Shoot Like You’re Using Film

Digital cameras are great: you can take a bunch of shots, view them as you go, and even delete the bad ones (though it’s not advised). But does this make us less attentive to what we’re really doing? With film, you have a set number of exposures you can take — no previews, no do-overs. Obviously, you can carry more than one roll of film, but then it becomes a matter of expense and your ability to carry the film with you.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to shoot film for my first time. We had a little family get-together and my cousin brought her film camera so I could try it out. The camera itself wasn’t much different from a typical dSLR, it’s just missing the big LCD on the back. It was actually a Minolta Maxxum SLR, so the camera was very comfortable to me. I had a good time shooting with it, but I have no idea how I did until we get the film processed.

From the moment I had the camera in my hand, my mindset was completely different than usual. All of the sudden I was limited on my shots and I really began to evaluate what I was doing with the camera. I took extra time to find the right composition, and from the right angle. I gave special attention to making sure the camera settings were just right to give the correct exposure and DOF. I also wasn’t taking multiple shots of the same thing with slightly different settings — no room on the film to do that.

So here’s my suggestion: whether you’ve shot film before or not, set some time aside to “pretend” you’re shooting with film (not all the time, just as an exercise). Limit your number of shots to 36, no previews, no erasing images. Go out somewhere with your digital camera and take your 36 shots before heading back to see what you get. You might just be amazed at what you can teach yourself while you’re out shooting — plus you’ll probably be very pleased with how many good shots you can get when you force that limitation.

21 thoughts on “Shoot Like You’re Using Film

  1. Nickolus

    It’s all well and good that you were able to learn this much, but what really matters is how the shots came out, right? Were they the best shots you’ve ever done, or do you get better pictures when you take multiple shots with different settings? I think you’re right and that more time and consideration should be taken into each photograph, but no one should discard the real advantages of using a digital camera.

  2. Brian Auer Post author

    This is true, I have no idea how the shots really turned out. I have the feeling that they turned out well, but still probably not the best shots I’ve ever taken — It was more of a “try things out” situation rather than looking for serious images…. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few came out worth hanging.

    And I totally agree that we shouldn’t discard the advantages of digital cameras. Like I said, putting yourself in the film mindset is more of an exercise to help you evaluate your methods and habits. As soon as I got my digital back in my hands, I pretty much went back to my digital habits.

  3. Daniel

    Great reminder Brian. I started out with a Canon film SLR, but since switching to a dSLR, I’ve noticed that I’ve been less careful with my shot selection since I can redo it right then and there.

    Film is more expensive, but it also has that element of surprise when you get your prints back from the lab. I remember bringing some 12 rolls of 36 exp. with me on a trip to Suzhou, China. And then having to buy some more when I got there!

  4. Brian Auer Post author

    Thanks Daniel. Like I said, I’ve never shot film before this recent experience. And after only a short time of shooting, I may have just found a new (secondary) addiction. My Dad still has an old Minolta SLR camera body and a few lenses from his days of film. I’m trying to convince him that he should ship it all out to me so I can try it out. The stuff he’s got is fully manual, so that should make the film experience even more interesting.

  5. Mikel

    Just an idea: buy a very small memory card, which fits about 36 photos, so you are not tempted to shoot more. I don’t even know if they still make them that small, but maybe you have an old one around…

  6. inspirationbit

    I didn’t switch to digital cameras until three years ago before my daughter was born. Until then I was always shooting with 35 mm cameras. But you are right, I was definitely taking more time shooting with 35 mm camera than I do now with the digital one.
    I think with kids digital cameras are a must have, otherwise I would be bankrupt or wouldn’t had a chance to capture so many magic moments in my daughter’s life. On the other hand, I’ve accumulated so many digital photos, but developed so few of them. At least with the film, I always the printed photos on hand.

  7. the_wolf_brigade

    Great advice!

    Now I understand why the two recent posts on film 😀

    Today I went a bit crazy though and shot film like it was digital – 24 shots in the space of an hour. Granted I was testing out some new (to me) equipment, but still, I felt a bit guilty…

  8. Peter Collins

    Great advice! I still shoot film and have never had a NEED to switch to digital. I have always found it amazing to go on outings with photog friends and have them shoot a hundred pics while I haven’t even finished a roll. It seems they still end up with the same number of keepers. Go figure.

  9. My Camera World

    I wish everyone had a chance to shoot with a 4×5 or even scarcer 8×10 large format cameras.

    There is something unique about the experience, while not for everyone, it is fun and if you can go with someone who knows how to use them even better.

    If you are not in a hurry and you normally are not, the process of analyzing the scene, the setting up of the camera, measuring the light and calculating your exposure needs, and the best part is examining the glass with a magnifying loupe to best establish sharpness and soft focus needs.

    Its is almost Zen like and tranquil and the time spent studding the environment for elements before you shoot helps you better see items that we tend to overlook to quickly.

    Niels Henriksen

  10. spencer

    I started out with film about 45 years ago. My first camera was a Brownie that 12-exposure “127” rolls. Of course, I was only about 6 years old, so I don’t know how much I really thought about stuff like composition!

    As I grew, so did my cameras, and I got a 35mm SLR early in my teens. Our house used to have an apartment upstairs, and the kitchen was just off my bedroom. We fixed it up as a darkroom, and I started winding my own black and white film into 35mm canisters. That helped a bit with the expense issue — with bulk film and contact sheets, the cost per roll was affordable even with my teenage income.

    I still remember my father (also a photographer, employed by Kodak) telling me that film was the cheapest element in taking photos. He meant that the lost opportunity cost more than the film you would have “wasted” if the photo didn’t come out. Even so, I certainly took more time with exposure and framing than I do now, particularly since my first SLR was totally manual, with a built-in light meter (I thought that was a fantastic improvement over using a separate light meter!) And I rarely took more than one shot of a scene or situation, because I was still conscious of the fact that I had a limited amount of film (I tried to carry 2-3 extra rolls at all times, though.)

    What I didn’t realize until I tried using a film camera again recently was how much I have come to depend on the digital camera’s image review ability. That was doubly true because I was running out the film in a point-and-shoot camera. I was never sure whether the picture was framed exactly how I wanted it, whether the depth of field was correct, and how the exposure was going to turn out. (It helps that film is more forgiving of exposure goofs than digital.)

    I think there is some value in putting aside the conveniences of digital photography as an aid to developing more mindfulness. With digital, I’ll try a few different compositions and points of view, snapping a shot or two of each. Then I figure “well, that probably got it.” With film, I might try out many possibilities before committing even one to film. By taking the time, I will end up with a better photo, even if I have taken fewer possibilities. By cultivating this practice, I will also make it more likely that I’ll get a good or great shot when shooting quickly and on the fly, because some situations don’t lend themselves to quiet and prolonged contemplation.

  11. Anand Dhingra

    I recently watched the documentary “Chased by the Light”, a great project by award winning National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg. Jim challenged himself to taking only a single exposure per day, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.

    I too like to marry digital and film techniques: digital for learning exposure and composition, film for honing your instincts.

    Take a look at some of Jim’s work for a great dose of inspiration!

  12. Lucy

    This is an interesting approach, especially for the youngsters who have never shot film before. And, as someone (who apparently still uses film) said here there are just as many keepers in film as digital.

    Having said that, the advantages of digital are undeniable, in that a) there is less need to worry about the very technical bits which allows you to focus more on creativity, and b) the ability to take many shots, and be involved in their post-processing makes you learn 100 times faster than with film.

    I really enjoyed film, the surprise element in particular, but I’m enjoying digital so much more that I would never go back there, even in my mind, except perhaps for an afternoon as a learning exercise. 🙂

  13. Joseph Szymanski

    A film virgin! Brian I never knew….

    I think it’s important to remember that the camera is a tool, and film / digital is the medium, the brush to the paint as it were. I don’t think that slowing down and thinking about your pictures should be labeled as a side effect of film. Making intentional photographs should be on everyones mind, regardless of format or capture. It seems to me that if you’re blowing through 300 frames in an afternoon shoot, you’re probably not thinking about much of anything except your trigger finger.

  14. JS Nature Photos

    I tend to agree with some of the comments posted here stressing that whatever the camera/capture technology, in the end it is nothing more than a tool.

    To take more time and think about each picture a little more is certainly a good thing. However, to throw away the many benefits offered my modern equipment and impose upon myself the arbitrary limits of an old technology does nothing, in my opinion, to promote better images.

    Certainly, if the film mindset really did provide better results, then by all means adopt it. But I would personally hate to forfeit even one great image because I was being careful not to waste film.

  15. Ken Maurer

    by Mikel “Just an idea: buy a very small memory card, which fits about 36 photos” -These are the ones that came with the p/s that you threw in a drawer after camera purchase. It is a good idea, just have to tweak my d80 image quality/size.

  16. Jeff

    This is certainly an interesting perspective Brian and one that, truthfully I had not thought of. I learned my photography with a 35mm Canon F-1 and I was a hard convert to digital in the beginning (my first dslr was a Kodak DCS200). Having sat back and reflected on your post, I find that I still shoot like I only have 36 exposures. I guess it’s the old habit of checking and double checking my exposure settings even though I know I can just let it rip. Somehow that doesn’t seem natural though. I have a friend who uses a Canon point and shoot and he shoots like he is in movie mode. He shoots 50 to every 5 of mine. It drives me nuts but it’s how he learned in the land of cheap pixels.


  17. NickTrop

    Bought a digicam in 2003/2004. For a year, my film SLR sat in a closet. Thought it was the best thing since sliced bread… Then? Where’s the DOF? Where’s the bokeh? Why can’t I shoot above ISO 200 (very “slow” imo, used mainly 400 speed film. Perfect for indoors and out) without it looking like crap? And always that flash keeps popping up? Why is the lens so slow? Where’s that f1.7? Forget candids. Uggh. Shutter lag. Keep an eye on that battery indicator, better buy a spare. Geez these inks are expensive. What’s this cost per print. Yikes! 9,000 pics to sort through! More software. Gotta run everything through PS – sharpen them up, adjust levels, adjust color balance. And the final straw? My SD card died in-camera, before I transfered. Unreadable, Hundreds of pics – lost, forever. Then, yikes – HD went! “Luckily” I backed up most – but not all my pics.


    Dusted off my film camera, went back to shooting 35mm, never looked back. Started shooting medium format, started developing my own black and white. Bought some excellent vintage cameras – cheap. Started making black and white prints (fun!) but now I scan (best of both worlds). DSLRs produce a nice color image. Can’t argue that. But – eh, not my thing. I’m having way too much fun doing my own black and white, which is about 90% of what I shoot. Buy a 100′ of Tri-X, bulk load it yourself, it will last you a year. Keep a few rolls of color around – absolutely beautiful Kodak Ultra Color professional, that in my biased opinion tops anything digital. Got my fast lenses back, my wides back, and I’m always shooting “full frame”. I don’t need to shoot a thousand images where’er I go. A couple rolls = 48 to 72 frames. That’s plenty.

  18. Gowri

    Hmmm…thought-provoking. In fact I have tried this unknowingly sometimes. I always have a great admiration for film photographers because they manage to get their shots with all those constraints. So whenever I try to take images…I decide the composition beforhand and try to get full-frame images without doing it the digital trial-and-error method. And it can be very gratifying.

    Thanks for sharing this Brian and making me think more profoundly on this.



  19. Rob

    I have a digital SLR and two point and shoot digital. But I still miss film and the click of a real shutter. I have recently purchased some Argus 35mm Cameras from 1936 to 1954. I can actually work on these cameras and even take the lens apart. I never used a separate light meter with a camera before but I’m going to try it. Im sure this will make me a better photographer. Some very cool american made 35mm cameras can be had today on ebay for the price of a memory card or a half tank of gas. Just as cars never replaced horses people still ride those animals dont they? Film photography will still coexist with digital. Why not get a vintage camera and shoot a vintage car or building, what a great hobbie.

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