Improving Digital Photography with Film

Once upon a time if you wanted to take a photo, if had to be shot on film.  You would buy a roll, load you camera and take you pictures.  Afterwards you would take the roll to the photo lab to get developed and you would finally see your photos.

The rise of digital photography has all but killed that process, creating an era of inexpensive, instant gratification allowing you to take hundreds of photos with no concern for running out of film or having to get the rolls processed.

The modern digital age of photography provides us with more convenience and abilities than ever before.

Film photography should not be ignored, though.  Kodak, Fuji and Ilford continue to create new film emulsions still to this day.  There is a certain feel that is evoked by photographs taken on film, a look that many strive to accomplish through emulation, using tools such as Alien Skin Exposure 2, Nik Silver Efex, and even my LifeInDigitalFilm presets.  These tools are fine, but still cannot convey the nuance of film.

The only sure fire way to get the film look is to shoot film, but that is not what we are here to discuss.

What I want to propose is using film photography as a tool to improve your digital photography.  How do you do this you ask?  Consider this, Digital SLRs allow us to shoot without consequence.  With massive memory cards we can shoot hundreds of photos at a time limited only by the size of the card and the cameras battery life.

I feel that this makes a lot of photographers a bit lackadaisical about their photography.  We take many images, often not worrying about composition or image quality, reminding ourselves that we are shooting in RAW and can always fix it in post-processing.  This leads to a multitude of waste images lying about.

I guess what I am getting at is that digital can cause us to get complacent and lazy… I know my first DSLR caused me to get that way (it may have even been my old Kodak DC20 digicam from way back when).  It took film to snap me out of my haze.

I started out in photography with film back in high school.  Within a short while of picking up my DSLR, I found myself yearning for the look of the films I once used, which led me directly to Alien Skin Exposure 2.  From there I found Lightroom and decided I wanted non-destructive film emulation and set out to create presets to assist in that goal.

This posed a problem, as I needed a reference, so I picked up my old Minolta Maxxum 7000, bought up film and started shooting film to collect data for my emulations.  Within weeks I was again hooked on film and found my DSLR relegated to portrait sessions and weddings.

A funny thing happened though.  After spending months working primarily with film cameras, I found my paying gigs more productive than before.  I discovered that my images were better composed and I had a much higher rate of keepers from each session.  Lightroom made it obvious as I looked back on past sessions in comparison to the more recent ones.

I had become a more disciplined and altogether better photographer.  That change occurred directly from film and its expense and limitations.

If you are looking at your Lightroom catalog and you are finding that you are having more rejects than good images, you may want to consider taking the Film Challenge.  Get yourself a film camera.  You probably have an old SLR around.  If not, an SLR compatible with your DSLR lenses is most likely easy to find at reasonable prices or borrow one from family that has an SLR lying about.

Grab the camera and load up with a quality film, go all out and get some Kodak Portra, Fuji Velvia or some Kodak T-Max, don’t cheap out on film as you want to make great images.  You have met your first limitation of film, expense, good film can set you back five dollars a roll.  You money buys you about 36 shots, so you need to make them count.

Now, with only that roll of film, go on a photo outing.  Don’t take any other cameras, just the film camera.  Now you have to confront the limitation of the roll, your 36 photos.  You have no backup, just 36 shutter actuations.  Go out and shoot your hike, or trip, or sporting event.  Always keep your frame count in mind and make each shot count.  Focus on your composition.

Focus on exposure.  If a shot looks like a real winner, spend three frames instead of one and bracket up and down a stop.  Don’t get trigger happy, as you can shoot 36 frames in minutes (you know you do with your DSLR), you have the rest of your day to document.  Forget about your digital gear, for the day film is king again.

Once you finish off your roll, which may take a few days if you get really picky about your shots, take it to your nearest professional lab.  If you don’t have one close, send off to one of the better mail order places.  Do not just run down to Costco or Wal-Mart.  Knowledge can make the difference in processing and is valuable.

Processing is the third limitation, it costs more money and it will be a while until you finally see your images (which can also be considered a limitation).  Order yourself prints and high resolution scans (unless you have a film scanner).  Now you wait.

Once you pick up you prints, open them up and see them for the first time.  You feel that feeling?  It’s called satisfaction.  If you took care with your composition and exposures you should find the vast majority of your 36 photos are keepers.  It is true that photographers used to be happy with one great photo in a roll, but how many were good?  Most of them were, just like the stack of prints in your hand.  Now take your disk of scans home and open them up in Photoshop, make the images perfect.

You should find that it requires a lot less work than normal to improve your images.  Film’s limitations helped you become more disciplined, and the more you shoot film the more cognizant you will become with your composition and exposures.  This brings us back to digital photography.

After you shoot a couple rolls of film and pick your digital gear back up, take it out on a photo outing.  When you get back and upload to Lightroom, you will probably see improvement in the quality of your digital images.  Personally I found my keeper rate jump from around 50% to over 80%, which fell in step with my average of about 28 keepers from a 36-exposure roll of film.

As I naturally started to look for better composition and exposure, I increased my overall editing speed as well.  More of the image was being made in camera than in Lightroom or Photoshop.  The visualization skills I enhanced while shooting film carried right over into my digital workflow.

My old Minolta and a bunch of film have turned out to be the best digital workflow tools I have used, sharpening my mind as a photographer leading to a more efficient digital experience.

If you do take the Film Challenge for yourself, I think you will find yourself picking up your old film gear more often than you would think.  There is a simplicity and natural feel to film photography, and you know what you get is what you get.  The limitations of film enhance your technical skills and your creativity simultaneously.

Add quality film to that equation and you will find you produce images with a feel unlike your digital images; not better, not worse, but different.  Then again, maybe I am just overly sentimental for film.

Brandon Oelling

Hi there! I'm Brandon Oelling, the founder of XEQUALS. My team and I believe deep in our hearts that inside every one of us is an amazing photographer. Our mission is to help you navigate your journey with the XEQUALS platform.