Does Shooting Film Make You a Better Photographer?

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by Spencer Lookabaugh
May 4, 2017
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Does Shooting Film Make You a Better Photographer?

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The film versus digital debate has raged on for over a decade now. Digital cameras are so capable that it seems silly for anyone to go back to an archaic medium like film. Film is slow, expensive (sort of), lacks many game-changing features found in today's digital cameras, and has lower resolution (sort of). But it has some qualities to it that make it an entirely viable medium for working photographers and enthusiasts alike. One of which that I firmly believe in is that it will make you a better photographer.

Cost

Let's talk about the arguments against film. The first of which that many cite is the cost. While yes it is true that a 36 exposure roll of film can be had for the same price as a 16 GB SD card, you may not find it to add up to the cost of digital entirely. I have the advantage of not having a lead shutter finger, but your mileage may vary here. If you factor in the cost of a good 35mm SLR, like the F100 which I've owned a few of, can be had for around $200 in the current market. It uses the same lenses as any full-frame digital Nikon. So let's say you get a 50mm f/1.8 which is around $217 at the time of writing. You now have a "full-frame" camera for less than $500. Now for the film itself. If you want to save some money you can shoot black and white and develop it yourself. As developing costs can be a significant portion of the cost of shooting film, this can really add up. Let's say you're shooting color though for the sake of the argument. You can buy 40 rolls of Fujifillm Pro 400H for about $420 at the time of writing. That's 1,440 frames at $0.29 per frame. Considering developing is $6-12 depending on which lab you use we can increase that cost to $0.51 per frame if the roll is $8 to develop. Considering I rarely shoot more than 125-150 frames per shoot, that's not a terrible amount of money for someone that shoots like I do. It's far less economic if you bring medium format into the equation, but there is a noticeable increase in quality with larger formats so I find the tradeoff to be worth it. And I know, a used full-frame digital camera can be had for under $1,000 and memory cards are cheaper than ever, but choosing to shoot film is no longer a rational decision in the digital age.

The Look

Love it or hate it, film has a look to it. The best way I can describe it is the way that highlights and shadows roll off differently. Because it's light sensitive material and not a digital interpretation of light, I find the tonal transitions to be more natural and when you combine that with the grain (not noise, there's a difference) present in any film, you find something unique. In all fairness, digital cameras are amazing and the files can be made to mimic film very closely. This argument is arguably invalid because of that, but there is a unique look to both tone and depth of field transitions with film, especially 645 and larger, that digital doesn't quite mimic in my opinion. Jonathon Canlas has some prime examples of that look in his work. Plus lenses like the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 are just magical combined with a big 645 negative. If you're shooting full frame, you might be happy with Lightroom presets. For those of us that can't get over the crazy rendering of 6×4.5, 6×7, and 6×9 though, film is the go-to medium as digital medium-format cameras well exceed the price of full-frame DSLR options.

Image Quality

35mm film will never compare to digital as it stands today in terms of resolution. No matter how you scan it, it just can't keep up with a D810, D750, or whatever other camera you might be shooting. Once you jump into larger sizes like the medium formats and large format though, even a flatbed scanner can deliver enough detail to print several feet wide. I recently printed a 24×36-inch print from Portra 160 out of my Fuji GSW690 and scanned with the Epson V600 and I don't think a D810 would have been much sharper. Considering I paid less than $400 for that camera on eBay, $200 for the scanner, and $5 or $6 for the roll of film, I'm impressed.

Dynamic range can be a touchy subject as well. And depending on who you ask you'll get an entirely different answer. It really depends on what film you use. With slide films like Velvia or Provia, you need to be extremely careful with your exposure as the effective range of exposure that holds detail is about 5 stops. On the other hand, Kodak Ektar, a newer color negative film, can get more than 10 stops when exposed properly. Most color negative films behave similarly in their wide exposure latitude. Of course, the film has to be exposed correctly and developed accordingly. You don't have the ability to adjust the exposure as much in post as the scans are TIFF files that don't have the flexibility of raw files. This means proper exposure is critical, which brings me to why I bother shooting film and why I think everyone should try it.

It makes you pay attention. Let's forget about cost for a bit and think about the excitement of looking at your images and editing them after the shoot. With film, unless you live near a lab, you're going to have to wait a few days. On top of that, you likely have fewer frames to choose from. This in turn makes you think a lot more about the composition in each shot as well as exposure, props, and hair/makeup. You have to make the frames count since you can't simply shoot, notice a small mistake, and then tweak to fix it. And because you can't see what you're getting on the spot you'll have to learn how to use a light meter which will absolutely help with your digital shooting as well. It's been said a thousand times over but film forces a level of discipline on you as the photographer that is simply not there with digital cameras. I learned photography on digital and never cared to use a light meter until I picked up my first Mamiya 645 to take to the studio. Now, I don't go to a shoot without one.

My argument is this: try it out and see what you learn. At the absolute worst, you lose a few dollars on film and realize you don't need what it has to offer and that's fine. For me however, I was able to improve about everything I've been doing through film. Regardless of what medium I'm using I think so much more about positioning, ratios, composition, and the final image as a whole since I can't really "fix it in post." Many will say I'm wrong, but I truly believe that a manual film camera will show who knows their stuff and who doesn't. And for those like me that didn't know as much as they thought, it's an amazing, albeit somewhat costly, learning experience.

Posted In: Film PhotographyFstoppers OriginalsOpinionPortraits

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Spencer Lookabaugh is a lifestyle and portrait photographer located in Columbus, Ohio, as well as an employee of Midwest Photo Exchange. He is a firm believer in printing, shooting film and digital, and the power of photography. He also shoots landscape work in his spare time.

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