Using Film

30th June 2015
Although I love using digital cameras, and do all my work on them, I still like to use film every now and again.

I have a number of 35mm film cameras (and one old medium format, but that's a blog for another day). I have an Olympus rangefinder, the classic Trip 35, and two Canon's - the AV-1 and the rare EF-M. For anyone who knows film cameras, you will see that the Canon AE-1 is far more popular and more sought after than the AV-1, but if creativity is your thing, with control over depth of field, then the AV-1 is for you as it only has one mode - Aperture Priority. With a max shutter speed of 1/1000 it doesn't come close to digital cameras which typically have 1/4000 or 1/8000, but with the use of ND filters you can still have that big wide aperture on a sunny day. (If I've completely lost you with all this talk, and love photography, then why not check out my photography training courses!)

Funny as it may sound, film cameras can help you get better at taking photographs, even with your digital kit. Why? Well, firstly you only have 24 or 36 exposures, so you have to work at getting the shot right first time - no more taking a hundred or so in the hope one is ok! And you can't review the shot on a screen, so you have to trust your skill with the camera. Plus, with the cost of film and processing can you afford to get it wrong? That may sound negative (pun intended!) but all this helps you focus your attention (again, pun intended!) on getting the shot you want by making you think about it first.

With my two SLR cameras the focusing is completely manual - there is no auto-focus, so I have to be careful with my compositions. With split prisms though, you very quickly see how focusing and re-composing can throw your focus out when shooting wide open, so you have to be ready to tweak it. The fact is, auto-focus on your digital camera has the same issue, but with that little red dot it's harder to gauge, so film helps to remind you to think about this and watch the focus carefully.

Next up is their simplicity - you don't have as many controls and functions on an old SLR as a modern DSLR, so taking shots is more about the composition and the exposure, and less about what shooting mode to be in, so it get you back to basics - taking the shot. But this is good - the camera will show you if it's going to expose ok if you pay attention to it, and make you think about what to adjust (usually the aperture) if it won't expose correctly. And if you really know what you're doing, you can always apply exposure compensation by changing the film speed.

Then there's the choice of lens. I mainly stick to the classic 50mm and 28mm prime lenses. No zooming helps you consider the composition and reminds you that you can move, if the camera lens can't. But this is nothing old/new/old, most street photographers stick to prime lenses and you'll see all digital cameras with interchangeable lenses have these prime lenses in their line-up.

But is film as practical as digital? Ok, so it's not as immediate, you have to wait to see if your photographs have come out ok, but once printed or scanned, you have a lasting memory, and one you're more likely to use. How many digital photographs have you got on your camera card or computer that you don't look at? With film, you'll have a higher percentage that you do look at, as you'll have fewer shots! And when scanned, they can print out natively larger than a photograph taken with a Canon APS-C or Nikon DX format camera, no matter how many mega-pixels it may boast.

However, it is true that the images probably won't be as sharp as your modern digital, or even newer film camera (mine are from 1976 and 1991), and you may have some shots that simply don't come out right. But your photographs will have a huge dynamic range, allowing for more detail in the highlights and shadows and have a quality to them that a great deal of digital photographers spend ages doctoring their digital images to try and emulate - that of film.

The photograph below was taken on a 1976 Canon Av-1 using the Canon 28mm f2.8 FD lens using standard Fuji colour film (the black and white is the same shot, simply re-processed into black and white). I didn't use an expensive film as I was testing the cameras as they hadn't been used for a very long time. I did this before taking my cameras on a 'proper' outing just in case they didn't work properly, which I highly recommend doing if you can't get it checked out by a service centre. Mine seem ok to me though:

And of course, you get that very cool retro film look without even trying! This was photographed using the Canon EF-M camera.

(If you would like to know more about improving your photography skills with film or digital cameras, why not see my page about my photography courses or drop me a line using the enquiries tab; they are available as group sessions and one-to-ones. In August I will also be starting a new series of single day trips for landscape photography.)