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How Thinking Film and Shooting Digital Can Improve Your Photography


Film is not dead. But since the advent of digital photography, about 20 years ago, film has certainly taken a back seat. Since just over a decade ago, when digital cameras were widely available to the masses, film has almost been completely replaced. However, there’s a lot to be learned from the disciplines of analog days, before the ability to take photos so instantly, and at a phenomenal rate and remarkable quality, was made accessible to everyone with a digital camera.

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Back in film days, we only had a limited amount of frames we could shoot on one roll. Often the camera sat for days and weeks until we had shot all the frames on the roll of film. We then carefully rewound the film and packaged it off to the film developers, then we wait…hours, days, weeks before we even saw the images we shot. Shooting film was no doubt a methodical exercise in process and patience.

think film shoot digital creative project

But, film has made a comeback in recent years. Many professional digital photographers have added film to their arsenal, others have made the complete switch back to film, and there are those who never made the switch to digital in the first place. Exciting days for analog in this predominantly digital age!

One way to learn from the disciplines of shooting film is to think in film mode.

think film shoot digital creative project

Go out with your camera with the following restraints:

  1. Set yourself an imaginary film roll number. Limit the number of frames you can shoot to 12, 24, or 36.
  2. Keep your ISO to a set number like 100, 200, 400, or 800 – which are the common film speeds from those days.
  3. Use only one lens. I’m sure not many of us, unless we were professionals then, walked around with an array of lenses in hand. Often we just used one lens, carried no back up film, or batteries, or external flash!

think film shoot digital creative project

Now shoot like you have a film camera in your hand and adopt these mindsets:

1.Don’t spray and pray!

When you take a photo, bear in mind how many frames you have left, and think carefully before you press the shutter. You cannot spray and pray with film, therefore have to exercise restraint. Look at things carefully, with an intentional eye, and imagine what the scene might look like before you take the shot. This helps you compose the frame more meticulously, and look at the light and dark contrast of the scene with more discernment.

think film shoot digital creative project

2. Think of a story or theme, or limit yourself to one place.

Boundaries are always helpful, they stretch you to think outside the box, more than when you have all the freedom in the world to photograph anything you please. It also helps make a cohesive story at the end, should you wish to collate your photos together on a blog or in an album.

think film shoot digital creative project

3. Don’t fear deep darkness or the raging midday sun.

Film is so good at retaining details in highlight and shadow areas of a photograph, that the dynamic range of the image is miles better compared to the digital camera image. Film also has a very forgiving nature when it comes to underexposure and overexposure over a wide range of stops. So with your film brain on, don’t fear extreme brightness or deep darkness. However bear in mind the settings to use that could help you in such circumstances.

When your subject is in bright daylight, and you don’t have a light meter handy, adopt the sunny f/16 rule. This means you use the following settings: aperture f/16 and your shutter speed set to the reciprocal of your ISO, or film speed. For example, if you have set your ISO to 100, this means your aperture will be f/16 and your shutter speed to the closest of 100 which is 1/125 (or any equivalent exposure value such as f/11 at 1/250, or f/8 at 1/500).

think film shoot digital creative project

4. Go where the light is

Whether it be natural light or any other available light, whether under the brightness of the sun or just candelight in a room, find the light. Film is extremely sensitive to light and if you adjust your shutter speeds in low light accordingly, you will be surprised at how well film can capture ambient light. Remember when shooting in low light, steady yourself or your camera, lower your shutter speed and adjust your aperture (open it wide). Your ISO cannot be changed; with film you only have two sides of the exposure triangle to play with.

think film shoot digital creative project

5. Edit for a film look

Nowadays there is a plethora of Lightroom presets, and Photoshop actions, that replicate the film look. If you are a dab hand at Photoshop, you can probably do it yourself from scratch. The main elements you are after to replicate the general film look are: pastel tones, creamy highlights, soft shadows, low and controlled contrast, reduced saturation, matte look (reduced black output), creamy skin tones, and some grain. Of course the actual overall look depends of the type of film used, but this list would encompass the general look and feel that film gives to an image.

think film shoot digital creative project

The photos I have used in this article were taken with a D700 and a 35mm f/1.4G, captured one day in London when I went out thinking film and shooting digital. I shot 22 frames out of 24 in three hours, nailed 19, botched two and fixed one in Photoshop.

think film shoot digital creative project

I hope you try this exercise and have fun with it. Share below in the comments how many frames you managed to shoot under great restraint, and then celebrate!

think film shoot digital creative project

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Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • Ben Natrins

    Great article, I must admit, I am trying to limit myself to a single lens, and a single ISO when shooting. I tend to overthink things and end up with too many so-so shots, rather than really good ones.

  • Leyden

    Lily, good article, but……
    You left out one aspect of the frame counting mind set – it costs money to turn film into prints, where as with digital you probably have rationalized the cost of the computer for non-picture purposes, therefore your digital prints are FREE. If you are paying an average hours’ worth of work ( or more) for 36 prints ‘spray and pray’ is WAY out of the realm of reality…..

    [ P.S. back in my film days I had about the same two lenses as now [about 18-55 / 75-200] and I carried them both most of the time. ]

    [P.P.S. You didn’t out right say ‘ get it right in the camera ‘, which I’m a big fan of, film days showing through again, plus learning Photoshop is more work than I care to invest right now. ]

  • Lily Sawyer

    HI Ben – Thanks for your comment. Yes it’s definitely a challenge sticking to 1 lens and 1 ISO but great exercise and practice to improve photography.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thanks for your comment Leyden. You are right – I forgot to mention about getting it right in camera! I assumed that was a given when shooting film and is definitely a huge challenge bearing in mind the costs of developing and print. But absolutely right to keep this in mind too when shooting digital!

  • Mike

    I still use film myself, and it always has been my preference. The one thing you have to keep in mind when using film is that you know that by taking that shot it is costing you money, both for the film and developing, shipping too if you send it out. So when you take that shot, you have to make it count!

  • Lily Sawyer

    I don’t think film can be truly 100% replicated in digital. I also shoot film sometimes (as a hobby) and I still notice the difference. You are right it is unique and special. I have to admit the ease of shooting digital compared to film is unquestionable. But film is still a class of its own in terms of look. Pity about the high costs of developing now (when using specialist labs) as well as buying the rolls and printing. Film has now become a specialist craft that the costs are justifiable – in my opinion.

  • Tim Lowe

    So totally true. I cut to the chase with my students. 35mm camera with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. ISO 100 b/w film and you have go cook what you kill. (Develop your own film.) They see me out with a large format camera and maybe expose 4 sheets on a good day, they start to think before they shoot. If they eventually go on to shoot digital cameras, they are far better photographers. I don’t hold it against them. 😉

  • I took up film again a couple of years ago after a decade or so of shooting purely digital partly to regain precisely the sort of discipline that you describe in your article. I also do it because I like the whole process, doing my own developing and gelatin silver printing – those wet techniques remain exclusively out of the digital domain and are all the better for it. But I still shoot digital and have found myself incorporating much of that film-related outlook into my current digital process and get better overall results as a consequence. Excellent article.

  • len

    Well said, I’ve been shooting digital with a 36 shot limit and the play-back screen turned off for a while now, and it definitely makes me thing more. Also, I use a fuji x100s which looks and feels like a film rangefinder. Don’t know how many times I’ve been questioned about that on the street.

  • Alan D Granger

    When I get in a rut, I get my old Pentax ZX-5, stick my old 50mm f1.4 on it and shoot a roll or two. Sometimes I shoot color. Sometimes I shoot B/W.

  • Christine

    I’ve done this for 40+ years – but then I grew up with film. Although I shoot digital now, I still have the film mind set. You need to go out to shoot with some idea of what you want and then only take the pictures that express that. I’ve never understood “spray and pray” – it seems for those who do it, they don’t really know what they are trying to achieve with their camera. They are hoping something will “come out”. I think it will come out when you make it that way in the first place.

  • Carol Wiles

    Rang a lot of bells with me! Thanks Lily!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Checked out your flicker, Tim. Love your photos! Thanks for the comment!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thanks Carol!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Film is THE mindset to have! Totally agree!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Good tip when in a rut, thank you!

  • Lily Sawyer

    I forgot to include “turn off the LCD screen” in the article! Thanks Len!

  • Lily Sawyer

    Thanks Richard. I’d love to see some of your photos!

  • My pleasure. 🙂

  • My pleasure. 🙂

  • Lily Sawyer

    Stunning work Richard! Did you use some expired film too? I really don’t mind the grain in film but noise in digital just looks very bad!

  • Thank you, Lily – I appreciate the compliment. 🙂 I have used expired film, but not in the photos you see on my page. The ones with unusual coloring are Lomochrome Purple (the purple tinged ones as you might guess) and Adox Color Implosion which mimics the type of color bleaching you see with old film and prints. I do agree with you about grain; film grain, even heavy grain, somehow looks right whereas digital noise just looks kind of ugly. Just why interests me – probably because we have all seen old film photos heavy in grain and internalize that as a good look. Who knows, maybe in a decade or two, digital noise will seem similarly ‘right’. We’ll see.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Lake Mist is my favourite! Did it really look like that? Amazing! I hope you sell your photos as art or prints or even stock. They are awesome!

  • Thanks again, Lily. Yes, Lake Mist really did look like that! I do sell a few prints, I’m happy to say. I also placed first in the ‘Landscape’ category in a juried St. Louis photography competition earlier this year and I have a three month photography installation scheduled at Washington University starting in December of this year. So my work is getting out there. 🙂 It adds to the fun.

  • Lily Sawyer

    Wonderful and well deserved!

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