My early introduction to photography was via a film camera and a class at a local arts center that had a darkroom. That’s where I learned the mechanics of photography and film development. This included working with film negatives, slides, darkroom chemicals, enlargers, various photographic papers that had different characteristics, and generally learning the process and limits of print photography. When I think about the photography I do today, I know that my early days of experimenting with film were fundamental.

Color photograph of City of Rocks, New Mexico, United States.

Now I use a digital camera. But what I loved about film photography is that it required more attention. With film it’s harder to get a good shot. Everything has to go well. You have to be in the right place, you need enough light, you need a good scene or subject, you need all those things. But you also have to save your shots, and time your shots. There are a limited number of photos on a roll of film. And you conserve them.

I think that is the biggest difference between film photography and digital photography. Being forced to consider your shots means you use your eye more. That’s at least how it works for me. I know with a digital camera I can shoot very rapidly, and I can get hundreds of shots quickly if I want. Hundreds. But think about film for a minute…

Color photograph of a Himalayan mountain range with snow.

You’re on a mountain, hiking in a difficult area, and you see a scene. Should you take the shot? Is the scene good enough? Will there be other scenes up ahead that will be better? Will the lighting or weather change and make this scene even better?

This type of evaluation forces you to consider your shots, and consider your subjects and scenes very well. I think that type of training is helpful, because you are relying on your eye more than your camera, and you have to evaluate live in the field: is this a good scene.

Sure, you can carry extra rolls of film. But what if you are on a 2-week hiking trip in the Himalaya mountains? How much film are you carrying? And when you need to change a roll of film how long does it take? Meanwhile the scene is changing, and you are missing an opportunity. And what if you wanted color film but only have black-and-white loaded in the camera? Or vice versa. This is a real consideration that simply does not exist with digital cameras. Digital cameras record in color, and if you want the photo to be black-and-white you achieve that in software after the photo is taken. But with film, you have to decide in advance…is this a black-and-white kind of day, or a color day.

Orangutan swinging from trees. Sumatra, Indonesia

With film cameras you also have more limitations when dealing with moving subjects. Digital cameras can take successive photos very rapidly. Whereas film cameras require you to advance the film before you can take another picture. The result is that you may only get one opportunity, and then your subject is gone. With film photography you really have to consider exactly when to press the shutter. You are looking for perfect timing. You need rapid reflexes, really, both for pressing the shutter and advancing the film quickly to the next frame. And even then, you may not get the shot (this is my only orangutan photo).

And then you wait. There is no LCD screen on a film camera, no way to review your shots or confirm if your shot was exposed correctly. It is only days or weeks later that you will find that out, once you develop the film. This type of waiting is hard, but it makes you double check your exposures and camera settings in the field before taking photos.

Person in Nepal in the distance walking over a barren landscape of stones.

There is also a certain type of magic when you look through the viewfinder of a film camera, knowing that what you are seeing is exactly what your film is going to see. Currently I have a digital camera that has an electronic viewfinder that is designed to mimic the viewfinder of a film camera. But it is an approximation, both in terms of lighting and color. And in this way, I think film cameras are much purer and put the photographer closer to the scene being photographed. Or I could say, the photographer is more integrated with the scene. There is less technology in the way.

Black and white photo of a person with a bicycle sitting on a park bench overlooking Lake Constance, Germany
Color photograph of fall leave foliage reflected in a river. North Carolina, United States

I’m hooked on my digital camera. But with film cameras I feel there is an extra layer of immersion. And it’s that immersion with the scene that I find so valuable.