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Insights & Thoughts

Using Film To Gain Confidence In Your Photography

By Anthony Thurston on February 4th 2015

I have always had confidence issues when it comes to my photography; I think it is an issue that many of us creatives have. We always see these amazing images posted by our idols, and it’s easy to think that our own images don’t stand on level ground.

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Bronica SQ-B – Portia 400 – Boiler Bay, Oregon Coast

This week, I made an interesting break-through in that regard and was actually made by stepping back in time a bit, and shooting with some film.

Before I talk about why shooting with film was a breakthrough for me, let’s talk about why it is so easy to not be confident in your work in this digital world. In my opinion, for as much of an advantage as instant feedback on an image is, it is also a disadvantage. For example, with today’s DSLR or Mirrorless cameras, you can see your exposure, change it as you see what your images are looking like. This means you aren’t having to think as much about the settings you are changing, you can move the settings a bit, and if you think it looks good, then go with it. You never have to rely on what you know, you can always ‘defer to the LCD’ to see if you did it right.

[REWIND: Selling Your Used Gear]

Shooting with film, you (obviously) can’t do that. You have to visualize what you want in your head, and use a light meter to get the ‘correct exposure’, then tweak the settings knowing how to get the effect you want. But it is always a mind game, a test of sorts.

Now back to how this led to a breakthrough for me in my own work.

I Actually Do Know What I Am Doing

That heading title says it all. It is a simple realization, but an important one for photographers to have every once in a while. Going back to those confidence issues that many of us, myself included, struggle with; a realization as simple as this works wonders for stopping the worrying and getting back to the art.

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Bronica SQ-B – Fuji NPS 160 – Ankeny NWR

I took out a Bronica SQ-B that I borrowed from my buddy. The SQ-B is a 6×6 medium format film camera that shoots on 120 film and has no built-in meter. This is getting pretty basic. I took the Bronica out with me on several outings, using two rolls of film; a Kodak Portia 400 and Fuji NPS 160.

The images were just meant to be playing around, getting used to shooting without being able to see my results. These weren’t client shoots, or model shoots. One trip was a ride along the Oregon Coast on a stormy day, and the other was a trip to the local wildlife refuge with my father.

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Bronica SQ-B – Portia 400 – Boiler Bay, Oregon Coast

I took my film to PhotoVision in Salem, the closest film lab to me that still develops 120 film. Lucky for me, they are also one of the top film labs left in my region, so I knew my film was in good hands. I had no use for any prints, and I did not want the negatives, so I had them scan and deliver to me via Dropbox.

I got the scans yesterday.

Yep. I Actually DO Know What I Am Doing

It is amazing, that feeling you get, when you see what you shot on film. Even in a case like mine, when the images were just a bunch of snapshots without much thought for composition or anything beyond exposure, the feeling was great.

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Bronica SQ-B – Portia 400 – Boiler Bay, Oregon Coast

Probably my biggest confidence issue has always been with exposure. Did I shoot it too bright? Was it too dark? I know a lot of that is personal taste, but it is still something that I have struggled with in finding in my own style. This little film experiment has sort of cured me of that, at least for now. I shot 24 images without being able to see a single exposure to know if I was ‘getting it right’, and I nailed them all. That is all the proof I needed to stop worrying about it.

This may seem silly. I fully admit to feeling a bit silly over how proud of myself I am over it. But confidence is a major part of our work. Knowing that you can get your settings right, and get the results you are after is empowering. Thanks to this little film project, I have regained my confidence as a photographer. If you struggle at all with similar confidence issues, I highly recommend give film a try.

Dig that old film camera out of the attic, dust it off, and go shoot a roll of film. I am going to do this more often going forward. I enjoy the experience and the reassurance that I know what I am doing. I am sure that many of you may find it just as therapeutic as I did.

Have any of you had a similar experience? Not necessarily with film, but something that really helped your confidence in your photography in one way or another? Leave a comment below. I want to hear about it!

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Jill Schindel

    I have been toying with the idea of picking up an old film camera for exactly this reason – to see if I can deepen my understanding of exposure without defaulting to guess – check – adjust via LCD (born in ’85, I came to photography in my early 20s, meaning I’m a product of the digital age).

    I also love the idea that this will slow me down and make me really pay attention to composition and lighting within my frame in the viewfinder rather than doing a shoot-check-adjust for composition via LCD as well. It is a bad habit of mine to get a great idea, and take the shot, only to adjust for my desired composition in the second or third shot. It’s not a conscious decision, but a habit I picked up as I was learning and haven’t quite managed to drop.

    I guess the only thing stopping me is the price of film development and the fear of failure/sucking at it when I try it out. But really, there is a positive to the cost of development. If my frames aren’t cheap, there is even more reason to be mindful in my photography. And the fear of failure part is just silly.

    Anyway, great article. May be just the push I need to hop back on Kijiji and find a film camera. Any suggestions for what kind of camera to hunt down?

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    • Eric Sharpe

      Walmart is about $10 per roll by me. Mostly, I send my film to Richard Photo Lab in LA, and that’s about $20 per roll, $25 if you want prints as well as scans. I believe Indie Film Labs has what they call, “budget scans” , where they don’t do any color corrections. I think that’s about $10 as well.

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    • Derek Schwartz

      In terms of film development cost, by far, 35mm is definitely the cheapest route (as opposed to Medium Format). In my area (Minneapolis metro area), I can get a 36-exposure roll developed and scanned to 2000×3000 jpg by the lab for about $15. Not horrible.

      In terms of the camera itself, assuming you own a DSLR, the super cheap way is to look for a film SLR that let’s you use your existing lenses. Otherwise, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax all made terrific SLR cameras and had great glass to go with. Personally, I’ve had great luck with eBay, but YMMV. Good luck!

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    • Ralph Hightower

      Jill,
      Go for it. I would suggest buying from a reputable reseller like KEH, B&H, or Adorama. I bought a used Canon F-1N from KEH and I have been very pleased with the purchase; I also bought a used Canon FD 28mm lens from B&H and that has become my favorite lens.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      I’ve been shooting film since 1980 when I bought my Canon A-1, which I still use; I added a Canon F-1N in July 2013 and a DSLR, Canon 5D Mk III in December 2013. Now, I’m keeping one camera loaded with color film and the other with B&W.
      Sadly, local pharmacies are dropping C41 developing around me; I used to get my film developed and scanned at Walgreens for $10, but they switched from a wet lab to a dry lab.
      On my 5D, I turned off the image review since I haven’t used it from my first early photos with the camera.

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    • Jill Schindel

      Thanks for the tips, friends. I borrowed a Nikon F70 from my father in law, comes with a Vivitar 19-35 (f/3.5-4.5) and a Nikkor 35-105 (f/3.5-4.5). Reading the manual today and researching what film to pick up.

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    • Derek Schwartz

      I’ve found Kodak portra (both in 160 and 400 speed) and Fuji superia in both 200 and 400 to be great portrait films. For color landscape, Kodak Ektar is wonderful, but Fuji Velvia 100 is amazing stuff (but isn’t C-41 process, making it harder to find someone to process it for you). For black and white, there are a couple of C-41 films (so your typical drugstore should be able to process) but my local lab has had some issues with Ilford XP2 where the shadows get “splotchy”.

      YMMV – but have fun. If you want, just grab some Kodak or Fuji “whatever” and go shoot. Films have their own character – something that was very foreign to me as a digital-native shooter.

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  2. Barry Cunningham

    None of the film cameras I owned had any kind of auto mode: Yashica A, Olympus OM-1, and, occasionally, a Kodak Autographic 1A. I had to learn how to use the auto and partial auto modes on my first digital camera in 2005. Recently joined a community darkroom and got a Hasselblad 500C as a present. Primarily shoot digital, but looking forward to shooting a roll or two of film per month for quite a while.

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  3. Riley Johnson

    I’m also shooting film right now and I have realized that I am better better than I give myself credit for but I still need practice. I especially need practice spooling undeveloped film into a deleoping tank… The photos look good but sometimes I don’t develop them correctly since the film will touch other rolls and the development is messed up by that.

    Well practice makes perfect… :)

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  4. J. Cassario

    Great stuff Anthony! Awesome shots too

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  5. Anders Madsen

    Not to take anything from Anthonys experience, but In my experience it’s not the film or the camera or the lens – it’s the curveball.

    It’s the fact, that even when facing a situation or a task far outside your comfort zone, you are able to pile together all the experience you have, and do your job and get a usable result.

    So, have someone throw you a curveball. Go to meetups, plan projects with new models or do like Anthony – use a piece of equipment that takes away your safety net and forces you to take a leap of faith.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      I agree with you 100% Anders. Thanks for the comment!

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    • Jason Boa

      Well said – the whole shooting film process is thought provoking

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    • Jason Boa

      You can pick up metered prisms on Ebay , if you are going to continue shooting you should get one …or a lightmeter . Nothing worse than investing emotionally and incorrect exposures

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  6. Daniel Thullen

    Looks like I should pull out my Canon AE1 from the 1980s for a trip. I haven’t used it in years. My situation is very similar to Eric’s above. When I shot the SLR, it was typically in full auto mode. Anthony, your article has inspired me to pull it out and use it . . . assuming it works!

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  7. Kate Hailey

    I cut my teeth on film. I started assisting when I was 12, so my experience with film goes back quite a ways. With that in mind I never abandoned my film cameras as I pursued digital cameras and tech. I still have them, especially my dad’s old Nikon fTn. What I like about it, is slowing down, thinking before you shoot and making a true effort to capture a moment that unfolds. I try to apply these principals when I shoot digital as well.

    A big win for me was when I got my Zero Image 2000 Pinhole camera. I took it out for it’s first roll, used a light meter app on the iPhone called Pinhole assist and ended up having fabulous results, not just with exposure but also with composition. I was really happy and excited with the results. :)

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  8. Richard Olender

    I wonder how well you can judge exposure from scanned film. Did the lab enhance them?
    To me the only way to really judge negatives is from a contact sheet!

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  9. Eric Sharpe

    Started shooting film again about a year ago. I shot film many moons ago, but I largely left my SLR in full auto mode. I just wanted nice pictures from a nice camera, and didn’t really know much about how the camera worked.

    Before I started back shooting film, whether it was an event, or a portrait session, I would way over shoot. Once I started using the film camera once a month, I noticed the number of shots I took during events or portrait sessions reduced by about half. So, most cases, going from 300-500 shots, down to about 150-200. This improved my workflow as well. Now, I don’t even look at the back of the digital camera at all, except when lighting conditions change. That also keeps me in the moment, and focused on what I’m shooting, and not worrying whether or not I got that shot. If I shoot 500 images, or 100 images, the number of keepers, FOR ME, is about the same.

    All that to say, shooting film is a great exercise today. And yes, my confidence in what I was doing went up as well. Great post!

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  10. Herm Tjioe

    Good for you. This is one reason why shooting film is an added benefit. I’ve always believed and said that to people who wanted to understand the fundamentals.

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  11. Derek Schwartz

    Film, both in 35mm and medium format, has been a terrific experience for me too. In addition to gaining confidence in my own shooting, I’ve also deepened my understanding about composition and, specifically, depth of field in an image. The next experiment is the use the 4×5 Linhof and go find something even moderately interesting to shoot with it. :-)

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  12. Basit Zargar

    Awesome

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