How Simulating a Film Camera Can Help Improve your Photography Technique


Digital cameras have revolutionised and democratised photography, great images are now within the reach of anyone who owns a half decent camera and good eye. Sometimes, however, it’s easy to forget modern photography’s roots and what that can teach us. In this article we are going to look at treating your DSLR like an old film camera to improve your technique.

Force Yourself to Not “Waste Film”

The biggest continuous cost to a film photographer was the film itself and its processing, and because of this each image had a value. The massive capacity of today’s memory cards has reduced the perceived value of a shot to virtually zero. To regain a sense of worth for your images, the next time you shoot, take your smallest memory card and shoot the largest files size, restricting yourself to only the number of shots you can fit on one card. Be strong with yourself and do not delete images, this will force you to think about every shot you take and give you an understanding of the value of a shot.


Film and SD Card
Restrict the number of images you can take – by sparkieblues, on Flickr


When you put that solitary card in your camera, think about the shoot ahead and treat the card as it were a roll of film. Think of the light that you expect in your shoot and set both the ISO and white balance manually to suit the light. For the ISO, think about whether you will be shooting predominately in low light or good light and set a speed to suit. Don’t set the ISO to more than 1600, this was pretty much the limit of colour film. The same applies to setting a manual colour balance, in the film days you had to decide whether to use indoor or daylight balanced films. Making the wrong choice would mean huge, uncorrectable colour casts on your images. So with your digital camera, decide what lighting you expect and set  your white balance to either 5500k for outdoors or 3200k for indoors. Shoot jpg to eliminate the possibility of correcting the balance in post production.


Stick with one ISO speed –


Thinking About Your Settings Before You Shoot

The lessons learnt from these settings can be invaluable. Setting a manual ISO will teach you think about your exposure much more. Is the shutter speed to slow? Will I need to stop down the aperture more? Am I going to need a tripod?

Setting the white balance manually will give you a great understanding on how the colour of light changes depending on its source. If you have shot only daylight images you will still see small variations in colour from shot to shot.

Another lesson that you can learn from this, is to see and make small colour corrections in post production, this will give you a greater understanding of the relationships within the colour wheel.


white balance button d700
Select just one white balance – by


Resist Looking at the Result Immediately

One the the great things about digital photography is the ability to review images instantly. Shooting film meant several hours to several days wait before you could see the results, and this was not a bad thing as it made you appreciate your mistakes much more and learn from them. So how can you shoot a digital camera and resist the temptation to look at the screen? Simple, tape it over with some electrical tape. Now when you go out and shoot, you are forced to think about not only the composition but also the exposure and focus in much greater detail and you will only be able to see the final results once you download the images.

Whilst some bemoan the halcyon days of film, there is no doubting that digital photography has changed the game beyond recognition. That said, these few tips from times gone past will open your eyes and mind to some of the more subtle and pleasing nuances of our chosen hobby or profession and hopefully take your image making a level or two higher.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

I shoot film almost exclusively, and your suggestions are good for those who tend to hyper-shoot with digital. Another good exercise is to use manual exposure mode, not because film cameras are without Program, AP, or SP modes but because Manual mode exp encourages the photographer to think about, and adjust for, the type of lighting on the subject. Better still, use an incident meter instead of the camera’s meter. But: the best way to accomplish what you advise is TO SHOOT FILM! Pull out that old film camera, buy a few rolls of film (B&H, Adorama, Amazon, etc), get it developed and printed (Costco, Walmart, Target, etc), and assess the result. This step alone could teach us how to take better pictures with fewer clicks, and may eliminate hours and hours culling images from your digital projects.

Why simulate if you can still use the real deal?? Cut the crap, buy a cheap film camera, be amazed by the results 😉

I think maybe I’ll go out with my old Nikon N65 and shoot that instead of all of this. One thing to consider here is what type of photography you are doing though. Big difference in the shot count when you are shooting landscapes as compared to trying to capture birds in exciting postures or in flight with just the right depth of field to make them pop out from the background. LOTS of differences in settings to consider, not to mention the fact that using AF and burst mode for wildlife and bird photography can make the difference between getting the shot and missing it completely.

Very interesting, as I have never been a rapid fire, multiple image, bracket the shot type of shooter. Even with a large memory card, I tend to compose carefully, shoot a few shots from different angles, etc. I seldom “fill up” my cards. And I often don’t look at the results until I get back to my car, my motorhome, or my home. I also do very little or no post production work(I just don’t like it, don’t enjoy it), so I try to shoot the shot so that it will look the way I want as it
is. I am not a purist, I enjoy what others do with their photos, I just do it my way.

I’m only in my early 30’s but I grew up with my parents Yashica film camera and always bought my own film cameras until I was an adult with a real job. I bought my first DSLR (EOS 300d) in Germany but I still always tried to frame the shots and look for the best lighting. I enjoy shooting on my iPhone also but I never just snap pics. If something grabs me at the right moment, I take it.

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