The meteoric rise of the digital camera has been both a godsend and a potential pitfall of photography. The godsends are obvious: superb image quality, instant reviewing, no need to print or process—the list goes on and on.
However, the pitfalls are only now becoming obvious. The most obvious is the loss of knowledge of photographic techniques. The modern day marvels that are today’s cameras inspire such confidence that many photographers often never take them out of auto modes.
Now whilst many people may be happy, indeed impressed with the images they are getting in auto modes, they are in fact missing out on a huge range of creative techniques that can really only be explored using manual modes. Whilst it is possible with will power to switch your digital cameras to completely manual, the temptation to review and delete will still be there, meaning that you may not learn from your mistakes. The answer: buy an old film camera.
A beauty like this need not cost the earth
A quick trawl through eBay these days will reveal a plethora of film cameras for silly prices. Cameras that a few short years ago would have cost an arm and a leg can now cost next to nothing.
When considering which one to buy, it’s a good idea to stay with the same brand of digital camera that you have. The reason for this is simple: ergonomics. The layout will be familiar, meaning you will quickly be at ease with the camera. Nikon users will have the added bonus that many of their current lenses will work on the film cameras.
So, you are now the proud owner of a nice, good-condition old film camera. Time to go and use it. Now of course, most film cameras of the last 20 years have auto modes and auto focus, and to start out you can use these. The more adventurous can switch over to manual exposure and manual focus straight away and really dive in at the deep end.
Let’s take a look now at what you are going to learn from your film camera. The first thing is not a technique at all. It’s something intangible, yet incredibly important to photography, and that is that photos have value. Every time you fire that shutter, it’s costing you money.
Now, whilst you might take that as a negative, it is in fact very positive. Firstly, it teaches you to slow down and think about every shot, meaning every shot will have a concept and though process behind it. In the digital age it is far too easy to fire away without thought. This has led to the general perception that photography is both easy and requires no creativity, both of which are entirely wrong. When you are paying for every image, you will be more creative because you have to be.
Using film teaches you the value of photography
The second thing shooting on film is going to teach you is how to learn from your mistakes. There will not be a single shot that you can review and delete, meaning that when you get your roll of film back from the lab, you are going to have plenty of mistakes. Because these mistakes are there, immortalized in film or print, you are more likely to take the time to look at them and analyse what went wrong.
Have you got an issue with shutter speed or is it focus? Was my aperture too wide for the amount of light? When you first start shooting film, you will make more mistakes than you get good shots, but by understanding the errors, you will, film by film, find yourself improving, making fewer and fewer mistakes.
With film you will learn quickly from your mistakes
The last main reason for shooting film ties into the above, and that is that is teaches you the relationship between aperture and shutter speed–how the film and hence sensor reacts to light. Different shutter speed and aperture combinations can entirely change the look of an image.
When you shoot, you cannot adjust the curves in Photoshop after the fact. You need to work out whether your exposure is good enough to reveal details in the shadows or hold some highlights in the clouds without blowing them out. In short it teaches you to concentrate and think about exposure and to not rely entirely on what the exposure meter is telling you.
You will understand dynamic range and where your exposure meter excels and where it fails. For those of you that want to shoot long exposure night shots, you will need to learn about reciprocity failure in film, meaning that you will have to finely balance your shutter time and aperture. You will also gain a greater knowledge of how film speed works and how an increased film speed increases grain in our images.
Shooting film teaches you the fundamental relationships in photography
Buying an old film camera may not be for everyone, but for those of you really wanting to understand the true nature of photography then it is a great way to push forward your knowledge and understanding of this wonderful hobby.