From Digital to Film Photography

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 I loathe the question, ‘Why shoot film?’.

The answer I give people – and if I’m honest, the answer I routinely give myself – is one of purpose. Are we only making images for technical perfection and stunning clarity? Or are we looking for a deeper experience, one of connection with nature, exercise for our body and mind, or a deeper understanding of light, shape, form, and composition? If we do photography for the experience, then the camera we use shouldn’t matter.

At the beginning I wanted total sharpness, clarity, and perfection with my images. But over the years I have evolved to care less about the technicalities and more about the experience of shooting and the overall impression of an image. If I cared only for the final photograph, the social media likes, and the immediate impact of a photograph, I would probably look towards introducing Artificial Intelligence (AI) into my workflow.

And what I like even less than the prefaced question is AI.

I must be clear though: I loathe AI but not those who choose to use it. I admire and respect anyone who creates art whether it is photography, painting, digital design, sketching, performance art, etc.

The reason I dislike AI is because it steals from me the very essence of what I seek with my photography. Where is the fun in taking a photograph only to have a piece of software create the light and atmosphere for you?

For me, landscape photography is about the pursuit of a vision or an idea that can only be found in nature and created by it. It’s about perseverance and weathering the elements; observing changes through time; recognizing compositions through light, objects, minerals, water, weather, and everything in between.

There are three primary reasons why I was drawn to film in the digital age:

1: Validation. I suffer with imposter syndrome and by shooting film (successfully) I hope to validate my skills as a photographer.

2: The relentless barrage of technology makes me want to turn heel and run. This includes new cameras and especially new software. But the film in my Hasselblad 501CM will never need an app to release its full potential.

3: Sometimes my digital camera leaves me feeling disconnected from what I am photographing. Having a live-view with a histogram is incredibly helpful, but I find myself looking at the back of my screen so much more than at the landscape. I take a shot and immediately judge it before moving on. With film, I am forced to study my subjects and understand the light and tonal range of the scene. I am far more cautious when taking an exposure. Film photography is slow, and the photographer must be deliberate and considerate. This improves my photography.

There is great satisfaction to be had by shooting analogue. The tactile feel of a mechanical camera is magnificent. If you have never experienced the ‘click clunk’ of a mirror slap followed by the manual progression of film as you wind on to the next shot, you haven’t lived. 

When I capture an image I am happy with, that I worked hard for, that I struggled to achieve, then I feel incredibly satisfied and fulfilled, no matter what camera I was using. But, when I set off on foot in the dark with my film camera, analyse a composition, take a meter reading from corner to corner to ensure that I fully understand the tonal range of the scene, load a roll of film, wind it on, choose my focal point not based on a 100% magnification view on a three million dot LCD, but based on the reflection of a mirror or the DOF scale on the lens, make an exposure, wait two weeks for the film to be developed, open my envelope which was delivered by the postman, and place my strip of developed film on a lightbox to see that my exposure was perfect and the image is everything I wanted and more—that is true satisfaction and fulfilment.

Film photography is limiting and nowhere near as versatile as digital, but this must be looked at as a positive. When I go out with my film camera, I know that there are only certain scenes that I can photograph, and because of this restriction, I start to see and engage with the landscape differently. I am convinced that when out with my Hasselblad I see things that I would not notice when out with my digital camera.

A cynical thought in the back of our minds when we see an outstanding photograph is: ‘Photoshopped’. I’m sure we’ve all reacted this way to images. There are photographers out there who manipulate photographs far beyond reality and well into the genre of digital art, even combining various locations to make a single image. The debate about digital art and photography is endless, but these techniques have created a certain cynicism within the landscape photography community.

Film has a look of honesty to it that a lot of people appreciate. When I see an outstanding image that was captured on film, my first thought is that of admiration for the photographer, their skill and the craft. I feel like those who realise a photograph was created on film have more of an emotional response to the image. This is anecdotal, of course, but people appreciate craft.

I hope you don’t think I’m a purist; I’m certainly not. I’m simply trying to articulate to you (and myself) why I am drawn to film. I still photograph 90% of my work on digital, and if I had a paid commission, I would always choose the versatility and reliability of my mirrorless system. I like to think of film photography as more of a hobby of mine.

Imagine a woodworker creating a cabinet on a CNC machine. It’s fast, precise, and efficient. Now picture the same design of cabinet being created with hand tools. The outcome would be similar, but different. I bet the handmade cabinet would have a little more charm and character but may not be as perfect as the CNC version.

To shoot film, you must be immune to doubt. The internal struggles I face when exposing film can be painful. Not once have I been certain of success. Most of the time I convince myself that I have royally messed up, but with each shoot and each success, these feelings of doubt become weaker. I am growing; I am learning; I am expanding my comfort zone. This is a joy.


Thank you for writing this article about film cameras & the incomparable experience associated with using them. When you described the “Click Clunk” & mechanical winding, you inspired me to dig out my old camera & reunite with it. I’ll have to find a lens as I may not have any anymore, film, & a lab to develop the images. It’s rather exciting!

Well said Tom. While I’ll (probably) never do film (well, maybe, never say never? lol) I certainly can appreciate the process that goes into it. I love it when you get the film camera out in your videos. Seeing the work that goes into it makes one appreciate it more. It would be fun and insightful to mimic the process while using the digital camera.

And welcome to NPN! Glad to see your input here. Wonderful community. Hope to see more from you. Thanks for the article!

Beautifully said. To me, film is all about craft. Looking at a scene and applying only three variables - two actually, as ISO is restricted by the chosen film. Snap and run has little appeal to me. While I do own a 5D4, much comes from the satisfaction of my Hasselblad or newly purchased Chamonix 4x5. Film is more deliberative, than reactive IMHO.

Wonderful article Tom! I’ve been watching your journey through the YouTube videos since 2018 and this natural progression into film has been refreshing.

I’ve been having a photographer friend help me get set up with a medium format camera to shoot film some more.

To shoot film, you must be immune to doubt.

Love this!

Tom thank you for sharing you photography life so openly. Keep up sharing your photography triumphs and struggles on your YouTube channel. Your article resonates with me, especially my younger years when I started with negative and then positive film many years ago. I remember having to slow down and really analyze the scene for composition, light, dynamic range etc. as you only had a limited number of exposures. I tend to lose that when shooting digital. Digital has fewer uncertainties or imperfections compared to film. Life is uncertain and imperfect and film can sometimes reflect these imperfections .

Just as in many art forms there are a myriad of tools/techniques that an artist can bring to their work i.e. water colour, oil, acrylic, digital painting… I think we are luck to live in a time where we have access to such a fantastic range of tools including film & digital. I currently use mirrorless camera and the digital world has let me experiment with many different genres, subjects, and techniques that would be time consuming and expensive to try.

Again thank you for your thoughtful article!

You’re totally right about the sound of some mechanical cameras and sometimes I pick up one of mine just to hear it again. An Olympus OM-3 has a gorgeous shutter/mirror sound - I wish camera companies would let us pick from a variety of clips and use them like ringtones in phones, but I digress. While I did shoot film for 20+ years, I don’t romanticize that fact simply because I didn’t have a choice. Now that I do, I still don’t. Oh sure I could shoot film and have seriously considered it, but I like the immediacy and freedom that comes with 1s and 0s. And as Bryan Nelson points out, it allows a photographer to experiment widely, something I couldn’t do as easily in film since it wasn’t as immediate nor was it as inexpensive.

That said, the deliberation and tactile quality of working with film is quite rewarding. So much so that I’ve devised a way to sort of have that experience with a digital camera, I call it the Digital Film Challenge and you can ask me for a link since I don’t want to pollute your article with it here. Basically it’s stripping away things like auto ISO, auto focus, chimping, post processing and unlimited photos and imposing some constraints that help to bring back some critical decision-making and evaluation that might be lacking when you can change 20 things and take 200 pictures without breaking a sweat.

Recently, Mike Friel here on NPN has purchased an older DSLR and manual 35mm lens to get a bit of this vibe into his work and I am going to join him by digging out my old DSLR and using only my old Olympus lenses on it. With fewer new bells and whistles to disable, the closer I can get to that old 35mm camera experience even if it is still 1s and 0s. I think the goal is to bring some deliberation back to my process - not that I am not deliberate in the way I approach most of my photographs, but it’s always in the back of my mind that I have unlimited do-overs. By limiting myself to a “roll of 24”, I automatically revert to “do I really need this shot?” and “do I really want it this way?”. Kind of a hybrid approach in a hybrid world.

I share your sentiments. I am 71 years plus, so I learned photography pre-digital. I like the anticipation and mystery of film. One of the best thrills for me was opening the package of developed film and seeing if I captured what I saw in viewfinder as I remembered it. Thanks for the article.

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
P. S.
Hi again Thomas,
I currently use old Sony DSLRs ILCA-99M2 & 77M2. I still have my old film cameras but don’t use them because I didn’t know if it’s difficult to get 35mm and 220mm film and if proceasing is expensive. Can you elighten me, please?

Good stuff, Thomas. Some years back I caught many of your Youtube posts. In fact I think I saw one with you and Ben Horne at ZNP. Again, some years back now.
As I only photograph with MF & LF film gear I can truly relate to your points here. The ONLY digital I’ve ever taken was for eBay sales… :disguised_face:

Great article, it made me go back in the time machine. It is really great to have you here at NPN ! I can relate to your sentiments as I used to shoot films extensively during late eighties and nineties. I had a darkroom at home, where I used to develop my B&W films and make prints too. Sometimes, I used to process slide films too.
In those days 35 mm film camera used to have 36 frames and I had a Pentax system, all the time I used to dream of a Pentax LX model, which could fix a bulk back to carry a roll of 200 frames. Because in 35 mm film roll, you just spot a good subject and film used to finish. It is mind boggling to compare it with a modern camera, now my 512 GB card can record more than 10,000 frames.

But I must admit that I really used to enjoy the photography with films and I continue to do so with digital too !

And one very interesting thing is that number of images taken has increased N no. of times with digital but no. of great images, which we used to get with film hasn’t really increased in that manner.
May be the involvement of the photographer behind the camera has reduced, all thanks to AI and auto settings.

I photographed with a 4x5 for a lot of years. The process gave me excellent experience in the fundamentals of photography in a lot of ways and I did enjoy the slow and somewhat zen-like approach. I swore I would never go digital, but eventually I did. What drove me to digital was the shrinking of film choices. Once Velvia 50 was discontinued and was difficult to source I was done. I did shoot a lot of B&W, which I processed myself, but I did not want two camera systems.

The experience was extremely valuable in teaching me exposure and the importance of composition. It was fun and challenging to have “manual everything”. However, I moved toward longer lenses as the years moved along and the 4x5 made that challenging and often impossible. Now that I am fully digital, I don’t really miss film. It was fun to set up the Chamonix, but now I can move far more quickly when I need to and can go nice and slow when the setup allows. I mostly use a 70-200mm on a full frame camera, much longer than the 450mm on the 4x5. I cherish the years behind the LF camera, but I don’t have the slightest yearning to go back. I don’t miss the scanning, the hours of dust spotting and color correction, etc. I am comfortable with where I am but can completely understand and appreciate the desire of those going to or still into film. There is a nice allure there.


I’ve heard the same argument for the use of film rather than digital a gazillion times. And my reaction is always the same…

IF you believe being more deliberate with your photography serves to improve your photography, why is it you simply don’t choose to be equally as deliberate when shooting digital as when shooting film. There is absolutely no reason not to do so. Either via a conscious decision not to do so, or by a subconscious one, it’s a choice you’re making.

I absolutely respect anyone who chooses to shoot film. If that’s your choice, I say great…whatever trips your trigger, so to speak. But there’s no justification needed other than ‘I prefer shooting film’.

Again, there simply is no reason to not be every bit as deliberate while shooting digital as when shooting film. You just don’t.


Thomas, Thank you for the post. It is well written. I can appreciate your love of film more in a hobby mode. There are some satisfactions.

I do share your loathing for AI in general. It’s not a Luddite thing - I worked a career in high tech and did AI projects myself. A little AI can be useful. Using Select Sky can save some time in processing images, for instance.

But to fan the flames of AI incursion into art, see this article in Wired:

The headline is

Algorithms Can Now Mimic Any Artist. Some Artists Hate It

A new generation of AI image tools can reproduce an artist’s signature style. Some creatives fear for their livelihoods.

I think this brings up serious moral and ethical issues we are going to have to face.

What do you think?

Hi Thomas

I probably shoot 95% of my images as digital these days but I still regularly get out Big Bertha, my 35mm SLR camera on steroids, namely a Pentax 67II. The satisfying clap of thunder this medium format behemoth makes as I release the shutter is little more than a deliberate act of negligence as I accidentally on purpose fail to engage the mirror lock up, just for the simple joy of it. I seem to recall that my original P67 was incapable of taking a sharp shot between 1/15 and 1/8 of a second when mounted on a tripod, such was the inertia delivered, (it didn’t have a mirror lock up at all) and of course, “the beast”, does make me the least popular person in the rare species bird / animal hide, since there’s not a lot left to see after firing the shutter.

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Thank you Thomas for a fine article and wonderful images. I don’t shoot film but have thought about starting in parallel with digital. I think it would help me slow down even more. I just find it so overwhelming and wouldn’t know where to start for a novice film photographer.

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