In a world where digital photography is ever-present, film photography often takes a back seat. But this analog medium actually has some crucial lessons to teach all of us, if only we're willing to listen.
I can walk out the door right now and take 3,000 photos, all with different exposures, colors, and resolutions, but in this world of infinite possibilities, there's something I'm lacking: direction. Often, when faced with an endless supply of options, we find ourselves, as artists, struggling to create. That's where film photography comes in.
Film provides us with a clear set of restrictive limitations that despite holding us back in many ways, can actually help prevent creative blocks and offers up a set of rules in which to follow. This strengthens the technical knowledge of the photographer in many aspects, as well as its ability to allow creative artistry to flourish. So, let's take a look at the first reason why shooting film makes you a better photographer.
Let's take arguably the most common form of the film a roll of 35mm as an example of the limit of exposures per load. The average roll gives us 36 frames to play with. This limit, frustrating though it is, is actually quite useful for us artists. It forces our hand to maximize photo opportunities when met with them, because once that roll is filled up, you have to switch. If you don't have another roll, then it's game over for the day.
36 exposures may sound like a lot to some, but once you take into account the use of special techniques such as experimenting with filters on the same scene and bracketing shots to make sure there's at least one photo that comes out correctly exposed, then you quickly run out of space.
However, rather counterintuitive, this limitation on how many shots you can take is rather advantageous. It forces the photographer to come up with their own set of internal rules and encourages discipline to follow them. Focus, camera settings, and a keen awareness of the depth of field and motion blur will all be deeply ingrained before taking the next photo, because the film photographer won't want to waste frames unnecessarily. It's a useful technique that many artists use across the board to help them when they suffer a creative block. Somehow, this limitation gives us something to get our teeth into and work with.
Stick With It
How many times a week do you do this? You start taking photos indoors at home, then venture out to the garden to have a play, and you (or your camera) switch ISO sensitivity to combat the change in light levels. Not only that, but you may switch white balance to counteract the orange hue your light bulbs give off inside to make things look slightly more realistic.
Well, it's not quite as simple as that with film. Your roll is preset to a specific ISO and white balance for every frame. So, if you want to shoot inside, you'll use the tungsten-balanced roll, or outside, you'll need to pop in daylight-balanced film. So, taking just a couple of shots inside and then heading out to the garden becomes infinitely more complicated unless you use two camera bodies.
Rather than being a hindrance, this restriction can again aid the photographer. By sticking with what you've got loaded in the camera, you're forced into a one-track mind. This allows a deeper thought processes to take place, instead of flitting from one thing to another like a pinball machine — a finely carved rut in which to practice skills in one area more thoroughly than one might with digital, before moving on.
Say What You See
One of the starkest contrasts between film and digital photography is the timeframe between taking the photo and reviewing it. With digital, it's instant, but when you go analog, it can be hours, days, or even weeks. Aside from the clear disadvantage, this creates a deeper connection between you, the camera, and your subject.
There's a small margin for error when it comes to exposure settings, because any adjustment you make during the photo-taking process is then committed to film and can't be undone. That's what makes you a better photographer. Being in the moment and thinking through your creative choices before committing, even if just a few moments, will reverberate through your digital photography too and give you a deeper sense of what you want to achieve from the shot.
Study the Light
The permanence of film forces you to pay more attention to the light, whether that's the quality, quantity, and direction of light in your scene or how much light you're letting pass through onto the film itself. There's less room for error than digital where you can go back over your settings and experiment almost infinitely.
When analyzing the light in a scene, you'll likely be using your in-camera light meter more. Exactly the same principles apply when working in digital too, so it'll pass straight over to your everyday work with contemporary cameras. However, you may also find yourself using an external light meter to measure not only incident light (the light that hits your subject) but also the reflected light (the light that bounces back off the subject and towards the camera). This is especially helpful for portrait photography, where exposure values relate directly to skin tone and clothing.
See the World
I'm sure there are many exceptions to this one, but from what I've seen, the older the camera, the clearer the viewfinder. Devoid of complex grids, huge autofocus points spread across the viewfinder from corner to corner, and even spirit levels, I can just see more of the world in front of me than with my modern counterparts. I connect more with my subject, whether it's a person or a mountain range. I speak about this a little in another post, but I prefer the clearer, wider field of view, a place where I'm not infringed by limited electronic viewfinders, which are restricted by refresh rates and color gamut.
Essentially, what I'm saying with this piece is that although film photography is restrictive, binding, permanent, and wholly unforgiving, it's precisely for these very reasons that it will make you a better photographer if you practice it. Because it's exactly that which will make you better — practice. Taking the time to connect with your subject, to love the feeling of creating your own piece of work, to link science, technology, and art together is where the magic truly lies. I know you'll become a better photographer if you use film in this way, because there's no other option but to get better (unless you want to spend a ton of money on film and development costs).