Shoot some film

9th June 2009

I’ve been interested in photography for over 8 years now, and in almost all that time, I’ve been shooting digital. I shot film as a child, but never seriously and only as a small hobby. I learnt the basics of exposure, composition and processing in the digital world.

When I found my mother’s old Nikon F-501, I realised it was about time I shot some film. I have some old Nikkor lenses which I adapt to my Canon 5D, primarily my Nikkor 55mm f/1.2. This lens is by far my favourite, and I was excited to at the chance to try it on a new (old) medium.

So I put a roll of Kodak Ultramax 36 exp ISO 400 film through it, and this is what I found:

Shooting film tells a story. You think so much more about every single shot when you have a limit of 36 exposures. As a result, you don’t end up with 20 shots of the same cat from about 3 angles. Each shot matters and as you go through the roll of the film, you can chart how your life has progressed for the relatively short period.

A month in film

You have flexibility. One of the extremely useful things about digital is that you have variable ISO between shots. Some DSLR bodies will even vary it for you based on available light. However if you ever want to shoot outside that range, you’re stuck. Having a film body to hand lets you put through a roll of Kodak HIE or a roll of film like Fuji Velvia, which according to Kevin O'Mara produces delicious colour. Shooting film gives you more choices about how your pictures come out, even if you can’t change it shot to shot.

Old lenses become new lenses. If you can get ahold of a cheap camera body with the same lens mount as your current lens set, then all those lenses you have will suddenly be twice as useful, and may produce new and interesting effects.

You get to play with full frame. Although full frame DLSRs like the 5D mk II and the D700 are in reach of amateurs, they are still at the expensive end of that reach. Most DSLRs used by amateurs have a cropped sensor, and shooting film means that you get the chance to see what life is like through a full frame viewfinder for a fraction of the initial outlay.

There are, however, a few problems with shooting film, and reasons why I could never abandon my digital background. The first is lack of feedback. I like to know if my image has been exposed properly before I leave the scene, in case I need to shoot another. Two weeks later when I’ve had the film developed is too late. Having said that, the skills and rules I have learnt from digital served me well. I had a good idea as to what was going to work, and in the end had no throwaway shots. It’s also probable that the fact that you can push film a couple more stops when processing than you ever can with digital helped a great deal.

The most notable drawback however is cost. While the initial cost of buying a film SLR body is very little, the running costs of shooting film are prohibitive. Buying film and having it processed costs too much to make it a viable long term alternative, however that may just encourage me to develop it myself. I’ll let you know how that goes…

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