What’s it like to shoot film these days

IMG_6933-2Recently I decided to take up the challenge of shooting a few rolls of film through my old Canon AE-1. To be completely honest here the last film I shot was a single roll through a Holga two years ago and before that it was somewhere around 1982 that I shot with a film SLR. For you folks who have never shot with an older film camera, I wanted to try and share my experience to hopefully share my joy, or possibly my pain. Read on and see how this experiment went.

Camera Features

First off many people think that all film cameras are probably very difficult to use and all manual. Newer film cameras like a Canon Rebel are just as easy to use as a digital SLR with all the same features like aperture priority, shutter priority, program mode, automatic mode, creative modes, auto-focus lenses, etc. Internal meters make getting your exposure quick and simple and really the only downside is the lack of an LCD on the back.

IMG_6939Older film cameras like the AE-1 lack many of those features. While the AE-1 does have an internal exposure meter, what the meter tells you is what aperture it thinks you should be at for the currently selected shutter speed. The general process for taking an image goes something like this:

  1. Set your shutter speed where you think you want it
  2. Look through viewfinder at scene and press shutter half-way
  3. Find the suggested aperture setting in the meter
  4. Look at lens and adjust aperture as needed
  5. If you do not have enough aperture to get the shot, adjust shutter speed and go back to step 2
  6. Look through viewfinder again and try to get a good focus (no autofocus here)
  7. Press shutter
  8. Crank film advance

Certainly a little different than how fast we can get a good shot with a modern DSLR.

Rolls 1 and 2

I started off with a roll of color film and a roll of Black and White film. I shot away for two weeks using the camera every so often until the film was used up. I rewound the film and dropped it off at the local lab. The next day I go in to get it and the entire roll was bad. Apparently I hadn’t loaded it right and there wasn’t a single image on either roll. Not to be put off, I grabbed another roll of film on the way out.

Roll 3

82210008Roll 3 was a 36 exposure roll of color film and I made sure to load it right, click off a few frames and make sure the takeup reel was turning with each shot. To kill off the roll I pulled out the camera during a weekend drive-around shoot with my friend Chris Diset. On Monday I dropped off the roll back off at the lab and opted to only have a CD with the images instead of getting prints. The lab told me to come back at 4pm the following day for the images. Day 2, I head over to the lab at 4pm as instructed and get told that their developer machine has died so come back tomorrow. Day 3, I run back to the lab again and am told they had to replace the developer machine and the prints will be done tomorrow. Day 4, back to the lab and this time I get told that they sent the film out because their system was still not back up, but fortunately my film was now back…except that I had ordered a CD and their scanner was down. Day 5 I head back to the lab AGAIN and this time I get my CD of images finally. Back to the studio and load them into Adobe Lightroom.

82210009Of the 36 images, I am pretty happy with 8 of them. Focus is certainly an issue. Its very hard to manually focus in low light and the dimmer shots certainly proved that point. Other images suffered from too short of a depth of field. Overall though, the shots I really wanted to get right did turn out good.

It helps to really know how to use your camera, understand exposure controls and know how shutter and aperture work together. The Canon AE-1 was a serious workhorse and many iconic images from the past were taken with it. The quality of the images is still excellent even if you need to take some extra time to take the shot.

82210012We live in a world of instant gratification and shooting film most certainly does not give you that. Besides the time from shooting to getting the film to the lab, this last experience added four more days to process, really testing my patience.

Is 8 out of 36 a good ratio? Considering what I was shooting, I am going to say yes. Some of the “not keepers†were experiments with some of the lenses I had, so in a since they did turn out. On the next roll there will likely be no experiments and I will be focusing on making each image count.

82210015

Oh yes, there will be more rolls dropped off at the lab this year but not to prove a point to anyone, not to be able to call myself a film shooter, and not to be able to say that I can shoot film and other people can’t.  My renewed interest in film, especially on essentially what is a completely manual camera is much more about preserving the craft, continuing to hone my eye for exposure, and teaching myself to slow and make each shot count. At $6 for a roll of film and another $6 in developing each click of the shutter drains about 33 cents from your wallet. This can add up quickly and you certainly want your percentage of keepers to be as high as possible. By pulling out the film camera and having a real cost for each picture, it certainly puts much more value on each shot versus loading up a 16gb CF card and cranking out a few thousand pictures during the course of a wedding.

To Use or Not to Use

82210013The next question is whether or not I will be using film at any weddings or other events this year and I think I actually might. Certainly not as my primary camera but I may drop a single roll at each wedding, engagement, or model shoot. If they turn out, then great, if I blow another roll then I am not out any important images.

Think You Can Do It?

If you don’t have a film camera than I am not going to suggest that you go drop some money on one. You can get a lot of the same experience with your digital camera. Try using some gaffers tape and covering up the LCD on the back on the camera. Bonus points for shooting only in manual mode, and double points for shooting with manual focus. The goal here is to really learn how your camera works and not rely on chimping the result on the back.

If you do experiment with this, please post your results and comment here. I would love to hear what you think of trying it out for a weekend.

KerryG

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. Mike Sweeney says:

    I moved from 35mm to medium format with my film shooting. I love the large negative and how much I can crop etc when scanned. To that end, I bought a yashica D TLR and a Mamiya 654 1000S both for dirt cheap prices. Will I give up my D300s? nope..not a chance but B/W does look better on film then converted from color digital. And shooting 120 film for portraits has a look that my D300 just can not match.

    I pre purchase my developing mailers from B&H for a lab here in LA. takes about 10 days from the time I drop into the mail till I get it back. Set of prints if color and a contact sheet if B/W. I scan my own with an Epson 4990 and it works really well.

  2. Mike Sweeney says:

    I moved from 35mm to medium format with my film shooting. I love the large negative and how much I can crop etc when scanned. To that end, I bought a yashica D TLR and a Mamiya 654 1000S both for dirt cheap prices. Will I give up my D300s? nope..not a chance but B/W does look better on film then converted from color digital. And shooting 120 film for portraits has a look that my D300 just can not match.

    I pre purchase my developing mailers from B&H for a lab here in LA. takes about 10 days from the time I drop into the mail till I get it back. Set of prints if color and a contact sheet if B/W. I scan my own with an Epson 4990 and it works really well.

  3. Samuel says:

    You are the Man. I use a film camera as an in the bag backup model. I shoot digitally with a Sony so my film Minoltas can use the same lenses. Usually when I'm out shooting I always try to take a few frames with the film just so I can compare. As an amateur I have the time and flexibility to do this. The results are usually pretty awesome. I have several Minoltas that I bought originally in 1981 and 1983,

  4. Samuel says:

    You are the Man. I use a film camera as an in the bag backup model. I shoot digitally with a Sony so my film Minoltas can use the same lenses. Usually when I'm out shooting I always try to take a few frames with the film just so I can compare. As an amateur I have the time and flexibility to do this. The results are usually pretty awesome. I have several Minoltas that I bought originally in 1981 and 1983,

  5. txforester says:

    I'm a long time user of film cameras and do use a dSLR also. To be fair, some shots that come out poor using film could just as easily do so with digital. Understanding aperture, shutter speed, ISO etc. is just as important in digital if you want more than a snapshot made in program mode. You mentioned too short DOF. Again, that can happen with digital. With budget and dSLR and lenses, film cameras have advantages. Budget digital lenses lack distance and DOF scales. It's a pain to figure distance to the subject and then an aperture that won't give you too little or much DOF. With most film lenses you focus, look at the DOF scale, set the aperture and you are good to go. It's faster than I can type the discription. True, manual focusing is difficult in low light, but many dSLRs (especially with slow lenses) struggle to lock focus with AF. Metering with old cameras isn't that hard if you understand light in relation to the subject. A big advantage to film for new photographers is the low price of backup cameras and lenses if you are willing to hunt for a deal. I think digital is great, but of love film too. Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  6. Marvin says:

    I was At WPPI last week and there seems to be a resurgence of people going back to or discovering film. I shot film for about 12 years before digital and really never gave film a second thought after the arrival of digital! I do love the speed of digital, but hearing all this talk of film has me thinking of finding my old film cameras I have stashed away and giving them a try;)

  7. Recently also tried to do a shoot on film again. @ Marvin: agree on the speed of digital but the sound of your film in the camera…. wow.

    • txforester says:

      "agree on the speed of digital but the sound of your film in the camera…. wow."

      The sound of the motor drive will get the attention of people who have only experienced digital. 🙂 A rangefinder is great if you want a fairly quiet shutter for street work and other times you don't want to stand out.

  8. Recently also tried to do a shoot on film again. @ Marvin: agree on the speed of digital but the sound of your film in the camera…. wow.

  1. July 5, 2011

    […] Thinking about SLRs – before Digital Posted on July, 05, 2011 by Gordon – 0 Comments When I pick up my DSLR, I rarely think about what it was like when film was king/queen… Funny how quickly we forget. Although I do not really miss those days… there are some photographers still re-living the experience. One can be found here http://cameradojo.com/2011/02/24/whats-it-like-to-shoot-film-these-days/ […]

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