What I Miss About Film Photography

Nikon F SLR

Nikon F SLR

What I miss about film photography. Not much. I’ve snapped pictures for 62-years, and all but the last 7-years has been with film. In 2009 I made the epic migration to digital and I’ve never looked back. The digital experience is amazing when compared to film. The biggest difference, and the biggest reward, has been learning to process my images in a virtual darkroom (Photoshop, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements). That’s also been the biggest learning curve for this old man.

There isn’t a film made today that can compare with the latest digital technology. That wasn’t always the case but it is now. That statement will be controversial in some photographic circles, but it’s not even worth arguing about in my opinion. So I won’t. Accept it or not. There are some photographers who are so pretentious as to label themselves Purist. Really? That’s just a bullshit way of saying you’re a snob. Their poster child is Ansel Adams, but the truth is Ansel Adams was NEVER a purist.

Adams was always at the forefront of technology and innovation, always on the cutting edge. He would be today too if he were still alive. If you think different go back and study your history. Adams is still an icon in the world of photography, but many (if not most) of his techniques (and those of his peers) have been incorporated into modern digital image processing software. Even modern digital cameras have taken his advanced exposure metering computations (zone metering for instance) and built them into their various exposure metering algorithms.

Film photography was complicated, restrictive and expensive. For any photography beyond the Kodak level it was an elitist hobby that most could ill afford. Do I miss anything about film photography? Strangely enough I do. And what would that be Mr. Know-it-All-Smarty-Pants? What I miss is:

The cameras themselves

The discipline

The anticipation (sometimes)

Just pickup (literally in your hands) any one of my three favorite cameras: the original Nikon F SLR, the Leica M-3 or the Rolleiflex TLR. You will quickly understand, or at least I think you will. There is craftsmanship, simplicity and a tactile pleasure that just isn’t available anymore (they were completely mechanical, no electronics whatsoever). You old film guys will probably back me up on this, especially if you’ve ever owned any of these iconic cameras. I passed mine to my kids when I left the States, and I’m sure they’ll never be used again, but I just couldn’t consign them to the junkyard.

I sometimes miss the discipline that film photography required. Film was expensive like I mentioned earlier. There was the purchase price of the film itself, then a processing cost at a photo lab (no Photoshop, Lightroom or Photoshop Elements) and finally the printing costs (again done at a professional lab). 120-film usually shot 8 or 12 images depending on the format of your camera, and 35mm film came in either 12, 24 or 36 exposure. Each shot counted. With digital it’s often spray & pray because you have unlimited shots and instant feedback. Sometimes our photography suffers from a lack of discipline.

I “sometimes” even miss the anticipation, but I’ve grown to expect digital’s instant feedback. Within a nanosecond I get relevant information and can make necessary adjustments while shooting on-the-fly. In the old days a good photographer carried a notebook and made notations for each frame shot (with enough shooting under your belt you could make some pretty good guesses about how your photo would turn out). I prefer the instant feedback of digital (and its made me a better photographer), but sometimes I miss the Christmas morning aspect of getting your results back one or two weeks after shooting a roll of film (and the whole roll had to be shot before processing).

WB BW IMG_2747

Stephen F. Dennstedt


Photographer, Writer and World Traveller

Lima, Peru

7 responses to “What I Miss About Film Photography

  1. Having made the transition to digital around the same time, I find your article very interesting. One thing I hadn’t given much thought to was that because shooting digital is so easy, cheap and fast compared to film that we change our way of shooting. For me this is sometimes true but after so many years of shooting film, processing and printing it I find I still do a lot of planning and careful consideration before each shot. I guess old habits die hard.But as much as I loved darkroom work I am completely sold on Photoshop and Lightroom now. So much still seems like magic to me and the possibilities are endless.

    • I don’t find too many photographers today really wanting to go back to film. I agree with you 100% about processing, it is so GREAT to have complete creative control. I did a little darkroom processing in the old days (black & white), but it was mostly in school or working with my dad sometimes. Photoshop wasn’t easy for me to learn (and I’m still learning), and I can’t truthfully say that I’m all that good at it, but I do LOVE it. For better or worse I like having the the creative control. Thanks for commenting Beverly. How would I go about seeing some of your work?

        • Very nice work Beverly. It looks like you travel quite a bit too. Are you a Nikon shooter or a Canon shooter? Or do you prefer something else? I’m always curious about other photographers, so I hope you’ll forgive my nosiness. 🙂 I mentioned my 3 favorite “film” cameras in the post, but these days I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame digital (I can’t justify upgrading to the Mark III or the newly announced Mark IV). Thanks for following the blog, and taking the time to comment.

          • Thanks for the kind words Stephen. I have traveled a bit and hope to do more. We are just getting settled in Mexico and plan to start exploring soon. I shoot with an older Nikon D7000 and the smaller Canon G9. Both have served me well. I peruse listings for the newer fancier models but so far have not been able to justify the high price tags.
            When I did shoot film my favorite was a Mamiya 645. Many of the shots from Greece were shot with that camera and printed on Cibachrome originally. Nothing I’ve seen since beats that combination for color and clarity.
            I look forward to reading subsequent blogs.

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