When I started out in photography, I started learning on film. While it was very much in the digital era, I still shot film. The reason being it was what was available to me at the time, and buying film stock was not as expensive as it is now. Shooting on film has taught me a ton and has helped me be a better digital photographer. Here is why beginners should consider film photography as their first step in the journey.
We are living in the postmodern digital era where AI is the new frontier of image-making, and everyone carries a camera in their pocket. Why would anyone want to shoot film in this modern environment? After all, the stereotype now is that film is mostly for the millennial hipsters who shoot whacky still-life images and street portraits. At the same time, film can be a great tool for many photographers, especially beginners, as it allows you to slow down, focus on getting it right in-camera, and, lastly, forget about postproduction. Below are these and more reasons explaining why film photography is a great way to start.
Balancing Patience and Mindfulness
The greatest thing about film photography for me is that it allows you to focus on balancing the number of frames you take per scene. There is only a limited number of pictures you can take, which means that every shot has to count. It is very easy to just spray and pray with a digital workflow, which can be detrimental to our creativity. Each picture on a film camera is a carefully considered decision. When shooting film, you are forced to slow down, observe what’s around you, and ultimately, think about the reason you’re taking this picture. All of this results in you being more attentive to the environment around you and more sensitive to mistakes. The outcome of this sensitivity is that you are able to take better images on a digital camera and miss fewer shots.
Another thing that film helped me nurture is a sense of anticipation and excitement. Waiting for the lab to develop my rolls was the most exciting feeling in the whole process as you can only guess how the images will turn out. The developing process itself can be full of unexpected results and surprises, both bad and good. All this creates a very unique result in the end, which would be quite hard to think of and achieve in post-production. This teaches beginner photographers that happy accidents are something to be excited about and not upset about. Anticipation and delayed gratification are something that is missing from the modern photography environment. This showed me that photography is about the journey and not necessarily about the result at the end.
Learning the Fundamentals the Hard Way
If you want the full film experience, get a camera from the 70s without a built-in meter. This would not be my recommendation, but you can go for this option if so inclined. My first camera was a Canon EOS 300, which had a meter built-in, and the film would rewind automatically. This made the process easier while also keeping it pure. I could learn to expose with the meter suggestion, shoot both in auto and manual mode and learn how to work a professional camera. The important thing was to make sure to get it right, which was hard without immediate feedback. The only thing that kept me in check was the meter. I quickly learned to meter by eye, and now I can easily walk into a room and say exactly what settings I need to expose a picture. Another important factor is that if you mess up exposure, you don’t have as much room to play with unless you know how to push and pull film stocks. It’s a whole art, and it really is not for beginners.
Additionally, the absence of post-production makes the process a lot easier than the digital one. When starting out, there is a lot to learn, and arguably the most important thing to learn is how to use a camera, and now how to retouch pictures in Photoshop. Each film stock has a distinct look that helps create that authentic film color grade. This makes the picture ready as soon as the film is developed. Film stocks are hard to replicate on a digital camera, so why try to fake it when you can make it? My favorite film stocks are the classic Kodak Portra 400. It is ISO 400, which lets you shoot in lower light conditions while producing very muted and smooth tones that complement portraits very well. Another one I like a lot is Kodak Tmax 100. This is a black-and-white film that is great for capturing contrast and rich black-and-white scenes. If I were to go back to shooting film, these are the stocks that I would mostly use.
Embracing the Authentic
Film is tangible; you can literally pick up your pictures and see them come alive in real life. The sensation of making film prints the authentic way is hard to compare to anything else. The physical nature of film—loading, winding, hearing the shutter, advancing, and developing—all add up to give a more pure experience. This is an experience that you must have when becoming a photographer to understand the value behind your work. It is easy to simply shoot a bunch of digitals without thinking too much. The experience is more authentic on film, which makes it that much better. Having to slow down and think about each frame makes photography intentional and pure. I had a similar experience only when shooting on medium-format cameras. Being forced to slow down made me create better images. Now I try to create such things with a digital full-frame system.
As for suggestions for film cameras, I would recommend anything from the 90s that has a built-in meter. For example, the Canon EOS 300 is a great, cheap way to get into photography, and you can add any EF lenses to this camera, making it a great future-proof investment. Such a camera often costs anywhere between $20 and $50 and sometimes even comes with a kit lens. It’s a rubbish lens, but it will take pictures.