Why You Shouldn't Learn Photography on Film

We often hear that learning on film is a quick way to learn all of the basics, because every mistake will cost you money, but I recently heard a differing opinion that opened my eyes.

Photographer Mik Milman recently talked about the problems that can arise when learning photography on film and brought up some fantastic points, the biggest of which is that learning photography is much like learning any other skill; to get better, you have to practice. And to practice, you need to do it a lot. The idea of shooting every single day is going to help you more than shooting a few expensive frames a week. 

It doesn't matter how much you read about exposure, framing, shutter speed, or aperture; the best way to improve is to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Milman is far more eloquent than I (Or any other YouTuber, really) in explaining this, and he brings up a lot of great points. It's hard to shoot every day in order to improve if every frame is costing you money. 

What do you think of his conclusions? Did you get your start on film? If not, do you shoot film now? Sound off below!

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45 Comments

Graham Glover's picture

I started with film and shot with a Pentax K1000 fully manual film camera. When I went to my first DSLR, everything changed. I learned more and learned faster. With a screen to review what I was doing, I could correct errors early in a shoot rather than ruin an entire shoot because perhaps I was using tungsten film outside in the day light. I experiment even today to push my work further. Start with film? Nah. If you want to shoot film, great. Do it. I think you can learn much more with digital.

Patrick Smith's picture

I couldn't agree more, and I was decent at shooting film and I am so glad I grew up when digital wasn't really option at the time, unless you had $30k for a 1mp Kodak lol. I too was learning more and more about photography, but didn't really feel like my images were getting any better! Then I asked my dad for some financial helping, sold my Nikon F5 and F100 and bought a D1 in 1999. Within a couple of months I feel my photography advanced more than it had in the past five years! The reason was super simple, I could see my mistakes and my successes instantly on the back screen. Which mind you was a terrible screen lol, but it showed me what I either did correctly or needed to do. I would tell anyone these days and they would be an idiot to learn photography by shooting film. The only people who should shoot film in my opinion is experienced photographer's and or those looking to relive the good ol' days!

Adriano Brigante's picture

I started with film and I'm still shooting film only.

Of course you can shoot more with digital. But just shooting more doesn't mean you're automatically gonna get better. You also have to shoot more purposefully. That's the whole argument in favor of learning with film: Cost and slow feedback forces you to think more and shoot more carefully. It works for me, it might not work for others.

But hey, there's no right or wrong way to learn. Some great photographers have learned with film and some great photographers have learned with digital. To each their own. What matters is the end result.

Mik Milman's picture

I actually think that you will improve at anything just by doing it. There is a lot of habit forming that develops subconsciously. I've been teaching myself guitar for the last few years without any structure. I just play around and I've gradually improved. That said, with structure I would probably improve more rapidly.

I agree with you in regards to the merits of shooting film you point out.

Dan Howell's picture

"Cost and slow feedback forces you to think more and shoot more carefully."

No, it just doesn't. Sorry, but that is just laughable. Slow feedback tends to actually bake in errors in thought, errors in vision and errors in technique. Instant feedback highlights errors and allows for reinforcement of improvement. Feedback and evaluation of results is clearly a strong reinforcement of acquired skills. To say that slow feedback is superior is to completely misunderstand what is going on. Fast feedback also the virtual safety net that allows for deeper and wider experimentation.

I was shooting film before you were born (checked your bio) and likely have shot more film than you will ever have a chance to. You are making a proclamation based on something you don't have experience with. You say that it works for you, but you don't really have a basis for comparison. Having experience from both sides of the argument, I would not ever recommend beginning photographic education with film.

You are romanticizing film capture when it simply doesn't deliver what you think it does. I have found that digital capture has allowed me to take wilder swings at concepts, work into the edges of lighting, lens flare, composition, and movement than I was doing with film because I could try until I had it and then go a little further.

Even in the days I was shooting film professionally, I relied on the somewhat instant feedback of Polaroid to proof images before committing them to film. Learning you made a mistake after you run your film does not always teach the lesson needed, especially if you can't re-create the conditions. This was a generally accepted professional practice to deliver superior results.

Ken Flanagan's picture

You don’t “need” to learn on film, but it does slow you down to see that it is more of a method and system that will make a great photograph.
IMO, I could teach someone to become a photographer a lot quicker on film than digital.
It’s all subjective though, and one way works for some. Whatever, just go take pictures.

Mik Milman's picture

Why do you think you're able to teach faster on film? Because there is less to teach or because it is a more effective tool to teach on?

Ken Flanagan's picture

I think it is effective on two levels, though it’s really just subjective.
1. It forces a pace that develops a deeper understanding how photographs are made.
2. “Faster” still takes a long time, but if I had two months with someone, i believe I would have them creating consistently better well rounded photos in fewer shots than someone using the “just go out and shoot” type of method.

Again, I might be completely off base, but I believe in a system.

What do you think?

Alex Herbert's picture

It's not either or though is it. If not taking a lot of frames is what you're trying to teach, then teach it. Just because you can bust shoot 30 frames of digital it doesn't mean you have to. Give your student a 500mb SD card and it's essentially a film camera with instant results!

W S's picture

Or, tape a piece of paper over the rear screen of a digital camera and force the students to hand in their flash cards at the end of the shoot. Keep the cards for a day, and delete any photos above the shoot only "X" rolls of film limit, give the students the photos printed on paper.

Almost exactly like using film but with a digital camera. ;-)

stuartcarver's picture

I admire people who shoot film, would I bother with it, no.

Mik Milman's picture

Have you tried?

stuartcarver's picture

I haven't and i dont really have any interest in it to start if im being honest. I like the digital process.

Keith Mullin's picture

In my opinion all of the "limits" that film imposes on you can easily be implemented on digital just by imposing them on yourself. Give yourself an assignment, limit yourself to a specific number of exposures to get it. Boom. Is it easy to break the self imposed limits, sure, but the point of them is to exercise the intentionality of your photography, not to actually only limit yourself to a set number of photos. Plus, you could do this exercise several times in a day, working on improving aspects between sets, instead of waiting to get your prints back from a lab (or doing them yourself).

Mik Milman's picture

Excellent point and one I've argued myself. But that said, there is more to it. There is something about knowing that only 1 physical copy of that image will exist that adds weight to the experience of making an image. But yes, for teaching purposes I think you are right.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Keith, this is actually a really thoughtful comment. I was going to disagree with the basic premise, but, you've effectively made all of my arguments useless.
I learned on film. An AE-1. No auto metering. I carried a notebook with me and took notes of why I used the setting I used and what I expected to see when I got my film back (the wait, even an hour was agonizing). As you point out, you could easily do this today. Turn off the metering. Tape up the LCD, take your notes and then review the photos afterwards.
You would get the benefit of slowing down and thinking about your shots, AND, you'd get to shoot multiple rolls a day and be able to review all of those rolls almost immediately.

I am not however a fan of the idea that doing something more often makes you better. The old adage shouldn't be practice makes perfect, but, perfect practice makes perfect. Speed today doesn't facilitate learning as effectively as thoughtful practice.

Deleted Account's picture

**Sits down with popcorn**

Only 5 comments so far. Thank god I'm not too late for the show.

Mik Milman's picture

I think you're going to get a pretty civil debate here considering the intent of my video was to point out one merit of learning photography on digital, not to stir a debate between the two mediums.

Deleted Account's picture

I hope you're right but this is FStoppers

Spy Black's picture

One great advantage of shooting film is that you learn to see your frame before you ever fire it, and you know if you got it or not after you fire the frame.

However that takes a fair amount of time shooting with film to get there. You can easily impose the same restrictions shooting digital, but most people will just chimp away.

If you never shot with film I wouldn't worry too much about that skill set tho. It's a brave new world with new a different ways to get to the photographic promised land.

Mik Milman's picture

I think the ability to pre visualize a shot comes with a lot experience shooting. Eventually you see in focal lengths, light, within a cameras dynamic range, etc.

I believe I made a video on that if you're interested.

Spy Black's picture

Yes, the more time you spend at it the better you'll be at it, but when you HAVE to wait to see your results as you do with film, you're more fine tuned to precognition and knowing if you got it or not.

Rod Kestel's picture

We all have our own approach to learning. For me, the try-fail-try loop of film was way too slow, so I didn't get serious until digital.

Reminds me of learning to program before interactive debuggers...hang on...before interactive editors!! Punched cards, seriously. And coding sheets that you had to take to an operator to key in. Yeeehaaawww! Such fun. Also tedious and an extremely slow way to learn.

JetCity Ninja's picture

like practicing anything, if you're practicing the wrong things, you learn wrong things. i do agree with the general fact that repetition is the best way to build habits, though, thus making a far stronger argument to recommend digital over film to a beginner.

hell, it took me a good 6 months to get back into the general "swing of things," falling back into my old process and refining it for the camera and gear i use currently, after a 10 year break from photography.

S M's picture

Take a 256mb SD card and turn off your LCD display and you can effectively do that same thing. The one hurdle might be choosing between JPEG and RAW and whether or not you want to allow the camera to process the way it saw it or if you want to process it yourself.

Alex Herbert's picture

That would only make sense if you're shooting on multiple cameras. And if you only own one camera does it even matter what the ACTUAL ISO levels are? As long as you get to know your camera you can learn to judge which ISO setting is appropriate for which environment.

stuartcarver's picture

Funny, I have this argument about ‘equivalent focal lengths and DOF’.. why the hell do I care what my 23mm APS-C lens is on a full frame camera, I don’t own one, I won’t be connecting it to one and it’s not affecting my decision to buy it.

Alex Herbert's picture

Exactly, you'd only need to know that if you were trying to recreate an FF image. Otherwise it's irrelevant!

Chris Sampson's picture

I’m too old to worry what someone thinks about shooting of film in 2019. I started in photography when film was your only option on a Canon AE-1. It is still my all-time favorite camera. I spent $$$$$ on development and too much time in darkroom when I wasn’t playing for development. Now, I don’t have that headache.
I still have to adjust lighting, exposure and focus on my composition but I no longer sit on piles of canisters of undeveloped shots and even with digital as my option now I don’t waste shots, photograph in a hurry or anything else I was not already doing in film.
It’s a canard to put the emphasis on film in that manner.
For those who grew up in the digital era, this may not be true for them and yes I encourage playing with analog equipment but otherwise it’s not the key to learning anymore than me requesting students master cuneiform writing to know how to do journalism.

Spy Black's picture

"I started in photography when film was your only option on a Canon AE-1."

What planet was that? :-)

Tom Thomas's picture

@Chris Sampson: "For those who grew up in the digital era, this may not be true for them and yes I encourage playing with analog equipment but otherwise it’s not the key to learning anymore than me requesting students master cuneiform writing to know how to do journalism."

That is not an adequate analogy. Cuneiform refers only to the physical recording of text but not the content of the writing, whereas as journalism refers to the latter but not the former.

Chris Sampson's picture

It does apply entirely. The art of photography isn’t about they tools used to complete the work rather they choice of what to commit (the content)

Anyone can write but might not be a journalist and anyone can click a shutter and not be a photographer. The tool is not the task but a means to complete the task.

Eric Robinson's picture

Yet another pretty silly article that again centres on kit as being some kind of answer to the perpetual photographers conundrum, how to take great images. Learning photography or any other craft or art does indeed require practice but it also requires a number of other important parallel activities where no camera, film or digital are required.
Research; finding out what makes an image tick, by looking at and studying the work of the photographic greats and dare I say it artists. It’s all been done before, but you as a photographer have to work out what photographic direction you will take to differentiate your work from your contemporaries and from that of the past.
Thinking; wrapping your mind around your photographic intentions before you pick up you camera, as opposed to just doing it is possibly the most important activity any photographer can take part in......and it’s not easy!
Evaluation; looking at your images and asking yourself if they live up to and meet your photographic intentions.
Let’s not fool ourselves cameras.....all of them are pretty simple devices, with shutter and lens. The hard bit is not your choice of kit or settings but knowing and understanding your photographic intentions, or to give it another name plugging in to and releasing your photographic creativity.
This paint by numbers approach to photography that preaches, if you use this camera, with this lens and this light along with these other bits of kit you will produce great photographs is totally rubbish and misses the whole point. I’ve seen great images produced with a dustbin or cardboard box each with a hole in it along with some light sensitive paper on the inside.
Becoming a good photographer requires you to spend some time thinking about your intentions before you take any images. Whether you then use a digital or film camera or even just a shoe box with a hole is completely irrelevant.

g coll's picture

The shoe box with a hole is a brilliant way to learn photography. Building your own camera obscura and using it to take some photographs will indeed teach you everything you need to know to per sue this hobby and more. There is a lot to learn about photography well before you even take your first meaningful photograph.

Eric Robinson's picture

It could be, but the point I’m trying to make, possibly not very well, is that the photographer should be spending some good quality time thinking about photography and the kind of photographs they want to produce, while evaluating what they do shoot. Randomly running around clicking with a shoebox, film or digital camera on its own just ain’t going to do it. Spending big bucks on gear or having a high shutter count does not make you a photographer. For example I know this guy who bought himself a top of the range 50MP camera, uses the spray and pray approach and now calls himself a professional photographer!

Anthony Tripoli's picture

i started on film, but never took anything serious, it was just snapshots of friends

when i got a DSLR 10 years ago i really started to learn a lot because i could see instant results, so playing with off camera lighting and stuff became more regular

i now shoot film almost exclusively (other than certain paid gigs)

the big difference for me now is that on digital i find the shot/angle/light i like and i blast like 50+ frames at a time, where with film i only get 10 shots a roll when shooting 6x7, and so i spend a lot more time composing and thinking before hitting that shutter, and i rarely shoot more than 2 frames of a similar pose/angle/etc, so i get a lot more diversity out of my shoots and i tend to get better results because i am thinking heavily about every shot and if it's worth burning 1/10 of my roll for.

both have their strengths and weaknesses, but i am a firm advocate that shooting film will force you to think about and learn good composition a lot faster

Les Sucettes's picture

Why not do both!

I always say: Reject the tyranny of the “or”!

Timothy Turner's picture

Whether you use film or digital is irrevelant, the mission is the same, to get a picture printed and framed if so desired. If you are using slide film there is nothing like laying your slides on a light table and seeing all those colors come alive before your eyes.

Deleted Account's picture

I have worked for nearly 30 years exclusively with 4 x 5" and 8 x 10" films.
Maybe something I learned.
And yes, it was very expensive (film + process).
Working with digital has opened up new possibilities for me, at a minor cost, but I'm not sure it's better.

Alan Brown's picture

I used film for years. It is difficult to learn when you outsource printing, waiting weeks and then wondering if the washed out result was due to your setting or a cheap photo lab. I actually reverted to taking processing slides, but even then you had to wait to see results and by that time the moment you wanted to capture had passed.

The one thing I can comment on is that with film you had to be more attentive and consider each and every setting. I do have to take a step back from time to time with my DSLR and pause to reflect while shooting.

With the advent of the DSLR the novice has a greater freedom to experiment and to view/adjust the outcome in almost rel time.

Ngaere Woodford's picture

Some of us HAD to start on film as there was no other option!!! haha

Tom Thomas's picture

Why is it always have to be absolute with you? "Shouldn't Learn Photography on Film"? Shouldn't? Not everyone is the same, dude. (Just like in the other article you proclaim that "Collapsible On-Light Reflector Is the Best Light Modifier for Speedlights". Dude, there is no such thing as the best light modifier. There are different light modifiers which give different looks/resuts/effects.)

For someone who doesn't have a lot of patience and someone who may not be as passionate about photography at the beginning, learning on film would probably too frustrating and discouraging. For these people, learning on digital would probably be better.

OTOH, because of the time and cost of film and film processing as well as the physical limit of the amount of film one can practically carry in one shoot (vs. one tiny SD can hold hundreds/thousands of photos), every frame of film is precious. And because every frame is precious, it forces you to slow down to think and feel more of the photo you want to shoot before you push that shutter button. You get more involved and deliberate with your photography this way. Thus, for someone who is patient enough and passionate enough, learning on film would probably be more beneficial.

Timothy Turner's picture

I made a "light bender" from white foam board for 50 cents

Timothy Turner's picture

The camera you are holding is a Pentax 67, it uses 120 or 220 film and makes 10 or 20 exposures.

Serge Chabert's picture

This kind of article is only there to provoke and pit digital photographers to film photographers. None is better than the other. Just do your thing. There is no best way to learn photography. Film or digital, who cares?