4 Things You Can Learn From Film and How to Apply Them to Your Digital Photography

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Since the introduction of digital cameras, photography is becoming more and more popular amongst everyone. This is largely due to the fact digital has dramatically reduced the cost of taking photos, as they no longer required to be developed, and the recording media (SD or CF cards) can be reused. Another fantastic advantage of digital, is the instant replay it gives you of the photo just taken, giving you the option to correct any flaws in the image. This is something that could not be done with film, and each photo taken would cost money; regardless of how great it was, or was not.

Digital Film

Digital technology has come so far in the last several years that it is out-performing film on almost every level; for example, camera’s can now go up to ISO 3.2 million – an ASA (film equivalent to ISO) level that was never even considered during the films days.

But does this mean that film is useless, and has nothing to offer? Absolutely not. Regardless of whether film is making some sort of a resurgence or not, there are still many things that film can teach you about photography, that digital simply cannot. Here are some thing that shooting with film can teach you better than what digital capture can do:

1. SELF CONFIDENCE

With the immediacy of the feedback that digital cameras provide you, it is all too easy and tempting to continually check your camera’s LCD to see how your photo has turned out. This tendency to keep looking at the LCD is often referred to as chimping. You may chimp for various reasons, ranging from ensuring your photo is correctly exposed (the most common reason), in focus, or seeking self-gratification that you’ve done a good job.

Now, imagine you were photographing with film. You would not be able to see your photos straight away; you’d have to wait a week or even two! You would not be able to see if the photo was correctly exposed, or pat yourself on the back about getting a great frame – at least not right away!

Film taught photographers to read the light and tones within their environment, and to learn how to use their tools correctly. This built confidence within photographers to trust in their own abilities and decisions. It meant that photographers would worry less about receiving positive reassurance on the photo they’d just taken; they knew that they had exposed and focussed correctly and kept going. There was no ,”Hold on, I’ll just check to make sure your wedding dress is correctly exposed”, or “I missed that shot because I was checking my exposure.”

Fredrik Holmberg

By Fredrik Holmberg

So why is chimping a bad habit? Because it says that you are not that confident in your own abilities and judgement, and you need the constant reassurance that you are doing a good job. It results in you potentially missing a great opportunity for a photograph, as your attention has now shifted from your subject to your camera. Wedding, sport, and action photographers may miss a critical moment, a defining moment, if they are always looking at their screen. If you’re looking at your screen, you’re not ready for the moment and you most certainly are not taking photos.

For portrait photographers, taking your camera way from your eye breaks that connection between yourself and your subject. It also says that you’re more interested in the result than you are them.

Apply this to your digital photography

To increase your confidence in your own abilities, I challenge you to only look at your LCD once or twice the next time you’re out photographing. These times should really only be to help you achieve the exposure you wish. If the lighting conditions are consistent, there is no reason you should need to look at your LCD again.

2. PUSH YOURSELF MORE

All too often you may see an outstanding result on the back of your camera. You stop taking photos because you are convinced that it cannot be bettered; only to see your friend take a better image right next to you. The instant replay of your work on the back of your camera can often prevent you from pushing yourself just that little bit further, and getting that great shot. That instant replay didn’t exist on film cameras, so photographers didn’t know if they had “the shot” or not; they had to keep pushing themselves to ensure that they did get it.

Calvinnivlac

By calvinnivlac

If you’re tempted to keep looking at your screen, I’d encourage you to turn preview or replay to off in your camera menu. If you are still tempted to press play and have a sneaky peek, tape a little piece of paper or card over the screen so you cannot see the image.

Apply this to your digital photography

Do not be tempted to keep looking at your screen, and being satisfied with what you see after the first one or two frames. Keep going. Perhaps you could try different angles, settings, lighting etc., but you should always keep pushing a little further to get a better shot. Even if it is just three or four additional frames.

3. YOU THINK MORE

Taking a photo with digital cameras costs nothing; just the minuscule amount of electricity the camera needs to operate and a little bit of storage. Memory cards can hold thousands of photos – far more than the 36-exposure roll of film. But that limitation of 36 exposures can teach you something that digital cannot – discipline.

John Goode

By John Goode

Think about the last time you went out taking photos. How many did you come back with? I would bet that you might have hundreds of photos to go through, maybe even thousands. Now, divide that number by 36. That’s how many rolls of film you went through. When you have such a limited number of exposures until you have to change your roll (which takes a lot more time than switching memory cards, by the way), you don’t just take photos every time you see something you like. You look at the subject or scene and consider it more carefully. In doing this, you evaluate if it is indeed worth taking a photo of or not.

Apply this to your digital photography

Try shooting with a smaller memory card like 1gb, or even smaller if you can find some old cards. Limit yourself to 36 shots per day or per outing. Do not delete images as you go, only fill the card or your limit of shots and no more. It will help you be more intentional with your shooting. If you are always deleting images, that defeats the purpose of having a smaller card!

4. GREATER VARIETY IN YOUR WORK

Have you ever gone through photos that you’ve taken and realized that you took so many images of the same thing, with little or no difference between many of them? Do you find it boring going through your photos sometimes because there is such little variation in so many images? With film, each frame cost more money than digital, so photographers made each frame count.

Phil

By Phil

Apply this to your digital photography

Do you really need 10 photos of the same object, from the same angle? No, you don’t – those 10 frames are all the same, so therefore are really just one photo taken ten times. You can still have 10 photos of the same subject, but vary them; try different angles, focal length, exposures. Even try photographing it with a different lens (wide angle versus telephoto). Make each frame different to the next, and make each frame count. Not all the images will work out, but you will have much more variety in your work from the same number of subjects. It will also help you greatly in the future when deciding on what approach to take for your next subject.

Summary

So there you have it, some simple and practical things that shooting with film can teach you better than digital. If you have a film camera laying about collecting dust, why not pick it up, put a fresh roll of film in (extra points if you shoot on slide film) and start using it? It will be quite a strange sensation using a film camera and the the images you take may not be that fantastic to start. Should you stick with it, it will help you on your journey to improving you photography and in my experience, nothing is more satisfying that nailing a photo on film over digital.

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Daniel is originally from Melbourne, Australia, but now resides in the UK. He specializes in sport and editorial photography and is a photographer with the worlds leading digital content suppliers. You can see more of his work by following him on Instagram.

  • Good points that I concur with. As a film shooter as well as digital, I might add that shooting black and white film is a much more intuitively instructive way to really understand color tone as translated into monochrome than simply playing with the filter controls in Lightroom or Photoshop, especially if you make use of color filters. The ones you screw into your lens, not the sliders in Lightroom. 🙂

  • jdkoerner

    Worth noting is the difference between shooting multiple images and rapid fire shooting in spontaneous environments in which positions of subjects and facial expressions are constantly changing. While it’s pointless to use with a static subject, I’ve found that a shot even a second later than another can make all the difference in capturing the moment.

  • Good point, Richard! Although, the use of coloured screw-on filters is something that one could easily learn away from film. But I do agree with the black and white film comment.
    Thanks!

  • True…the facial expressions can change between frames taken a split second apart. This can be done on both film and digital, though!

  • pete guaron

    Coming into digital at the tail end of my life, and having spent a lifetime with film (mostly black & white) and the joys of developing my films & making my own enlargements, I find digital strange, at times.

    My mind set is light, shapes, composition – and color came later, so it gets “added into” that. Starting in color, as most people do now, seems to leave a limited understanding of light, shapes and – at times – composition. That sound horrible to say – but a lot of people don’t “compose” color, as such. I don’t know if that makes much sense to other people – it’s hard to explain what I mean – but they start & end with color, sometimes, and there’s less attention given to light & shade than to color – to shapes, rather than patches of color (and there are generally shapes underlying all the colors) – and their rules of composition seem to drift off into composing the colors, but not the other components of the scene the camera is recording.

    Perhaps they could try shooting in black & white instead, for a time?

    And yes I agree that chimping can be a very bad habit. It may be better to focus more on exposure settings, positioning the camera, analysing the shot & so on BEFORE firing the shutter.

    Bracketing, histograms, chimping & so on all have a role to play – you can’t say they’re “wrong” and leave it there – but it’s like that passage in Alice in Wonderland, where Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that “the question is which is to be master”.

  • Wayne Werner

    I find this to be exactly true – shooting in B&W for a while really transformed the way that I shoot. It helped me to look more at the light and think about how I was composing the shot. I had to really make the the composition count. Going back to color, that time really made my images stronger.

  • Tim Brown

    I have a B.A in commercial still photography from Brooks Institute. From the non-digital film age. And this article is drivel. Don’t live in the past. Professionals not only chimp, they set up tethering to large screens. Don’t listen to this stupid guy. Do what every you want and what works for you. There are no rules.

  • Many thanks for the comment, Tim, and for sharing that you have a BA in Commercial photography. I also have a BA in Photography, too ;).

    I don’t believe I mentioned in the article that professionals don’t chimp….? Also, not all professionals use tethering and view on a large screen – pj’s and sport photographers come to mind, here.

    I also don’t remember anywhere in the article saying that there were any ‘rules’, either. Perhaps you’d like to point those out for me?

    Calling me a stupid guy is also unfounded, not to mention unprofessional…just sayin’.

  • PWitchery

    You know, it’s funny. I mentioned to my father-in-law that I wanted to learn film techniques out of respect. He was like “Respect for what?! Be practical! Stick with digital and learn ITS tools!”

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