I have a Canon AE-1 but I’m new to photography. I mean it’s always interesting me but I never did anything until now when I found this camera in my grandma's attic. It works pretty well. I mean I haven’t gotten the film developed to see what the picture look like, but I’m not sure if they're gonna be bad because of the camera or because of me. It would probably be me, because I don’t quite understand the aperture and stuff like that. I mean I kinda do / kinda don’t. I just need to get familiar, but I was wondering if I should continue to learn on a film camera or should I use a digital camera. What would be best for me?
The advantages to learning exposure with digital are that it doesn't cost you any more to make more exposures (no film/development costs) and immediate feedback. You can instantly see the effect of setting change when you take the image (or if you're using a camera where you compose on the LCD or through an electronic viewfinder in liveview, before you take the shot with exposure simulation). In addition, each image you take will have embedded metadata that will let you check later on what iso, aperture, and shutter speed settings you used. Film doesn't dot that, and you have to keep notes, which can be awkward while you're shooting.
But on the flip side, film will give you shot discipline in mental editing quite a bit harder before you mash that button that digital spray'n'prayers may never learn. :) The main problem here with your AE-1 is that you may not know if it's working correctly or needs to be service as well as your skillset not yet being able to figure out where you might have gone wrong if the exposure isn't right.
But you don't necessarily have to use a digital camera if the film camera works fine (no light leaks, broken parts, etc.) it might be worth it for you to put a light metering app on your smartphone. Some of them do exposure simulation and if they match your AE-1's exposure, then maybe it's a way to have a preview first before you shoot.
Many of us grizzled old-timers like to boast about how we started with film in the era before autofocus existed and how it forced us to learn how to be real photographers.¹ But the reason we did so was because it was the only way to start back then.
Now that you have a choice, though, starting with film is probably not the best way to get where you want to go - even if your ultimate goal is to shoot your most important work on film.
- The overwhelming advantage of digital is that it allows one to experiment and learn without the per-shot expense of film. Your initial cost to start is less with film, but by the time you've shot your first 1,000 frames the cost of film and developing will have overtaken the cost of an entry level DSLR. By the time you've shot your first 10,000 frames² just the film and processing could have bought a nice lower end pro-level digital system.
- There's also much to be said about the instant feedback of viewing a histogram on the back of the camera immediately following the shot. In the film era some of the best photographers in the world would use a polaroid back to test their lighting setup before loading the film and shooting.
- Digital allows you to set the ISO and white balance of each shot individually, just as a century ago with the use of sheet negatives. Roll film, on the other hand, locks you into a specific sensitivity and color balance for an entire roll of film.
- While there is much to be said about the lessons learned from processing your own B&W film in the darkroom there are just as many lessons that can be learned from developing your raw digital files on the desktop. You can also learn a lot about exposure, contrast, white balance and color, composition, etc. by processing your photos critically with the digital equivalent of a darkroom - your computer.
- Digital cameras record information with each frame that tells you what aperture, shutter speed, ISO, metering pattern, AF point, etc. you used. This is extremely helpful when reviewing your images to see what did and, perhaps more importantly, what did not work. In the film days a student would need to stop and write all of those things down for each shot.
If your budget is extremely limited you have other options besides a new DSLR or a used film camera. You can also find used digital cameras that are 2-3 generations older than the current models for very modest prices. They'll still take good photos, even if they are not on the cutting edge of today's technology. You don't need an SLR or DSLR to start learning, either. A good used bridge camera or compact that has the ability to manually control shutter speed, aperture, and sensitivity (ISO) will allow you to get started learning the basics of exposure, composition, and post-processing (much of which can carry over to the darkroom - almost everything we do in digital post-processing has a corresponding antecedent in the chemical darkroom). It will also give you the flexibility of shot to shot customization that was once only the domain of those who used sheet film rather than roll film.
Even if you decide you want to ultimately shoot with film, shooting with a slightly older used digital camera is a faster and more economical way to learn many of the fundamentals of exposure, composition, technique, and how using different focal lengths, apertures, shutter times, etc. will affect the resulting image than starting out with a film camera would be. This is particularly the case when you're not sure if any problems you might see in your earliest images are the result of user error or of camera malfunction.
¹ The ranks of those who learned in the era before auto exposure are much thinner than they were just a decade or so ago. There are very few, if any, shooters left who started before most cameras had built-in light meters!
² Henri Cartier-Bresson is oft-quoted as having said, "Your first 10,000 frames are always your worst." He was perhaps the greatest street photographer of the 20th Century and is certainly one of if not the most well-known. In photographic circles, the initials HCB are enough to positively identify him.
If you’re looking to learn how to use film, develop it, print it in a darkroom...then there is no substitute to shooting with film.
If you’re looking to learn literally anything else in photography: exposure, depth of field, color balance, using filters, focal lengths, mixed lighting, studio lighting, etc. then learn on digital.
The one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other. You can both start learning exposure using a digital camera while also taking out the AE-1 here and there to shoot and develop a roll.
An AE-1 has match needle metering (IIRC), so as long as you have fresh batteries and have placed the needle in the centre slot by adjusting the shutter speed and aperture, the film should be correctly exposed +/- 1 stop. (A strongly backlit scene may need + 2 stops)
If moving objects seem blurred, you may need to use a faster shutter speed -- 1/125 is probably a good minimum for handheld, although you might get away with 1/60 sometimes. (especially with a lens of 35mm focal length or less) You also may need 1/500 and up if you want to freeze something moving really fast.
If the plane of focus seems to narrow (ie. you want things in a wider range of distances from the camera to be in focus) you may need to use a narrower f/stop (bigger number). The old saying is "f/8 and be there" which is probably a good place to start. If you are trying for the modern "subject isolation" look, you will want to open the aperture up more, f/2 or less; conversely if you are shooting (for example) a field of flowers that stretches to the horizon, and want as many of them as possible to be in focus, you might choose f/16 or f/22. The little white numbers behind the focus ring of your lens will show you the range of focus for a given f-stop; for instance at f/16 with the lens focused at 2m, things between 1.5 and 3m from the camera (roughly) should be in focus.
In short, the meter on the AE-1 is just fine, and if you adjust your setting so that the needle is in the middle, your exposure should be just fine as well. The specific aperture/shutter speed you choose within this constraint will be a trade-off, depending on your artistic intent and physical constraints. (available light is a biggie)
That aside, you really should get your film developed ASAP! The feedback loop with film is longer than digital at the best of times, you really want to look at your negatives before you have forgotten what was going on with your process at the time. (or take notes, but who does that?!)
Sustained interest in the subject is more important than having the "best" equipment. If you want to learn film photography in particular, it's fine to use the old AE-1. People managed without digital for centuries.
However, film has a number of disadvantages for learners:
Film isn't cheap. An old digital camera, perfectly suitable for learning, can be obtained for the price of a couple weekends of heavy shooting with film.
Negative film has exposure latitude – it is forgiving of missed exposures. Beginners may pick up "bad" habits that won't work well with transparencies or digital before they understand what they are doing.
Results from film vary depending on developer, scanner, post-processing, printer, etc. With digital, there is no developer or scanner to worry about.
Old equipment may be quirky or dysfunctional.
In addition to reduced costs, digital provides rapid feedback, which can help you advance more quickly. You can upgrade later when you have a better sense of want or need.
My experience: I learned on film, and still feel like I am on a steep learning curve regarding exposure on digital.
Many scenes exceed the dynamic range of what whatever photographic medium can handle well - print film handles whatever parts of the image are outside that range in one way, slide film does so in a completely different way, and digital sensors also do so in a different way. Print film CAN deal with these parts, slide film WILL deal with them, and if you are in bad luck, they will deal with a digital sensor.
If you want teach yourself discipline and photographic purpose, and an eye for form, shape and composition and you are willing to stick with just one lens, able to endure developing and enlarging your prints personally. I advise you to stick shooting BW film and find an analog repairman to do a cheap CLE to your SLR. It will be rewarding.
If you’re looking for something else or not willing to put up with the hassle of learning and handling the whole workflow, you best option is to move to digital but I would suggest you to try to avoid listening to anything about perfect technique, stick to the basics and center yourself in taking photographs that speak to you, both in form, shape and composition...
If you have a film camera and a digital one (or a smartphone), you can use your digital camera as a primary measurement tool to make adjustments on your analog camera. Comparing photos from two cameras would be extremely interesting and you will get so much understanding and experience. I would suggest using reversal film (slides) which you can enjoy immediately after processing. This way you can quickly learn the basics and get some ideas about using your film camera to get that special photos which would be looking great even in the current digital age.
If shooting film then shoot color slide film. Then someone making a print or a scan knows what the result should look like. The print or the scan should look like the slide.
Slide film can be bought in a box of 5 by mail order. Slide film can be commercially processed by mail order. Or slide film can be processed at home with a film tank and the E6 chemical set.
In my experience a real drum scan and print of a slide looks like the slide but is grainy if looking at the print from too close. Or a Durst Lambda scan and print looks like smooth clay and is a little dull. However, the Lambda scan makes the best digital image but does need sharpening. The drum scan makes the best print but doesn't make a very good digital image.
A digital camera requires exposure and white balance. But the automatic white balance of a digital camera is improving. Or the camera might just make multiple copies of the same shot but with varying exposure and white balance for each copy.
A digital camera usually makes the best image when underexposed about 1/3 stop but the image will probably need a small amount of sharpening. That situation is when shooting jpeg. Some digital artists shoot raw images and post-process in multiple layers.
Some digital artists print a digital image with an inkjet printer. The inkjet print is not resistant to water or fingerprints and probably should be matted and framed. But many custom prints of digital images are C-prints based on exposed photo paper. The digital C-prints are not exposed with negatives but exposed by each digital pixel value.