Everyone starts off in a pretty similar manner. You pick up a camera for the first time. You fall in love. It becomes your hobby. You buy more and more gear. Eventually, you even start doing some paid work, and photography becomes either your main form or a form of income for you. But in this standard kind of journey, the magic of photography usually gets lost in the shuffle. Photography was once a fun hobby, but now it’s become work with clients and deadlines and pulling endless nights to finish edits. You’re still passionate about photography, but you’re shooting for the needs of other people, not yourself. That’s why I believe that every experienced photographer, whether your a professional or do professional work, should consider shooting on film or even shooting on film again, in your own free time. Here’s why:
Film Makes You Forget About Work
You’re passionate about photography. You love to take photos. But bringing around your expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera and hefty lenses when you want to shoot for your enjoyment on the street or on trip just reminds you of work, even though you’re not working at the moment.
For me, shooting on my film camera, which has a completely different feel from the mirrorless camera I use professionally, is like a breath of fresh air. The sound of the shutter, the cracking of the advance lever, putting in a new roll. It’s still photography, but it’s a form of photography that functions in a different manner. It feels imitate and intact. It’s inherently not like digital. I’m reminded of why I love shooting photography in the first place, and it feels like I have no restrictions on my creativity. I truly feel like an artist again when I shoot on film. There’s an element of fun freedom that I cannot find too often when shooting professionally on digital or even on digital for fun.
Learning a Truly Manual Way of Shooting
Most photographers, who are professionals or do professional work or just have a lot of experience, shoot manually or at least manually set their aperture or shutter speed. But shooting on film is an entirely different form of manual shooting. I’m twisting more dials and using rings on my lenses to change the aperture. I have to manually focus with this weird micro-prism that shows jagged edges or has a split-screen. I have to load in film rolls and take out film rolls. I even have to consider the film rolls I’m buying and how each one produces an image too. Shooting on film, at least on most film cameras, is a manual experience like no other. You really have to understand your tool more so than you ever had to on digital, and you interact with your tool way more often. And I find that I’m learning new things every time and learning to appreciate those who decide to shoot on analog exclusively. It’s a lot harder than digital, but seeing those images is incredibly rewarding when you’ve put so much tedious effort to bring them to life.
Learning to Expose Yourself
A common thing you’ll probably hear when buying a film camera is that the light meter doesn’t work. Either that or you need some obscure battery to get the light meter to work that you probably won’t find. In any case, film teaches you to learn to set the exposure yourself. You learn to make the call instead of relying on your camera to do it for you, and so you have to learn rules like Sunny 16. You have to really pay attention to the light around you and decide, usually, what aperture or shutter speed is applicable for this type of situation.
“It’s incredibly sunny out; that’s f/16. It’s pretty cloudy; that’s f/5.6. Here are some shadows; f/2.8.”
Of course, I started off using a light meter in film. But eventually, I found myself putting down an external light meter every so often because I more or less trusted myself to know how to expose an image. And sometimes, I didn’t have the time to bust out a light meter, so I really had to trust myself. And you’ll be surprised how this translates over into digital. By learning to judge my exposure myself shooting on film, I’ve found that I can do the same on digital, meaning that even professionally, I spend less time relying on the exposure meter and more time relying on myself.
Getting Out of The Habit of Chimping
My worst habit shooting digital, even when I shoot on mirrorless sometimes, is chimping, looking at my image right after I took it. I constantly chimp because I have this burning desire to see how my image turned out.
On film, just by nature, you can’t chimp. You just really have to trust yourself and know you got the image right. And this really teaches you to be patient. You most likely won’t see your images for a couple of days or even a couple of weeks. But it’s incredibly satisfying when you finally get to see an image you took days and days ago finally come to life in a print or in a scan.
I also find that because I inherently can’t chimp on film, I find myself doing it less on digital, which means less time reviewing images that are probably fine and more time actually taking photos. It really teaches you to build trust not only in your camera but in yourself, and that’s one of the most powerful things film does for you.
Having to Really Choose your Shots
Somebody once said to me, “Film is intentional.” You have only 36 exposures. Every shot is costing you. You really have to take your time and get your shots right. Every time I pick up my film camera and take it out shooting, I always ask myself if this particular shot is worth what I have to pay for it. Thus, I find myself just spraying my camera a lot less. I slow down. I choose my shots carefully. I judge my compositions carefully. I think about how I want to expose my shots carefully. Film really makes you consider what matters and really pushes you to take interesting shots that you know you will like when they come back to you.
In digital, it’s really easy to forget that you took a certain image, but on film, I more or less remember every shot I took. I scan in my own negatives, and I know exactly when I skipped over an image because I was so intentional in every exposure I took.
Inexpensive Buy-In Costs
And film is inexpensive to get into. Of course, it’s not inexpensive to continue to do, but it’s very cheap, at least to start. You might even have a film camera or at least lenses that work on some film camera. For example, there are Canon film cameras from the 90s that accept EF mount lenses. But even besides that, film cameras from the 60s, 70s, and 80s are pretty light on the wallet and are usually around $100 to $200, nothing compared to the $2,000+ people spend on professional digital bodies. You can even get into medium format at a way lower cost than it does to start on digital.
So if you have a relatively inexpensive body and maybe you only shoot a couple of rolls here and there, the cost of shooting film is not too bad. It’s definitely worth getting into, hands down.
And so I think the greatest part about film is that it gets you learning again. For example, I had to learn that in film, it’s better to overexposure in order to keep shadow detail than to underexpose, which I often do on digital to save my highlights. Film also harkens back to the days of being a beginner photographer, when everything was so exciting, and nothing was client work quite yet. Photography feels like it belongs to me again and to nobody else. I feel like I’m an artist once more. If you’re considering getting into analog photography, I strongly recommend it.
Originally published at https://www.photoparadox.com on October 16, 2020.