Eight reasons digital photographers should try film

(Pic: Daniel Go/Flickr)

The benefits of shooting film sometimes, unfortunately, get lost amid the playground fight between film and digital devotees. The plus points – and believe me there are plenty – get drowned out.

That’s a shame for two reasons. Photography is a personal passion, and each person gets into their particular style of photography due to deeply individual reasons; it’s not that different to the way we fall in love with the music we do (and I was a music journalist for 20 years, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to mull this one over). There are photographers for whom the digital revolution has been their route to creative self-expression and making something they can call their own. It’s wrong for film photographers to belittle that.

Secondly – the massed ranks of digital photographers contain many who are too young to have shot film in the first place. Film is not something that have set aside for the convenience of digital; it’s been their only game in town. Some of these might have been interested in dipping their toes in the analogue pool, but have been scared off because they think it’s too difficult, too costly, or too inconvenient.

The following are an attempt to dispel some of those myths – and encourage anyone who hasn’t shot film before to give it a go.

1) It slows you down

There’s a temptation now to constantly shoot. We capture our lives via our cameras and smartphones and share those images a myriad of ways – Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, to name a few. Because we have a way of taking images constantly within arm’s reach, we shoot and shoot. We shoot dozens of images without even thinking about it.

No five-frames-a-second here

A roll of film forces a different mindset – since you only have 12, or 24 or 36 frames before you need to reload, it encourages a sense of patience. You could blitz through a roll of film in a high-end SLR like a Canon EOS-1 or a Nikon F5, but why would you? If you want speed and catching a scene in a flood of split-seconds, then it makes sense to shoot digital. Shooting film can b a more meditative experience. You might shoot that roll in an hour, or a day, or over a weekend. But the experience will be a world away from the snap-snap-snap style of digital shooting. And slowing down often makes you wait for an image worth capturing. Waiting can often turn an average picture into something more rewarding.

2) There’s a discipline in those limited frames

Every roll of film costs money. It costs money to buy it, to process it, and to turn it into prints of digital files. Unless you’re made of money you’re not going to be able to shoot 500 pictures a day every day of the year. That might be a disappointment for those who want to shoot as much as they can, increasing their chances of getting a keeper, but the discipline of those limited frames can, conversely, improve your photography.

Shooting on a 6×6 camera like the Lomo LC-A 120 only gives you 12 frames to play with

When I shoot on medium format 6×6 cameras, with only 12 shots out of a roll of film, I consistently get more ‘keepers’ shot for shot than I do shooting 35mm. Medium format film can cost £6 a roll; to get it developed and scanned can cost me another £10. That’s not exactly cheap, and so it breeds a certain restraint. You don’t want to waste that frame, so you’re more likely to carefully consider the composition, the lighting, why it is you’re taking an image of something. That’s not a bad way of thinking to take back to your digital photography.

3) Shooting film is a tactile experience

Shooting on a digital camera involves many of the same physical actions as shooting film – changing lenses, focusing, changing shutter speeds and apertures, squinting through a viewfinder to frame and compose. Shooting on a smartphone, somewhat less so – the tap of a screen with your phone stretched out in front of you. It’s not that far away from playing a video game.


Shooting on a film camera – whether a clunky compact, SLR or medium format – means loading it. The opening of the camera back, threading the film onto the spool, winding on… it all becomes part of the ritual of taking pictures. And that’s not forgetting rewinding, a process which normally requires two free hands.

4) No staring at a screen

Most of us are surrounded by computers screen – at work, at home, on our co mutes to work – and in many cases our photography has added another one that must be interacted with. A smartphone or tablet constantly calls for our attention, – an email to answer, a Facebook update to read, Instagram pics to pore through. Shooting on a film camera suddenly takes you away from that electronic stimulation. The viewfinder’s nothing more than glass and – if you’re lucky – a few needles, LEDs or pictograms. There’s else nothing to distract your attention. My £4 Zenit E might have its drawbacks, but it’s not asking me to read an email when I’m trying to take a picture.

5) No editing, just shooting

Shooting on film strips back photography to the basics – you shoot, and you edit when you get the films back. The two are two totally distinct processes. Many digital photographers successfully separate them – they shoot, and they deal with their images later on. But with a screen to give you instant feedback there’s always a temptation to sneak a look at that last pic, and the one before, and the one before that…


The gap between taking your photographs on film and editing them can really help you develop your photographic eye; if you give it long enough, you forget the emotions you were feeling when you were shooting. If you were having a perfect day, suddenly every picture on that day gets viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Look at them a few weeks later and you’re no longer tied to the emotions you were feeling. You have a better eye for sorting the killer from the filler.

6) You learn to read the light

The modern metering systems in most digital cameras are incredibly sophisticated; they can read shifting light that would have taxed the most experienced photographer. This takes the guesswork out of exposure and, almost always, guarantees a perfect exposure. Many digital photographers never shoot off the auto settings. Why would they?

ljubljana reflections

Learning how to take a well-exposed photo, especially on a manual film camera, is a challenge. You have to understand how the light is falling on the scene and how that will affect your exposure. Is your subject evenly lit, or is there a brighter subject, or even source of light, looming in the background? Is your camera’s simple, centre-weighted meter, likely to be fooled? This is all stuff you have to learn through trial and error. The good thing that, if you’re shooting in black and white or colour negative film, film has a much wider latitude than digital, especially when it comes to recovering details from highlights. It’s a forgiving medium.

7) Film’s happy accidents can never be repeated

Film starts decaying as soon as it comes out of the factory. It’s a slow and gradual process, and it can be delayed by years or even decades by putting it in a fridge or freezer. But every roll of film is different, decaying and changing, and every roll in a slightly different way. That means every roll will look ever-so-slightly different.


That becomes even more pronounced when it comes to expired films, those that have long moved past their ‘use-by’ date. You take your chances with these, but the results can be fantastic – and very, very hard to replicate ever again. It’s a different world to the software algorithms behind the filters on photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which can replicated again and again. If those effects can be repeated with the click of a button, then they lose a little of what makes them so special.

8) The waiting is good for you

Waiting a week after you got back from your holiday before you saw your photographs seems like a cruel joke; now you can be getting likes on Instagram mere seconds after taking a photo. For most of us, photos are meant to be seen, and the world of photo sharing has allowed us to share out visions with people all over the world. But does this mean we have to share them straight away?

There are films I took a few months ago, a year ago, even nearly a decade ago, that have been developed but not yet scanned. They will do. When they do, I get to revisit that time again; a friends’ gig in Istanbul; a summer festival on a Dutch island; a road trip through Romania; a sunny Sunday on a Brighton beach. It’s not a million miles away from picking up the films at a chemist after the holidays. And at a time when we expect – even demand – what we want as soon as we think we want it, it’s good to have a little patience.


  1. It is true that digital photographers should try film in order to understand photography better. When I shoot digital I try to not look at the image I just captured. It’s a personal thing that makes no sense. How many times have I not captures an image correctly because of this practice?

  2. I agree with all of the points above 🙂 I’m old enough to have used film cameras, and to have waited for the prints. Whe digital arrived, I was excited and I made more photos than ever before, but I missed waiting for those prints eventually.

  3. Great post. I agree especially with the point on algorithm s, so much of our digital behaviour is the product of algorithms that are replicated everywhere. There is a sameness that results. At least analogue retains the beautiful possibility of creating something unique – purposefully or through a ‘happy accident’ – these are the best moments.

  4. Great post, personally I’m a bit of a crossover, I’m old enough to have used film as a child but young enough that I’ve only re-discovered it on a more serious basis in the last few years. There’s a ninth point I would add to this; Why limit yourself to only digital photography when there are so many wonderful camera’s from the past hundred years in working order you can discover and enjoy shooting film as well?

  5. I started off with a D90 plus loads of parafernalia (kit zoom lens. 1.8/50 lens, SB flash gun, Manfrotto tripod, dedicated bag etc. cost in excess of 2000 euros at the time) Flickr uploads: less than a dozen over the course of a year. Then I rediscovered my dad’s Trip 35 and a relative gave me his old Spotmatic with a 1.4/50 Takumar. Flickr uploads over the course of three years: Close to 2000….

  6. So true… My love story with film started 10 months ago. I was making pictures with my retro styled (digital) Olympus OMD, and messing with a Portra preset in Lightroom, when I suddenly realized this was nonsense: why not try the real thing? Now that I have found the right lab, I enjoy very much the process. And to me one of the best advantages is not messing with PP in front of a computer for hours. Yes, film is not cheap, but thanks to film I do not spend more hours in front of my computer during weekends, now I have more free time to shoot and to enjoy with my family. And my photos look much better now!

    • Well, it’s good to hear from someone who was shootign digital who agrees… I think shooting on film really is a nice break from the screens and messages and updates we live with all the time.

  7. Until very recently, film’s image quality was second to none. Even now one can get excellent image at a tiny fraction of cost of digital. Not to mention excellent archive quality of film.

  8. I agree with all of the above and have been using film for years and still using it I also use digital. The best thing is now I can afford all the film cameras from eBay I could never have afforded back in the day.

  9. I began taking pictures more than 50 years ago, built my b&w and then Cibachrome darkroom, and spent innumerable nights developing and printing. I worked with all kind of film and equipment and experimented with a lot of different subjects and techniques. I sold my prints, gave talks to photo clubs, had my own exhibits, won my share of contests and was published in 3 continents. I had the time of my life. Then digital happened. I converted completely in 2004 and I haven’t looked back ever since. For me, gear and media have always been there solely to help me turn my vision into a most compelling print. I have not changed my shooting habits much. I keep shooting for quality instead of quantity but have the possibility to experiment much more without going bankrupt. I keep shooting in A mode and often use exposure-bracketing. Instead of a manual or in-camera exposure meter I use a much more informative histogram visible in my cameras’ EVF. Almost always I have to interpret the light and the subject, and use exposure compensation. I shoot much more in low light and with rapidly moving subjects because of high ISO settings with little or no “grain” penalty and color shifting. I am not taking a 27lb Manfrotto tripod with me anymore and I almost never use the flash. After taking a really well exposed Raw picture I can develop it in Photoshop bringing out the tonal distribution, local contrast, saturation and sharpness that are particularly dear to the human eye. At the end, I can make astounding, archival b&w and color prints up to 24×36″ with my own inkjet printer on glorious fine art paper. I have very fond memories of my film time but digital is allowing me to express my creativity way beyond it, and we are just at the beginning.

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