What Shooting Film Has Taught Me

It must have been sometime around the year 1973 when my interest in photography really started. The reason I remember this is because my father brought home a few photography brochures from the office he was working in. On the cover of one of those brochures was the brand new Canon FTb SLR film camera. What a beauty. I can remember how much I would have liked to have been able to use a camera like that, but unfortunately, it was just not in our budget. Advance to the year 2016 and I am now the proud owner of a mint FTb with a 85mm f1.2 lens. It only took 42 years but I am finally shooting with that dream camera of my youth.

Film photography was how I started out as a photographer, and I still enjoy shooting with it today. I taught myself how to develop, scan, and print both black and white and colour negatives. I can honestly say that shooting with film has taught me more photography skills than any of my digital cameras will ever teach me.

I suppose though, that it’s the process of shooting with film that I enjoy the most. It’s getting away from that instant gratification thing that has made me have more of an appreciation for producing an image that is interesting and meaningful.

Today I’m a hybrid photographer. I own and shoot both digital and analog cameras. I cannot however, tell you how thankful I am that I started out with film and using film cameras. I guess I’m a dying breed as the new generation has grown up with digital. But it sure is nice to see so many younger people shooting with film SLR’s and really enjoying it.

So why then, do I think that I’ve learned a lot using film cameras? Here are some of my experiences:

1.) Shooting with film has taught me to think about what I’m doing with the camera. I’ve got 36 frames on a roll and I want to make them count.

2.) I have learned how to really evaluate exposure. Many of my film cameras either don’t have meters or have meters that don’t work. As a result I’ve taught myself how to carefully measure light using an external light meter or the sunny 16 rule.

3.) Film cameras have taught me the basics of understanding that photography is really the ability to see as well as having a good grasp of ASA (ISO), shutter speed, and aperture. Most film cameras have shutter speeds and apertures in full stops so they are easier to understand how different combinations work.

4.) I have learned that careful developing and film handling is critical to producing a good undamaged, clean negative.

5.) Shooting film has really taught me a great deal about how to see colour in the world. I’ve learned all about primary and complimentary colours, and how they manifest themselves with different film stocks. Thanks to film, I have a better understanding of what to look for when shooting colour.

6.) Film has taught me that sharpness and focus are often way overrated. A good photograph is not the sharpest photograph or the one that focused precisely.

7.) Film has given me an appreciation for the film aesthetic. I love the subtle differences in various film stocks, and I embrace grain like I couldn’t do with digital.

8.) Shooting film has made me patient. I’m no longer in a hurry to see my images. In fact, usually by the time I’ve developed the roll of film, I’ve completely forgotten that I even took those photos. That just makes it all the more sweeter.

9.) Film photography has led me to learn all about photography history. If you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going.

10.) Large format photography has brought the joy back into shooting. I think the reason for this is because it requires a great deal of effort. And looking at an image on the ground glass that is upside down and flipped left to right, has forced me to pay attention to the edges of the frame and carefully consider my composition. The satisfaction I get from seeing a large format print beautifully composed, exposed, and handled is like no other.

So there you have it. There are many more reasons why shooting film has helped me as a photographer, but I think you get the point. If you are a new photographer and have never tried film, I encourage you to do so. Even if you buy a used SLR on Ebay and shoot a few rolls a year and have a lab develop them for you, you’re bound to enjoy the experience and learn a lot about photography.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

On Formats and Sensors

Why do photographers use different cameras? Why for example would they choose to photograph with a large format, cumbersome old camera versus a nice new modern 35mm DSLR? Why do some photographers prefer using a Pentax 645 or a Hasselblad 6 by 6 for their work? And why on earth would some photographers choose film over digital?

I want to say first of all, that even though photography is a visual art and the end product of what we do is something to study and look at, it is also an activity that is based on process. Therefore image quality aside, some photographers very much enjoy the process of shooting on large format compared to how easy it is to snap an image with say a cellphone or a 35mm point and shoot.

But in terms of image quality, let’s consider a few of the most important differences between formats.

1.) The larger the format or sensor size, the less depth of field and the better the separation between focus planes in the image. Typically when you go to a larger format you need a longer lens to get the same image coverage. And although you could shoot at a smaller aperture to compensate for the depth of field difference, the image is still rendered differently. Image planes are separated better and with a sharper transition than wider lenses can accommodate.

2.) The larger the format or sensor size, the greater the dynamic range and the more subtle the transitions between adjacent luminosities. This is perhaps the number one reason many landscape photographers tend to choose large format cameras. Not only are they typically shooting scenes with large dynamic ranges, but they also tend to print big. Some modern DSLR cameras handle dynamic range quite well while others do not. The capture curve on some cameras is very linear producing unnatural looking tonality. And there are some cameras that may have a smaller actual dynamic range, but they have a curve that renders the high-mids to high luminosities in a much more gradual and natural looking way.

3.) The larger the format or sensor size, the larger the image receptors and the more spread out over a greater area they are. This results in better signal to noise ratios which are perceived as better edge definition and clarity. And, when viewing large prints up close, certainly more pixels per inch is a huge part of what gives us the sensation of being immersed into a scene rather than just say looking at some flat rectangle from a distance.

An interesting aspect to this story that most people do not realize, particularly when it comes to tonal transition and resolution, is that most web images simply cannot show you these differences. In fact it’s not until you start to display images that are at least 3000 pixels in size that you will begin to appreciate this. Not many people are in the habit of outputting 100 percent crops of their web images or displaying them in that size. 4k monitors are becoming much more prevalent, but even still, the typical size of a web image and that kind of downsizing of a high resolution sensor cannot possibly yield any advantage to resolution or edge acuity, the very reasons why we think we should choose a large format camera.

So this brings us back to the question of why we need to shoot with a larger format camera or sensor size. I’d like to think that most who shoot these kinds of cameras are in the habit of outputting their images to large prints. But there are also those who simply choose to shoot different formats because it is the “process” that they enjoy regardless of the image quality. It is indeed a whole different thing to shoot a large format camera compared to a 35mm.

And lastly, why do some photographers choose film over digital? It’s been my experience that the response curve of film is very much like what we see with very gradual tonal transitions in the high end, whereas most digital cameras, particularly those with smaller sensor sizes have rather unnatural and abrupt response transitions to clipping. Trying to capture large dynamic range landscapes with an iPhone is going to produce images that not only suffer from poor resolution, but may have unfavourable highlight clipping or poor colour rendering. Cell phone cameras have really improved of late, and may be a huge advantage as far as stealthiness and convenience, however, they are not the camera of choice if you’re looking for high output resolution or image plane separation.

This all brings us back to what I’ve mentioned in many of my previous blogs about things to consider when choosing a camera. You need to look at and consider your end goal. If you’re only interested in printing the occasional 4 by 6 or outputting your images to Instagram, then why are you using a medium format sensor or a DSLR with a massively high resolution?  I hope your answer is because you enjoy using the camera and not because it gets you more likes. (But we all know that those of us who still shoot film cameras are cooler right?)

Something to think about…

Happy Shooting,

Doug