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3 Ways That Starting in Film Made Me a Better Digital Photographer

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There was a recent meme that took a jab at photographers from the generation of the pen tool in Photoshop. It personified us as old ladies with walkers being escorted out by a younger generation with their AI tools. In the comments, someone remarked, “Let’s see how these young bucks would survive with the 1999 version of Photoshop.”

I laughed so hard that I wondered if I was transitioning to the “back in my day” age group. I reapplied my wrinkle cream as I added the comment, “and a film camera! They would never survive.” Well, give me my walker because back in my day it wasn’t so easy to take successful pictures. These are three ways that starting in film photography has made me a better digital photographer.

Being a typical penniless college student meant that I had to be very careful how I spent my money. In my film photography class, it cost a lot to print even one image. First, the cost of the film, then the cost of the liquids to develop the film. Then came the big killer: the paper. Each sheet cost around $1. Mind you, this $1 was when gas was $0.98/gallon, and the minimum wage was $5.15/hour. So, printing even one image cost a bit of money. On an academic scholarship and working mornings and nights to make ends meet, I literally could not afford to take bad pictures. It was simply too expensive. After a few rounds of throwing failed images out and watching my money go down the drain, these are three lessons I learned quickly.

1. Starting in Film Photography Made Me Compose My Shots Carefully by Looking at the Edge of My Frame

When photographing, people often look at the “positive space” of their images: the main subject. It may be a person or an object. I often see photographers taking images without considering the edge of the frame or the negative space. Once they see the shot pop up on their LCD, they suddenly see the soda can leaning against the wall in the background, for example. When I shot film, I didn’t want to pay $4 to see that can. I quickly learned to look around my image, doing a quick check on the 4 edges of my frame before taking the picture. Looking at your negative space as well as your positive space when you’re shooting is a great habit to pick up and will save you time in post-processing.

2. Starting in Film Photography Taught Me To Shoot for Highlights

Many digital photographers know this rule, but if you’ve ever shot film, you’ll really feel the pangs of overexposing your highlights. Nowadays, we have such pixel-rich images, we can pull back our highlights with more ease. When developing film, you had to cut a piece of opaque paper and attach it to a wire. You then had to quickly move the contraption back and forth over the overexposed portion to block light from hitting the print while the rest of the image received the light to develop. You can see it done here at the 4-minute mark on the video:

After repeating that process many times and throwing out those precious $1 sheets of paper one after the other, you learned quickly to expose your highlights correctly.

Although you can more easily bring back highlights with the RAW images we have now, if you blow out your highlights and try to bring them back it can lead to an unrealistic HDR look. I see this a lot in landscapes where photographers blow out the sky and try to bring it back in post. The image that will be easiest to work with is one that is exposed for highlights. If you have dark areas of your image, it’s easy to brighten those without compromising the image color or quality. If you overexpose your highlights, it will show in your final image.

3. Starting in Film Photography Taught Me To Plan My Shoots Beforehand

In the digital age, if it’s a week that I’ve just been buried by life and I’m hanging on a thread, there have been rare occasions where I’ve walked into my product studio, picked up the product, and just “started playing.” What typically ensues is an hour or two of taking shots that are not up to my standards, stopping the shoot, grabbing my notebook, and tackling the process of ideation. I start over the right way. I sit with the product, think, look at competing brands, take notes, sketch ideas, and lay out a plan for the shoot. I may or may not have to pick a few props up and restart the next day. When I do it right, how I do it most of the time, I plan the entire shoot days before I pick up my camera. I prepare my studio the day before and have everything planned and laid out for a successful day.

Whether you’re a product photographer, landscape photographer, or portrait photographer, planning your shoot will always lead to more successful results. It could mean researching the market and finding a way to create imagery that doesn’t exist in that space. It could mean researching the area of the wedding or driving through the Saturday before at the scheduled time of portraits. This would allow you to see where the light hits and get inspired for the best images you can have at 2:30 pm with that dreaded afternoon sun. There’s nothing worse than having a spot picked out for portraits and realizing on arrival that the sun will not give you your desired look in that space. With film photography, we didn’t really have the luxury of taking a dozen pictures before deciding “it wasn’t working.” The development process itself took hours for one roll of film. You had to have a plan that would work before you started. Taking the steps to plan your shoot beforehand will result in better pictures and better use of your time in the digital age.

Of course, you don’t have to have any experience in film photography to be a talented digital photographer. There are plenty of self-taught digital photographers around the world that produce work that is vastly more impressive than mine. However, no matter what your background is, I hope that these three tips will help you take more successful pictures and will minimize your time in post-processing.

As always, my favorite part of my articles is in the comments. Did you start in film photography? What is a valuable lesson you learned from that foundation? Do you look at your negative space before you take a picture? If not, I hope this is a habit you will adopt. Let me know your experience and thoughts in the comments.

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