- Larger Formats
- Learn the Complete Photographic Process
- Print In a Darkroom
- Become a Better Digital Photographer
- It’s FUN!
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Please indulge my reminiscing as I discuss why you should shoot on film in the digital age. I’ve been a photographer for a very long time, having grown up with various formats of film cameras. As I got into paid photography, I was still solidly in the film photography era.
Digital was an interesting thing to read about in photography magazines and see at consumer product shows and when various sales reps would visit my local camera shop.
Bit by bit, digital imaging started making its way into mainstream photography. First through news and sports agencies, then in mass market magazine advertising, and finally down to us regular pros and avid photo enthusiasts.
My early entry into digital imaging came by means of Kodak and other brands offering photo CDs along with my film processing. Then, in 2002, Canon introduced the EOS-1Ds with a Full Frame sensor which actually surpassed the industry standard resolving power of Kodachrome 25 film. Ever since then, I’ve been shooting digital and transitioned away from film for a large part of my photography.
Why I Use a Film Camera in 2021
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I actually never totally stopped using film cameras, especially for larger formats, but I’ve recently started using a film camera more often now. There are good reasons to shoot on film if you’re a digital photographer.
If you are wondering why should you shoot film, here are 5 reasons for why I shoot film that might apply to you, too:
Cheap Access to Larger Formats
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I’ll be honest with you, I spend a lot of money on photography and videography, and I bet many of you do, too. In order to get specific features and also to have a certain quality level, camera gear prices go up.
Entry-level cameras and lenses are among my favorite tools for helping others learn serious photography. The quality of images produced by these fantastic products is absolutely superb, so I like to emphasize to never look down on entry-level gear.
The entry-level label refers to friendly pricing and not to image quality. What makes other cameras cost more is often an increase in ruggedness and special features such as very fast lens apertures.
Larger formats cost more, too. An APS-C entry-level camera with two lenses might cost less than a pro series Full Frame camera body alone. It’s not just the cameras, but lenses too, that cost more in Full Frame than in APS-C, even when comparing professional caliber gear in those two formats.
As a general rule, cameras and lenses simply cost more as format size goes up. In digital cameras, take a look at Medium Format cameras compared to Full Frame 35mm format. A typical Medium Format camera with 3 lenses costs about as much as a nice car or even a modest home in some real estate markets.
120 Roll Film and 4X5 Sheet Film
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A great reason for why you should shoot on film is that you get much cheaper access to photography formats larger than Full Frame 35mm.
Take a look on a trustworthy used camera website and you’ll find professional level Medium Format cameras using 120 and 220 roll film and their lenses for prices that are true bargains. If you were to look locally at estate sales or neighborhood camera stores, you might even find enthusiast level roll film cameras for extreme bargain basement pricing.
Moving up into Large Format, such as 4 by 5 inch sheet film view cameras, field cameras, and press cameras, also known simply as 4X5, we see very view digital options. What does exist is so expensive I can’t see most of the working pros I know ever owning one, though renting might be cost effective based on the job.
Once again, in the used market for 4X5 cameras, prices are very friendly. 4X5, 8X10, and even larger sheet film cameras are still being made brand new, too. I love using 4X5 film cameras. These cameras have capabilities that require us to use deep menus in Photoshop to mimic digitally, such as perspective correction and plane of focus adjustments.
Learn the Complete Photographic Process
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If you’re even just a little bit younger than I am or otherwise just now started getting serious about photography, you may have never used a film camera for serious photography. Which is nothing to be ashamed of, it just means you didn’t get a background in the classic photographic process.
While we have amazing post processing programs that can perform many operations, most of the advanced features of these programs are a way to do digitally what was done with film, photo printing paper, processing chemicals, and special techniques.
An understanding of what happens when we expose, develop, and print film based images directly corresponds to digital tools and features and is a good reason why you should shoot on film. For instance, look at the Photoshop tool of Dodge and Burn. Though it’s a digital PS tool, it is based on and even named for a technique used in physical printing from a negative.
Contrast adjustments, dynamic range, film grain, and so on all refer to characteristics and techniques of film, paper, and chemicals. So, seeing and doing it in film ourselves lets us really learn what is happening and more importantly why.
Print In a Darkroom
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Which is why, if at all possible, using a darkroom to develop and print ourselves is very beneficial. When we shoot digital, especially JPEGs to use as is, we miss out on a lot of what’s happening.
In a class I used to teach a long, long time ago, we would even make our own film to get the full picture, pun regretted. We spread a light sensitive copper based emulsion on a sheet of paper, exposed it, developed and fixed it, and had a barely discernible image, but we did make an image! It was a great exercise, I’ll have to see if I can find the materials and instructions again.
Outside of that, shooting B&W with film cameras, developing it ourselves, using an enlarger in a darkroom, and finishing the prints will also provide an eye opening view of the entire set of operations of what happens in the camera, on the film, and how it all affects how a final image might come out, plus why it all happens the way it does.
Become a Better Digital Photographer
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All of this playing around with classic film cameras, developing, and printing in a darkroom will teach us about photography in general. Knowing what is happening, and more importantly WHY, allows us to have more control of whatever type of photography we’re doing. This also applies to digital video.
Much of what is happening when we capture and post process a digital file is directly analogous to the photography that was made by scientists and artists in the early 1800s.
Light as a waveform is adjusted by the optics of our lenses. Light as particles is controlled by lens apertures and shutter speeds and impacts a light sensitive surface which is then manipulated to make a permanent image.
A Daguerreotype and a JPEG from a mirrorless Canon, Nikon, or Sony have more things in common than differences. Thus, completely understanding the art and science of photography is among the more important reasons why you should shoot on film.
Film Photography Is FUN!
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The number one reason why you should shoot on film is because it’s fun. It is so enjoyable to change our mindset of how we create an image, slowing down and considering how to maximize the limited number of exposures available in a roll of film or even on a single sheet of large format film.
Even if you’re not going to develop and print the film yourself, it still makes us think more about each individual shot. And that’s part of the real enjoyment of using a film camera. As photographers, the more we exercise our creativity, the happier we are.
Here’s an assignment if you want to enjoy using a film camera yourself. FInd a classic 120 roll film camera. A TLR or a folding camera will be great. This will likely mean you are going to be setting the shutter speed and lens aperture or f-stop manually. That’s okay, pick up an old light meter, too, or practice the Sunny 16 Rule.
I suggest 120 roll film because the images will be larger on the negative, plus there will be fewer exposures available per roll, making us really consider each shot. I recommend black and white negative films for the complete experience. Color negatives or chromes (slides) are nice, but B&W is easier to process and print.
In some areas, I’ve seen darkrooms for rent, though that isn’t as plentiful as it was before the last 15 years or so. I have found listings for used darkroom equipment that you can put in a second bathroom or a spare bedroom.
photo by Visual_Intermezzo via iStock
A light tight changing bag is useful for loading the exposed film into the developing can but most of the other operations don’t actually require complete darkness. Black out the windows and seal up around doors to limit light leaks affecting your printing, find a deep red safelight filter for that part of the process.
And finally, to complete the experience, matte the enlargements yourself and hang them on the wall. The joy of creating your own art and the fun of learning by doing all the steps are the best reasons why you should shoot on film. As an added bonus, you may also become a better digital photographer by engaging in film photography.