn how to see better with instant feedback. Learning with film teaches you film technique.

About 62 years

With a learning curve needing 10,000 images
$18.87 for one 36 exp roll of Kodak Gold 200 (Today's Price on Amazon.com)

That's $5242 for film before you develop and print !

For that I can have a great digital camera, lenses and a High Spec PC and Colour matched screen, photoshop - and money to spare to go travelling to make photos.

Now - I woinder what the majority of the world is choosing?

10K images to learn? That would be a very hopeless sloppy person. While starting with a few rolls of negatives would be good, C41 type emulsions are so forgiving, it's not the way to go. The shortcut is chrome. You can learn to expose with 20 rolls of positive if you want to, if you are disciplined and do some limited Youtube search.
Thing is you can do the same with digital. Set Your ISO from home and decide not to alter it all day. Take a ride in a park, shoot in manual and never look at the back screen. Drive back home and only then look at your images. Repeat the process in different conditions. I just saved you 9500 actuations.

You got a point, in fact I was wondering for a minute if Paul C was being sarcastic. I have met a fair amount of photographers shooting 10k images at a single event since digital.
I believe that Bresson's most obvious and simple representation of Instant decisive are those people jumping over water and bicycle in motion caught at the right time. You might notice a very small but obvious and similar amount of blur as common point on all these images. The consistency with those might be accidental, I don't know. Doisneau was very much at ease with contre jour and then, you have Ansel who intentionally and specifically shot for his personal print process in mind. To me they all took advantage of the mechanics.

Just out of curiosity, why are 10k images on a single event inherently bad? From your post, it certainly sounds like you say so.
When I do event photos myself - for a multi-day event, I avg 700-800 photos, for a single-day event, I tend to land at 1000-1100 photos. I would be staggeringly impressed by people having memory cards and batteries to get them through 10k photos in one event. But that´s beside the point.
The context matters. The context is in fact, key, the 10k number of an event is a distraction without value on its own.

I shoot 800 photos a day - because there might be 50-60-100 people in the event, and the stated goal is to find a "hero" shoot of each one, where that individual is in focus and looks good in that photo. While that in itself is an unachievable goal - it is still an ambition to strive for, because it makes people feel better about themselves.
I build my workflow, my gear and all around this - because it is the right thing to do.

1000 photos a day - might sound like a lot, and 10k photos might sound shocking, but context is key.

I totally agree, 1k is not exceptional nowadays, I’ve done close to that a few times myself. I know people who shoot three times that but don’t make a dime from it and I know people who shoot 7-8k as a small team and make incredible amount of money from it.
As a beginner I see no value in shooting big numbers just because it doesn’t cost and that was my point.
In the film days I processed chrome film for Fuji during special events like the US open. These games last an average 100minutes and not every photographer enrolled for the free film and processing, but we still processed about 1000 rolls the first few nights. All E6 36exp, loaded by hand dip and dunk process, no mount, just sleeves. Many hours in total darkness talking BS. Volume is nothing new in photography. The lab they flew me to in NJ was capable of processing and printing 50k c41 rolls a night and I'm not even sure if the E6 line was operating the rest of the year beside chemical line start up and the 2 weeks the games last.

A mixed bag. There are some good points, but some of them can apply to digital. You can be patient with your work with digital. Just needs discipline. If you stick to unedited jpegs, then there isn't much difference with film. Especially unprinted slide film. With negs, somebody has to print them, and if you aren't doing it yourself, then you rely on a person or an automated system to the get it "right." Right in quotes, because there isn't necessarily a right and wrong in photography. Only what you like or dislike. If you print your own, there are a host of material and techniques that affect the outcome, so not much different than digital editing. Only unprinted slides gives you, to a degree, an image that is only affected by how you handled the camera.

As said above, instant results in digital can tell you in real time that you need to adjust settings for a given situation. I will also repeat that it encourages experimentation. Despite all the "how to" videos posted on fstoppers, there is not one way to make a photo. Not one correct lens for any situation. You don't have to use slow shutter speeds for moving water. Geez I get tired of that one. Experiment. Change settings, composition, lenses etc. for the same photo. Digital is cheaper, faster and with its instant nature, you don't need to take meticulous notes to match up with the developed film.

Not knocking film. I started when film was all we had. If it were cheaper, I'd use my Pentax 645 more often.

A dumb generalization makes for a great clickbait title 👍

Only Sith deal in absolute

AI will ruin all creative mediums. It's a curse. AI assisted options can be positive but AI created "art" is just killing all of us. Including artists and especially digital graphic artists. It's awful.

If I see Ilya wrote an article, it's an automatic skip. It's the same elitist bs every. single .article.

Fstoppers needs to dump this guy and move on already.

Couldn't agree more

Show me your photographs, not your camera. Shoot with whatever you want... Film or digital, it doesn't matter.

There's nothing to see here.

01. Grab your DSLR. Order a 512MB SD card from eBay, or if you want to live dangerously, a 256MB.

02. Tape over or tape shut the rear screen.

03. If you really want to man-up go through the menu settings to turn off the light meter.

04. Set your ISO at say, 200 and leave it there no matter what.

05. Shoot some JPGs.

06. On your way home, drive through the abandoned mall parking lot where the Kodak kiosk used to be 18 years ago.

07. When you get home, put the SD card in a drawer for 10 days.

08. On day 11, pull the card out, stick it in your computer, apply an Instagram-style film filter and Bingo! you've lived the film experience.

Can I get paid by Fstoppers for my detailed tutorial?

Perfect..... LOL

I was a film photographer for 30 years before I started using early digital cameras, and 22 years of that time professionally. I would never go back to it because for 14 years I ran a photo lab for B&W and Color Extachrome film. Basically I never had to send out anything in that period. I would still not go back to film. I even shot 4x5 during those 14 years, and yes it taught me even then the idea of slowing down. About the only thing that doing film that long did to me is it makes me dislike all the so called post processing I see now on this and most photo sites. Sure, a little adjustment is fine, but that's not what I see here or "there".

Most of the post processing is not really photographic but comes from prepress scanning techniques.

I have no experience in free press digital realm. Good to know. I'm an old film photographer who embarrassed the digital cameras.

I lost brain cells reading this. Huge L take.

I'll wager I was shooting film before you were born. Film is no more or less "authentic" than any other medium of recording.

Actually, the best way to learn disciplined photography is to build your own pinhole camera. All you need is an empty Quaker Oats box, some tape and aluminum foil, and a piece of print paper. That will limit you to the true path.

I agree with the idea of this article!
Film is much more demanding than digital and much more limited in ways to fix the wrong exposure! Also, because every shot costs money and there are only a maximum of around 36-38 frames on a roll there has to be a discipline to shooting!
So by necessity, the photographer has to learn what works and what doesn't, whereas with digital exposure doesn't necessarily need to be accurate for an acceptable result!
You also learn about the differences between the colours given off by different light sources and how to correct them by use of correction filters.
While digital had taken over photography it is still an interesting medium and still relevant fur those that choose to use it! But you do gain an understanding that digital doesn't such as the importance of getting it right in camera!

Gear doesn't matter

you only missed the most important part, having to learn a little about how light works. This slowing down and limited pics has to do with discipline. Either you see things or you don't. You can learn a lot faster using digital, since you have instant feedback. Who is going to remember settings after two weeks when you get your scans back? DSLR are great for learning. Way more important, stay away from people that try to sell you plug-ins, AI and all the other instant photo magic. Spend more time with your camera and less time in post. Happy shooting

The only place to start is at the beginning, your beginning may well be different to mine but still valid if you dont try to run before you can walk, perhaps the use of film at first can be categorised as running before you can walk.
Learn to take a picture re composition, light, textures, colours, subject choice etc and you may eventually find that eveything else is merely a means to an end

In 2012, I went to an airshow that featured the Air Force Thunderbirds. Six rolls of film (36 frames) was my budget for the day. Prior to the start of their performance, I loaded a new roll of film. I shot 36 frames and needed to reload. Fortunately, it was during a lull in their performance where they regrouped. I was ready to continue shooting when they came from behind, blasting over us. Muscle memory helps in quickly reloading film.

After reading the article and comments, it's all good. If one chooses to use film as a learning tool then so be it. Why would anyone see a purpose in aggressive attacks at one's choice? Just let it be and be happy with what you are doing.

100%. Where I run into issues and will stand my ground is when people start using phrases like: "only right way" implying that anyone who doesn't do it is inherently wrong, especially in a case like this, where the arguments are basically a giant fallacy that completely ignores the inherent downsides to learning on a film camera.

It would be like saying everyone should learn to type on a typewriter or all programmers should first learn punch cards and then offering their weaknesses as the reason they are amazing.

Overall its no skin off my back. It doesn't impact me. I just worry for the new photographer who finds an article like this Googling around and ends up ruining what could have been a lifelong passion following bad advice.