Digital to Film: Making 36 Exposures Count (Premium)

It is a crazy time to be a film photographer, with Kodak announcing earlier this year that they are bringing back Ektachrome and investigating the return of Kodachrome, it could be a matter of time until some of our favorite old black and white film emulsions make a comeback as well – who knows!

With all of that possibility in mind, there are still some great black and white film stocks out there as we speak. Black and White films like Acros, T-Max, Delta, and others. If you have been considering dusting off that old K1000 or pulling that AE-1 out of the storage bin you may find yourself wondering about best practices for film these days, and how to make your 36 exposures count – today we are here to try and help you with that.


That Magic Number

The first thing that you really need to remind yourself of when you try to start shooting film again is that you are limited to those 36 exposures (or 24). It is easy to stay in digital mode in your head and just shoot away once you have your settings down, but shooting this way with film, while possible, is not recommended, as it will be costly. A great way to ween yourself off of that shoot first, ask questions later mentality is to try this little exercise.

Pick a subject, it can be any subject; a friend, a bench at the local park, whatever. Then take your digital camera, go shoot that subject, but do it with your rear LCD screen turned off, and without looking at the images. Keep track of how many images you have taken and stop at 24 or 36 images. Go home and load your images, see them for the first time on your computer. Take a look at how similar they are, or how different and what you feel like you could have done differently. In most of your cases, you will probably notice that many of them look really similar, and that is due to the digital mentality of continuous shooting so that you can have multiple options when you get back home to the computer. When shooting with film, you can’t shoot this way, you have got to make each and every shot count.

Now pick another subject, and go out and run the exercise again, while trying to pay specific attention to things you wanted to work on from the first attempt. When you get home, you should find a couple things, your second attempt will likely be much better than your first, it will have more variety and variation. This is what you want to have happen, as this means you did well.

Now go out and pick another subject. Rinse and repeat. Keep doing this exercise until you feel like you have a good mix of quality across your 36 exposures, obviously, every shot doesn’t need to be an epic winner, but they should all be good and fit within the defined 36 frame story.

So that exercise will help you slow down and look for the right shots, rather than continuously shooting like you are probably used to. But that is not where mastering (or remastering) your film skills ends, in fact, that is really just the beginning. But beyond helping yourself tell a story, or at least have some variation within 36 frames, it has also begun to help you visualize your shots without being reliant on an EVF or LCD screen.

Now, To Stop Shooting For the Heck of It

This is one of the other areas that digital-to-film photographers can struggle with at first. Finding that ability to pre-visualize your image without the aid of a test shot or LCD screen to show you that you got it right. This will be especially hard for mirrorless camera owners to get because of the nature of the WYSIWYG EVF on their cameras. They are used to seeing a really close representation of what they will be capturing in real time, so there is no visualization or guessing needed, just tweak the settings until its how you want and press the shutter. Obviously on film that is not possible. DSLR owners will have an easier time at this since they are still used to an optical viewfinder and having to pre-visualize a shot to a certain degree. But many just chimp (take a shot and then look at the rear LCD to confirm its what they were going for) and will have the same issue as the mirrorless shooters.

Obviously, when shooting film, there is no instant feedback. No instant gratification. Pre-visualization is absolutely key to being able to take quality images in the film ecosystem. You need to be able to see the light, see the exposure and know how to adjust your settings without having any ability to see what you are getting ahead of time. The added wrinkle here is that as we all know, each film stock reacts differently. So not only do you need to know what you are going for in terms of exposure, but you need to know how the film that you are using at that point will react to the settings and the scene. This isn’t something that you have to deal with so much with digital because as long as you shoot RAW you can change how the image looks with little issue, which is not an option at all with film.


In order to practice this exposure pre-visualization, we are going to use our digital cameras as a go-between, similarly to what we did with the above exercise. Go out to a local park or somewhere with natural light, choose a subject that you like, and visualize an image that you would want of that subject. Now, take a guess at what you think your exposure should be (taking note to set your ISO to something static like 400 or 800) and take a shot or two. Now look on your back LCD and see how you did. If you nailed it then good for you, move on. If you didn’t, choose another subject and try again. Keep at this, using a new subject each time, until you are able to accurately nail the exposure correctly. Alternatively, you can invest in an external light meter and base your exposures off a light meter reading. If you go the light meter route, you still need to be able to visualize what you want from the shot and how to tweak the meter’s exposure to get the look.

Finally, going into your shoot with some sort of story that you want to tell can be a great way to help you keep a good flow and have those 36 exposures count. Start wide, get tight, pull back to a medium distance, then go in for some details. Keep your story in mind, and make sure the images you capture move that story along in some way. Stick to that, and utilize the above exercises, and your film work will turn out as good as you could have hoped for.


Anthony Thurston

Anthony is a Portland, Oregon based Boudoir Photographer specializing in a dark, moody style that promotes female body positivity, empowerment, and sexuality. Besides The Phoblographer, he also reviews gear and produces his own educational content on his website.