Film Photography for Rationalists

Semi-regularly, someone will ask me about why I shoot with film instead of digital. Often they are suspicious of film because their intuition tells them that it could have no merit outside of art, since there is no arrangement of pixels that can come out of a scanned film image that cannot be replicated by a digital camera and photo editing software. So what’s the point? Am I just a hipster?

The answer is, yes but… there are also aspects of film that encourage some important photographic best practices. Here are three reasons I recommend you try shooting with film and classic cameras.

(The photos in this post were taken by me on film. More shots on flickr)

Taking Fewer Photos

A standard roll of 35mm film has 36 shots per roll and medium format cameras only get 10-12. Taking a film shot costs you a frame and money. Unless you have unlimited supplies of both, you must be conservative and shoot with purpose.

Taking a digital photo is essentially cost free, you can take as many photos as you can store. This leads some people to the conclusion that in order to maximize their chances of getting a good photograph, they should take many photos of the same scene. This is a photography anti-pattern and has a number of undesirable side-effects.

By taking many shots you are giving up on taking the time to find the best composition at the time when you have the most information about a scene. This deferred mental work won’t be easier later when you are sorting your 10 shots for the best one.

Speaking of sorting, it takes time, a lot of time. Especially if you don’t have a well thought-out photo workflow. Sure you might skim through and find a good one for Facebook, but if you are a multi-photo taker chances are you don’t decisively choose the photo for the each scene and cull the rest.

The value of getting to one photo per scene shouldn’t be understated. A single good photo can be a powerful representation of an event that people won’t forget. Think about how some of the famous photos in history might seem diluted if there were 10 frames each from slightly different angles. All of the same information is there, but a pile of photos isn’t as memorable as a single moment.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Iwo Jima or your family bbq, you won’t regret producing a single timeless image.

Understanding The Camera.

To the beginning photographer, a dSLR is a complicated tool. There are hundreds of settings, 10 ways to configure metering, twice as many ways to configure your autofocus. Aperture priority, shutter priority, portrait mode, landscape mode, burst shutter? It’s clear that learning all of this is going to take a while.

These bells and whistles are a distraction from building a mental model of how a camera operates. In a math class there are the kids who memorize a series of steps needed to complete a question, and the kids who develop a model of the subject so that they can respond to slight changes in the questions that will doom the memorizers. The same applies here.

The great thing about many film cameras is they are distilled down to the core components of what constitutes a camera. I shoot with a Nikon FM2 from 1982. There are exactly 2 input dials on this camera that affect your photo, really, just two. Unlike the dSLR, this camera isn’t a black box, it’s an approachable tool and it’s easy to understand the mechanics of producing a photo.

  • One dial controls the aperture of the lens. This changes the size of the hole that let’s light in, which makes photos brighter or darker and alters a property of the lens called depth of field.
  • The other dial controls the shutter speed. The shutter speed controls how long your film is exposed to light for each shot.

If you learn how to use these two settings, along with some basic knowledge of metering and composition, you will be producing quality images from any camera you get your hands on. Your dSLR is going to seem a lot less intimidating, and maybe less interesting.

No Filter

Digital cameras are great for making a photograph that accurately and neutrally represents the tones and colors of a scene. However the rise of Instagram has exposed the best keep secret of photography: great photos are processed. Their tones and colors are modified to produce images that look more like what our brains picture the world to look like.

Film photos are no exception to this rule, but there is a key difference. With film the ‘filter’, be it color representation, grain, or contrast is largely an attribute of the film itself. To get different looking photos you buy different film. This means that with film, you can get a great looking image right out of the box, no filters required.

This is where I deviate from my rationality slightly. When it comes to post-processing I enjoy the out of sight, out of mind, aspect of film. When editing my own digital photos, the sheer number of different filters/styles I can apply overwhelms me. Not only is it too much choice, but the editing process is time consuming and I can’t help but feel like the resulting photos are more artificial than my film photos.

If I take a thousand digital photos in a weekend, the act of taking the photos is just the beginning. I’m going to have to spend another weekend in Lightroom turning them into something useful. When I pickup a roll of film from the lab I get to see result of days/weeks/months worth of work all at once. They don’t need very much sorting or processing. They are ready to go..if only they were in focus.

Idaho not Iowa. Formerly @twitter, now I do space stuff. #RWEN

Idaho not Iowa. Formerly @twitter, now I do space stuff. #RWEN