How Shooting Film Positively Transformed My Digital Photography

Before I discovered film, my main photography experience was with camera phones, then a Nikon Coolpix, which I shot 1000 photographs a month with for seven months.

Shooting film over the next five years – aside from its own unique pleasures – has gradually, yet radically, transformed how I approached and enjoyed digital photography too.

Here are the major reasons why –

1. Thoughtful composition and frugal shooting.

Using the Coolpix helped hugely to hone my composition. But I would still go out for a 30 minute photowalk, blast off 200 images, then spend four times longer editing through the photographs.

Something didn’t seem right about having 17 almost identical shots of the same dew dropped cobweb then agonising over which to keep and share.

The pleasure of being out taking photographs was starting to be tainted by the thought of all the time I’d be spending afterwards poring through them.

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Nikon Coolpix P300

Shooting with film, where capturing the same 200 images would be prohibitively expensive, taught me to be far more particular and careful about what I saw through the viewfinder before I released the shutter.

(A very simple trick I still use with film and digital is to ask before I shoot “Is this really a worthwhile photograph?” Often I decide it isn’t, and move on.)

This in turn translated to how I now use my Sony NEX mirrorless and a100 DSLR cameras.

A 90 minute photowalk these days might yield 50-70 shots, around the same as a couple of rolls of film.

Which means way less time hunched over a computer sifted through images back home.

More time out in the field (often quite literally out in a field) and less time editing and post processing is a hugely positive outcome for me. 

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

2. Choosing aperture and depth of field.

Using film SLRs taught me plenty about the effect of aperture and distance on the depth of field.

Being able to see what the camera saw through the viewfinder was key to this – even without any study or research, you can experiment with changing aperture and focus and seeing with your own eyes how it changes what you see in the VF.

Prior to this film experience, I was just on auto or program with a digital camera, letting the camera decide everything but the composition and focus. Sometimes I lucked out, like the cobweb shot above. But I didn’t know why, or how to intentionally create the look.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 lens

Being aware of depth of field helped me discover some of the unique delights of many lenses like the Helios 44 series for example. 

Now, in terms of depth of field, my digital shots feel far more controlled and taken with intention, not just at whatever aperture the camera decided was best.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58m f/2 M42 lens

3. The delights of vintage lenses.

As I wrote recently, using vintage lenses is one of the top three reasons I love film photography.

These days, with all kinds of adapters available, you can mix and match vintage lenses with modern digital cameras and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The quality, feel and distinctive look of vintage glass, combined with the convenience and low cost of digital is a delicious combination.

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Sony NES 3N, Yashica ML 135mm f/2.8 C C/Y lens

Cameras like the Sony NEX (E mount) and Canon EOS (EF mount) are very easily adaptable to a dozen or more lens mounts at very little expense. Most adapters I’ve invested in have cost between £6-12.

So the lenses I fell in love with using film cameras I can continue to use and explore further with digital.

Which, with the almost instant feedback of digital, has allowed me to get to know each of their unique characteristics in more depth and more quickly.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Tessar 50mm f/2.8 M42 lens 

Summary

The facts are simple. If I’d never got into film photography, and using classic SLRs and lenses, I’d probably just be using some standard bland DLSR 18-55mm digital zoom on auto or program mode the whole time.

Yes, with this set up I might well still have chanced upon a photograph I liked now again.

But having the knowledge and intention behind the photographs I now make with digital cameras, is vastly more rewarding, and that only happened because of the laste few years of film photography grounding. 

How has shooting film influenced your approach to digital?

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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4 thoughts on “How Shooting Film Positively Transformed My Digital Photography

  1. What can I say, Film has certainly influenced my digital photography as it went from 100% 6 years ago to virtually 0% now – apart from some iPhone shots. I am sometimes (often?) tempted by digital, but I’d only want to use the cameras like film cameras. Fir this they offer too much choice and the Leica MD is unfortunately out of the ballpark…

    Speaking of your photos, that Helios is certainly spectacular with it’s swirly ‘bokeh’ (hate that neologism, but ‘out of focus rendering’ is definitely too long), but I find that it distracts too much from the main subject. Might as well call that one ‘Bokeh with flower’.

    Anyways, nothing beats vintage glass, unless vintage glass with film.

  2. Frank that’s really interesting to hear how you’ve come in the opposite direction almost with film and digital.

    I didn’t have any experience with a DSLR before I used an SLR so the whole experience and learning was brand new – a viewfinder, interchangeable lenses, aperture control and therefore depth of field control, and so on.

    I agree with your comment about only wanting to use a DSLR if it feels like a film camera. This is exactly what I’ve written about recently regarding my experiences with a Sony a100 DSLR. It’s as close to using a film SLR as I’ve found, or am likely to find at my budget range.

    Re the Helios, yes sometimes the bokeh is the main focus of the shot, but I think that’s ok as long as we’re not doing it every shot!

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