There’s this old adage that shooting film will make you a better photographer.
In my opinion, this is one of the biggest lies you can tell someone who’s just getting into photography — not because it isn’t true — but because it can often do more harm than good. And, if I had to guess, this argument has been perpetuated by those who — like myself — spent far too much time in a darkroom during high school or college.
The truth is, while shooting film can be a fun and creative exercise, it’s also a slow, frustrating and expensive one for those just getting started.
Now to be clear, my argument isn’t that shooting film won’t teach you anything — in fact far from it.
What I’m saying is before you shell out the cash for a half-decent film camera, start mixing chemicals in your bathroom or racking up lab fees, you should have a solid grasp of the fundamentals.
My first real photography class in college was called something like Photo the Technical Art, and it was essentially a crash course in the technical considerations required to make good photos.
We learned about calculating stops of light; the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed — sometimes called the exposure triangle; how aperture affects depth of field; and of course how to think about composition.
And from this standpoint, I remember the course being pretty good.
When it came to putting these principles into practice, it all started to fall apart. All of our assignments would be shot on film and we had to develop it in the university darkroom. While I’d been developing film for years, many of my classmates were still trying to figure out how to get a proper exposure while shooting in manual.
The darkroom introduced a level of complexity that most simply weren’t ready for, and as a result, each assignment became more about getting a usable image, than the actual lesson.
What could have been taught in a matter of minutes with a digital camera in the studio, was drawn out into weeks in the darkroom.
When digital is better
If you’re still learning the fundamentals of photography, I say stick to digital.
The faster you can try, fail and try again, the faster you’re going to learn. Digital cameras make this practically instantaneous. Take the photo and moments later you can review it right there on the back of the camera or your smartphone.
You can do the same thing with film, and many of us who studied photography in school spent a lot of time in the darkroom doing just that, but it’s an awfully slow and pricy way to learn an already expensive trade.
Unfortunately, today, we in a world where you can’t just get your photos developed at the supermarket anymore, and darkrooms are shrinking or all-out disappearing.
By starting with digital, you don’t even need a camera, you can learn the basics using your smartphone. Trust me, my first smartphone took far better photos than my first digital camera.
What film can teach you
As I mentioned earlier, once you have a strong understanding of composition and exposure, film can teach you a ton about photography.
Two of the best lessons, in my opinion, are creative problem solving — that is how to create amazing images in less than ideal circumstances — and the aesthetics of color.
Creative problem solving
Having said all that, I still recommend every photographer try shooting film at least once, especially if you can get access to a darkroom.
Film is a great exercise in problem solving, especially on an all manual film camera like the Pentax K1000, the Canon AE-1 or the Nikon F3. These cameras are relatively affordable on the used market and have cult followings so there are even modern tutorials on YouTube if you’re having any trouble.
You see, film is quite limited compared to digital. You can’t change your ISO on the fly, your camera might be limited to a maximum shutter speed of 1/2,000 of a second, or your film might need to be overexposed by two stops for optimal results.
In my experience, film forces you to slow down and think more critically, and hopefully creatively, about how you compose and expose each shot.
Photography is, after all is said and done, about solving problems to create an image.
Film will, without question, change the way you think about color. Most digital cameras today are pretty good at capturing true-to-life colors, but that’s not always the most compelling option. Film, on the other hand, is a grab bag of possibilities.
Some films will render incredibly punchy colors, while others will produce images with muted skin tones or pastel greens. This is because color in film is the product of complex chemistry developed over the span of decades.
Color film is a fantastic study in the aesthetics of color, especially when you start to connect specific film stocks like Fuji Pro 400H or Kodak Portra 400 with things like wedding photography and portraiture; Kodak Ektachrome to magazines and newsprint; and Fuji’s slide films or Kodak’s Ektar 100 color negative film to landscapes.
Each of these films has a very different aesthetic, and you can play on this subconscious familiarity to convey a particular feeling or look. For example, an image captured on Kodak Gold 200, which produces very warm and muted colors, is going to convey a very different feeling than one taken on Kodak Portra 160.
And understanding this will help inform the way you edit your digital images. You might choose to emulate the look of Portra 400 or Fuji Pro 400H if you’re shooting portraits, or channel Ektar if you’re shooting a Caribbean beach or an exotic animal at the zoo.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- Do you still shoot film? What’s your favorite stock? Mine’s Kodak Tri-X 400.
- What is the most important lesson you learned from shooting film or digital?
- Do you think shooting film is important?
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