5 Reasons I Love Film Photography


They say that everything old becomes new again. Indeed, life does tend to unfold around us in a cyclical fashion. Many of the so-called retro and vintage trends that rise to popularity often vanish as quickly as they appeared. But the fact that these things enter popular consciousness at all says something about our connection to — or, more likely, our curiosity about — the styles and ways of doing things that preceded some of us. The retro stylings of cameras like the Nikon Df or the Fujifilm X100S certainly bear this out in the realm of photography.

Photo by Louis Tsai on Unsplash

But what about film photography? There surely seems to be a growing interest in film photography but, for many, the idea that film photography is “new again” doesn’t really fit, as they never completely gave up film even after the digital revolution took firm hold.

Photo by Pelayo Arbués on Unsplash

I, like most of my peers, was introduced to photography via a film camera — one of those old Polaroid One Step cameras that I managed to wrestle from my aunt’s hands whenever she brought it around. But I am very much a product of the digital age and I jumped at my first opportunity to a digital point-and-shoot camera. I weaned myself from film and never looked back. For a while.

Photo by Riley Pitzen on Unsplash

I’m not entirely sure what sparked the desire to return to film, but I’m glad it happened. Sure, I’m also reminded of the downsides, but I consider them relatively insignificant. To be sure, this isn’t a manifesto about abandoning digital photography or a screed about why film is ostensibly better than digital. No, I’m just sharing a few reasons why I love shooting film and why film photography will continue to play a small but important role in my growth as a photographer.

Photo by Riley Pitzen on Unsplash

Hopefully, one or two of you reading this will be inspired to return to film or to try it out for the first time. Or, all this might serve as a reminder of why you happily kicked film to the curb and will never go back. Either way, it's food for thought. Here are five reasons why I love shooting film, in no particular order.

1. Happy Accidents and Unexpected Treasures

I tend to approach film photography with somewhat of an “art project” mindset, so I’m far more tolerant of imperfections as opposed to when I’m shooting digital. I don’t consider light leaks and lens flare to be problems, even when I’m not expecting to see them in a photo. And since I’m admittedly bad at reading manuals (I just don’t do it), I’ve made my fair share of accidental double exposures. Turns out I’ve enjoyed the results of most of those accidents.

2. The Challenge

I would never go so far as to say digital photography is easy. But film photography sure isn’t convenient. Film photography forces me to be much more deliberate and thoughtful when I’m working. There are no do-overs. No delete button. If I don’t get it right the first time — get it right in camera — then I’ve just wasted a frame. As noted above, it doesn’t always go right but I am ever cognizant of the fact I have a limited number of frames to work with. Not all of my film cameras have working light meters, so getting the exposure I want (rather than a “correct” exposure) has become second nature.

3. No Post Post-Processing

Once I get my film developed and scanned, that’s it. The images remain untouched. I simply feel no compulsion to alter or “improve” my film shots in any way — even when they’re not very good. It’s a nice break from Lightroom’s develop module.

4. Grain Versus Noise

Like virtually everything else on the list, this is entirely subjective (and, perhaps, a figment of my imagination), but film grain wins the war of aesthetics over digital noise every time. I understand the semantic use of noise as an analogy for grain, but that’s where that relationship ends for me. I’m partial to real film grain.

5. The Analog Personality

Not to be overly anthropomorphic here, but I thoroughly enjoy the personality of film and old cameras. While I love my DSLRs, I don’t feel they have much personality beyond what I assign to them. My old cameras, on the other hand, each come with their own distinctive quirks that generally escape being put into words, but if you shoot film you’ll know what I mean. A similar case can be made for film. I have a particular attachment to Kodak Tri-X 400 and Kodak Portra 400 because, well, I just like the look of them and that’s all the reason I need. But I’m determined to try as many different kinds of film as I possibly can; and as I make my way through the different Fujifilm, Kodak, Agfa, Ilford, and other films (including rolls of expired film and instant film), I’m learning the many different “looks” associated with each one — looks that are rather difficult to replicate with plugins and presets

As far as the drawbacks of film photography (such as the waiting period and costs associated with developing film, cost of buying film, etc.), they’re not significant enough to keep me away since film doesn’t account for the bulk for my photography. Digital is still my go-to medium. If you find yourself stuck in a creative rut or are in need of adding a new feature to your photographic repository, I highly encourage you to give film a try.

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

Very true Jason, there is something about shooting with a film camera that feels somehow more satisfying despite the costs and relative unknowns, the next step for me is to start developing my own film, that is a big step and one that I probably won’t try for a while yet.

I feel exactly the same as you when it comes to developing my own film. I’ve thought about it a few times…just haven’t made the leap. Let me know when you finally do it, maybe I’ll follow your lead. : )

I could have written the self-same words myself. I think my first camera was a Box Brownie in the 1950s, but I moved easily to digital with a succession of mid-range cameras. But having got to grips with the format and editing, you find yourself wanting more. I recently found a used Hasselblad and am enjoying the re-learning experience just like Jason.

Yes, it’s definitely a re-learning experience as you put it. I also enjoy discovering so many great old cameras.

Thanks for your comment!

Although I’m using digital since 2008, I have a strong background with shooting color slide and b&w film. I’m enjoying digital to a point. My problem is I don’t enjoy the computer processing required today. This is even though I developed my own b&w film & prints for years. Any thoughts on how I can begin to enjoy using my Photoshop Elements 9?

I agree with you that post processing can get tiring sometimes. I stated in #3 that I don’t process my film shots because, but after reading Ron and Aaron’s comments I decided to spend a little bit of time with my film shots in Lightroom and I enjoyed it. Getting it right in-camera is obviously much more important with film, and the more you get right the less work you have to do afterwards. For me, that’s the key: not spending all day post processing, film or digital. I’m not very familiar with Elements and I think Photoshop is overkill for most of what I do; Lightroom is perfect for me. So I think if you find software that is easy to use and you build a workflow that gets you in and out as quickly as possible, you might feel a little better about the whole processing routine.

Thanks for the mention Jason! Here’s a short video tutorial I put together explaining how to use a grey card to nail your exposure and color balance. It makes post processing a lot easier if you start with a good exposure and proper white balance. https://youtu.be/qwG7Adre_kg

Maybe I am the last guy in America carrying an 8×10 Wista with huge tripods in mountains of Colorado to do E-6 slides of landscape back in 2005. Each shot was $10. Now I can’t. Each shot is more than $20 and E-6 is not developed nearby anymore. I miss it sooo bad. I then did 4×5 slide, film and bw. Then I bought my Nikon F-3 on ebay and am still shooting with it. With that much history and love affair I just can’t get any connection to best of digital cameras that I have . Not even close. Just thinking how much resolution chemical offers vs digits makes me mentally satisfied. The tone and depth of film is magical, no digital ever can come close to it. Digital just can’t attract us. No matter how much bells they add to it, sorry. Never forget trying to calculate time progression and F stop based on light meter in frozen cold. Excitement of waiting for film to get developed .

I shot film for about 30 years, and really miss it. I shot slide and B&W, and did all of my own B&W processing and printing. I could get the exposure right with no problems, I had a real connection with my film and equipment, a connection I’ve never been able to acquire with digital. I may go back to film for the simplicity and love of it all.

Have Fun,

I teach black and white darkroom to teens at Venice Arts, a media arts program here in Venice. I have been shooting film for decades, and one of the absolute best things about it is the work in the darkroom. The deliberate process of printing an image cannot be replicated with a computer and Photoshop. I also shoot digitally and use those digital tools, but somehow, when we are dodging and burning a print to achieve balance or a desired result by sticking our hands or pieces of cardboard in the light beam from the enlarger, there is an immediacy and connection to the work that is missing from the computer. It is the photochemical alchemy that causes those happy accidents, those unlooked for surprises that can transform an ordinary photograph into something absolutely unique. Watching that print come up in the developer is still magic to me.

B&w development at home is easy. I use a dark bag rather than a dark room and a Patterson tank to develop the film in. Search for YouTube clips. You will need a scanner too but they are cheap. My Epson v550 produces excellent results. Much cheaper than sending them away and very therapeutic.

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