Can Digital Photographers Shoot with Film?

IMG_6933-2It’s a pretty safe bet anymore that many people who are shooting with digital SLR’s have never shot a film camera outside of possibly an APS cameras or some other mostly point-and-shoot or disposable camera. Many younger people have probably never used a camera that wasn’t digital. Granted, a newer 35mm film SLR like the Canon Rebels are as close as you can get to shooting digital with auto-focus, automatic, program, and scene modes, and internal exposure meters. With these newer film cameras its pretty hard to take a really poorly exposed shot.

But let’s step back in time a little, what about using an older vintage Canon AE-1. There are no scene modes, no automatic modes, no program modes, no eTTL flash, just shutter and aperture and whatever ISO film you have installed.

The Truth Be Told

IMG_6939Even the old AE-1’s had some basic metering and some automatic modes. If you pressed the shutter half-way down, the internal meter would tell you what the recommended aperture setting would be based on your ISO setting and current shutter speed. If you roll the aperture wheel on the lens (yes, on the lens, not on the camera body) from one of the available aperture settings to A, then the camera would set the lens to the recommended aperture setting before taking the shot, thus giving you somewhat of an shutter priority mode (you set the shutter, camera adjust the aperture). Keep in mind this is a reflective light meter so it can sometimes be inaccurate with brighter or lighter subjects.

Is it important that people know how to shoot film?

35mmIf you ask most any photography teacher they will tell you that learning film is extremely important in order to understand all of the dynamics of film and that learning the developing process will teach yo….oh man, I can’t even finish explaining it. I think the point that is often missing is not whether someone can shoot film or not, but whether or not someone has the skills and knowledge to get a good exposure without relying on all the modern conveniences of current cameras.

As I discussed this issue with fellow photographers, some felt that it really didn’t matter so long as the person can make good images with what they have. The problem I have with this is that you may be able to make good images, even on a regular basis, what you can’t do is to get a wide range of creative images.

The camera and your flash are going to try to give you a very neutral lit image. While this may be ok a good percentage of the time, when you really want to do some creative lighting your camera is simply not going to know what you want to do.

christopherAn example of this is with very dramatic lighting. The image shown here would be almost impossible with any automatic camera or TTL lighting modes. The camera would see the subject as underexposed and try to increase the exposure to give a brighter image. Of course you can usually correct that with flash exposure compensation, but that doesn’t work all the time and if you use most wireless flash triggers you won’t have automatic exposure features anyway.

It’s also fairly common that eventually a photographer decides they want more powerful studio lights, they make a big investment in gear, and then can’t figure out why they are not getting what they want out of them. Again, this is simply a lack of experience in understanding the correlation between aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and lighting power.

If I can help to teach anything, it would be that shooting in manual modes is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Learning how to really control your camera and your lighting will open you up to a whole new world of creativity.

Here are some past articles that will help you along your path:


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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10 Responses

  1. David Petty says:

    I'll say that learning how to shoot on motion picture 16mm film and understanding the dynamics of film and how to use a light meter, etc. have all given me a much better understanding of how to control my DSLR. Most people now-days don't know what the ISO even represents. They just know that it's film speed and higher numbers mean brighter pictures. Oh, and more grain…but inherently why. Knowing about silver halide crystals makes a difference.

    So, in short, I am saying that YES, I think it is very important to understand why things on DSLRs are the way that they are and if that means you learn how to shoot film first, then I think it's important for anyone taking their craft seriously.

  2. Matt Needham says:

    It's just as important to study the processes that came before film. That way photographers learn that once upon a time to be a photographer required understanding all steps in creating a photograph including processing and printing. Film was introduced along with mail-out processing and printing, and for many generations of film photographers those areas have been completely neglected.

  3. @Iguanasan says:

    While I will totally admit that anyone who has shot film may have learned a lot about photography from that experience it does not immediately follow that others must learn to shoot film before they can become competent at shooting digital. That's like saying that in order to learn how to drive a car one must first master the art of driving a horse and buggy. Sorry, but it just doesn't wash with me.

    What is much more important is that the photographer learn to use whatever camera they are using. And learn to use it well. They must also learn to understand the effects of depth of field and shutter speed and how to compose an image. I really don't understand why people think this has to be done in film. Oh, and for the record, I did spend a few years shooting film.

  4. Mike Sweeney says:

    I find it interesting that in the past few months, there has been quite the ground swell of blogs and articles talking about film, shooting film and how people are "rediscovering" film. it's also interesting that some of my non-film (read as digital) trained photographers are having issues adjusting to shooting film. It's not the same as digital even though somethings translate such as ISO, DOF and the like. The exposure is not the same and the tonality range is definitely not the same. For someone used to chimping to get the exposure right, it's like shooting blind and nerve wracking since you really dont know how to shoot since you chimp everything. With film, you need a certain level of confidence in your own abilities to nail the shot the first time where with digital you can slide by since you can shoot hundreds of shots and chimp till you get it right.

    I shoot both currently and even though I had shot film for several years, when I went back to shooting film, it was an adjustment of both techniques and expectations. And was someone who had already been shooting film. I can only imagine what it's like for someone who has never shot film and I'm not talking about using toy cameras to get "art" shots.

  5. There are two different issues. 1) The point of perspective that becomes the viewpoint for the image to be captured; in other words, where the camera is placed in relation to the subject and its' environs. Included are lighting, subject placement to foreground and background, composition, framing, etc.. 2) Manipulation of the tool, camera and lenses, and display media used to capture the image. A subset is the lens selection chosen to capture the desired field of view and visual perspective. Another subset is the selected exposure, i.e. shutter speed, aperture and ISO (media sensitivity) to assure the best image capture. The final subset is the post processing of capture and display media selected.

    In reality, film or digital camera is not really relevant. Once selected, the point of perspective is the same regardless of the tool selected. The manipulation of the tools available determines the characteristics of the captured image. The manipulation of the post processing determines the appearance of the displayed image.

    Since the birth of photography, there are now a host of tools and alternative processes to select; however, the point of perspective has not changed. Man is a social being, but is driven to have personal choice which results a person being associated with much smaller groups of people with similar choice styles. Hence, Canon vs Nikon, film vs digital, automatic vs manual, etc.

    The real issue is what a photographer chooses based on his knowledge of photography and art. The saying "The expert in anything was once a beginner" applies. Learning the basics of photography is important in order to have a strong foundation for all that follows, determining where we are on the learning curve between beginner and expert.

    Isolating the discussion to aperture, shutter speed and ISO is perhaps simplistic. For those of you who feel that the latest automatic DSLR is a potential problem in learning photography, tape card stock over the display, select manual for the camera and lens focus, and turn off image stabilization. Taping down the zoom ring on the lens is an option. Pop in a 512 MB memory card, with perhaps a second one in your pocket and have at it for a day or two filling the card(s) before you post process.

    Don't blame digital photography for any ills. It has created a technological revolution in photography unequalled with anything in the history of photography with the exception of Eastman's development of the flexible base for dry emulsion film. The photographer chooses the tools and media, and effort made to learn the techniques. Fault the person who calls himself a photographer for any ills.

    I too have noted the recent resurgence of discussions around sensitized product in photography. In some cases it is nostalgia, others to experiment with an alternative media to widen their creative experience, and in some as self-serving to make income or notoriety from workshops, equipment sales, or exploit a niche market.

    A potential underlying reason why there is so much discussion about the age of digital photography is that now the tools exist within a reasonable cost for the average person to make excellent images with a lesser skill set. Before digital photography, you had to make a sizable commitment to the cost and time associated with being a serious amateur photographer. This was a definite separation from the consumer photographer. Today that distinction is rapidly fading. The demographic base of digital photographers has exploded exponentially. As a result, much more competitive talent is brought to the forefront challenging the existing base of serious amateurs and professional photographers. Also, the "noise" of wannabe photographers who are lacking has increased exponentially as well. Likely, you have noticed some professional photographers almost shamelessly exploiting this potential market by hawking workshops, podcasts, hard cover books, e-books, articles, self-designed gear, internet purchase links, speaking engagements, training DVDs, photography classes/schools, plugins, apps/software, e-newsletters, YouTube videos, social media connections, websites and search engine optimization, stock photography, purchase of their work, etc.. When I began an interest in photography 52 years ago, many of these venues did not exist.

    What is important is do what you feel necessary to enjoy photography as a hobbyist or an amateur, or if the desire is to be a professional learn to be a businessman first, a photographer second, and commit to a lot of hard work.

    • kgarrison says:

      Excellent comment Greg. The only issue I have is that comment about exploiting the wannabe photographers. There is a demand for content, be it websites, podcasts, products, workshops, etc. which creates a market. There is no problem with people supplying products and services to meet that demand. Granted, there are some really bad workshops put on by people with virtually zero actual experience and yes, that is a real shame.

      But I personally provide almost every one of those things you mentioned. I do workshops, podcasts, a book is in development, articles, lighting equipment, internet purchase links, speaking engagements, classes, plugins, and e-newletters. Does this mean I am exploiting photographers? All of my article content is free and anything else is completely optional and is used to fund CameraDojo. Not that exploit is necessarily a bad word, it is just most often used in that context. Do I take advantage of people…no, I don't. Do I take advantage of the opportunity that exists where the demand for content and training exists and I have the ability to supply the product/service…yes.

      • Shamelessly exploiting in this context is meaning that photographers are rightfully taking advantage of the wide base of photographers to expand their businesses. Admittedly a poor choice of words. There is no negative connotation intended and the reference was made for the entire photographic marketplace, not just wannabe photographers. This is one of the pluses of digital photography and the digital world in which we live; hence, my comment that 52 years ago many of these opportunities did not exist. It falls upon the consumer using or purchasing these services to obtain positive gains relative to the time and any costs incurred.

        A few podcasts that I enjoy and have had good content in the past have recently had more self-serving commercialistic content, likely either due to pressures on income due to the economic conditions, or their business status is growing and they are commercializing more of their podcast time. One has even instituted tiered offerings, where there is a fee for additional information through subscription. You can not fault the producer of this podcast as he is likely trying to recoup podcast production costs and expand business.

        As for wannabe photographers, in my mind these are individuals who have upgraded from consumer to entry level hobbyist or amateur photography and desire to start a business or do occasional income producing photography without a solid foundation. I started as a hobbyist and soon had people coming to me unsolicited paying for photography, a good portion custom darkroom work. A 3 + year successful stint as a professional photojournalist and Director of Publications for a prestigious mid-western college (now university) and on retainer for the Winston Churchill Memorial made me realize that I did not have the business acumen to make a living as a self-employed professional photographer. I made my fortune so-to-speak with a 31+ year technical career with the Eastman Kodak Company, retiring to enjoy serious amateur photography.

  6. Willoughbys says:

    Film cameras have a unique character that digital cameras have yet to capture. And film cameras offer users the ability to process their own photos in a lab or classroom environment.

  1. February 7, 2011

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