5 Deep And Lasting Benefits Of Film Photography (Even Though I Now Shoot 100% Digital)

A very brief recap of my photography adventures since I started shooting with intention around 2005, looks like this –

2005 – 2011 – Used phone cameras (mostly Sony) to learn how to compose and find my favourite subject matter.

2011 – 2012 – Shot intensively with my first “proper” camera, a Nikon Coolpix P300.

2012 – 2017 – Predominantly shot 35mm film, owned and used close to a couple of hundred cameras and lenses. Also used a Sony NEX to explore and test vintage lenses, and find those I liked best.

Mid 2017 – present – Been shooting digital exclusively with perhaps half a dozen regular cameras, mostly compacts, plus in the last few months, with three Pentax DSLRs.

Every step along the way – and every camera and lens – has informed where I am today, what I’ve learned, and how much I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy photography.

But it was those film years that I feel my learning rose exponentially, and continues to hugely influence how I use digital cameras today.

Here are five major reasons why –

1. Shooting film helped find a “look” I liked and had not previously found with digital.

When I was using camera phones originally, I always shot in colour and didn’t give the output any consideration. I was oblivious to any kind of in-camera settings (I doubt my first phones had this anyway) and hadn’t even heard of post processing.

I just accepted the colour output without question, and focused instead on composition and subject.

With film though, I started to notice that different film gave a different take on the world. Slightly different colours and overall somehow more warmth and appeal. Plus of course the inherent grain in film that so many of us enjoy.

Even my first couple of rolls of 35mm colour film showed me colours and textures I’d never seen before (with my digital cameras).

7592559320_031be33f67_b
Made with the humble plastic Lomo Smena 8M and Fuji Superia 200, but still it showed me a quality of colours, grain and blur I’d not seen in digital photos I’d made up to this point.

I also started shooting black and white film, which opened up a whole other world, and again influences how I shoot today.

The colour cameras I enjoy most currently are my two CCD sensor Pentax models, the K100D and K-m.

Both of them give me colours straight out of camera that remind me of the kind of warm, saturated, yet natural look of my favourite film shots.

2. Understanding how aperture influences depth of field.

With my Nikon Coolpix, shot on Program mode, I realised that some pictures made the subject sharp and the background blurred. I knew I liked this kind of look, but not how or why it happened.

When I bought my first SLR in early 2013 – a very functional and workmanlike Praktica BMS Electronic with standard 50/1.8 lens – the viewfinder experience blew me away.

Not least of all because when I set the lens to different apertures (at this point I didn’t know the term aperture, or what those exotic numbers with their strangely coded sequence of 1.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 meant) the amount of the image that was in focus changed.

At the smallest number, 1.8, the background was at its most blurred.

For a while I just played with the aperture and learned from the results, but it also spurred me to read about what the numbers on the barrel meant (aperture), and how and why it was affecting the images.

I then returned to using this knowledge with my Coolpix, with Aperture Priority mode rather than full Program, and and hundreds of cameras/lenses since, being able to control the depth of field precisely to give me the balance of blur and sharpness I desired.

49033789972_842701aec2_b

3. The benefits of interchangeable lenses.

My early phone cameras had moderate zoom lenses, but I hardly ever used them, partly because I’d read how poor they were at anything other than the default wide angle, and partly through my own experience which utterly proved this.

With my Coolpix P300, I didn’t really know what the focal length of the lens was, I just realised I could get more in the frame than with the phone cameras. The Coolpix it turns out starts at 24mm equivalent field of view, and the phones were usually between 28-35mm at their widest.

My habit of not zooming carried over into using the Coolpix, but I did wonder why sometimes I had to get so close (within a couple of centimetres of the front of the lens) sometimes, and what I saw on the screen was still further away than I thought it would be.

6817313031_0cce69ed8b_b
The Coolpix at 24mm, exaggerating the perspective and making a regular bicycle down tube appear to be rapidly tapering.

My first SLR (the good old Praktica) came with a standard 50/1.8 lens, and I noticed immediately that everything was much closer than when I used the Coolpix.

Perhaps more importantly, the resultant scene looked far more like it did viewed with my naked eyes, without any exaggerated lines or distortion.

Then with more research, I learned that the typical photography kit for an SLR consisted of a “normal” 50mm lens, a “wide” 35mm lens and a “telephoto” 135mm lens.

Over time I tried these other focal lengths and was shocked not only at how different the perspective was, but how much closer or further away you needed to be to get the same kind of framing.

For my first half a dozen rolls of film using a 135mm lens, I was framing, then stepping back a pace or two and trying again, with every shot, just getting used to the different view compared with 50mm.

I later took this knowledge and experience into shooting with digital mirrorless and DSLR bodies, albeit needing a second level of learning to get my head around crop factors.

I still rarely use a zoom lens (unless I’m using it as a prime lens) and I know my favoured focal lengths well enough to be able to frame and shoot without needing to step forward or back anymore.

4. A frugal approach to shooting.

I started film photography with a Holga 120N, and a five pack of Ilford HP5 Plus 400.

As it was a present, I had no idea about how much film was to buy, or have developed, or where to go for either.

I quickly learned that there are ongoing costs, unlike digital photography, which meant I was almost visually counting out my money with every click of the shutter button.

Especially as with the Holga I only had 12 frames per roll of film.

After a while, as magical as the Holga was, the processing of 120 film became tiresome, as I would have to go to a specialist lab 15 miles away then return a few days later to collect.

The cost and inconvenience of this to-ing and fro-ing, along with the price of the film and the processing itself, meant I soon started look for other ways to make photographs with the Holga.

This resulted in some DIY modifications (mostly with card, tape and rubber bands) to allow me to load the Holga with 35mm film, which was cheaper and easier to buy, and have processed.

Issues with sprocket holes and overlapping frames led me to buy my own scanner and choose exactly which parts of the film to scan myself.

8051310678_5381a07f17_b

But I soon realised I enjoyed being hunched over a scanner for hours a time about as much as drinking neat vinegar, so ditched that and started exploring proper 35mm film cameras, which I could get developed and scanned to a CD far more easily.

Even still, that frugality mentality had made an impression, that carried forward into shooting 35mm film, and when that eventually became too prohibitive for me to justify, it translated to digital too.

I don’t generally use massive memory cards that allow thousands of shots, and instead prefer smaller ones that give you a couple of hundred, or less.

It helps retain an approach that’s not just firing off the shutter machine gun style for the sake of it, then hoping that one of those 37 images you just made would be a good one, but instead considers every frame as if I was still paying for it on film.

5. The pleasures of using older machines.

My Holga was, I believe, one of only two new film cameras I’ve owned, and even that was a gift.

The 247 (give or take a couple of dozen) other film cameras I’ve owned were older, used machines. Which was one of the major appeals of them – using something not only from a time gone by, but many were wonderful mechanical marvels that felt amazing to hold and wind on and focus.

Using old, second hand cameras and lenses also help me remember that despite what the advertisers will try and have you believe hundreds of times each day, the latest is not always the greatest.

Aside from my Nikon Coolpix P300, the first “proper” camera I had (before my film phase), and cameras in phones, I’ve never bought a new digital camera since.

Again the lessons from shooting film on old machines made it clear that you don’t need cutting edge gear to make great photos or enjoy photography.

So began my explorations into digital classics, that no doubt you’ve read about here numerous times before.

43466657742_c7f0888832_b
Made with my Panasonic Lumix LX3, one of my favourite digital classics.

Whilst I haven’t shot a frame of film in two and a half years, and have no great urge to, the lessons I learned during those formative years of film left a deep impression that’s greatly influenced my digital era too.

How about you? What did shooting film teach you that’s been useful for digital photography too? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

What Next?

Share this post with someone you think will enjoy it using the buttons below.

Read a random post from the archives.

See what I’m up to About Now.

21 thoughts on “5 Deep And Lasting Benefits Of Film Photography (Even Though I Now Shoot 100% Digital)”

  1. “The pleasure of using older machines” – that is the thing I miss about film photography more than anything. It’s why I bought the T100 to use the old Pentax lenses on and spent ages coming up with settings to simulate the look of film.
    Really the only thing I have against digital is the lack of exposure latitude and the fact most of the cameras seem to be designed by people who never use them.

    1. Marc, yes I wrote about exposure latitude recently, it does make digital far more challenging on this front than film!

      I’ve used plenty of cameras where with certain design features, it’s been a complete mystery as to how anyone would find them useful in that form. Great design in cameras – both the overall physical form and handling, and the layout of buttons, menus etc – is really underrated I think. It makes those that are very well designed (the Ricoh GRD III I have always comes to mind) all the more precious!

  2. I’m glad I learned on film and the wet Darkroom and still prefer it to be honest. But space and my present financial situation rule out any film shooting for now. Sadly it’s become an elite, specialized hobby. I do think I also shoot less with digital than most people, and I also use smaller memory cars, and have never filled one that I can remember. My iPhone SE takes as good, or better pictures than my cameras but I’m not fond of the 29mm lens equivalent focal length or the shooting experience. Having said that, I’m thinking of just using it for a month or so to see if it might grow on me, which happened with my Lumix LX7.

    1. I prefer smaller SD cards too, but they aren’t offered! 16GB is “small” now and when you get maybe half of it full it has slowed down to ridiculousness. I figure my Canon does about 10MB per picture average, so ever gigabyte is 100 pictures or the equivalent of four rolls of film!

      1. I can only recall buying one SD card new. All of the other dozen or so I have I’ve found in old cameras I’ve bought, and range I think from 256MB to 16GB. Mostly I use 1, 2 or 4MB when I can. 16GB is excessive, and as you say this is at the small end of what you can buy new these days!

      2. Marc, I see you are quite right. I guess Iv’e had the same dozen or so that i got on ebay kicking around here. They were all used or “refurbished” (whatever that means), but I haven’t ever had any issues.

    2. Jon, I think some prolonged time with an iPhone would help you take pictures you liked more, but from experience, I don’t think the overall awkward handling of phones is something we get used to or enjoy, especially compared with even a basic compact digital.

      I’m in a similar boat with film, the expense is the main barrier these days.

    1. The camera phone I remember first using extensively for photography was the Sony Ericsson K800i, which was released in 2006.

      Before that I had a Motorola Razr V3 (I think the V3i) which is from 2004/5, and took some photos, but not extensively as it’s a very awkward design for that purpose.

      The Sonys were great in that you could turn them sideways and use them just like a little digital compact, with a proper shutter button (complete with half press to lock focus), and still I think this design is so much better than a touchscreen phone cam today.

      And as with Sony digital compacts, the performance of the lens and the processing has always been very decent.

      It was autumn 2011 when I got my first proper camera, the Nikon Coolpix P300…

  3. I enjoyed your look back, Dan. Great to know the history behind your cameras and shooting/composing habits and what influenced you via film. As you know I’m not a photographer but just enjoy taking pics – mostly of nature, particularly birds (maybe I should put some online again, haven’t done so in years). I think the last photo I posted was on my other blog, in this post: https://sandieseashore.blog/2019/07/23/lightening-a-mood/ (I like isolating leaves, and that one was too good to miss. Unfortunately I missed one just a couple of days ago – by the time I thought to get the camera the wind had blown it away. I get a bit waylaid just by the experience usually.)

    My first camera – film one – was when I was still a child and was a Kodak Brownie – probably a 127, but am not sure. I still remember the smell of it! My dad always had to put the film in for me as I was always scared I’d expose it to the light! Next was an Instamatic (which I could deal with myself as the film was in the form of cartridges). Later… well, the Polaroid I mentioned. I can’t recall what was in between, but I got into digital with a Sony Cybershot and then the Lumix I’ve still got. I’ve not really had all that many cameras. Oh, and now I have a phone camera but haven’t really done much with it as it’s my first mobile phone in about a decade!

    You know, your posts are making me want to do some more serious (I was going to say ‘focussed’) photography? I tried to set my Lumix on something specific (on Manual settings) yesterday and then couldn’t get it back to how it was later, and failed miserably with how I had set it. So I guess I’ve got to hunt for the user guide now!

    1. You know, Val, the shots on your blog are very good. Though such shots are often made, there is something nonetheless very appealing, unique, and pleasing in your “main” photo of the mild waves spreading up the wet sand.
      It’s pity that you’re not shooting at present – if you can’t find your camera instruction booklet, they are usually available free for download on the manufacturer’s website. We’re looking forward to seeing more.

      1. Ah, the photo in the post I linked to, is mine, William, the background and header isn’t – that’s from Unsplash. I give a credit to the photographer on my info page, I believe. I shall find the user booklet for my camera and see what I can do. I usually photograph leaves, trees and birds – I live in rural Wales and there’s a wealth of all of those here. Thanks!

    2. Hah! Missed the attribution entirely!
      Your leaves stand very nicely on their own; but your work in “Colouring the Past” is gorgeous. The way you’ve picked details as a departure for your ruminative investigation into young boxers of the time, even the climate’s effect on the worn urban milieu and brick fascinating and quite a good read.

      The stunning results in “Colouring Work” are simply beautiful; these people literally live again. Years ago, I had a long (failed) series of attempts at re-doing FB monochrome prints with Marshall’s Photo Oils, but never came close to anything like this.
      I once saw a display of late Victorian clothing recreated with modern fabrics at the Smithsonian; where we have become accustomed to thinking of the past and visualizing it as bleak, dun, and gloomy, period costume proved to have been rich and deep. Here, your renditions show them as they were, in life. Your disclaimer about the possible inaccuracy of color is noted, but I think that you are much more correct than not. “Evelyn and Charlie” show it.

      1. Thanks for all this, William. I appreciate it. Please excuse me if don’t write much at the moment as I’ve got a sore throat and chest and feel pretty under the weather. I hope to do a new post in Colouring the Past in a few days or a week or so. You’re welcome to follow if you want.

    3. Thanks Val. I mostly use my Lumix (and all cameras really) on Aperture Priority. Not sure if yours has that, or if it’s just Program and Manual? Glad you’re inspired to try something different though! Because shutter speed is hardly ever a factor for my type of photos (non-moving subjects), I like to adjust the aperture and control depth of field. As long as the shutter speed is fast enough that it’s not going to blur (and with shake reduction in modern cameras you gain an extra two or three stops anyway), I’m not concerned if it’s 1/1000s or 1/4s.

      I thought you said before you only had one blog now, the colouring the past one. Must have misread!

      1. Yes, my camera has Aperture Priority, it’s my preferred setting, too (when I’m not being lazy and using auto which sometimes works surprisingly well for photographing twitchy birds). It’s also in Program and Manual. Occasionally I’ve managed a deliberate depth of field focus with AP, but it’s usually accidental. I need to teach myself more.

        I’ve several blogs, but currently only two that are public, my colouring one and the one linked to above, which is for happy memories and pleasant stuff – mostly to help me beat my occasional bouts of depression (especially winter blues aka s.a.d.) and entertain others. I link to the colouring one from ‘sandie’ but, apart from mentioning it in one post there, not the other way around as I prefer my ‘sandie’ readership to be composed of people who enjoy my sense of humour and whimsy. 🙂 Thanks, Dan.

  4. While I agree with points 1 and 5 (very much agree) I believe 2,3 and 4 can be had with digital photography… which is how it happened to me. Back in the film days I only had point and shoots, so these were a non-issue. I only bought my first film SLR after I had already mastered these points in digital. And I stick to digital mostly nowadays, as I shooting film has just gotten too expensive.

    1. Thanks Christian. Yes I agree with 1 and 5, and certainly 2 and 3 can be had as easily with a DSLR as an SLR, it was just that I learned them using SLRs, before I’d ever used a DSLR.

      I’m not sure about 4, the frugal approach to shooting. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t had the experience of shooting film for a few years and knowing every single frame had a real, tangible cost, and I’d gone straight into using DLSRs, I would be far more trigger happy than I am now. As an extension of this frugality, I think shooting with film also helped me be organised with my photos too. If I wanted to know what camera, lens and film combo I’d used, when at least one of these variables was changing with every new roll of film, I had to make notes, and then file the resultant images carefully in folders afterwards. This too carried over to digital, whereas again if I hadn’t had that film experience I would probably just be dumping the contents of my memory card in the same folder after every photowalk, and having an ever expanding and intimidating amorphous mountain of a mess of photos!

  5. Hi Dan, nice article. I could write one in the exact opposite tone. I started on film in the late 70’s and jumped quickly onto the digital train in the mid 90’s now I’m back to film with all the lessons I’ve learned in the digital darkroom. It’s a journey of learning. A gaggle of first word problems. Keep shooting, regardless. 😀

    1. Interesting, I’m sure there are many like you that went that route Lisa Marie, film to digital then back to film after digital wasn’t giving them something they were looking for… Good to hear from you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s