Going Back to Film Days Without Film An idea from Rick Ohnsman by David Boardman

Going Back to Film Days, Without Film

Who is up for a challenge? Following on from our “Lets Step Away From Auto” sessions let's try something new.

Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise

The digital age has made photography easier, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before. Even people who wouldn’t call themselves “photographers” now carry a camera in their pocket in the form of their phone. So we are going back to film days without film.

To chimp or not to chimp?

You have heard the term “chimping” from the “Lets Step Away From Auto”. This refers to the practice of some digital photographers who look at the playback on their LCD screen after each shot. Some people pooh-pooh the practice. Others, (count me in), think the ability to immediately review a shot, check the Histogram, make adjustments and re-shoot is the best thing to ever happen to photography. Instant feedback, rather than waiting days, weeks, months, whatever it was to get back the photos and only then discover your mistake – what a concept!

I still think of the weddings I have done on film, you had to get it right, you had no way of checking if the image was okay.

When more isn’t better

Another great thing about digital photography is how many images you can fit on a storage card. Depending on the camera and the card size that can easily be hundreds, even thousands in some cases.

You also don’t have to worry about each shot costing you more money. If you don’t like what you see, that’s what the delete button is for, cards are reusable. “Digital film is cheap.”

Shooting film wasn’t cheap, there was the cost of the film, the cost of film processing, and the cost of printing. Nothing was reusable, and so all the shots, both the keepers and the junk, cost money. With digital, there is no need to print if we don’t like a shot. It was hard to view a film negative and judge what you had, so unless you were printing your own images you would almost always print everything, and prints cost money.

I use to shoot transparencies (slides). Kodachrome 64. You had to get it right in camera as there was no editing a slide.

Novice film photographers could spend lots of money learning with little to show for it.

There was also the limitation of how many photos could be made on a roll of film. The capacity typically measured in dozens, not hundreds or thousands of images like digital media. If you used 35mm film, you could typically get 12, 24, or 36-exposure rolls, with limited exposures you wanted to make each shot count.

The downsides were making fewer images, (and thus reducing the odds of getting a keeper), less experimentation with new techniques, and a longer learning curve for a new photographer who would be making fewer photos. The upside, however, (and this is a big factor), was that photographers took more time to do it right – more time to think before pressing the shutter button.

Slow down

If this exercise teaches you nothing else, learning to slow down will make it worthwhile. With limited exposures available on a roll of film, the “spray-and-pray” style of photography was rare. Typically it was only sports and fashion photographers who had motor-drives (the mechanical version of what we now do with continuous mode).

How much depth-of-field might you desire and what aperture choice would be best? Should you roll in a little exposure compensation?

All of these factors were given thoughtful consideration. Bracketing shots to be sure everything was right could be done, but at the expense of more quickly eating up that roll of film. The difficulty of fixing anything in the darkroom was much greater too, and photographers didn’t have the attitude that they’d “just fix it in Photoshop.” Consequently, the concept of “getting it right in-camera” was the norm.

Getting it right in-camera is one of the goals intended with this exercise. If you know you only have a minimal number of exposures available to you, each one has to count. You won’t have the luxury of shooting, chimping, adjusting, and re-shooting if you’re doing this exercise as intended.

Slow down, take your time, and think about each part of the process, and then make your best shot. Later, you will have a real advantage film photographers didn’t have – the ability to review your images with attached exposure data. The point of this exercise, however, is to teach you to use your brain as a photographer, to take full control over your camera, and not rely on a microchip to do it for you.

This is a great time to be a photographer. The sophistication of our cameras and the ease with which we can do amazing things in editing is fantastic. I want those things to create and build on a solid foundation of photo ability and knowledge. That is the reason for this exercise.

Putting it all together

Turn off LCD screen

If you really want to emulate shooting film, (and get the most from this exercise), you will not chimp at all. There was no option to review your shots with film. The photographer had to trust their knowledge and instincts. For those who’ve only made digital photos, (and even for those who may have used film but haven’t done so for a long time), this is harder than it might seem.

The reward, however, will be learning to analyse the scene better, make necessary camera adjustments, and trust your instincts. You will make mistakes and not know about them until later, but lessons learned with a little “pain” attached will be those you’ll best remember.

I am not suggesting you always work like this, instant LCD feedback is a beautiful thing. However, when practicing this exercise, see what it can teach you.

You want to go fully manual for this, putting you in charge of setting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. So put the dial in the “M” mode. Turn autofocus off. You will be focusing yourself.

If you have a 50mm prime lens, that will better emulate what most of us had on those old 35mm film cameras.

Calculate Exposure – By the 1960s, most 35mm film cameras had light meters, but they were primitive by today’s standard. A “match-needle” system where a needle could be centered when dialing in exposure and shutter speed was what many displayed. If you wanted to purposely over or under-expose a bit, you’d adjust until the needle was over or under as desired.

Camera setup

Camera in “M” – Manual Mode – You will control ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

Autofocus Off – Focus with the focus ring. Learn to see and concentrate on what you are focusing on. Manually focusing puts you in charge of what is in focus. Also, consider when you might need to use your aperture to increase or decrease your depth-of-field.

Determine your lighting conditions and chose a “film type” ISO – eg. choose ISO 100 for bright daylight. Once set and leave it for the entire session. It wasn’t possible to change ISO with film.

Use a prime lens if you have one – Learn to compose without a zoom.

Decide how many exposures you have – Pick 12, 24, or 36, just like when selecting a roll of film.

Film photographers often carried multiple rolls, but this exercise is designed to help you make each shot count. Once you hit your pre-determined number, you’re done.

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