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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
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 www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

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