Five Lessons from Film Photography Days

I have come across several photographers and clients recently who can barely remember film and film cameras. I feel fortunate to have lived through both the film photography and the digital photography eras.Soon there will be a generation who only grew up with digital. Technology changes have brought changes to photography, and made me think about my top five lessons from film photography days.

Film camera

We are getting to a time when many young photographers have never used a film camera

In the days of film, photography was different. I bought my first SLR camera in 1997. At that time, you planned how much film you could afford and could carry. The rolls came mainly as 36 exposure or 24 exposure. You were careful with how you used each exposure as you had a limited number and each one cost you money, both to buy the film and to have it processed. When you got your film processed it could be days, weeks, or months after you made the image. Wow, times have changed! Today, memory cards are cheap and have almost unlimited capacity. Images can be viewed on the back of the camera immediately. Often, images don’t ever get printed, they exist only in digital form. So, looking back on what I’ve learned, what are my top five lessons from film photography days?

(1) Consider Composition

In the film photography days, you had to carefully consider each image before you took it. With a limited amount of film, you had to make sure it lasted. With today’s cheap memory cards there is almost no limit on the quantity of images you can make. Sometimes this leads to an approach of shooting everything – summed up in that great description to “spray and pray”. Unfortunately this can lead to a large number of poor quality images. Lesson 1 – take the time to consider composition. It will improve your photography, and save you time reviewing and processing lots of poor quality images.

(2) Learn Faster

You had to wait for processing in the film era. This made it difficult to learn, as sometimes I could hardly remember actually taking the shot! Being able to review images instantly in the digital age gives us a great opportunity to learn faster. To make the most of this opporunity to learn faster, take the time after each shoot to review the images you have made and consider how you could improve them next time. Do this on your computer away from the shoot.

(3) Avoid Constantly “Chimping”

Chimping is that annoying habit of constantly reviewing your images on the back of your camera. In the film photography days, this option didn’t exist. Ironically, this helped the photographer engage with the subject and remain focused on creating great images. In effect, it kept you in the “creating zone” and didn’t allow you to drift into “reviewing mode”. If you are a photographer who checks the LCD screen after every image – think about not looking at it for a while, and staying engaged with the subject you are shooting.

(4) Get it Right In-Camera


Film and film canisters used to be in every photographers bag. Now very few carry film.

Digital technology and the post production tools we have now give us great flexibility to adjust images after they have been made. Unfortunately this also leads some people to believe that the quality of the image coming directly out of the camera is less important now as they “can fix it in photoshop”. I hope you cringed as you read that. A bad image will still be a bad image after post production. A really good image straight from the camera, can remain a good image, or be enhanced further in post production. Don’t get lazy and expect your camera and post production tools to do everything for you. Learn your craft. Get it right in-camera and use post production tools to enhance, not fix, your images.

(5) Print Your Best Work

In film photography days, there were only prints or slides. Now it is very common for images to exist only in digital form. They can be shot on a digital camera, digitally enhanced in post production, and be used only on websites. If you have ever seen good quality images in print you will know how powerful prints can be. Think of family portraits in a home, wedding images hanging on walls for generations, and landscape images in corporate boardrooms. Take the time to print your best work. It will have an impact.

These are my top five lessons from film photography days. I don’t miss those days, but I feel lucky to have used film and digital technology. Did you live through the film photography era? What lessons did it teach you? Do you miss any aspects of that era?

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