How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

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There exists a strange and long standing line drawn in the weird sands of the photo world. On one side of that line you have those who shoot only digital images and on the other, you have those who still swear by analog film. Then there’s a hazy gray area (probably 18% gray) where people like myself reside.

Do you shoot film or digital? Seeing as this is Digital Photography School, I assume the answer to that question likely leans towards the latter. I started out on my photographic journey with a 35mm SLR, then moved to a DSLR and mirrorless, until I now strike a weighted balance between digital and large format film photography.

Why am I telling you all of this? The reason is simple; we all want to make better images and we all want to grow as photographers.

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

Stay with me here….Consider for a moment that instead of choosing sides on that imaginary line between film and digital photography, while pointing out the perceived benefits of digital over film, that there are many lessons to be learned from the film shooter’s mindset.

In this article, we’re going to look at some ways shooting film, or at least with the mentality of film, can help you with your digital photography skills. And no I won’t try to persuade you to jump from one side of the line to the other.

Shoot like it isn’t free

If there’s one thing that has both illuminated the field of digital photography while at the same time stamping out the classical mental focus involved in the craft it is this…

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

This little piece of plastic and silicon cost me about $13 and holds well over a 1000 images when used in my 36.4-megapixel camera. That’s a lot of photographs. What’s more is that it doesn’t end there. I can hypothetically erase and reuse this contraption an unlimited number of times.

My camera will wear out (knock on wood) before this memory card does. Now, compare that memory card to this:

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

This is a box of one of the 4×5 sheet films that I use with my large format camera. It cost me around $40 after it was all said and done. That’s 25 sheets of film that I will have to load into holders under complete darkness, put into my view camera, expose for about $1.60 each, and then bring back home to develop in my darkroom. And that’s just the first phase.

If I want to print images from those negatives I have to either scan them into the computer or print them myself in the darkroom using light-sensitive paper and even more chemicals and equipment.

Which causes more pause before shooting?

So, here we have two entirely different mediums to record what is essentially the same thing. Which one do you think I am more careful with when shooting? The $40 box of film or the $13 memory card?

If I make a mistake in exposure, composition, or anything else when I’m shooting digital there is virtually instant feedback and the error usually costs nothing. With film, the result is hidden and any “Uh-ohs!” are only evident after the fact.

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

I urge you to shoot as deliberately as possible when using your digital camera. Sure, even a well thought out photo can go bad regardless of planning but the more you think about what you’re doing the fewer variables there are in the equation.

Pay attention to what you’re shooting and why. Photograph as if every frame costs you money and I promise that you will begin seeing better results with your digital photos.

Choose an ISO and stick to it

Something that we take for granted with digital photography is the quick application of ISO changes. Usually, a prompt turn of a dial can take you from ISO 100 to ISO 6400 and back again in a few seconds.

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

This is not a bad thing. Changing ISO on a digital camera opens up astounding creative possibilities and lets you get shots you would have otherwise missed when the light changes suddenly.

That being said, it can also spoil us to the point where we crank up the ISO at times when we might possibly find more creative alternatives. Try this to practice – choose an ISO for the day and shoot at only that ISO setting.

Granted, I wouldn’t try this on a wedding shoot…but go out with your camera set to say, ISO 400, and force yourself to think through difficult lighting conditions. You might find you gain a better understanding of the relationships between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that will help you immensely in the future.

Make a set number of exposures

Before I moved into digital photography I used 35mm film. Most rolls were of the twenty-four exposure variety with some being extended to thirty-six. That seems like a million frames when compared to the two sheets carried in each large format film holder or the eight with my Polaroid SX70.

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

As much as I love my film cameras, I still use digital for over 80% of my “professional” work. Each time I switch back and forth between film and digital I notice a strange change in the way I shoot particular scenes. It goes back to our first point about how film actually costs money with each click of the shutter.

I tend to essentially overshoot a scene with digital. I may take 10 or 12 images of a frame whereas with film I might only make one or two. Why is that? When you think about it, making consistently solid photographs isn’t a matter of firing off a bunch of frames and hoping for the best, though that does work sometimes. Usually, the best images come from the careful execution of each snap and with film you only have a certain number of those snaps in the bank before you have to change things out.

How to Refresh Your Creativity by Shooting Digital with a Film Mindset

In an effort to strive for quality over quantity with your digital work, begin thinking in terms of keeping your shot count for a scene in the single digits. No, of course I’m not saying to sell your digital camera short and only shoot 20 or 30 photos at a time all the time.

What I’m suggesting is that you limit yourself to a focused group of purposed photographs instead of firing off a hoard of shots and hoping for the best. Try to shoot no more than 10 images of the same scene and then move on to something else. Make 10 images of that, and then move on again. The key outcome of this exercise is to train (or retrain) yourself to produce a smaller number of total images but a larger amount of usable ones or keepers.

Some final thoughts…

The real conclusion and the true lesson to be gained from all this is for you to learn how to become more deliberate with your photography. Use your camera with purpose, and most importantly remember to slow yourself down from time to time. Slowing down is key.

Being both a film and digital photographer I find the complete flop of my creative mindset changes drastically between the two mediums. Obviously, digital cameras have extraordinary capabilities and offer many benefits over their analog cousins. At the same time, the true nature of photography can be lost when we suddenly find ourselves with limitless shooting capabilities that are often only capped by a camera’s battery life and our own enthusiasm.

Try putting some of these lessons from the world of film to use the next time you find yourself deleting more and more images and finding fewer quality pictures. It just might be that you begin shooting better and get more enjoyment from your digital photography.

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his eBooks and Lightroom presets!.

  • This a great advice, thanks! I’ll incorporate it on my next digital shooting session.

  • Dan

    Truth and not only for photography… Analog vs. digital vs., real vs. virtual, quality
    vs. quantity… Simple things and ways cost something. We do not see it or we do
    not want to see it. Slow down and think (:-)

  • pete guaron

    LOL – perhaps that’s easier for me than it will be for the vast majority of photographers out there, Adam. I spent half a century with analogue cameras before I bought my first digital, and old habits die hard. I still target SOOC, and smack myself if there’s much post processing required.

    Not that analogue was immune to post processing. That was an art form that I took up early on – small white spots on a print where, despite a wetting agent & all due care, an air bubble had prevented the developer from bringing up the image – dodging while enlarging – tilting the table to change the perspective. And then retouching colour prints – a terrifying experience, when the print cost a small fortune and one slip would ruin it – something digital PP doesn’t even need to think about.

    But sadly, many – most? – photographers are seeking [an image + convenience]. They have no interest in wrestling with a “real camera” and learning the skills required to operate one. Their images are never printed – they never escape from a digital environment – and when the digital storage fails, it’s “poor me”.

    Sadder still, I think, are the ones who DO buy a camera and chase pixels, with a complete disregard for the fact that the medium by which they view their photos can never in a blind fit benefit from all those pixels theyve paid for.

  • Denise Belanger

    Thanks for this article, which helped reinforce the notion that my film habits (shooting selectively with a digital camera as if I only had 36 shots available) are still valid in digital.

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  • floppigate

    Just this month, I acquired a Polaroid SX-70 in near-mint condition, and a Hasselblad 500 EL/M body that needed a minor tweak to get the mirror unstuck. (Still hunting for a reasonably-priced lens and a film back). Both had sat unused, on the shelf of a just-retired photography instructor for over 30 years. I love shooting with the SX-70-it’s more challenging than I remembered to get a good image, but even the “mistakes” are usually interesting, and I’m experimenting with manipulating the still-developing prints with heat, sharp objects, etc. A nice mental and visual change of pace. I cover the display on my Nikon DSLR when I want to slow down.

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  • Moon Seongmu

    I’d agree, but I shoot insect macros and slowing down is never the way to go. One second can make the difference between getting the shot of a lifetime and never getting the shot ever again. I wonder how they did insect macros back in the day…

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  • KC

    For those of us who handled film cameras and darkroom/lab work professionally for decades it’s not quite this easy a comparison. We had to know the science of photography in film days, not just the how, but why, it all works, and how to make it work for us. That cameras were manual, and being seemingly limited wasn’t the issue, or even particularly true. The darkroom/lab could be a profession unto itself. So could retouching. Granted there were photographers that solely handled cameras. The darkroom and retouching side were handed off. It was a collaborative effort.

    The difference comes down to being deliberate. That’s not exclusively a film camera handling characteristic. The “safety net” with film cameras was/is in our heads, sometimes with the team working with us.

    There’s chatter about “chimping”, and other technical cameras things. They’re just features and conveniences. It all starts in your head, then moves to the camera. The magical “get it in one” is true. We had the variables dialed in. Sometimes it was in our heads, sometimes a ridiculous amount of notes until it was in our heads. It was our “automation”.

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