Why I decided to “take up” film

I recently became the proud owner of the Mamiya 7 — a medium format camera celebrated for its compact size, razor-sharp lenses and rangefinder focusing system. Why shoot this when I’m already happy with my current digital setup — a well-worn Canon 5D Mark III?

It didn’t make sense to me. I hadn’t shot film in years. And given the limits of medium format — 10 shots per roll, developing and scanning costs, and the inherent inability to view your results instantly — I was confused about why I wanted to shoot film, too. Yet something about the Mamiya and the idea of once again working with film called me. Ten rolls and a few months later, I couldn’t be happier. Taking up film is one of the best things I’ve done for my photography.

First you will feel deeply out of place

Many photographers talk about “switching to film” or “going back to film,” but “taking up film” is a more appropriate phrasing. Transiting to film isn’t as easy as flipping a switch and will take you out of your comfort zone. Once my camera arrived, I was hit with the following questions:

  1. Which film should I shoot? Will I regret choosing Portra for a scene when I should have loaded Ektar instead?
  2. Who should I trust to develop and scan my film? Or should I do it myself? (Short answer: It matters a lot)
  3. What will the developer say when he returns a set of out-of-focus and completely out-of-focus negatives? (You may very well screw up the first few rolls)
  4. Will I miss something I could have shot better on digital? What if I load ISO 160 film and it gets dark outside?
  5. Will I be like every other hipster with a Holga?

My fears were largely unfounded. I started off with a classic duo — Kodak Ektar 100 for general purpose work and Kodak Portra 400 for portrait — and found a lab that does a great job processing and scanning. I didn’t mess up my first roll. My Instagram did not turn into a collection of graffiti, abandoned cars and light leaks.

Each time I load a new roll of film ( $5- $8 plus $15- $30 for processing and scanning), I’m committing myself to a set ISO and film style. I’m also trusting deeply in myself and my abilities — there’s no way to know if you got the shot until later. If shooting digital is like producing a movie scene that can recaptured and choreographed over and over again until the final version is just right, loading film is like walking onto a tightrope: You’ve committed yourself to a direction. You can wobble a little bit left and right, but there’s only one way you can go.

Here are some of my results:

Medium format has an incredible depth of field ( Mamiya 7 / Portra 400)
Ektar is not a portrait film, but that’s what I had in the camera at the time. The results were still amazing.
Scanning is just as important as shooting. This lab did a rather rough job (note the scratches), and I am now very particular about where I send my negatives. Hint: Stay away from labs that do passport photos.
I thought shooting with film meant shooting things that look old. That’s not the case.
I probably wouldn’t have tried this shot with my DSLR.
Or this one.
I considered this composition carefully because I knew I only had a few chances to get it right.

Rather than limit my exploration, restricting options and possibilities in this way has made photography a more creative and fulfilling experience. I now think very thoughtfully about what I shoot and the decisions I make. Will this make me a better photographer overnight? No. But shooting film has increased my desire to shoot, improved my composition, and made my photography that much more interesting.

Like what you read? Give Daniel Foster a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.