Rediscovering the Art of Film Photography

Digital is all well and good, but there's a unique kind of magic that comes with doing things the old fashioned way.

On my fourteenth birthday, my dad gave me a Canon AE-1 35 mm film camera. He told me it had been his sister’s when they were young. She had given it to him, and now he was giving it to me – he didn’t need it sitting on his shelf anymore. I remember spinning the metal dials, focusing the smooth ring of the 50 mm lens, and feeling a rush of euphoria when the shutter would fire. I was a kid with a new (albeit vintage) toy, but what I didn’t realize was that this seemingly dated tool would be the catalyst for my developing creativity.

I took my camera everywhere and learned to see the world in shades of black and white. But it was around this time that digital photography was beginning to gain serious attention, and before I knew it, the Canon was collecting dust on my shelf instead of my father’s. After six years of shooting weddings with all digital gear, I had excelled at creating wonderful memories for other people, but the magic of photography I’d discovered on my fourteenth had vanished for me.

I started thinking about what drew me to photography all those years ago: the intentionality and mindfulness of framing a shot, the challenge of using available light effectively, the thrill of the shutter-click, and the anticipation of seeing my work. At that moment, I knew I needed to get back to film.

So, a few weeks ago I picked up a used 35 mm camera and a few rolls of black and white. Needless to say, since then it hasn’t touched my shelf or even seen the inside of my camera bag. And now that the spark has returned, I’ve relearned a few important lessons. If you’re thinking of making photography your next hobby, here are some things to consider:

Get a Photography Book

Yes, they still print books. A good photography book will teach you the basics like how to compose a shot, how to use shutter speed and aperture correctly, and how to use light to your advantage. One of my favorites is George Eastman's History of Photography. Knowledge is a better investment than the newest camera. Which brings us to point two...

Invest in Lenses

Whether you’re shooting digital or film, the quality of your lenses will make or break your photographs. Don’t settle for cheap glass. Save up, get the best, and I promise you’ll only cry once as you look at the final total through eyes squinted in reluctance.

Don’t Stop Shooting

Take your camera wherever you go, and take never stop photographing everything you see. You'll begin to notice that everything around you is begging to be captured.

As I mentioned, never let it see the inside of your camera bag – unless you’re caught in a downpour. Shoot everything and everyone (with permission of course). The only way to become great at photography is to just get out and do it, over and over and over again.

Print the Best, Delete What’s Left

Pick your best images and print them. Despite how digitized modern photography has become, I firmly hold that photography isn’t meant to be viewed on a computer screen; it’s meant to be viewed on the wall (or ceiling, with the proper ingenuity) for all to see.

Print, frame, hang, and stand in awe of your work. Whatever you aren’t going to print, discard.

Choose Your Side

Now, you may be wondering if you should shoot digital or film. Here's a quick, slightly biased guide:

Digital: There’s no question that shooting digital is the cheaper of the two. If you’re learning the basics, digital allows you to shoot all day, delete like crazy, then start over the next day. Because digital allows you to set your ISO (a.k.a. film speed) on the fly, it’s much more versatile than film in terms of lighting conditions. And if you’ve got the need for speed, digital has the advantage.

Film: Film is for the contemplative photographer, the one who accepts that in a roll of thirty-six exposures, two or three printable images means success. While film is unforgiving, it forces the photographer to consider each shot and to develop creative problem-solving skills, which will prove more valuable than minimizing your learning curve will. The prints from film negatives are visually stunning, and many photographers, especially purists, still find them more desirable than digital prints. The takeaway here is that film is expensive and merciless, but it’s artistically gratifying.

Whichever you decide on, it’s time to pick up a camera, start shooting, and look at the world through a different lens (literally). The magic is out there – you’ve just got to, point, shoot, and capture it.

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