Forgotten in its old age

by Aditya

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As someone who has only done photography seriously in a digital world, I've occasionally had folks recommend that I learn to shoot film as an educational experience.

What reasons might one choose to learn shooting analog/film after having become an accomplished digital photographer?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I don't think there's such thing as "learning to shoot film" given that most of the automation (auto-exposure, autofocus, with the exception of auto-ISO and auto white balance) was available in film era also. You can simply point and shoot with film too (think of lomography).

What you will learn are the properties of different emulsions. Film choice is not just about ISO, it's also and more importantly about color rendition (or gray-tone rendition in case of BW films), grain, contrast, dynamic range, white balance. It will probably take tens if not hundreds of rolls to be able to previsualize how the scene will render on some specific emulsion.

You'll not just need to plan the technical aspects of the shot, you'll need to plan the emotion you want to convey (Velvia and Portra can render the same scene in very different ways). If you gain anything with this is probably very personal thing, but it certainly won't make you a worse photographer either. Good question - when I think about it, only artistic reasons come to mind, nothing rational nor provable.

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I studied film for 15+ years before trying digital. I can't think of anything important that can be learned using film that couldn't be learned much faster with the instant feedback of digital. Using film will teach you to use film. For instance all my time in the darkroom taught me how to temp chems quickly and accurately. That's good to have down for film. Meaningless for digital. For those who claim film makes you behave is a particular way I would suggest that the real problem is in the mind of the photographer, and would be better addressed directly. –  Henry Peach Aug 13 '10 at 17:51
    
I don't say film makes me behave or teaches me any special skills that make me a better photographer. But I still love the look of my slides and have found no way to replicate this with digital. Skill thing, one might argue. Most probably. I've found a compromise - I shoot everything I need to quickly publish on digital and I shoot all the things that will break my heart on film. –  Karel Aug 13 '10 at 18:58
    
I'm not sure, guys. While it's true that a camera is a camera—choose an exposure, focus, compose, hold steady, and fire the shutter—it's also true that shooting on different emulsions require different shooting techniques (like you said, Karel). ...but I think that is exactly what "learning to shoot film" means: learning how to pick settings for different films in different developers. There's also other trivial stuff… like best practices for loading and unloading film, how to do real double exposures, how to cock film quickly with one hand, etc. –  keyofnight Feb 1 '13 at 9:12

Obviously, there are huge differences in the media (film vs. sensor), but more experience shooting is always better. There are some important aspects of learning to shoot film. IMHO, i want to get the highest yield (more "good" pictures) from my picture-taking experience, so i want to think about film from the cost perspective and the opportunity perspective. It costs money to process film. There isn't going to be an opportunity to review the shot. You have to make sure it's good by doing the "preprosessing" with your eye, brain and camera.

So, choose and lock in the ISO - no "Auto-ISO" mumbo-jumbo. With film, because of differences in processing you really only get one ISO choice per roll (the standard ISO, or maybe push one or two stops), and you'll shoot the entire roll at that ISO. Shooting digital, you can choose the ISO per shot - my point is don't let the camera do this for you.

Choose the camera mode. Aperture priority? Shutter Priority? "full auto"? Manual? Ensure the exposure is right, either with a meter or using the camera's built in meter. no more "HI" for the shutter speed in the display when you're in aperture priority mode.

Slow down. Think. Compose carefully. Make it feel like taking this picture might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (even if it is the Eiffel Tower).

Focus carefully, or verify that AF did the "right thing". Do you want to change the AF point? Maybe something on the left side of the picture should have the AF point? Preview your depth of field, if necessary - you might not have to preview the DOF if you have a good feel for the subject distance and your lens's behavior.

i guess even if you use a digital camera and pretend you're shooting film, you'll improve your technique by trying to live with the restrictions (and cost) of film.

Work on taking the same number of pictures as you do now, and try to get a better yield. Digital or film, i think that's a good goal as a photographer.

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It teaches you to think through your shots more carefully, and think about all the components of the shot before pressing the button.

Unlike digital where each shot is essentially free and you can review them as you go, with film you get the film in the roll (30 or so shots I think), you have to pick an ISO beforehand, the cost per photo is higher, and you wait for the results until after you leave.

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+1: so many people blast because of digital. Sure digital is free, but time isn't. –  Alan Jul 22 '10 at 16:08
    
Film does prevent you from being able to see your mistakes in the field and then try another composition. I have found this immediate feed back very helpful. And it's much easier to correct exposure mistakes in the field then to throw an entire roll of film away because it is either under, over, or even double exposed. –  Matthew Whited Jul 28 '10 at 13:56

With all of technical differences aside, because there are many, I think one of the biggest benefits a primarily digital photographer would gain is learning to slow down and think about the shots they are taking. Learning how to compose a good picture is an important thing to learn. With film you don't have the luxury of looking at the shot you just took and deciding whether or not to keep it. You need to have a certain amount of foresight.

A great exercise recommended to me by a friend is to get a disposable film camera and go out and fill the entire camera.

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You don't need a film camera to practice that, just disable the preview screen or just don't look at it while taking a photo. –  Lie Ryan Jan 1 '12 at 10:25

EDIT to be perfectly clear
You should not learn to shoot film.

You should instead ask yourself the question before every shot: "Will anyone care about this photo?"

The answer is, for the most part, no. No one cares about your photos, just as no one cares about mine. You have to make them care, and you make them care by taking shots that resonate with the viewer. Some viewers will continue not to care about what you do, while others may find great appeal. Part of the mystery of creating art is accomplishing this feat. Technology enables you to do it, technology informs the decisions done when doing it, but ultimately, the resonance comes from your own vision of the world and your ability to make your technology realize your vision.

All of the arguments by the other posters basically boil down to "Slow down, digital allows you to move to quickly without thinking about the consequences of your actions." And to a certain extent, that's true. But consider the drawbacks of film:

  • Film results are not instant. When you experiment with different apertures, isos, shutter speeds with digital, you get instant feedback via review. With film, you have to wait until you get the results back, and ISO is not an instant change.
  • Film processing can only be done once. You get one negative. You blow the negative, you've lost the shot. You process it one way, hard to get it back to another.
  • Film processing is expensive if you do it yourself. Chemicals, knowledge, equipment, and space may or may not be cheap for you, but they are all part of the package of learning to shoot film completely, to get a final print. With digital, you need a computer, some programs, and a printer (granted, making a print does require some knowledge of calibration, and that wasn't so hard for me). As film chemicals become harder to find, as well as the space and plumbing for a dedicated darkroom, digital gets to be much cheaper, faster.
  • Film processing is expensive if someone else does it for you, and you may not like the results. If you go to the guys down the street at the corner drug store, you'll have to settle for 'auto processed' colors. If you go with a lab, expect to pay a lot.
  • It is very debatable if film is of 'higher quality'. I would think that, now, it's not really a debate, but some people are willing to shoot brick walls until the cows come home to prove one point or another. I leave that debate to them.

I think that the best think you can do to achieve the same results everyone else was talking about (thinking about composition, locking yourself to aperture/shutter/iso, etc) is to get a prime lens and a little bit of discipline and thinking about the shot you want to take. Getting involved with all of the technical difficulties of film is just a more expensive way of doing the same thing.

Meta: I already have two downvotes on this answer, but I think that this will become one of the most asked and debated questions on this site. I also think that it will border on the religious. Let me not mince words, because I'd rather lose rep points now to answering the question (or at least having a series of responses to point to), so that repeated questions can just go here.

Previous Answer (2 downvotes): For me, the question is whether or not you're doing this as a hobby, or professionally. As someone who has done pro event photography, the downsides of film are just too great to shoot with it compared to digital. Consider that with digital, when I'm taking a shot of the bride, the groom, seven bridesmaids, seven groomsmen, and a two-year-old ringbearer, spamming that shot is critical. Someone always looks away at the worst moment, and so getting a three to five shot burst means I don't have to worry about it. I can also chimp through those shots and make sure that I got something reasonable.

Bursting is just necessary for the first kiss, the handoff, etc. Those things don't come twice, and trying to one-shot-one-kill sniper that kind of thing means that I end up hoping my second got the shot. Of course, timing plays a role, and it's a big one, but the milliseconds between facial expressions can tell different stories.

Now, if you're doing this to learn, as a hobby, then that's a different story. Learning film is like doing any other exercise to take you out of your comfort zone, forcing you to know what you're doing (and maybe even writing a log of shots you've taken, so that when you get the roll back, you'll know what you did).

Consider:

  • Digital lets you get sloppy with metering, especially with a RAW capture of a huge dynamic range that can be fixed in post processing using fill light/exposure correction/recovery/etc.
  • Digital lets you get sloppy with cropping. Off by a little bit, no problem. Considering using your 60mm lens as a 120? Lots of sensor lost, pretty sloppy.
  • Digital lets you burst, meaning that if you want to get that perfect Doisneau moment, you either hire models (which he sometimes did) or get very very lucky with timing, and that luck turns into skill the more you do it.

With digital, you still need to:

  • Compose. I take issue with the idea that digital shooters don't slow down and compose their shots. I'd say that bad digital shooters don't slow down and compose their shots, just like bad film shooters don't slow down and compose their shots. If you don't know the rule of thirds (and when and why to break it), then switching to film doesn't magically give you this.
  • Learn the etiquette of candid/street photography. Film or digital, people just don't like lenses in their faces sometimes. Switching to film doesn't naturally give a better rapport with the subject, or make you a better 'ninja shooter', grabbing candid shots that no one knows happened (ok, maybe with a soundless Leica m7 shutter, but a point-and-shoot can be soundless as well).
  • Know the times of day and how that plays with light. Shooting in direct sunlight still sucks in digital, even with all the dynamic range a camera can take. Shooting at dusk, in the so-called 'magic hour', is just a good idea all around.
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This doesn't really answer the question...you basically answered why he shouldn't try out film, but didn't really offer any compelling reasons he should try out film. I also think some of your points are a bit subjective...you've chosen to let the camera capture the moment for you, rather than building the skill to anticipate that moment and capture it on film at the right time. I know some phenomenal wedding photographers who use film, and they don't seem to miss those perfect moments of love and expression. I think your explanation of "why not" is the perfect example of "why to". –  jrista Jul 23 '10 at 1:59
    
I disagree, obviously. I think that 'slowing down' is not perfectly correlated with 'shooting film.' It is possible to develop all of the skills that everyone's listed as an advantage without shooting film. It is possible that he will learn a lot of skills that will be hard to use once companies stop making film developing solutions, ie, he will be developing obsolete skills. –  mmr Jul 23 '10 at 7:23
    
What skills will you develop when shooting film that are obsolete with digital? I think your answer could just be "no" and your contra-arguments should be comments below the posts with which you argue. Everybody has their own ways to realize their visions and if ancient cameras and expired film is part of it, why not. –  Karel Jul 23 '10 at 21:08
    
@mmr: Even with your edited post, you have still not answered the question. I think the downsides to film are well known...its been around for about a century? There ARE benefits that can be gained by a digital user trying out film. All of the things you mentioned, like the risk of film, the cost of film, etc. are exactly the reasons why a digital user SHOULD try out film. You can only push the envelope when you know your stuck inside one...with all the "limitless" capabilities of digital, its hard to push the envelope. By forcing yourself to work within the limitations of film... –  jrista Jul 23 '10 at 21:25
    
...you increase the limitations, and reduce the size of the envelope. You then have something to work towards, you have a challenge to rise to, and difficulties to overcome. Again, as I said in my original comment...all of the downsides you list are EXACTLY the reasons why a digital user SHOULD try out film. –  jrista Jul 23 '10 at 21:26

Personally I think if you are going to grab a 35mm SLR you are better of with digital. However if you want to have fun with film go grab something like a 4x5 large format or a Rolleiflex 6x6 Medium format TLR. IE try something very different.

Both give a very different shooting experience. Oh and the quality you can get out of a 4x5 chrome is a amazing! Large format will also teach you to slow down and take your time.

And hey you may even find that you think its fun.

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