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Tips & Tricks

Using Film to Help You Master Digital Photography

By Ryan Filgas on January 20th 2014

Back to Basics

Often, the first time someone picks up a DSLR they are totally and completely lost; something that’s not to be unexpected. A newfangled camera has tons of buttons, and manuals are a drag; it’s not often people read them. The initial instinct most people have to improve is to start on the automatic settings and work their way down to manual. While that is a valid and widely accepted way to learn, it’s not necessarily the best way. The purpose of this article is to provide some helpful exercises and get photographers back in touch with their film roots while shooting digital.

Nikon F2

A ‘Hybrid Learning Curve’

When learning new skills some may prefer a “hybrid learning curve,” where you learn using the limiting aspects of film photography combined with the advantages of digital. Through embracing limitations, your style will not only grow, but your shooting will be more versatile in tight situations. Start your day on a lower end camera and it will force some extra creativity to get your shot. The image below is the result of a self-portrait going awry, and the lack of a remote focusing solution turned into an outward expression. If you get frustrated doing personal work, express yourself and do something to change it! That’s what art is about! It will keep your job fresh, and your mind alert for when you’re ready to bite in to the next challenge.


Let’s dissect how this “hybrid learning curve” works. I mentioned limitations being a tool for creativity, so to put it plainly it might be helpful to place these on yourself when you’re shooting for leisure. More specifically, use the limitations old masters of photography had to contend with. You may reply “well that’s ridiculous, technology is the reason that it’s no longer necessary.” Hear me out, we may not disagree.

[REWIND: Why Film Is Still Better Than Digital]

How to Use Film Photography to Help You Master Digital Photography

Single Shots only

Take this lesson from Henri Cartier Bresson, a photographer who coined the phrase “decisive moment.” You’ve likely heard all about him, but regardless, Bresson would find a composition and wait for something to happen, whether it was changing light, or a person on a bicycle. Without a burst mode we have to consider our composition before we shoot and wait for a “decisive moment” to click the shutter. It builds anticipation that will better help us visualize shots before they happen. Here’s an example of a decisive moment: Taken in Northern California, it shows what can be accomplished through preparation and timing.
Wave on Jetty

No Instant Gratification

Shooting a roll of film meant time laboring in a darkroom, and normally only two rolls of film were developed at a time. That’s 72 shots and at the minimum, 20 minutes of waiting from the first developer to the dry developed film.

 After developing the film, you’re editing photos a couple at a time, and each new adjustment means another five to ten minutes in darkroom chemicals before it is finished. Currently, that’s $1-2 for each piece of photo paper in addition to the cost of the chemicals. Because of this labor and cost, photographers didn’t take their framing lightly, however this taught them to anticipate an end product while they were out shooting.

 Try doing the same on your personal outings; don’t look at the shots until you get home. If you retrain yourself to shoot in this fashion and your photos get significantly better, you can realize whether or not you got the shot without looking at the screen. While you should look at your screen on occasion professionally, this will focus your attention where it should be the rest of the time.

24-36 Frames per Roll

Film is expensive! You can expect to pay $5-8 per roll of 35mm film online as of this post. Film photographers are forced to consider their shots more carefully because of this. Why would this be an advantage? It’s easier to create if you slow down, analyze each shot and make improvements before even clicking the shutter. Do your due diligence to make each photograph, and don’t accept anything less than amazing before taking the shot.


Knowing your Subject

Older and larger format cameras are bulky. Such bulky cameras meant photographers had to engage their subjects before taking a picture of them. Walk around with a tripod and think about the shots before you set up. The act having to set up and then doing so will give you time to think about your shot, or in the case of portraiture, talk with the person whom you are photographing.  

This is a lot to put together, so here’s a roundup:

 5 Exercises to Take From Film:


Start learning your camera in Manual mode, and read the materials that come with it if you have questions as a beginner.
  2. Reduce the number of shots you take on an outing. If you don’t have the self-control, just use the smallest memory card you can find and shoot in your highest resolution.
  3. Consider not only what is in your frame, but also what COULD be in your frame to make it better. Wait for the right moment and use a single shot to capture it. Think about what shouldn’t be in your frame as well. You may have missed the tag on someone’s shirt or the photo bombing stranger in the background. Everyone has done this at some point.
  4. Refrain from looking at the photos until you get home; a trust exercise that will better help you visualize what the camera is seeing. You’ll learn to tell if you got the shot without looking at the screen, and that means more time paying attention to your subject or client.
  5. Walk around with a tripod once in a while to engage people, break out of your shell, and have fun! Personal work is just as important as professional work!


When you are comfortable shooting like this, you can let go of some of the decision making to the camera and shoot in aperture priority mode. It will give you creative control without the hassle of constantly adjusting to changing light, and in essence that’s where the “hybrid learning curve” meets the digital age. Digital photography isn’t a set of training wheels; it’s an asset that can be used wisely in the hands of those who will use it to their full ability.

A true advantage of digital that film doesn’t teach is an expedient and accurate workflow. If you’re interested in focusing more on your client and your personal work in addition to exercising the tips above, SLR Lounge’s Lightroom Workflow system may be of interest to you. Extra time is a valuable asset.

If you have anything to add for future publications, or simply questions/critique, feel free to leave a comment. I look forward to your feedback!

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Ryan Filgas is an aspiring portrait photographer and studio arts major at Humboldt State University. His life consists of talking with friends, taking classes, and planning his next outdoor adventure. You can find his work on his website, Facebook, Google+, or connect with him via email.

Q&A Discussions

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  2. David Liang

    Great article, I completely agree.

    I bought a 4×5 last week and I’ve shot 4 sheets. It took me a day to learn the camera, a day to play the shots until dark, and another day of waiting until the time was right. The light changed fast within those 4 shots that I literally have 2 completely different images despite being shot with the same composition.

    If it were digital I think I would have gotten what I thought I needed and stopped within a short period.

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    I got a Canon 5D Mk III just 4 weeks ago. Before that I used a Canon A-1 for 33-34 years (it still works). So far, I’ve used my 5D in single-shot mode and also, I haven’t chimped my photos. I’ve reviewed my photos on my camera, but not immediately after the shot.
    At an air show that featured the Air Force Thunderbirds, my film budget was 6 rolls of 36 exposure film. I didn’t use my motor drive enough during the Thunderbirds performance since I missed their “knife-edge pass”. But I used almost six rolls of film. I loaded a new roll in the camera prior to the start of the Thunderbirds performance and I had to load a new roll of film during their performance.
    I’ve used Manual exposure for creating panoramas, moon photography, and astronomy photography, Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority depending on what I want, which included using Av mode for a nighttime baseball game (open it wide open and take the fastest shutter speed available).
    But this White Balance thing is new to me since the color temperature is set in the film and there are no tungsten balanced films being made any more.

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    • Ryan Filgas

      I think it’s important to note that the “lower end camera” or that which you decide to shoot with should ideally have manual control and an optical viewfinder (or EVF). If you’re a beginner, shooting on an iPhone may defeat the purpose of learning your camera and it might look odd on a tripod. If these tips are below your skill level however, many professionals find the iPhone to be a good framing tool on and off the clock and additionally have a decent Instagram following. Dave Yoder for example shoots for National Geographic. You can find his Instagram feed here:

      Thank you for your comment.

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  5. Jacob

    Excellent article, I agree with you 100%
    My first camera was a DSLR and I find myself not really thinking of my shots as much as I want so I decided to get a full manual SLR to do exactly what you suggest to do.

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    • Ryan Filgas

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The article was initially a reaction to my university making a decision to cut out their film photography program after this next semester (or so it is rumored). While they may have an excellent reason, film teaches valuable skills that students won’t necessarily catch on to so easily shooting digital. This is a roundabout way of preserving some of that when a darkroom is out of the question.

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