Film is Not Dead
Hi, I’m Johnny Patience. And you need to trust me.
Does this sound familiar?
Over the last couple of months I have gotten a lot of feedback from people about how to emulate the film color palette digitally and also many questions from photographers who are interested in shooting digital and film. Many of them were either frustrated with their results or confused and intimidated by the various myths about analog photography which seem to be omnipresent. I shoot about 2/3 film and 1/3 digital and I like both mediums as for me they work together beautifully. I would like to share my experience because I feel that a few people who exclusively shoot film and teach about it are not completely sincere. Shooting film is often being portrayed as some kind of elitist cult to sell books or workshops and to make you spend a lot of money on learning something very simple.
My Grandma shot medium format film with her Rolleiflex, and so can you. Film is magical, but it isn’t witchcraft.
I would like to start with cleaning up a couple of common misconceptions about shooting color negative film (I call them the 10 myths of film) and then offer brief advice on what’s really important to know when you’re just starting out or switching over from shooting digital only. The most widely spread myth seems to be that shooting film will make you an amazingly awesome artist and turn all your work directly into gold.
Here are a couple of more:
1. The look of film
No matter how much you tweak a digital picture, you simply cannot get the tonal response of film. That means digital images look somewhat flatter and artificial. Film gives an image more depth, texture and the results look more pleasing and natural to the eye. These are subtle differences but they are noticeable. It’s still possible to get your digital images close (I share some of my thoughts in a short tutorial).
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400) vs. Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (Lightroom 4)
2. The ease of film
A lot of film-only photographers like to make you think that with film you can just shoot, be done and then go spend time with your friends and family as the results always come back perfect from the lab and there is no more work required.
That is only half the story. While film fixes most color related problems if you choose the right film for the right situation, it is vital to work with a good lab that uses professional grade equipment and skilled operators. It’s important to understand that the artistic eye of the person scanning your film will become as important as your own creative eye and therefore the operator has to be experienced and match your vision to achieve decent results.
In other words: The other half of the story is that shooting film requires finding a lab that is willing to work with you on understanding your preferences and help you get the results you are looking for. Instead of spending hours in post work with a digital image, you will have to pay someone to get your results right and also let go of part of the creative control.
Contax 645 + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2/80 (Fujifilm Pro 400H) vs. Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (Lightroom 4)
3. Film forces you to be a better photographer
I don’t believe that film makes you a better photographer, that everything film is amazing and that everyone shooting film is a rock star. Myth #3 says that film photographers don’t overshoot or chimp, and know their “stuff” by heart.
The reality is, color negative film is extremely forgiving. It’s a lot more difficult to get a properly exposed image with digital than it is with film. If you overexpose shooting a digital camera, you risk blowing out your highlights. If you underexpose and bump the exposure later, you will mess up your colors. Skin tones for example will fall in the wrong zone. This introduces color-shifts and a lot of other annoying problems. It’s a common misconception that exposure doesn’t matter since the invention of RAW files. With film you only need to make sure you have enough exposure on the medium, 3-4 stops over is not a problem and can be density corrected by your lab to give you consistent results.
Whether you overshoot or not is personal preference and discipline, it has nothing to do with the medium. Film slows things down a bit, and I think that generally is a good thing. While you might press the shutter one too many times with digital to make sure you get the shot, with film you might find yourself trying to only take the shots you know will turn out.
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 4 stops)
4. Film has better detail rendition in highlights and shadows
The dynamic range of film is often portrayed as being far superior to anything digital. That’s technically not accurate. Film and modern digital cameras are about on the same level. The important part is the difference in both mediums. While film has a soft limit in the shadows and the highlights and therefore a far better highlight rendition, shadow detail is often a problem. Digital cameras only have a soft limit in the shadows and usually no problems with shadow detail while highlights have a hard limit and clip if you’re not careful.
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400) vs. Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (Lightroom 4)
5. The depth of field is unreal
Whether you shoot film or digital has no influence on your depth of field. The depth of field has simply, solely and only to do with the size of the medium and the lens you’re using. If you compare medium format film with medium format digital, the depth of field (and bokeh) will look exactly identical. The same applies for 35mm vs. full frame and so forth.
6. You learn to see the world full frame
A 50mm lens on a film camera does not have the same angle of coverage on a DSLR with a 1.5 crop factor. Obviously not, but it has the same field of view as any other full frame digital camera. It’s very important to make sure you’re not comparing apples with pears. If you compare cameras, make sure you compare medium format to medium format and full frame to full frame.
Hasselblad 503CW (medium format) vs. Leica MP (full frame) vs. Fuji X-Pro1 (crop)
7. Film can mix and match light with no problem
No white balance nightmares with film? White balance and high ISO are actually one of the biggest drawbacks of shooting film, that’s why a lot of film wedding photographers shoot black and white indoors. Most color negative film is white balanced for daylight and needs color correction if you shoot it under tungsten to remove the yellow-orange cast. Color negative film also does not perform well in situations with very little available light. Furthermore it’s not possible to change your ISO speed during a session as the ISO isn’t set by the camera but by your film.
8. The dropping price of film gear
Film cameras can be picked up for pennies of their original dollar. What might look as a bargain on the first glance will be put in perspective after you purchased a box of film, shot it and have received your first lab bill.
20 rolls of Portra 400 medium format film with a Hasselblad will give you 240 images. You will end up spending around $140 on film and around $400 for a pro lab bill, shipping not included. That’s a total of $540 and equals $2.25 per shot. After that you still have to factor in your usual percentage of keepers.
9. Leaf shutter
A leaf shutter is nice, especially if you have to shoot handheld at lower shutter speeds or if your style relies on artificial off-camera lighting and you therefore need the faster flash sync speeds. But again it has to do with the camera system you’re using and not the medium. You will find leaf shutters in digital medium format cameras as well as in the tiny little digital Fuji X100s. Leaf shutters are located in the lens, so film cameras that are praised for their leaf shutter also have the same shutter if you snap a digital back on.
10. Film sets you far apart
Shooting film doesn’t make you a better photographer, it doesn’t make you more of an artist and it won’t necessarily make your images look any better. There is no relation between the gear or the medium a photographer chooses and the quality of their results (which does not mean that finding the right gear isn’t a very important process). And most of all, shooting film is not more difficult than shooting digital. It’s just different.
If you are confused by all the contradictory statements about film I would like to try to help simplify things a bit by sharing my own “digital photographer’s guide to shooting film”:
Probably the most beautiful aspect about analog photography is that you can choose your camera almost completely based on the lens you would like to shoot. If you keep it simple enough, all the body does is carry the film. Try a camera body that is very basic and shoot it in manual using an external light meter. That will help you learn the basics about film a lot easier and make you feel more connected. You will quickly see how easy it is to guess your exposure. Compare 35mm with medium format, the difference in quality is worth considering the latter.
I meter all color negative film the same. I use a very simple analog incident light meter (Sekonic L-398 A), nothing fancy or expensive. I rate my film half the box speed. If I shoot Porta 400, that means I set the meter to ISO 200. Then I meter for the shadows, which means I bring my meter into the shadow parts of the image (the part of the image that has the least light). I hold the meter in a standard 90 degree angle to the ground, which is parallel to the subject. That’s it.
The most important point about shooting film is finding a good lab. Investing in a good lab is much more important than investing in expensive gear. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by working with a pro lab from the very start. They will give you feedback about your technical foundation and work towards consistent results with you. Home scanning won’t give you the results you are looking for and a random mini lab won’t give you the results you are looking for either, even if they use the exact same equipment as a pro lab. The only alternative to working with a pro lab is buying your own professional grade scanner (for example a Fuji Frontier SP-3000) and learning how to operate it properly.
Mini lab scan (Fuji Frontier SP-3000) vs. home scan (Epson V600)
Home scan (Epson V600) vs. pro lab scan (Fuji Frontier SP-3000)
The above is really all there is to know if you are starting out.
Don’t be discouraged by the “film photographers know their crap” crowd. There is no reason to be intimidated.
Experiment a little and have fun!
All pro lab results shown were scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab.
Tom W10. July 2013
This article holds so much truth.
I want to shoot film for my Leica m2 and my polaroid’s it’s that simple.
If it was possible to scan at home and get the results I crave I would. Sadly the only real choice is to invest either an imacon or a lab scanner or to ship it to the States.
George11. July 2013
Interesting post, and I would agree don’t be intimidated.
I still shoot film from time to time, on an X-pan, Rolleiflex or and ancient Zeiss Ikon 35mm. It does not need to cost a lot at all. I get a lab to develop the film for the X-Pan and 35mm and then scan on a nikon coolscan. I would say the scans are on a par with a 25 mega pixel camera give or take. For the Rolleiflex I also get a lab to develop and produce low res scans as part of the development process. These are like contact sheet quality, I then scan the ones I want on an Epson 750. It takes a bit of work but the results are very good. I would only go to a lab for exceptional images that I intend for exhibition or for clients.
Your comment on DOF is not entirely true. High pixel density cameras hit diffraction limits at lower F stops. So the resultant images are not always the same. There are also other issues at play.
But the bottom line…don’t let technical crap get in the way of enjoying shooting film. Just go out and do it.
Johnny11. July 2013
George, thanks very much for your feedback.
I referred to people comparing the depth of field of a digital camera with a crop sensor to a medium format film camera and then stating how much more depth of field you can get with film. It’s not film, it’s medium format what changes the result.
The whole point of the blog post was to simplify a little. If you take a comparable camera with a similar lens and aperture and shot it from the same distance it will produce almost identical results. It doesn’t matter if it’s film or digital.
Nick11. July 2013
A very well written and educative blog post, Johnny. Thank you for taking the time.
Your post is fun to read if you don’t know Jonathan Canlas. If you read his book it’s pure entertainment.
Susan12. July 2013
Thank you for the article! Beautiful write up and photography. :)
I’m just a young enthusiast that has no experience in film, so I would like to clarify your statement “most color negative film is white balanced for daylight”, does this mean that with modern films, I wouldn’t need a color correcting filter at all for most of the day?
I know the answer is all relative to the available light, but given your experience, what color filter would you recommend:
– to shoot color at night outdoor and indoor.
– to shoot b/w indoor.
Thanks a lot!
Johnny12. July 2013
Thank you for your feedback, Susan.
The classical way to white balance with film would be a color filter, you are exactly right. I don’t use any filters (not even ND filters) as I don’t like additional glass in front of my lenses. I have the color correction done during the scanning process.
George12. July 2013
I should make my comment on DOF a little more clear…it was nearly midnight here when I posted it. :-)
You are right if you take the same lens, sensor/film size, F stop, viewing distance and print size then the DOF formula will yield the same result i.e the theoretical depth of field. But their still may be differences when comparing prints due to the size of the pixels, resulting in a different apparent DOF. Its a detail I know but one that raises its head with the likes of the D800.
Scott12. July 2013
This is a great article. Especially for those who never grew up w/ film.
A tip for those who want to shoot film and don’t use an internal light meter… if you are like me and don’t finish a roll of film right away, always remember to change the ISO setting on the camera so when you go back to it in a few days or weeks, you can remember what you are shooting. I’ve forgot to do that once or twice.
CB Adams12. July 2013
Great read. 95% of my work is shot on film, mostly black and white. I’ve been at it for years, but this reminded me of so much. I’ve recently been meeting young photographers who don’t “talk film” because they have never shot it.
CB Adams12. July 2013
Oh, and I also use Richard Photo Lab. Great crew and service from half a country away from me.
Kaelyn12. July 2013
Great article. A very truthful and factual, and just enjoyable and educational read. I have been shooting film for just a couple years and will be attending classes in the fall (though I have to begin with digital photography classes). I have never really considered the development process as part of what makes your photos unique or stand out. After reading this it has come to my attention that I should stick to my current film processor (I considered changing because of cost) solely because they share the love for the art and do in fact understand the majority of my visions.
I started shooting film with a Minolta SRT-201 that I got at savers for $20, and believe it or not the camera was in pristine condition. Since then I have scoured flea markets and the Internet for additional equipment and cameras to really take this newfound love to a new level. I am young but believe I will take this skill so much farther in my future.
I will also be referring to this article, and you or your blog in general for help and advice! I’m glad to have discovered this page. :)
Have a nice day!
Stkie12. July 2013
Thanks for the post. Enjoyed the read.
I agree, that it does not really matter if you shoot film or digital.
As long as you ‘fill the frame’ with awesome content you’ll be fine.
Keep on shooting!
Gino12. July 2013
I recently started film photography as a hobby, mainly concentrating on black and white. For me it’s a journey of discovery.
Where film makes a big difference, I can bring my Minolta Dynax 5000i in a canoe and take photos of my kids, at the price of £5.50 I paid for it on Ebay the risk of damaging it is negligible. I could easily buy another.
Blake Taylor12. July 2013
Great article, lots of insight, thanks for sharing.
I’ve gone from shooting only film 10 years ago, to having life get in the way and stopping photography all together for a number of years, to picking up with digital 3 years ago, and for about the past year have gone BACK to film. I think its an incredible medium, and while I won’t go on about film vs digital, one of the things that film does for me that digital didn’t seem to do:
11. Film photography gives me an appreciation for photography as an artform because by necessity it forces engagement.
Shooting film focuses me and makes me engage more with what I’m doing and the materials I have to hand. Having limitations (number of shots per roll, limits of film speed, the chemicals in my cupboard, etc.) means I’m focused and considered, and makes me appreciate capturing the right moment/light. And because of the level of attention I need to pay to taking a single image and the work needed to see that to a print means the reward is all the sweeter. I’ve also learned a lot more about photography than I ever thought I would because I have to be engaged with what I’m doing – I have to do my best to get it right!
Thanks again for the article, good to see others share a passion for film!
Dave Lam12. July 2013
Great article, thank you for your insight, and for us who grew up with film and use it regularly for fun this is great. I’ll definitely take your tips up when converting my D600 photos to more of a film taste, as I always feel this is what they lack.
Jake12. July 2013
I recently (about a year ago) got into film photography after playing around with digital for a while. I found it a bit intimidating because you could spend £5 on a roll of film and throw it away because you have to wait to see how your photos turn out.
This helped me become a better photographer both with film and digital, particularly through my composition of shots and how I see everything, as you mentioned, through a “full frame” sense. I take my Olympus OM-1N wherever I go, and I think sometimes I shoot with it more than digital.
I haven’t tried any type of film development but if room (small flat) and budget allow, I think I’d like to give this a shot.
Great article, and a real hand for people just getting into or progressing with their film photography skills.
Holly12. July 2013
What a great article Johnny! It’s so nice to hear things from such an honest perspective for a change! So true that shooting film doesn’t automatically make you a better photographer and artist. A good photographer will shine no matter what tools they decide to use. :)
Dominik M.12. July 2013
I want to clarify question about cost of shooting film.
I bought a Leica Mini II for 25 euro. Roll of film cost about 1 euro (or – the cheapest – 0,5 euro). Developing – 1 euro. Scanning at home (Canoscan 5000F – cost me 15 euro).
So it depends on your gear and film. Of course, if you want shoot Mamiya RZ67 and develop in pro lab and scan in 4000dpi – cost will be higher. But you can also buy Zorki 4 with lens for 10 euro…
Really nice images BTW, I should try Portra. :d
Andrew Janjigian12. July 2013
Great article, really thought-provoking. For me, shooting film helps me to slow down and look. With digital, it’s far too easy to shoot and shoot and shoot. If I’m lucky there will be good shots amid all the noise. But with film, I have to take the time to meter and compose, and as a result the ratio of good to noise goes way up.
Aram Stith12. July 2013
I shoot a mix of film and digital. Most of the film work that I do is medium format, and one of the great things about shooting film now is that there are a lot of inexpensive, good-quality medium format cameras available. For me this is one of the most compelling reasons to shoot film – medium format images look great, color negative film is very forgiving, and if you are new to photography shooting film slows you down and makes you think a bit about your shot.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how the new Fuji sensors perform – they haven’t come out in a camera yet but are supposed to have greatly increased dynamic range – will be very interesting!
Johnny12. July 2013
Aram, I’m really excited about the new generation of Fuji sensors as well. I am already thrilled about the X-Pro1 in that regard.
Melletam12. July 2013
As I said on twitter I already shoot 24×36 and some medium format (I’ve named “Charlie” my Hasseblad 500CM) and love analog photography for:
– The very first photo of your film 24×36 (it’s a surprise, you don’t really remember what it could be. It may be something nice or not as it’s often has an overexposed part)
– How people look at you when you hold an old camera
– The confidence it gives me.
I would like to try Leica and telemetric!
Justin B12. July 2013
Great article, very helpful to those of us who are new to shooting with film!
I agree with the earlier comment: Don’t forget to set your camera’s ISO settings.
As well, don’t discount the C-41 processed black & white films. Ilford’s XP2 is amazing.
Tom W12. July 2013
Couldn’t agree more Holly. It’s more about the vision and the vibe.
In the end the way my Leica feels means something to me, not to my clients. I don’t think many people could tell which images from my portfolio are film or digital.
Ritchie Patton12. July 2013
There will always be a place for film, things of such beauty and significance will never die. Film is special, when I shoot it I feel a connection to the great photographers of the past. It’s art, it’s special, it’s beautiful. Now if only I had an equally beautiful camera to shoot it on. :-)
Patrick Williams12. July 2013
Great article comparing film and digital. I used to be so intimidated with using film that I barely used it. Now I can’t get away from it, I absolutely love film. I find that it leaves me feeling a lot more satisfied with my work than the stuff that I did with digital.
Grace Hughes12. July 2013
I read a lot of articles and I must say, this was wonderful read Johnny. I would definitely recommend this to other photographers or those just picking up a camera. You have an open view and it’s nice to see the lovely photos along with your write up. I am a photographer in both business and personal life.
I truly enjoy shooting film, especially with my Rolleiflex. It can be costly especially on road trips with the cost of film and lots to develop as well as printing BUT I have never regretted any roll at all. My love and passion grows each day when I shoot film, it’s as raw as my subjects.
It has become very personal to me – every bit of grain reflects my personality and the vision no automatic setting can do for me. I could go on in words, but honestly you could probably see the love I have for it in my photographs.
Adam Johnson12. July 2013
Couldn’t love this article any more if I tried! I had never worked with film until last year and while I agree with everything above, I think there is an element of truth in the fact that understanding film, using a light meter and slowing down due to the realisation that each click costs over $2 does make you think differently and become a ‘better’ photographer. I love shooting film, I love the magic of getting a print or scan back from the lab that you’ve never seen since you saw it in the viewfinder and clicked. But I love digital too, for the speed, for the immediacy, for the low cost per image. A Leica has been on my wish list for some time!
Jalani Morgan12. July 2013
Johnny you truly hit the mark here with this blog post. I shoot 2/3 digital and 1/3 film however it feels like that ratio is becoming closer and closer to 1/2. You’re blog post will be shared. Very few understand that I shoot film not only for the quality but the care that is required in making an image happen.
Matthew Spencer12. July 2013
Very much appreciated all of the info here especially the section on film scanning. I am based in the U.S. and have yet to find a trusted lab/technician to work with in regards to scanning. If anyone can chime in on labs that do great work in the southeast US that would be great. I actually would prefer to scan myself but film scanner equipment costs can be prohibitive.
Also, Johnny can you say more about post production that you do AFTER your film negatives are scanned? Would be great to here more about work flow. Thanks!
Johnny12. July 2013
Matthew, I try to avoid any kind of post production after I get the scans back (I usually don’t even retouch).
If you work with a pro lab they either get your vision or they don’t. If they don’t you need to either invest work in that or switch to a different lab. RPL for example delivered spot on results the very first time I sent my film there. Other labs I worked with couldn’t get it right after months of trial and error. That’s where the experience of the lab comes into play.
Erik K12. July 2013
Great article, it was refreshing to see the common myths challenged so well. I’m interested in your metering method. I’ll have to give that a try for a few rolls and see how it works for me. Metering well has been tricky for me, but as I get better I’m learning to love my Sekonic L-308. Thanks for the article.
Steve12. July 2013
Well written article.
I mostly use film for shooting photos of my kids for a number of reasons, but primarily the following:
1) It keeps the total number of shots down. Taking 300 photos at a kid’s birthday party means having to sort through 300 photos after it’s all said and done. With one roll of 36 exposures, as long as I’m thoughtful when I shoot I can get the essence of the event with that limit, and editing the photos down later isn’t a big deal.
2) The kids stop asking to see the back of the camera. Nothing pulls them out of what fun thing they were doing faster than seeing themselves on the back of a camera. They are so used to me shooting with film they just continue on when they see me pull out the camera.
3) I like the cameras. My Mamiya 6 makes amazing sharp images, but is a tad big for everyday carrying. My Fuji Klasse is tiny, fits in my pocket, and is the perfect “always with me” camera. My Minolta 7000 goes with me when it might get damaged or dropped (ie, high action activities) because it works great and I can replace it for $50.
There’s more than that, but it’s worth it to go pick up a cheap film camera and a roll of Kodak Gold and see if it works for you.
Brian K12. July 2013
Thank you for the great article. Just starting out in film photography this is exactly what I was looking for.
RickP12. July 2013
We inherited my Father-in-Law’s vintage Olympus OM-1 many years ago. It sat unused and only occasionally fondled in our closet for over a decade. A few years ago out daughter decided to take Film Photography in school and took up the OM. Now that she’s elected to drop the photo class this year the OM has fallen into my eager hands. I shot and developed my first roll in it 2012-05-29. Since then I have shot 8 more rolls…
Paul Joyce12. July 2013
A fantastic article Johnny and superb photos to accompany it. You’ve definitely got me thinking about film again, something I’ve not shot with since my school days.
As I posted on my RT, I’m English living in Munich and I dream of stumbling across some of the classic German cameras at a flea market or old shop so I can pick one up cheaply. I guess I just need to keep looking a bit harder. That’s unless your M6 wants to come ‘home’ to let me use it! :-)
I’m off to check out the rest of the wonderful photos on your website and dream again…
Urban Hafner12. July 2013
That was a lovely post. I especially like how balanced it is, by showing that not everything is easy with film.
I don’t agree however that you have to have your images scanned by a lab. Sure, a flatbed will never be as good as a scanner a lab has. But frankly scanning it yourself (once you master the software, i.e. turn off all that “auto” crap) is just so much cheaper and for most intents and purposes (i.e. showing it on the web and printing at reasonable sizes) it’s good enough.
Also, what about black and white? If you’re really on a budget then black and white is the way to go. Once you have your development tank and the other supplies then you can do it all yourself and it costs not that much. It’s also really simple and let’s not forget that there’s no standardized development process for black and white films and you can get vastly better results than (almost) any lab by figuring out your favourite film + developer combination.
Liwa Piliang12. July 2013
Waiting your film result from the lab also very exciting, sometimes the result just like we thought, it just feels like waiting for a wife giving a birth.
Joey12. July 2013
This is an *excellent* article. I wish it had been around a year ago when I was trying to re-learn film.
When I started getting into photography in college (~1999-2000), the instructor started us on B+W film but I resisted. I just wanted to take pictures, and I thought digital was the way to do it. “Why fuss about with all these chemicals and nonsense when I can just shoot and edit in Photoshop?” Naturally, my results in the class were poor because I had no desire to shoot or work with film once I was finished with the class. This experience soured me on using film because I just didn’t have the patience for it.
So for 10+ years I shot digitally, all the while trying to achieve the “film look” in Photoshop. While there were times I thought I was close (or close enough, anyway), I now look back at some of those shots and am find that I was nowhere near it. Anyway, in early 2012 I found myself reading more and more about achieving the film look in the surefire, can’t miss, old-fashioned way: SHOOT FILM.
For the most part I’ve been sticking to Tri-X, and one of my favorite parts is processing in my kitchen. Something I dreaded back in college has now become one of the things I enjoy most about shooting film. And while I’m sure a good pro lab could help me achieve better results, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve been getting out of my Plustek 8100 scanner, at least at this point.
I’ve been mostly avoiding color, in part because I still find it difficult to relinquish control of my stuff, and in part because I’m not in love with the scans from my local lab. However, it’s possible I’m just not shooting color correctly to get the results I desire — if anything, I’ve over-exposed by maybe half a stop, no more. This article gets me excited to try shooting color in a different way, and hopefully I’ll find that the weakest link was me and not the local lab!
If there’s one tip I can share for those just getting into film from digital, it’s this: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Having shot digitally for so long (where the cost of a frame didn’t matter), I overcompensated when switching to film and overvalued each frame, which resulted in my being reluctant to shoot. I’d have a roll of film in my camera for weeks, waiting for opportunities to shoot “something special”. I’m not saying go crazy and shoot ten rolls in a half hour or anything, but just don’t be afraid to play around and see what you get. This sort of exploration will help you find your own groove. Lately I’ve fallen into the “push-process Tri-X to 1600” groove myself, but I’m also still exploring.
Thanks for the great article, Johnny!
Paul Pride12. July 2013
Thanks for the great write up! I haven’t shot film since my uni days over a decade ago. I took a break from photography for a few years and since then have been on digital. I use a Fuji X100 currently and love it but I’ve never been happy with the look of the photos straight from it and have been playing with each file in Lightoom for a long time to get it to where I like.
I am kindly being given a Nikon FE with 50mm f1.8 and a few rolls of film and am super excited to be given the opportunity to shoot film again. I will be blogging my journey when I get the camera in the next week or so.
Thanks for the exposure tips!
Amanda Raney12. July 2013
I’m not an old-timer, but I began my photographic journey (in earnest) nearly 14 years ago with my first SLR: an old Ricoh that took m42 screw mount lenses. I loved it – even if the back of the camera popped open if I didn’t tape it shut. :)
Once I got rid of the crappy 55mm/2.8 that came with it and put a 50mm/1.4 SMC Takumar on my Ricoh – mama mia! It was a beautiful thing.
So here are a few random musings on the subject at hand:
• I am much more well-versed in film photography than I am in digital. I am more comfortable working with film. I feel as frustrated with digital photography at times as digital photographers can feel when they decide to try film out themselves. And I’ve been using dSLRs for almost 8 years!
• I don’t think using film inherently makes one a better photographer, but I feel I am a better photographer when I shoot film. I do shoot a higher percentage of “keepers” on film than I do on digital. Maybe it’s a matter of being more careful with each shot since the number of photos produced on film is limited by more than the number of gigabytes on your memory card. I don’t know. But I even think I frame shots differently when I’ve got a film camera in my hand.
• As you have said, shooting film and having it processed by a pro lab is definitely NOT the more economical route than shooting digital! I went to England for two weeks and shot film exclusively – I would be a few hundred dollars richer right now if I’d not made that decision! Between the cost of the film itself and the cost of having all the film processed and scanned by the pro lab, I put out a pretty penny. Unless a person has access to a decent, reasonably-priced mini lab, I think I’d find it very discouraging to get into film photography now. I couldn’t afford to do so much trial and error work if a pro lab were the only place I could find to process film when I first began learning photography by shooting film. That’s why I think it takes real dedication to continue shooting film more than just occasionally now: less access to film unless you order online and fewer inexpensive developing options.
• I’d LOVE to get more film-like results from my digital work. I’m just pants at post-processing! Others are brilliant at it and probably find it as fulfilling as I find working with film. I can’t hate them for having different preferences for their photographic tools than I do. I am a tried and true film enthusiast, but I think the hatred towards digital photography is not productive. I’ve gotten a couple of people interested in film photography – if you want to turn people into film photographers, I think you should speak to the things you love about the medium and show them what YOU think is special. Show them. Don’t just post rants on the internet about how film photography is the only want to go and that digital photography is of the devil.
*end random musings*
Thanks for writing this blog post and opening up a productive discussion about film photography in a (mostly) digital world!
Brian Tyler13. July 2013
I appreciate many of the points brought out here. I’m working “behind the scenes” in a photolab and its very interesting to see what can be done digitally. I’m astounded at the manipulations of photoshop. I wanted to be hardcore for film, but I have learned working and reading this article that there is a great balance that comes from using both mediums. The best advice I’ve seen is ‘shoot with a purpose’. This article breaks things down so well. Thanks so much.
Simon13. July 2013
Enjoyable write-up. You forgot to mention that so much quality gear is available second hand at thriftstores, flea markets, and craigslist.
Michael Ward13. July 2013
A lovely read Johnny.
Having worked in repro graphics for many years I would mention the following, I have always worked in a Mac or Heidelberg environment, as in the beginning of the micro computer days DOS and eventually Windows was unstable in the graphic area. Here is the benefit of my experience after many mistakes, to err is human after all!
Buy a dedicated film scanner the best you can afford buying used can be risky because original purchasers would have likely worked them to failure point, stepper motors do die. If using a flat bed get anti Newton Rings inserts for the neg mounts, either will improve the quality of scans to within cooee of average drum scans – with a bit of practice.
Software Lasersoft is excellant but a tad finicky especially with 35mm film Vue scan is good and the support is also very good. Canon’s Epson and Microtec software is average but has gotten better in recent years in fact the current Epsonscan at hi resolutions >2000ppi is very good.
Some film emulsions definitely scan better than others sadly a lot of the now deleted films were good All Agfa films were very good All E6 emulsions scan well. With the rest its a case of suck it and see. If one finds a film and a work flow that works well with a film you use, annotate it and use it often, practice makes perfect.
I recently purchased a Sigma DP2 with a Foveon sensor and in many ways it produces a more detailed filmic look unlike the CMOS sensors in the majority of P&S’ and DSLRs. The Leica M8/M9 have a similar look in their case its because the have CCD sensors in common with most scanners which with the odd exception offer a gentler image of the world.
I have been mostly digital for a long time but film has so much to offer as a quality of image. Personally I prefer medium format for making film images and these days the equipment is a bargain, as is processing ones own film particularly in monochrome but the only downside is that it does take more time.
Tyler Constance13. July 2013
This is all fantastic information.
One of my favorite parts of shooting film is just the unique attributes of each camera. While the rest of the world is arguing Canon vs. Nikon, or 12 megapixels vs 20, as a film shooter, each experience can be exciting. If you’re bored with SLRs, pick up a rangefinder. If you’re not feeling 35mm, shoot a waist-level Hasselblad, or the massive Pentax 67. If life seems dull with your current setup, you can really slow things down and look at the world under a dark cloth, upside down and backwards.
Changing the way you interact with a person or environment is like looking at the world through new eyes. It’s almost spiritual; each alteration of your photographic process encourages mindfulness.
It’s like waking up while everyone else is clicking and chimping in the same repetitive daze. You become refreshed, aware, and artfully inclined to make something truly inspired and beautiful.
Michael Wachniak13. July 2013
This is awesome Johnny, and exactly something I needed to hear. After almost a decade of shooting digital, I have transitioned over the last 2 years back to film again. Although I still feel that (at least for me) shooting film is taking me to MY next level of growth as a photographer, I do agree with you that there is also a lot more to it than JUST the film.
I think personally, film is not for every photographer. Will it make you a better photographer? Maybe. Maybe not. BUT… I do know without a doubt in my mind that you will shoot differently shooting film vs shooting digital. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. It will make you think differently, it will push you slightly outside of your comfort zone, and when you come back, you will have learned something. That something, however small or insignificant, consider it growth and development.
The best part is, you can say all of this to a film photographer considering switching to digital.
Matthew Warrener13. July 2013
Great article; especially the point about film making you a better photographer.
Photography is as much about the subject as it is about the person who pushed the button.
Film is organic and has to be treated as such. It’s forgiving but it doesn’t take over and dominate like a digital camera which seems hell bent on processing the light according to a preprogrammed set of rules. Film lives.
Matthew Warrener13. July 2013
I forgot to mention how much I miss my OM-3!
Hazeem13. July 2013
Great post! A few weeks back, I decided to make the leap into analog and I agree with everything you said.
Johnny13. July 2013
Thanks so much to everyone for contributing all these helpful ideas and sharing your own experiences! :)
Matt Day13. July 2013
A very great read and valid points.
As someone who started with film, went to digital, and then came back to film, the two really are worlds apart. To me, they both have their place, and I think it’s more about personal opinion and what really resonates with the photographer, but film is where it’s at for me.
Joan13. July 2013
It’s not only about the film or the gear, it’s the mixture.
Of course you can’t compare a modern camera with an old one, I personally enjoy more shooting with my Yashica Mat 124G rather than with a big and chunky D800, and the same happens when I have to compare shooting with an old rangefinder like a Canonet or Leica and any other digital camera. Plus the feeling you got. I’ve got to say that I’ve never been as excited as I was when I had a Leica for the first time on my hands, any camera has made me feel this way. It was an M3 by the way.
Once we get into talking about film, the magic gets even better. I like to call it “The Ritual” breaking the box where your film roll is in. Taking out the film roll, open the back of the camera, put the film in it. Nothing can compare to this, and then you got all the moments when shooting with film, the thoughts, the way you learn, and of course.
I’ve got to confess I started shooting digital (I’m only 21) and photography become even more interesting when about 3 years ago I grabbed my dad’s Ricoh DSLR and started shooting with it.
So yes, shooting film is better.
Thomas13. July 2013
I to mix both digital and 35mm film. Although I realized recently that I am much happier with the results I receive through film. After reading this you have sparked an interest in medium format! :D
Thank you for clearing up those myths. Even besides the myths I have already know I still learned a lot. Going to have to try your metering technique to!
I’m not going to be hooked to your blog.
Jason Benning13. July 2013
Great intro article for individuals looking to get into film. I agree that by switching to film from digital won’t automatically make you a better photographer. However, I believe that with time, it will make you better. I think the slowness of the film process allows a photographer to really consider the shot they’re about to make (and not necessarily the shot that will most likely turn out). Since I started shooting film, I’ve become extremely picky with my exposures. Something I would’ve snapped without question using my digital, gets at least two, even three looks/angles/etc. until I decide whether it’s worth me using an exposure.
I think you did a great job breaking those myths down. I think what needs to be conveyed is that film is a different experience and it’s a lot of fun. Thanks for spreading the film love!
Martin13. July 2013
Thank you Johnny for this great article, by the way it’s great to read something new again on the blog and a big thank you for encouraging people like me to break through their limits by trying out something new.
One of your articles about Villa’s colors got me thinking about the film-look a while ago. I really tried out different ways to emulate the film look using different types of digital cameras but I came always to the same conclusion. You can emulate specific colors using presets or trying things out on your own but it won’t be the same like shooting with real film. That’s OK because after you accept that, you start to work with your digital files a lot more focused on a specific look but without loosing a lot of time by trying to emulate something that isn’t possible.
On the other hand I have to say that I can totally encourage every photographer to get a little film camera for some personal shots. Why? Because it is something very special for us and without film photography we wouldn’t have invented our digital photography. It is really something that we have to preserve for the future by buying the existing models of film. It really makes me angry to see that many great films are already discontinued.
Speaking of the financial aspect, the best way to start is to buy a compact film camera, there are some really classic cameras from Leica, Contax, Minox and so on. Shooting 35mm film is the cheapest way and in some countries developing can be cheap, too if you don’t expect incredible results. Even the better labs offer good prices and scanning yourself is pretty easy buying one of these special 35mm scanners that are available for under 200$. There are some pretty nice rangefinders like the Canonet, Konica, Minolta and other manufacturers with built in metering and fixed lenses for less than 100$ and they offer fast apertures and a leaf-shutter.
Speaking of a different look especially speaking of the depth of field you have to think about buying into medium format. The larger film dimensions offer a different look and shooting with higher ISO rated films gives you still better image quality compared to 35mm, because the grain-size is much smaller compared to 35mm film (only because of the dimensions of the negative). You have less frames per roll so you can easily shoot one roll or two per day if you like and don’t have to wait to get your 36 frames ready, but there is a big downside. Scanning at home is difficult because there aren’t really great low-budget options for digitalizing your medium format negatives. Your lab will always be the best way to get some nice scans, but if you really think about digitalizing your film shots, you need to answer the question for yourself if you really need a high resolution scan for your portfolio or website or blog? 2000px wide or maybe 2500 will be enough in many cases and that’s what some of those available scanners offer. So if you need a new scanner, why not buy one that is capable of scanning medium format, too? Refining your own scanning workflow will take a few weeks and the scanning times are sometimes pretty long, but for personal use, home-scanning can deliver some good results and if you really have this special shot inside your contact-sheet you are free to go to your lab and receive a high-quality-first-class-scan or print but you don’t have to pay that for every shot of the roll. That’s my point of view and I know photographers who are working with the V700 from Epson, which is the best you can get below the professional Nikon or Fuji Frontier System.
Shooting film helps you to get a better photographer, while spending less time in digital post-production and gives you the feeling to really create a photograph and not only a binary code which dies with your old HDD if you don’t get it printed. Buy and shoot film and if you won’t like it, you will be able to say that you tried it out but I’m sure it will change the way you’re taking photographs, or make them. ;)
Jun Shen14. July 2013
I like the part about the difference between home scanning and pro-lab scanning indeed.
Marco Harder15. July 2013
Totally agree on all points, Johnny. Also, another myth that needs to be cleared up (not so much debunked) is the longevity of film. While film does indeed feel safer than digital as far as archiving goes – since you always have a hard document that you can scan in the future should hard drives crash – people who get into film because of this reason should remember that figures thrown around regarding film’s archival properties are not unconditional.
Black and white negatives, for example, can suffer from fixer oxidation years after it has been dried. This happens when people get clumsy and/or lazy about their final washes for their negatives. This is irreversible and while it doesn’t completely destroy the image in most cases, this is a strike (albeit a light one) against film’s archival advantages.
Color negatives also have some downsides. Since there is no silver left on the negatives once its fully developed, it generally has a shorter archival life than BW film. As a result, colors can fade and eventually disappear and can sometimes leave blank negative strips reeking of a vinegar-like smell because of the chemical reactions post-developing.
For both types of films, these things may help maximize your negatives’ archival and storage properties.
First, wash your negatives thoroughly. For color negatives, make sure that they spend enough time in the stabilizer soup.
Second, keep them in acid-free sleeves.
Third, if you can store them in a temperature controlled drybox, do so!
Dominic15. July 2013
Solid piece, Johnny. It’s nice to see such an interest in film. Funny that my days of lusting over high-end full frame digital cameras have seem to come to a close. Now it’s all about acquiring way too many film cameras.
Andrew15. July 2013
Film is just simply amazing…
The uber grainy Ilford 3200 is like a good bottle of single malt.
Fuji velvia is like falling into Gabrielle Rosetti’s dreams.
Andrea15. July 2013
I love that you posted this concise, yet thorough approach to film. You make some very excellent points, but in a manner which is easy for a beginner to understand. But also detailed enough for those who have more experience. I really value your advice in regards to digital. It’s a constant struggle for me to balance the two – a love for film, yet the digital gear and software that I also love.
Bravo on you for posting these tips and points. I have actually saved the page on my phone for future reference, as I know I will continue coming back (I have a few times already). And further bravo for sharing a very generous gift with one lucky person. You earned a fan and a follower in me!
Georg15. July 2013
Fantastic post! I used to solely shoot medium format film for a good 3 years until I switched to digital (as had to give up my lab space when I moved). I decided to switch back to film (at least partially) earlier this year because I noticed that I had become totally careless and just shoot masses of photos because I knew I could. I found that switching back to film has made me think more and care more about the photos that I take.
Peter Dempsey15. July 2013
As much as I love the convenience of digital, film photography is just so much more satisfying. I cannot help smiling when I am out and about with my film cameras. I feel like I am really capturing something and not just snapping. Check out my blog to see the kind of fun I had. I’m not claiming to be an artist, just a film camera operator who occasionally gets lucky.
I found your comments on scanning very useful.
Fabio15. July 2013
Great post. Last year I used my old Yashica FX-3 Super 2000 but I was pretty disappointed with the labs in my city. Hopefully I moved and I it’s time to buy new rolls and try new labs around the town.
Kelsy McCartney15. July 2013
SO well written, Johnny!! I hope that everyone reads this: film, hybrid, and digital shooters.
We’ve found happiness in a wedding balance that sounds about the same as your film/digital usage, and appreciate them both for different parts of the day. :)
Johnny16. July 2013
Thank you all so much for your great feedback! :)
Tracy Clayton17. July 2013
Regarding metering, when you set your light meter ISO to 200 do you tell your lab to pull the film and develop at 200 as well? Or do they develop as is at box speed 400?
Johnny18. July 2013
The lab always develops the film normally, without any pushing or pulling.
The desired effect of rating the film half the box speed is to overexpose one full stop by default. Metering for the shadows gives it another 1-2 stops.
John22. July 2013
I love this!
Rebecca Lily23. July 2013
Really well done, Johnny. Shooting film should be a joy, pure and simple – not intimidating. Anyone who tries to portray it otherwise is only out to gain something for themselves.
I like how you’ve done the opposite with this post, and given so much truthful, helpful information – for nothing in return. I’m sure you’ve inspired a lot of people to pick up a film camera (or two) and give it a try. Thank you.
Johnny24. July 2013
Thank you very much for your feedback, Rebecca.
Riley Joseph16. August 2013
I am glad I found your blog. After years in digital I am wanting to explore medium format film for the first time and this is great stuff for me to think about.
Johnny16. August 2013
Thanks very much, Riley.
I’m happy you found this write up helpful.
David19. August 2013
Thank you for writing this unbiased and honest piece.
Johnny20. August 2013
Thank you for your feedback, David.
I’m not affiliated with any particular camera brand, film manufacturer or photo lab. That probably makes it a bit easier.
Robert28. August 2013
Being around 65 I shot film for a large part of my life. Really I bought my only digital camera (Leica X1) only three years ago, but I still shoot a lot of film. It is not difficult, the only problem where I live is to find a good pro lab for colors (C-41). Sometimes when traveling I use a film camera with an iso 100 film in it for the outside photos and the small digital for interiors, where I need 400/800 ISO. Nice post, interesting and I agree 100%.
P.S. Going to buy the XE-1…
Johnny28. August 2013
Robert, thanks very much.
A good pro lab is very difficult to find, it’s the same where we live. That’s why I ship my work halfway around the world to have it processed and scanned. But I don’t really mind that, the wait is usually worth it.
Luis15. October 2013
“My Grandma shot medium format film with her Rolleiflex, and so can you.”
I like this!
Jenni20. November 2013
You know it’s a good blog post when you are still getting comments months and months later. Thank you for this very balanced and informative post. I enjoy shooting with my Yashica Mat-124 but can’t always afford to process/scan 120 film like I’d like to, so it’s really refreshing to see that shooting digital has value in it’s own right. I suppose we all find what works for us and can create beauty with the tools we have available to us, thanks for these helpful thoughts!
Johnny20. November 2013
Thank you very much for your kind feedback, Jenni.
I’m very happy that you found this article helpful. For me it really depends on what I shoot too. Some subjects work really well on digital, for others I prefer medium format film. I think neither medium is superior to the other.
JC Little18. December 2013
Since acquiring a Contax 645 and a Hassie 500cm the D4 is collecting dust; not ready to sell it yet but its place has become limited. I learned to shoot film beginning in the early 70’s, moved away and only recently came back. It’s already made a large impact in my work, I see beauty in things that were missed with digital and its totally attributable to the time that is spent on each image. What I’d consider my keeper rate has easily doubled.
Love your site and your work, it’s an inspiration to us all.
Johnny19. December 2013
Thank you very much for your kind feedback, JC.
You are completely right, shooting medium format film with a slow system like the Hasselblad feels a lot like craftsmanship to me too. It’s a wonderful process that I wouldn’t want to miss anymore. Working differently with my film cameras also has had a huge impact on how I shoot with my digital camera. I’m much more conscious now and try harder to get every shot right in camera.
Dave Powell7. January 2014
This is fantastic. Very well written…
Johnny7. January 2014
Thank you very much, Dave.
I’m happy you enjoyed this post!
Giorgiana6. June 2014
You are absolutely amazing! Thank God I’ve found you! And you are very generous to share this amazing information, other talented film photographers don’t do this for free! Thank you!
Johnny6. June 2014
Giorgiana, thanks very much for your kind feedback.
I’m glad to hear you found this post helpful!
Larry3. November 2014
I know that if I overexpose color negative film by 3/4 stops the negative will be very dense thus hard to scan. What is meant by “density correct”?
Johnny4. November 2014
Yes, exactly. If you overexpose your negatives will become more “dense” and the scanner needs to compensate for that with more light.
Mike Schaffer26. June 2015
Johnny, this an excellent post, lots of great info. A couple questions.
The last two images compare flatbed scans with pro lab scans. The caption on the first one says “Mini lab scan (Fuji Frontier SP-3000) vs. home scan (Epson V600)”, but the second image looks way better to my eye- it retained much more of the shadow detail that was lost in the other scan. Is the Frontier really the one on the left?
Also, in your experience does the Frontier resolve more detail (resolution) than the Epson flatbed for medium format scans?
Johnny28. June 2015
Thanks for your kind feedback, Mike.
You’re exactly right, the left picture is a mini lab scan (from a local lab) on the Fuji Frontier SP-3000, the exact same scanner that my pro lab uses.
What I wanted to share in this blog post was how important the scanning process is when you’re shooting film, especially the experience and knowledge of the lab/operator. A flatbed scan will always look inferior next to a pro lab scan, but it can look better if a lab (mini lab or drugstore) doesn’t have much experience.
The Frontier isn’t technically superior to anything else, but the colors are fantastic. Film resolves 18 MP for 35mm and 80 MP for 120 (6×6). The Frontier doesn’t come close that with medium format. If you would like all the information that the film resolves you would need to go for a drum scan.
Joe29. June 2015
Great website, Johnny! Thanks for all the great info and inspirational imagery.
Johnny30. June 2015
I appreciate your kind feedback, Joe. Thank you very much!
Ed Sinclair26. March 2016
This is a great post. I love to mix up digital and film – they inform each other in useful ways.
The only thing I’d like to add to this for anyone new to film is this:
Buy some film, and a cheap plastic auto film point-and-shoot by a good brand. You probably don’t need to buy one. Ask parents and older relatives. They’ll probably have one in a drawer. Even better, If you’ve got a DSLR with any full-frame lenses, buy a film body for those lenses! It will be cheap. You don’t need a meter for now, the auto multi-meter in your new SLR will nail it most of the time.
Get out and take pictures! Of anything and everything. It’ll be fine. Use it instead of your favourite digital camera this week/month. It will be fun, and it WILL be fine.
One more thing: Film shots shine when printed. You might get your scanned files back from the lab, and panic a little bit because they look too contrasty or too grainy or the colours aren’t what you’re used to, and they’re not RAW so you can’t get much out of those shadows.
Get them printed! Just do it. In fact, ask the lab to send you 6x4s as well as your files. Seeing those files printed will put your mind at rest and a smile on your face.
Johnny26. March 2016
Thank you very much for your contribution, Ed.
I agree with your suggestion in large parts, film takes some getting used to. I do feel that it’s important to meter correctly, shoot a fresh pro grade film stock (like Portra 400) with a reliable camera and send your results to a professional lab.
There’s a lot of things that can go wrong and that might lead to disappointing results. I always find it helpful to reduce the variables.
Martin13. August 2017
Awesome post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic.
I still shoot most of my work on digital, but I will transition to film completely to have less work with retouching my weddings.
Johnny14. August 2017
Many thanks, Martin. I appreciate your feedback.
It has been 4 years since I wrote this post and digital cameras as well as digital post processing have come a long way. I still shoot film exclusively for my own work and I’m sure you’ll enjoy shooting it too. But I think in most situations both mediums are very usable now.
Otavio27. July 2018
Hello Johnny, great post!
I own an Epson v700, but it’s being a pain to get good results out of it with color negatives. I understand scanners like the Frontier, Nortisu and Pakon (when properly operated) deliver the best color results (for my taste, at least).
However, it would be very helpful if you could describe your workflow/settings with Epson Scan. I really like the results you got with your flatbed on the “v600 vs. Pakon” and “v600 vs. Frontier” comparison on this very post. I live in Southern Brazil and analog services are virtually dead here, so the only option left is to scan at home. There are no Frontiers, Noritsus or Imacons here anymore.
Thanks a lot!
Johnny30. July 2018
Thanks for your kind feedback, Otavio.
I don’t recommend using a flatbed scanner for film, but Sebastian Schlueter has some comprehensive write-ups on his blog that you might find helpful.
Good luck! :)