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!