Why You Shouldn't Shoot Film

Why You Shouldn't Shoot Film

In 2018, I bought 10 rolls of Kodak Tri-X 35mm film from a classmate. I found his post on a Buy & Sell Facebook page and decided his offer of $5 a roll was too good to pass up.

I bought way more than I probably needed, and after I shook hands with him and prepared to leave, it occurred to me to ask: why did he have so many rolls in the first place? and why he decide to sell them?

He shrugged. "I'm a photography student, and I'm switching to digital." When I asked him why, he simply replied that the quality was better.

Back then I thought he had missed the point, and that he was already twenty years out of date. The photographers of yesteryear were probably just as excited about the quality as they ditched their film cameras en masse when digital cameras were first exploding onto the market. Digital cameras may have been expensive, but when we thought about the cost of a film roll versus the cost of a battery pack and an SD card, it simply made financial sense. And the quality!

I myself had logged thousands of photos on my Olympus mirrorless digital camera by the time of my conversion to film. I learned how to shoot using the digital medium, and not for ideological reasons. I never saw my father tinkering around in a homemade darkroom, I never had a high school photography class that dictated that we lug around a Pentax K1000, and I honestly never properly learned what Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO really meant. I learned how to take photos by taking hundreds upon hundreds of shots and playing around with them on Adobe Lightroom in the computer lab. Many were terrible.

This essay is meant to dissuade most people from film, but there is one reason why I will never sell my film camera. It is the same reason why I chose to start shooting film in the first place after shooting digital.

I believe that what eventually exhausts most digital photography enthusiasts is that it is fundamentally a pursuit of perfection.

Would it be fair to say that most amateur enthusiasts, when they are not taking pictures to commemorate moments, are often doing so in pursuit of the perfect shot? You are looking for the optimal lighting, the right models, and the best possible framing for every shot. You edit out any imperfections - like lens flares and stray cars - when you are post processing. Any imperfections that exist must be justified as deliberate, or they are simply considered subpar.

In contrast, film photography liberates you from these constraints. Any hobbyist that chooses to shoot film in this day and age, when iPhone cameras can usually deliver a more "perfect" shot, is one that has deliberately chosen to revel in the imperfections of life. Your photos are no longer judged on a spectrum of better to worse. Rather, it is an artistic expression, and every imperfection present in the photo is now a part of that expression. Very few people have the qualifications to judge the merits of a shot like that.

I chose to shoot film for that reason. I did things like dedicate one 36 exposure roll to my trips, which forced me to be much more intelligent about my shots. I properly learned how ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed affect a shot. I loved the feeling of winding film, and I loved receiving my scans back from the shop. I was willing to bear with the annoyance of asking airport security to hand check my cameras and the heartbreak when you realize at the end of your roll that your camera malfunctioned and your film never began winding in the first place. There was a time when I declared that as iPhone cameras got better and better, there was nothing you needed to do with digital that you couldn't do with a combination of your iPhone and a film camera.

But film is expensive. And if you are not developing or scanning your own film, it is even more expensive. So if you are an amateur, and you are not developing or scanning your own film, then you are paying an extortionate amount of cash.

You are forking over your money to 1) pay for and constantly repair a used camera that is likely subject to designed obsolescence, 2) pay for film rolls that are increasingly getting more and more expensive because manufacturers haven't figured out how to meet this growing demand, and 3) pay another shop for developing ($$) and scanning ($$$) your prints. I believe that the incumbent expenses may have been palatable even 3 years ago, but I believe that in this inflation economy, it is no longer worth it for most people to shoot film.

In contrast, you can find deals on used digital cameras from circa 2010, many of which will overdeliver on the needs of any hobbyist, for some amazing prices. I would recommend this approach to most other hobbyists, especially ones that are starting out. This is because you may learn more about the mechanics of photography with a great book on theory and a trusty film camera (and a lot of $$$), but there is no substitute for improving by iterating, again and again and again.

If you're fiddling with the controls of a digital camera, and you play around with edits on Lightroom afterwards (and realize that there are limits to what you can accomplish with software), you will improve at a very rapid pace. You have a feedback cycle with digital that is simply impossible with film, and your skills will grow as a result. And if you decide that you want that film look, I promise you that with a $15 pack of Lightroom presets, no one will be able to tell the difference.

Obviously my opinion is automatically invalid if you are someone who aspires to be or is currently any level of photographer above that of an enthusiast. If you have a wad of cash lying around or you somehow inherited a working camera and a chest full of film, then knock yourself out as well. But for the rest of us - you are paying an extortionate amount of money for film photography, and I would recommend that you think very carefully about what exactly you truly value about film that you cannot achieve with digital.