3 Things Shooting Film Taught Me about Photography

Growing up in the digital age, many of us were introduced to photography through the digital camera. I likely would not have gotten so involved in photography if the easy access that digital cameras provide did not exist. I did not grow up in the era of film, which allowed my learning to be accelerated. Trying different methods of shooting and seeing the results took seconds, rather than spending hours in a darkroom to achieve the same result. There are many things that digital cameras have over film, but film still is a vital piece of photographic history and in my opinion is still very relevant today. I decided to put some effort into film photography as a means of testing myself and enrolled in a darkroom course at Portland State. Here are some of the things that I learned.

Focus on the “decisive moment” 

One of the most famous photographic books published is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment”, and in this book he discusses how important it can be to allow a scene to come together and elevate from a boring shot to a truly spectacular one. It can be as simple as setting a composition, and simply waiting for a person to walk into the correct place to complete the composition.

It can be easy with a digital camera to ignore this practice of waiting. With a memory card that can hold thousands of images, one doesn’t need to wait for the “decisive moment” to come along. You can just shoot and shoot and know that in those thousands of images there is likely the shot you intended.

Shooting film, I had to truly focus on the shot that I had in my head and line up the elements much more carefully, because I would not be able to review it. When shooting skateboarders, and especially shooting with a rangefinder, my shooting method was much slower than the constant motion that surrounded me. Focusing on the shape of the bowl and how the skateboarder interacted with the shadows it created, I was able to create exactly the type of photo I wanted by forcing myself to slow down and making sure that what I saw in the viewfinder was exactly what I wanted. 

How to use tones to make an image pop

One of the traps I see many photographers fall into, myself included at times, is to really go to town in Lightroom and create an image that is completely over saturated and over edited. The reason it's such an easy trap, is because it simply is so easy to do. It takes seconds. With film, those simple adjustments of the sliders can take hours spent in the darkroom.

When I began developing my first images in the darkroom it was incredibly exciting. To see your image come to life from a blank piece of paper is a truly magical moment. What makes the process so interesting is that your editing is largely composed of dodging and burning, contrast adjustment, and cropping (at least in black and white film). These techniques are made even more complicated by the fact that you can't see how your adjustments come out until after the print is made. Each print takes a couple of minutes to make, and you must wait to see how the previous attempts turned out before trying a new adjustment. Printing a single image with the adjustments you desire can take hours. 

When looking at others work, an easy trap that I see is that people often try to make subpar images look great by going way overboard with the amount of editing that goes into it. While these practices can often be used quite effectively, I feel that a lot of great images don't require a lot substantial editing. If you examine a lot of top outdoor photographers today such as Chris Burkard or Jimmy Chin, most of their work isn't actually very saturated or edited too much. Using simple tonal editing can be another way to force yourself to more critically examine the strength of an image or set of images. 

How to value each shot

When it comes to film, especially today given how expensive developing and scanning can be, every shot cost money. At the local store I go to in Portland, it can cost around $35 a roll to be scanned and developed. That comes down to about $.97 per shot on a 36 image roll, and it can even be a little bit more if you are shooting medium format. 

Knowing the cost of each shot changes how you approach which images you end up shooting and those you don't. You become much more critical of the shot when you line it up in the viewfinder. You take a much more critical look at the composition and how the light plays into it. You ask yourself if this shot is the best representation of the subject, or if another angle might be better. 

It is important to note that this isn't a form of second guessing yourself, but a way of ensuring that you put the maximum effort into composing each shot. This extra effort can have a phenomenal impact on your digital work, as it allows you to bring this refined shooting approach to a method that allows for multiple attempts. 


Shooting film isn't for everyone, but it represents most of the photography that has been done. Digital photography is the dominate form right now, Most of the most iconic photos ever taken were on film, and the methods behind the medium are incredibly important for any style of photography. Whether you are just getting into photography or find yourself in a creative rut, shooting 35mm or 120mm film for a chunk of time is an incredibly great way to learn more about your own shooting style and how you want to approach your digital photography. 

Published: March 12, 2018

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Roark Nelson

Portland

I enjoy shooting the things I know, and for most of my life that has been the outdoors. I hope you enjoy my work.