Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

By Julian Tanase

In recent years, I have developed a taste for and enjoy taking photographs with film cameras that are helping me in getting a decent image, with the minimal effort from my part; I am talking here about the AF feature (my eyes are not what they used to be), internal light meter (getting a bit lazy, comes with the age I guess), film winder lever instead of the classic knob (or even better, auto winding), various focal options, better glass and high shutter speeds many of the good lenses are providing, AE lock, and so forth. You know what I am speaking of here. All these and more are to be found on our film cameras of a newer production (usually post 80’s).

But every now and then I feel like I’m cheating, sort of. I cannot put this feeling in proper words, it’s more like a inner thought which, at times, says: “well, of course you take decent images, the camera and film are doing most of the work; what are YOU doing to get a good photograph?”. Indeed, what do I personally add to the combination of camera, film and processing, in order to obtain something half decent? Just the scene, the framing of it. What else? This is all there is, regarding my personal input? Surely there has to be more than that.

And to be fair, there are times when one feels that one has stopped thinking on the entire process of taking photographs, because one is just simply loading a modern film roll in a, say, Nikon F4 and shooting away, only composing and whatnot. Obviously, I am grossly simplifying; there is much more than that when it comes to film photography and using a film camera (whatever the type or model), but you probably understand the idea expressed here. I just feel there is something which makes me less contributory to the entire process and results thereof, good or bad. I feel like I am cheating my role into the final result, letting the AF this or AE that function of the camera doing all the work.

On one hand it is so: no matter what we do, no matter where we aim at or shoot with, it always depend on our own skills to tell the camera what we want and how we want it. Some cameras understand our commands better than others, but they all do what we tell them to do. And most of the times, results are illustrative of our understanding of what the camera needs to be told. It is something like this: we want an apple, the brain tells the hand to pick it, and bring it to our mouth. I guess the camera is the hand here, with our eye and knowledge being the command of the brain on what we want. The taste of the apple is the result of our endeavour, as is the photograph resulted from the action of eye/camera/frame resulted.

On the other hand though, it becomes pretty clear to me that my brain gets lazy if I subject it continuously to easier targets. Not enough challenge occurs, I’d say. Take the AF function in a such camera: it was meant to make our lives easier, and indeed, it does that. But in doing so, we tend to forget the zone or distance focusing (for instance), because well, we’re not using it anymore. Such is the nature of human functions, and it’s only natural to forget stuff which we do not practice on a regular basis. Sunny 16 rule? Best there is, time and again providing consistent results, if you learn it and applied properly; however, because of the internal metering of our cameras, or phone apps, or handhelds, we are less attentive to the basics that form the film photography.

And so we come to the crux of the matter: do we need to get back to basics in order to remind ourselves the simple rules of film photography? Perhaps in certain cases, for certain people, this might be a solution. You know, those rules, primary rules from the film photography early days of yore: the simple joy of putting your brain in motion, learn and understand things, look at and see/understand the light, shadows, tones, imagine how the frame will look like once processed, take into the consideration the film sensitivity, all converging to that “moment decisif”. And do all these by working your brain and arse off, not by employing the use of a silicon chip to do it for you.

Do we need to take a step back in film photography? I believe some of us, like me, should. It would be a refreshing journey, one that will put us back on the track we started long ago. Take a simple camera, load a simple/no fancy film, no light meter, and go out. Try to remember the Sunny 16, try to see a scene, not just look at it. Weigh in the tones, try to figure the light, the shadows, the scene. Be the light, be the shutter, be the film. Look, see and understand This could be similar to undergoing a serious diet; you’ll go back to your usual equipment feeling recharged.

My rant shall stop here; all of the above and much more was already said, by some of those who understand (film) photography better than I do. I just wanted to throw in my two cents, for what is worth, because this is how I feel these days. Btw, the images are Agfa APX 400 shot and processed at 800, Nikon F4. I just chose some recent random ones, nothing (or not necessarily) related to the matter discussed.

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About The Author

By Julian Tanase
I am a traveller, entrepreneur, author and amateur photographer. A long time user of classic cameras and film, attracted mostly to photojournalism. I try to instigate people to see rather than look.
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Comments

Alex G. on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

I guess we all have different needs at any given moment to be well balanced photographers. Mine are different than yours since the film cameras I use (apart from a Nikon FE) are from the 1950s. My own feeling is that I need to work on photographic purpose. I need to find compelling reasons to shoot in my own community. I’ve been coasting on old purposes that aren’t working for me any more.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

You are right, Alex; finding a purpose is something that many photographers struggle with, myself included. It takes time to find it, if this has been lost somewhere along the road. I had such episode some months ago, and I am still trying to get back on the right track. It's not easy, but I'll get there. And it seems that this process is helped by just trying to "go back to basics", if you see where I'm coming from here. Thank you !

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P Lambert on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Seem to be a lot of monochrome images out there.
Prefer colour negative mostly but struggle to get images that look sharp on a 27inch monitor...it isn't the lenses limiting the image as they give sharp results on a modern digital body.. Film has a high cost per image if you buy film by post and mail it to a lab for the downloads.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Indeed, it seems that black & white photography is enjoying a trend which was seen last at the end of 80s, or so I believe. This is not bad, I myself am of the opinion that many subjects do explain themselves when seen in bw. Colour is something I do, but not at bw level. No reason in particular, it's just that I like bw best. I am buying film in bulk, I reload myself, and I do process my own films, so cost is kept to a minimum.

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Gary Smith on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

I didn't read the above as a "rant". I have a few cameras that I shoot. All of the digital have AF, none of the film do. Having the final image in focus is pretty critical but when I select a camera it's not because of AF or MF. I'm enjoying shooting film again although I don't see it becoming dominant.
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Ditto!

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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Gary, dominant or not, film or digital, there is the joy of creating something that pleases you ! When all is said and done, you have created an image which speaks to you, and to others as well. Regards!

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Roger on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

I agree with Gary Smith that this is not a rant, but a thoughtful reflection, and Alec G's remarks about purpose are important. As I may explain more fully in a post I was thinking of making after the experience of putting a role of film through an auto-everything camera, I decided I wanted to return to cameras without so much automation. But that was not because I felt a need to step back--it is just that I found it a bit boring having everything done for me other than framing the image and pressing the button at the right point. There are times when not being distracted by exposure, focus and the need to remember to wind on are an advantage, but there are also times when they are not.
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

And even with all the film simulations found in digital cameras, I'm finding the unique "looks" of some B/W films (and developers) to be a real plus. Film is more fun for me now than when it as the only option!

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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Roger, so true! I do see boredom on the same list of reasons on why I want sometimes to just take a Brownie and get some (half crappy) photographs :) . In the end, is about reconnecting with the simple joy of thinking about what you're doing. Thank you !

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Bob Janes on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Interesting.
For me subject and composition are the root of a good photograph - with that in mind I regard automatic exposure and other automatic functions as the camera taking care of the mundane stuff and leaving me to choose my viewpoint and decide on the right time to trip the shutter.
Of course it helps to understand what the camera is doing and any potential effect on the eventual result, but to my mind the automation serves a useful function of preventing me accidentally spoiling a photograph by neglecting a setting, or missing critical focus while I'm too involved in seeking out the decisive moment.
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Alan replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

This. So much this. I eventually went down the path of full automation with film photography, having tried seemingly every obscure ancient manual camera on my long GAS filled journey. Similarly, automation allows me to focus on the important stuff - composition and the decisive moment. The only shortfall of fully automatic film cameras is that some of the mystique of the image-making process is lost, that and, they tend to be quite plasticy, or impossibly fragile a-la Contax G2. It's great to start off shooting old manual cameras, because it helps develop an understanding of light. Once this knowledge is gained, automation is the way, for me anyway.

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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Bob, thank you. Indeed, automatic cameras (film or digital) do help tremendously to ensure good exposure and such. I do however learn from mistakes I make while using a simpler camera, and I am saying this without having the intention of contradicting you. Of course, the thing here is to learn from mistakes, otherwise one really wastes time, energy and film. Not good :) Again, thank you !

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Dave Powell on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Hi Julian, I recently did what you suggest in spades! And the article (titled "Give Broken Ones a Chance-- Shooting a Damaged Leica CL" is slated to appear around March 20th. But in addition, when I taught photography a while back, one of my "mindfullness" exercises both slowed people down and helped to short-circuit creative dry spells. It was: "Whenever the urge arises to bring a camera to your eye, pause and ask yourself what specifically about the scene is drawing your interest. Then, use the camera controls-- along with your knowledge and feelings-- to try to capture that area to its best advantage." It sometimes produced startling results!
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Graham Orbell on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Julian, stepping back is always good. But we don’t only have to work that way. Even when I use my digital Canon DSLRs I’m overriding and controlling the settings just as if I’m using my plain prism no meter 1970 Nikon F. It’s much like driving either a modern automatic car or a vintage car. Perhaps because I grew up driving old cars and using manual film cameras I feel at home with either manual or automatic technology. But anyone who started off using automatic technology might find it more difficult to adapt backwards to manual cameras and cars.
Automatic technology does tend to dumb us down, and to not know how anything works.
Not long ago in my 80s I stopped on a country to help a stranded woman driver with her 18 year old son who had no idea how to change a punctured car wheel and stood watching helplessly
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bob AShford replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

I agree, I started in the early '70s, manual, manual, manual. You had to nail your exposure on slide film or you had nothing. Even today with modern digital I strive to get the correct exposure, so many younger digital only photographers don't appear to worry about exposure as it can be "made good" in Photoshop.

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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Graham, your comment really nails what I had in mind when writing the piece here. And to the point : "Automatic technology does tend to dumb us down, and to not know how anything works". My exact notion ! Appreciated, thank you !

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Geoff Chaplin on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Julian, a great post that is getting to the point of why each of us takes a photograph. Is it to produce a 'perfect' image? Is it to enjoy the process and playing with the toys? Is it something deeper? For me, I rarely seek a perfect image with 35mm - it is often just a photo-walk and enjoying the tools (usually screw Leica or M and B&W film); sometimes it is more serious - I might be seeking an image or images to illustrate an idea. Then it maybe pinhole or LF is best, or an auto-everything digital camera, it maybe out of focus images or gross under or over-exposure work, it maybe that I need to put strange chemicals in the film can before developing or I may need to make a physical print of some sort.

What does "real photography" mean for me? I think it is where I started - a camera which allows focus, shutter speed and aperture to be set and the rest is up to me, from choice of exposure (sunny 16) to developing and final print. There's satisfaction in enjoying and understanding the process and getting good results. That's one thing I enjoy, but its not the only aspect of photography.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Geoff, you are absolutely right. Perfect image I do not wish nor am able to produce, and this is something I well know and accept. Enjoying the tools one employ to create something that nears a good photograph should be natural, of course; that said, I try to focus more on the scene and what it means to me than try to shoot a photograph just to see if my Leica or Rolleiflex are living up to their fame. I discovered at some point that I was shooting with a certain camera, trying to convince myself that the camera is well worth the money I spent on it. I wasn't paying attention to the photographs so much, focusing more on what the camera was delivering. Obviously, many of those photographs were bland and complete waste of time and film. When I said that taking a simple camera and work your photographs, I wanted to emphasize the need (sometimes) to just get rid of the fancy controls and focus on the scene and whatnot. Thank you !

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Jalan on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 26/02/2024

Thank you for the interesting thoughts Julian! I ask myself similar questions sometimes. For me, I always get back to the essential foundation that I love the process of creating something beautiful. The film, or the camera, or the lens, or the "rules" are really just distractions. They are just tools towards that essential creativity. I get the same creative energy from shooting digital or film or wet plate collodion; if you really want a challenge leave behind the ease of film and go gun cotton and silver! But, the tools can seduce you - suddenly you think of nothing but the tools. CAS is a real danger and many a beautiful photo has been lost chasing after some unicorn on ebay. So, if manual exposure leads to more creativity (and more images) bring it on!
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Kary Schumpert on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Oh, this was perfectly timed for me to read this, because I needed it. Thanks for such a thought provoking piece. Enjoyed your hotos, and I could imagine I was going on a walk with you, really thinking about which photos I would take, considering the light and shadows, and so much more. I think it's always good for a reset, to get back to the basics and the foundation of what we love. I think any photographer, regardless of skill level or experience could use this and I appreciate you for reminding us all!
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Kary, I am glad you liked this piece. Your words, "I think it's always good for a reset, to get back to the basics and the foundation of what we love" are describing exactly the feeling one has when looking to photography in a slow down manner. Thank you for your kind words!

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Ethan on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Great thoughts! I find myself in a similar spot. I'm trying to go back to the basics of photography. I recently bought a DSLR, and I feel like I am having to relearn photography. I am a hobbyist, but shooting film had been a way for me to get a great aesthetic without any editing. Now that I started shooting digital, I have to use my brain to get good photographs and how to get them most out of the tool that I now have in my hands. Digital and film are the same, and yet they are so different.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

That is indeed the case, Ethan. I believe people who are going back to basis are not necessarily going there for re-learning stuff, they feel the need to remember simple stuff. One could argue that this is but imagining things, but it's not; remembering simple rules about shutter speeds, light and aperture are refreshing. Thx !

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Robert Gulley on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Very interesting article! I think for me, the final image is wheat I am focused on the most - the equipment is secondary, unless of course I need a specific tool to accomplish the final image. The enjoyment of film photography is partly nostalgic (I started with film) and it does, as so many have noted here and elsewhere, slow me down. I use digital cameras to take photographs of hummingbirds, but my interest in old barns lends itself perfectly to black and white film. The time spent pondering a scene is where I am weakest, and where I am trying to improve. In our hurry-up world it takes real effort to slow down!
Cheers, and thanks again for a thoughtful article!
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Robert, indeed I am of your opinion when it comes to slow down things and attempt to improve one's methods to take photographs. As with all things in life, there is not a fast lane taking anyone far without patience. Thank you !

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Paul Quellin on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Thought provoking article Julian. I get a few people asking me if I'll help them with some new digital camera they don;t know much about. In one case I got out a late 50s 35mm so I could open the back and show the shutter and aperture doing their respective things. It was a useful reminder to me too that the fundamental principles remain the same at that end of the camera. I wondered about saying "I'll help you if you try this old camera first". Now I can feel a kind of laziness creeping in even with film and my 5x4 Toyo is sitting there not getting used much... work gets in the way. When I do use the Toyo, I know it's got to be doing me good. Finding a scene worth the effort of lugging it there then going through that disciplined series of steps. Maybe 10 minutes from opening the carry case to finally releasing the shutter; I hope it is 10 minutes spent for the good of my photography.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 27/02/2024

Paul, thank you. I do agree the discipline is what makes a good photograph. I would bet that after those 10 minutes, you feel like a good thing has been accomplished!

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Andrea Taurisano on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 02/03/2024

A violinist was approached by a lady at the end of a concert. "Your violin has a celestial sound", she told him. He raised his violin up to his ear, listened for a second, then replied "I hear nohing".
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 02/03/2024

That is so true ! The camera only does what is told, of course. Thank you !

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Khürt Williams on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 03/03/2024

The assertion that modern technology in film photography amounts to cheating feels like one of those “it’s not real photography unless you do it my way” types of arguments.

One could argue that the use of modern technologies in film photography does not diminish a photographer’s contribution or amount to cheating, but rather enhances the creative process. Advanced features like autofocus (AF) and automatic exposure (AE) lock do not override the artistic decisions a photographer makes; they simply streamline certain mechanical aspects of photography. The technological assistance allows photographers to focus more on the creative elements, such as composition, timing, and the emotional impact of the image.

The camera’s auto features are tools that still require mastery. Knowing when and how to use AF, AE lock, and other features effectively is part of the skill set of a photographer. The camera does not decide on the subject, the moment to capture, or the perspective—these are all deeply personal and artistic choices that the photographer makes. The end result, the photograph, is a blend of technology and the photographer’s vision, not a product of the camera alone.

Additionally, the process of selecting the film and possibly printing it involves personal experience and technical knowledge. Each of these steps impacts the final image and relies heavily on the photographer’s expertise and creative intention. The photographer is far from cheating the process; instead, they are leveraging available tools to elevate their craft.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 03/03/2024

Somehow I believe my words were misinterpreted, because I never stated that using modern technology amounts to cheating. I was just saying that when using a modern camera, one does not work as hard as one would when using a classic camera. Going back to basics could be beneficial for some, because we take things for granted (camera meters automatically, so you do not have to). A session of using a very simple camera can be a refreshing reminder, again, for some, not all. True, there is a lot of knowledge to be had when using a modern camera, camera does not take the photo in your stead. That said, I still believe that taking a really beautiful image with a simple camera requires a more understanding of light and whatever, as opposed to taking of the same photograph using a camera that does half the job for you. My 2 cents, of course. Thank you for your comment, really appreciated !

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Jerry Scoby on Do we need to take a step back in film photography?

Comment posted: 05/03/2024

After 60+ years of enjoying photography as an amateur, and a working pro, I find that my approach to digital photography is every bit the same as if I was using my film cameras. The tool only contributes to the function (mechanics), of making the image. I control the emotional and mental characteristics I chose to include in an image. Why would you chose to not take the time to produce a good image regardless of the camera being used? So, slow down when you are using a digital camera and enjoy the process.
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Julian Tanase replied:

Comment posted: 05/03/2024

Film or digital, I believe the "getting back to basics" is the same, or almost. I wrote about film photography, because that is what I am into, but you are right, of course. Thx !

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