Every Photographer Should Shoot Film
I usually shy away from making sweeping generalizations, so I hope you'll forgive the premise of this post, which I will restate here, in case you somehow missed the title—I believe that every photographer should shoot film.
Not just film, mind you. I'm no analog purist. Overall, I value digital photography and concede that it's the dominant medium and the way forward. Heck, some of my best friends are digital photographers, and yes, admittedly, I mostly shoot digital myself.
What I mean to say is that if you're solely shooting digital, you're probably missing some key benefits, a few profound lessons and lots of fun experiences that will ultimately enrich your photographic journey.
To be clear, in my mind, there is no substantial difference between shooting digital and film. However, I was only able to come to this realization after shooting both for quite some time. Fundamentally, the goal is the same—cameras are a means to create images—the format doesn't matter, only the final product matters.
So, I hear what you're saying—if that's true, isn't digital enough? Why should every photographer shoot both? Well, for some good reasons.
Film Still Offers Something Digital Can't... Yet
As we watch the day-to-day rat race of camera manufacturers pushing out small, incremental upgrades and making the occasional short hop forward, it can be easy to lose perspective. You may not realize that, when it comes to image quality and dynamic range, digital sensors only began catching up with film fairly recently. In fact, they're still behind in some key areas—chief among them, resolution.
The megapixel wars currently being waged with every new digital sensor is really put into perspective when you consider adding film into the mix. Even something like the 100-megapixel sensor in Fujifilm's brand new $9,999 GFX100 camera can't achieve half the resolution that can be had with a 40-year-old, $500 Fuji GW690 medium format film camera. So, if you want to create huge prints, film is still the way to go, especially with how accessible and affordable medium format and large format cameras are these days.
Another thing is that film, especially negative film, has a natural compression curve which deals with highlights in a non-linear way, something that digital sensors just can't do. This means you can extend your dynamic range by overexposing film while still retaining detail in your highlights. Digital sensors have good latitude within their dynamic range, but it's all linear, so once you overexpose, you lose all that detail.
There is another technical advantage to using film that can't be underestimated—to some, it just looks better. The "film look" is a thing that's hard to replicate digitally, so what better way to achieve it than to go straight to the source? It's the same reason so many movie directors, from Christopher Nolan to Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, still bother to shoot their work on film. Creating an organic analog image—the real deal—in an overproduced, overprocessed digital world still has meaning.
Shooting Film Can Correct Some Bad Habits
Shooting film can prove beneficial to your photography for more than technical and aesthetic reasons, it can also help eliminate some of your bad habits.
With modern digital cameras' capacity for high frames per second and spacious memory cards, it's not uncommon to come home after a couple hours of shooting with hundreds of images, which then have to be processed, sorted and stored. It's a tedious process that I, like many, have come to dread.
Shooting film, on the other hand, keeps me honest and economical. I am limited to the amount of film I can afford to buy and process, and can physically carry with me. Because of this, I think harder about every shot I take. So, that translates into being more patient, more opportunistic, and more focused on picking my spots and capturing decisive moments, which are all characteristics that make me a better overall photographer.
The convenience, immediacy and ease of shooting digital photos are why it's the new standard, but these amenities don't necessarily make any of us into better photographers. And when it comes to exercising better judgement, timing and technique, film photography is a better teacher, precisely because it's not as forgiving and lessons are hard-learned.
To put it plainly, shooting both digital and film gives you a complete picture of photography as a practice, application and art. Mastering both is mutually beneficial and it's why I think that every digital photographer should make room in their workflow for film as well.
So, next time you feel your gear acquisition syndrome flaring up after looking at the latest and greatest, why not investigate a film camera instead? Not only is it more forgiving on your bank account, you might just become a better photographer for it.