Retro Adventure: Shooting Film in a Digital Age

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Using film to photographIf you’ve “grown up” in the digital photo age and have never shot on actual film, rest assured it’s a very different expereince than shooting digitally.

Recently, I decided to take up the challenge of shooting a few rolls of film through my old Canon AE-1. To be honest, the last film I shot was a single roll through a Holga two years ago. Before that, it was somewhere around 1982 that I used a film SLR. Let me share my joy or, possibly, my pain — read on to see how this experiment went.

Camera Features

IMG_6939Not all film cameras are difficult to use, or are even manual. More recent film cameras (like a Canon Rebel) are just as easy to use as a digital SLR and include aperture priority, shutter priority, program mode, automatic mode, creative modes, auto-focus lenses, and such. Internal meters make getting your exposure quick and simple. The only downside is the lack of an LCD on the back.

Older film cameras like the AE-1 lack many of those features, though. While the AE-1 has an internal exposure meter, what the meter tells you is what aperture it thinks you should use for the currently selected shutter speed. The general process for taking an image goes something like this:

  1. Set your shutter speed where you think you want it
  2. Look through the viewfinder at the scene and press the shutter half-way
  3. Find the suggested aperture setting in the meter
  4. Look at the lens and adjust the aperture as needed
  5. If you do not have enough aperture to get the shot, adjust the shutter speed and go back to step 2
  6. Look through the viewfinder again and try to get a good focus (remember, there’s no autofocus here)
  7. Press the shutter
  8. Crank the film to advance

That’s certainly a little different than how fast you can get a good shot with a modern DSLR.

Rolls 1 and 2

I started off with a roll of color film as well as a roll of black and white film. I shot on and off for two weeks until the film was used up. I rewound the film and dropped it off at the local lab. The next day I went in to get it, only to discover that the entire roll was bad. Apparently, I hadn’t loaded it right and there wasn’t a single image on either roll. Not to be put off, I grabbed another roll of film on the way out.

Color picture on filmRoll 3

Roll 3 was a 36-exposure roll of color film that I made sure to load correctly. I also clicked off a few frames to make sure the take-up reel was turning with each shot. To finish the roll, I pulled out the camera during a weekend drive-around shoot with a friend. On Monday, I dropped off the roll at the lab and opted to have a CD with the images instead of getting prints. The lab told me to come back at 4pm the following day for the images. Day 2, I head over to the lab at 4pm as instructed, only to be told that their developer machine had died, so I’d need to come back the next day. Day 3, I went to the lab again, only to encounter another delay. Day 4, the lab sent the film out as their system was still not back up. Fortunately, my film was now back, but I had ordered a CD and their scanner was down. Day 5, I went back to the lab again and finally picked up a CD of the images. I headed back to my studio to load the images into Adobe Lightroom.

Pics from filmOf the 36 images, I am pretty happy with eight of them. Focus is certainly an issue: It’s very hard to manually focus in low light and the dimmer shots certainly proved that point. Other images suffered from too short a depth of field. Overall though, the shots I really wanted to get right did turn out well.

It helps if you really know how to use your camera, understand exposure controls, and know how shutter and aperture work together. The Canon AE-1 was a serious workhorse; many iconic images from the past were taken with it. The quality of the images is still excellent even though it requires extra time to take the shot.

iconic images often used the Canon AE-1That said, we live in a world of instant gratification — shooting film most certainly does not give you that. Besides the time from shooting to getting the film to the lab, this last experience added four days to process, really testing my patience.

Is eight out of 36 a good ratio? Considering what I was shooting, yes. Some of the “not keepers” were experiments with some of the lenses I had, so in a sense they did turn out. On the next roll, I won’t experiment as much. I will be focusing on making each image count.

So, yes, I will drop more rolls off at the lab this year, but not to prove a point to anyone or to call myself a film shooter. Certainly not to be able to say that I can shoot film and other people can’t. My renewed interest in film, especially on essentially what is a completely manual camera, is much more about preserving the craft, continuing to hone my eye for exposure and teaching myself to slow and make each shot count. At $6 for a roll of film and another $6 in developing, each click of the shutter drains about 33 cents from your wallet. This can add up quickly, so you certainly want your percentage of keepers to be as high as possible. Pulling out the film camera creates a real cost for each picture, so it certainly puts much more value on each shot versus loading up a 32GB CF card and cranking out a few thousand pictures during the course of a wedding.

Buoys on filmTo Use or Not to Use

The next question is whether I will be using film at any weddings or other events this year. I think I might. Certainly not as my primary camera, but I may drop a single roll at each wedding, engagement, or model shoot. If they turn out, then great, if I blow another roll, then I am not out any important images.

Think You Can Do It?

If you don’t have a film camera, don’t drop some money on one. You can get much of the same experience with your digital camera. Try covering up the LCD on the back on the camera. Bonus points for shooting only in manual mode, and double points for shooting with manual focus. The goal to really learn how your camera works and not rely on chimping the result on the back.

Have you shot in manual lately? Plan to? Sound off in the comments and talk about your experience.

Photo credit: Kerry Garrison

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