Film photography, as an art form, is having a huge renaissance at the moment. This resurgence in popularity has been going on for a few years now, and the reasons for its existence is many fold.
Primarily, shooting film taps into our sense of nostalgia. Those are powerful feelings, and that power can push us on to do better and ignite our desire to learn more. At first, the general consensus of the photography community was that the return of film was a hipster’s game and almost became a cliche.
Older, more experienced photographers reminded us there was a reason film had gone by the wayside when digital photography became widely used. What about all of the advancements in technology that made it easier, faster, and cheaper to take the same photos we took before?
In the end, the truth shows the mediums of film and digital sensors can, and do, coexist. An even happier truth is that not only is film photography still valid in this day and age, but its greatest purpose is also to bolster our knowledge of the craft and infinitely improve our digital picture-taking techniques and resulting images.
Let’s explore a few film photography challenges and their benefits a little further.
1. There’s no chimping after shooting a photo
“Chimping” refers to the practice of checking your display or viewfinder after every capture to see the resulting image. It seems nowadays everyone is speaking out against it. Film cameras, of course, having no digital display, didn’t have this ability. You didn’t know what the shot would look like until you developed the film.
While there are certainly advantages to this practice, such as quickly identifying an incorrect exposure or setting, it is easy to fall into a habit of methodically looking at your display and missing other opportunities to shoot. Most camera LCDs are very small. They don’t do a great job of representing details of how capture really looks.
Try adjusting the review settings in your camera and setting them to one second, or no review if that’s an option. This will simulate just shooting without spending time looking over the resulting image.
2. You are limited to 24 or 36 shots
Another limitation of shooting with a film camera is the number of exposures available to you. Depending on the film type, you could only have a couple of dozen exposures to use on a single roll. Once they were gone, they were gone – no deleting in-camera.
Shooting with a limited set of exposures compels you to slow down a bit and take your time when shooting. If you know you only have a small number of shots, you’ll definitely take more care with composition, settings, and lighting before clicking the shutter button.
Of course, this exercise can be practiced by mentally allowing yourself only 24 or 36 shots in a session, and then going back to review them after pulling them off of the camera. Did you notice an improvement in the technical aspects of the image after you had to stop “spraying and praying”?
3. You are stuck with a single ISO for a whole roll of film
In the film days, ISO wasn’t used in the same context as it is today. Now, we think of ISO as an adjustable setting on our cameras (which of course, it is). We know that raising the ISO on our DSLR or mirrorless cameras lets in more light to the sensor, at the expense of adding digital noise.
Film cameras didn’t have these adjustments, because the film you loaded dictated the ISO. To shoot indoors in a lower light situation, you’d buy and load an ISO 400 or ISO 800 film. Then, to shoot outside in the sun, you’d more likely go with ISO 100.
The caveat, of course, was once you loaded a roll of film, you were stuck with that ISO until you finished the roll.
Nowadays, we can change ISO for every shot, drastically improving the efficiency of our series of images captured in one sitting.
Try shooting with the same ISO through an entire set of images with your digital camera. Many of us will leave the ISO the same for extended periods. However, not changing it at all strengthens your knowledge and usage of the exposure triangle. You’re going to have to adjust aperture and shutter speed instead to get a properly exposed image.
4. You need to know how to use manual exposure controls
As stated above, today ISO is a setting or a dial, not a roll of film you can’t change until it’s finished. Film cameras are the perfect tool to learn the exposure triangle since most controls are manual on these devices. Some later SLR models had automatic aperture controls, but even these require a little more input than what is available on current DSLRs.
To simulate this, set your camera’s mode to “Manual,” and play around with the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to see what happens when one or more of these are changed. What does it do to the needle in the light meter? How does that final effect change the image recorded?
Proper exposure is a game. Changing one part of the exposure triangle changes the final output. You have to find out what other settings you must alter to balance that change and produce a correctly exposed image.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on when you set your camera to Av (aperture priority) or Tv (shutter priority).
5. There is no autofocus, so you’ll need to focus manually
One of the greatest technological improvements available in DSLR cameras today involves how the user focuses on a particular point in the frame. In older SLR cameras, a manually rotating ring on the lens controlled lens focusing. It changed the distance between the lens and sensor, thereby increasing or decreasing the sharpness of the focus.
On the DSLR cameras of today, electronic autofocus systems allow the photographer to manually or automatically select focus points within the frame. Then the camera adjusts a motorized focusing mechanism within the lens to focus. This can all happen very quickly – in seconds – and greatly improved picture taking over the last couple of decades.
As wonderfully innovative as autofocus is, not using it can help us reconnect with the mechanisms of film cameras. It helps us better understand the act of focusing a lens on increasing or decreasing sharpness in an image. Thankfully, most modern lenses give you the option of disabling the autofocus system altogether and focus manually.
To do this, simply look for the autofocus switch on your lens barrel (usually a two-position switch marked AF at one end, and MF at the other), and switch it to MF (manual focus). Doing this disables your autofocus system. You’ll be required to rotate the thin ring near the end of the lens to adjust focus.
6. There are no LCD screens, menus or advanced features to help you along
As camera systems entered the digital age and became more advanced, cameras themselves started to rely less on analog controls and more on menus available on bigger LCD screens. These menus allow you to control the finer aspects of the camera. They let you dig deeper into the options available.
Of course, film cameras had no menus. They didn’t even have LCD screens. Any options that you had control of you adjusted through analog knobs and switches on the camera body. With an old Canon AE-1 Program, you couldn’t change the file format (there isn’t one) or which autofocus mode to use (of course, no autofocus). To use “Program” mode, you simply turned the aperture ring on the lens to “A,” and the camera would then set the shutter speed and aperture automatically.
Naturally, you can simulate this by ignoring your LCD screen entirely. That means no chimping images after you push the shutter button, and not adjusting any settings in the camera. Using the analog dials (if available) on your camera will, again, help strengthen your understanding of the basics of taking photos. In the long run, this can only improve your photography.
So as we’ve seen, these film photography challenges can provide many benefits to modern-day shooters, whether you have an interest in analog photography or not. So take an afternoon out with your camera, and pretend it’s an old SLR, with none of the benefits of your newer model.
Get back to the basics. Concentrate on the bare essentials needed to capture a photograph. You will come out with a better understanding of how to capture light, and a more fulfilling enjoyment of the hobby. Also, you’ll produce better pictures, and more importantly, know exactly how you captured them.
Do you shoot with film cameras? Have you tried treating your dSLR like a film camera? Share with us your thoughts on these film photography challenges in the comments below!