Film photography is not dead. Far from it. There are many reasons to shoot on film rather than (or in addition to) digital. I still shoot film, and I’m more than happy to share with you the reasons why in this post.
By the time you’re done reading, the question will no longer be, ‘should I shoot on film?’ but ‘should I bring my film or digital camera with me today?’.
Here’s what film photography does for you…
Helps you Learn the Basics
The great thing about film cameras (especially the older ones) is that they force you to learn what each part of the camera does before taking a photo.
This is something that many amateur photographers overlook when they get their first camera; they’ve seen what it can do and just want to start taking photos. It often results in the camera being left in full auto mode or a preset when, with just a few clicks of the dial, much better photos could be taken.
When you choose a roll of film to put in your camera, you’re effectively setting the ISO speed as you can’t change the film until you’ve finished, leaving just the shutter speed and aperture to play with.
When you take photography back to basics like this, you quickly start to learn how exposure works and how to use it to your advantage. If you’re a kinaesthetic learner like me, you’ll find film cameras a much more effective way of learning about photography.
It Helps to Hone your Skill
We’re all guilty of getting a little bit snap happy with our cameras, taking a load of useless photos of nothing in particular just because we can.
This isn’t really an option with film (unless you’ve got more money than sense) because you can’t just take a bunch of photos and transfer them to your computer.
Film forces you to think before taking a photo – it can’t just be of anything.
This added pressure of wasting money on film and developing will make you a much more careful photographer; you’ll start considering how else you might take a photo before actually taking it.
Think twice, shoot once.
Mistakes can become pretty expensive if you’re not sure what you’re doing with your film camera, which forces you to learn quickly what you’re doing wrong.
There will be times when you go to take your camera out, adjust the aperture and shutter speed, manually focus and end up missing the shot. This is ok; it’s all part of the learning process. You’ll soon get faster and better at using your camera; transferable skills to digital photography.
Don’t worry about missing a shot; we all do that. The chances are, if you wait a little bit, you’ll get an even better photo.
Film Photography is Cheaper
The cost of second hand, top quality film cameras has dropped dramatically since the advent of cheap DSLRs, making it a great time to get into film photography.
Just because a lens doesn’t autofocus or fit onto a modern day camera, it doesn’t mean it’s no good. One of the best lenses I have is a cheap 50mm f/1.7 that fits onto my Minolta with a bayonet mount.
Old prime lenses without autofocus have very few elements to worry about, meaning that that the overall quality tends to be better.
Another great advantage is that you can get a ‘full frame’ camera for less, meaning that you get the most out of any full frame lenses you may have.
I’m a Canon shooter and all their EF lenses from 1987 onwards fit on both their EOS digital and film cameras.
This means that I can spend money on a lens and still be able to use it on my film camera, in full frame.
I won’t go into too much detail about full frame cameras, I’ll just link to this post but what I will say is that modern digital full frame sensors are called ‘full frame’ because they’re the size of a 35mm piece of film.
If you don’t have a full frame camera, using film is a great way of seeing what you’re missing and from a different perspective.
The first thing I noticed when I got into film photography was the difference in quality – it was shocking.
A camera’s sensor is simply an expensive imitation of the roll of film that is no way near film technology, from decades before.
Not only that but a camera’s sensor is limited to a built in number of pixels, whereas a roll of film is only restricted by the quality of the scanner that captures it – usually much higher. Remember, you can still get digital copies of your photos when you go and get them developed.
All of that aside, I just find photos shot on film to be sharper.
The colour of the photos produced are much better than on digital as a roll of film isn’t limited by the same restrictions as a sensor.
Not only that but you don’t have to worry nearly as much about pesky white balance when shooting on film.
Have a look at the photo below. This is one of my favourite photos because of how well it has captured the purple, red, blue and brown without losing any detail.
This was shot on my Minolta SRT 101, a from the 1960’s.
Better Dynamic Range
Another thing I noticed when shooting on film was that I could shoot in conditions that I wouldn’t normally be able to and still get good result.
This came from the dynamic range of the film that I was shooting on; if you have a look at the photo below, you’ll see trees that would have appeared as silhouettes had I shot them on digital, with a lot more detail.
Film is more Sensitive
In general, I find film to be much more sensitive and better at handling grain than any digital camera I’ve used.
Have a look at the photo below and you’ll see that, even though there is noise present, it’s a uniform color and appears much smoother than it would shot on digital.
The speed I shot at was ASA 200, which provided excellent results for the conditions I was shooting in.
This photo is another great example of how the dynamic range is better in film photography; there’s no way my camera’s sensor would have handled that shot as well as the film did.
You can shoot all day long on digital but it doesn’t mean much if you end up just looking at them once before storing them to be lost on your computer.
It’s great to have physical copies of photos that you can frame and hang around the house to be seen – the way photos were always supposed to be handled.
What to Watch out for
No matter how much I rant and rave about film photography, it’s still a dated technology, so you will end up having to buy second hand.
Find a good second hand retailer nearby and you won’t have too many problems; they know how to check the cameras before selling them and will guarantee anything they do sell.
That being said, make sure you check the camera yourself; you can’t retake holiday photos that don’t come out.
I once bought a camera, took it on holiday with me and it wasn’t until I got home and had the photos developed that I found that the shutter wasn’t going up fast enough, ruining my exposures. I had it replaced without hassle for a better camera, but the damage had already been done.
If you buy a rangefinder as opposed to an SLR, you will always end up leaving your lens cap on for a few photos here and there – I’ve done it many times.
You become so used to being able to see your photos framed through a viewfinder that you forget that the viewfinder is not connected to the lens on a rangefinder camera.
Something a little bit rarer is “light leaks”. These are usually found on much older cameras for a variety of reasons.
In my photo below, I was using an old Olympus Pen (which used to shoot two shots to every frame). The tripod mount fitting had fallen out of the bottom of my camera which allowed loads of light in. This ruined the centre of each exposure.
Interestingly, there’s a sub-genre of film photography that uses analogue cameras and aims for a lo-fi aesthetic which actually favours images with light leaks and other imperfections, which were common in cheaper analogue cameras from decades ago.
The point behind embracing the imperfections is nostalgia, as light leaks, lens artifacts, etc. were hallmarks of a bygone era of film photography that many still remember from their childhoods. In fact, this imperfect look influenced many of the filters so common today on Instagram and other social media.
I still shoot film because it helps me be a complete photographer. When you care about the image, you should be able to master it across media, whether analogue or digital. There are certainly a lot of lessons to be learnt when shooting on film, especially if you’ve started out learning photography with digital cameras, but the results are always worth it.
I still shoot film. Years from now I know I’ll be saying the same, and I hope you will too.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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