Five Lessons I’ve Learned Through Film Photography

All images by Julien Matabuena.

Let me begin by saying that this is by no means a discussion on which between digital or film photography is more superior; rather, this is an ode to my favorite medium. Like many people my age – I just turned 30, in case you’re wondering – my first brush with taking pictures was when I was a kid through my family’s resident point-and-shoot camera. But it wouldn’t be until college when I’d get my first proper cameras: a hand-me-down Minolta α-7700i SLR and a Sony DSLR (unfortunately, I no longer remember what model it was).

Ultimately, my DSLR conked out. But my SLR was still alive and kicking so I just chose to shoot on film exclusively. At first, I did it because it was convenient and I like being able to take pictures using all sorts of film stocks that I could get my hands on.

Eventually, just taking pictures became a full-blown interest in photography and while I don’t fancy myself as an actual photographer, I could tell you that it’s important to me just as much as writing is.

But let me get to the point of this whole thing before I ramble any further. I do believe that shooting on film teaches you certain lessons that you can’t get anywhere else. For that reason alone, I think it’s worth keeping the craft alive. Below are five things that I was able to learn from it from experience:

Patience Pays Off

It goes without saying that a huge chunk of working with film is all about waiting. Shooting an entire roll of film down to developing and seeing the fruits of your labor can take weeks, even months. My personal “record” is six months of shooting just one roll – to be fair, that’s a 36-shot roll of LomoChrome Purple loaded in a Canon Demi so that was quite a challenge – and another six months before I had it developed because I waited until I finished shooting at least two more rolls before sending them all to the lab. It’s just more practical that way. But I digress.

In any case, all that may sound absurd to those who have never shot with this medium but all that waiting is really just something that goes hand-in-hand with film. The whole process is a lesson on being patient.

In film photography there are no shortcuts, none of the instant gratification that digital and smartphone photography provides. There’s really no point in rushing, lest you waste your efforts and resources, so it’s just best to slow down, wait for the perfect timing, get that composition right, and enjoy the process.

Every Shot Counts

Since you’re only working with up to 36 (or 72, if you’re using a half-frame camera) frames at any given time, you really are forced to conserve your shots. And, well, it’s no secret that film photography has gotten a bit costlier now more than ever due to the dwindling availability of supplies. As a result, you end up taking your time to find the right story, composition, subjects, and the like before pressing that shutter. And in doing so, you get to train your eye to find the unique in the mundane.

When I shoot with a digital camera or my smartphone, I usually take at least two or more shots “for safety,” yet when I use film, I give myself literally just one shot to get it right the first time. I find that it’s more satisfying to see several different images from one roll than seeing two or three or more of the same thing.

Starting Conversations is a Piece of Cake

Okay, for this one, you don’t really have to shoot film in order to learn. But hear me out.

I’m a bit introverted so initiating conversations, especially with people I haven’t known for some time, is something that I don’t always find easy or pleasant. But I love hearing stories and personal anecdotes because I believe everyone has at least one interesting story to tell, and so the only way I can get what I want is to get over my fear of talking to strangers.

Would you believe that film photography has actually helped me out with that and made my life much, much easier? It turns out that old cameras are good conversation starters, too, and I’m not just talking about exchanging gear and film reviews and tips with fellow photographers and enthusiasts.

No, what I find infinitely more interesting and inspiring are the stories of regular people I’ve met. I guess it would all depend on which types of stories you are chasing after but I personally like hearing stories from days of yore and what’s a day in a life like for other people. It’s like somehow, my film camera has become both a trigger for nostalgia and a badge of trust that puts them at ease enough to trust someone they barely know with a part of themselves. That is always a humbling experience.

Mistakes are Part of the Process

Photographing with film can be hit or miss. You don’t immediately see the results so you wouldn’t know until you’ve had your rolls developed how great or bad you did. If you did well, that’s good! If not, well, that sucks but know that it’s just part of the process and that you can always try again.

I don’t know about you but I find that mistakes made on film tend to stick stronger than those made on digital because you only see them once everything’s developed and so you don’t get to correct them immediately.

I’ve had rolls come back to me from the lab blank for one reason or another, and to this day I cringe remembering the things I did wrong. Not to mention, film and gear don’t come cheap so you are forced to learn because you can’t afford to waste time and resources repeating the same mistakes over and over.

Being Experimental Can be Extremely Satisfying

Film soaks, special films, expired film, in-camera doubles and MXs, makeshift color gels, and more – it’s simply more fun, gratifying, and encouraging to experiment on film. I barely knew anything when I started and I was content with just trying different film stocks, but once I got the hang of doing film experiments, I was hooked. I loved that I can manually manipulate film, loved the feeling of seeing the results and knowing that I literally had a hand in that. I’ve soaked my film in soju and other alcoholic drinks, and shot gradients on Photoshop to emulate Revolog rolls, just to name a couple.

But the most satisfying thing I’ve done so far is to roll my own redscale film. I had to admit that I knocked it even before I tried it because I didn’t actually like the fiery look it gave photos. But eventually I yielded and what do you know, I got bitten by the redscale bug! I’m still not a fan of the overly red-orange, overly saturated look, but I adore the muted tones produced by a redscaled roll of Solid Gold film.

That’s it! To film photographers and enthusiasts, what’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned from your own experiences? Sound off in the comments below!