How Shooting Film Made Me a Better Photographer


How Shooting Film Made Me a Better Photographer

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Clothing Cart, China, 2013 / Mamiya 7ii / 80mm / Kodak Portra 400

Like many design students, my first experiences with photography came from an educational environment. In architecture college, we were taught some very simple, fundamental ideas to capturing space through light and composition. While I wouldn’t consider my early experiences with photography the same as actual photo students’, I would say that it greatly influenced my eye and in a lot of ways, hindered my ability to produce a decent photo.

The most pressing reason being the architectural ‘rules’ of photography: vertical lines should always be straight, view a space like a 2-point perspective, before examining other possibilities, rules of thirds, etc. We were told to idolize Francis Ching, which can make for great architectural photos but when it comes to moving, vibrant moments, can make life rather boring and stagnant. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

One of the biggest downfalls with my introduction to photography was the lack of precedents. It’s a shame for me to admit that most photographers I studied, or had any interest in learning about shot only (or mostly) buildings. Which, as I would find out later on, during a major ‘career shift’, wouldn’t apply as much as I had hoped.

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed a change in my photography. The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because multiple people have pointed it out to me. Now, I do not like talking about my ‘work’. It’s not that I’m overly confident with it, it’s that I have a hard time considering myself a photographer. I’m confident with what I do, just not presenting it in any artistic light.


Indian Beach, Oregon, 2012 / Hasselblad 500c/m / 80mm / Kodak Portra 400

Film Saved Me

I remember the first time someone I highly respected complimented my photos. It was something along the lines of “your photos sucked until you bought that Hasselblad”. Keep in mind, that was about a year ago. Prior to that, I had received constructive feedback from other photographer friends, or readers, but this was the first compliment.

Why did the Hasselblad make that big of a difference? Editing and thinking. You have to first meter, then focus and wait before pressing the shutter button. It took me anywhere from 50% – 300% longer to shoot a photo when compared to my 5Dmkii. Also, an A12 film back takes 120 film. On a 6cm x 6cm transparency, that yields 12 exposures and costs roughly $12-$20 to process and scan. More or less.

I began to shoot less and focus more. Why was something interesting? What did I find so engaging about this moment? Is it worth $2 to make this photo? I found myself looking more and wanting to shoot less. From there, it influenced everything from my Instagram, to my bicycle portraits, to events, shop visits, weekend drunkenness. Life slowed down and I finally enjoyed shooting. It became comfortable.


Kyle, Texas, 2013 / Leica M7 / 28mm / Fuji Neopan 400


Look, it’s nerve-wracking to meet someone new, have them open up their home or studio to you and let you plow through the space with a shutter going off every other minute. I used to fill up a 16GB card with RAW photos on my 5Dmkii just about every shop visit. Now I walk through and pick a dozen or so photos with my Leica M7. The shutter is soft, almost non-existent, a rangefinder is smaller than an SLR and when you’re confident with your camera, the subject matter is more engaged, relaxed and natural.

That’s what matters the most: confidence. Being comfortable with your camera, in the setting and with the subject. Shooting film made me more selective of what I was going to photograph and in doing so, I could spend more time engaging with my subject. Then, all I had to do was wait and catch them off guard, or when they opened up and really showed their personality.


Shifter Dan, Australia, 2013 / Mamiya 7ii / 80mm / Kodak Portra 400

Digital vs Film

Now, I’m not saying you have to sell your Canon or Nikon kit and go buy a Leica. I see people make wonderful photos with their iPhone and that’s the beauty of photography. It’s not the equipment, it’s the eye. Film was just the catalyst for me to really begin to care about my work. For some reason, it worked for me. Maybe it’s because we live in an age of instant gratification? Or maybe it’s because I fixated on equipment too much? That 50mm f1.2 lens sure is sharp, but what’s it worth if my photography still sucked?

Even a year ago, I look back at what I shot and presented here on the site, only to cringe. What was I thinking? My process and progression is transparent. My studio (the site) critique (the comments) is open to the public and sometimes, I receive emails like this from people:

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“John: Please stop the F-stop business, you have no insight and you can never be a good photographer without it. Look real hard at the work that you do. Photography is real easy and that is the problem.”

This is one of many emails I received over the past year or so from “photographers” and the only reason why this one stuck out in my head is because the author works for Boeing (i.e. he’s clearly not an idiot troll). It’s easy to take negativity like this to your heart but I’ve learned to accept it and that’s one of the most important qualities you can have: the ability to accept criticism.


Blue Hole, California, 2013 / Yashica t4 / Fuji Pro400h

What now?

I’ll continue to shoot digital and film, depending on the application and I’ll gladly accept critique. Film, to me anyway, has been a huge help in developing my eye and my ability to connect with a subject. It’s given me confidence in my ability to create a photo because it forced me to slow down. There’s still that waiting period between the shutter button and pulling out the negative to see how it turned out. I’ve learned to edit what I shoot and how I shoot it, regardless of camera. In an age where everything is instant, it’s nice to take a break and appreciate the process. Film has made me appreciate photography in a way that no digital device could…