Is the experience of using a 35mm film camera really different to a digital camera?

It’s funny, all my life I’ve been taking photos. Through a lot of that time it’s been quite a serious past time, while at other times it’s been about capturing the moment and having fun. But I’ve actually stopped shooting 35mm film, and for a good reason.

I remember my first “proper” 35mm film camera. It was around 1980, maybe a little earlier, I was 10 years old or so and I had always been fascinated with my dad taking photos on various cameras. At the time Polaroid cameras were all the rage in my house, and my dad was always taking photos of us kids. So when he came home with a Zenit SLR which he allowed me to use, I was thrilled at my first camera.

Of course, through the decades I used many types of film cameras, SLR, point and shoot, disposable, instant film, everything. And then transitioned into the digital world with various DSLR cameras, point and shoots and mobile phones. Through this time though, I always owned and used film cameras, though less and less as time went on.

The last time I used 35mm film was last year, although only because I decided to switch to instant film. There’s something very special about instant film, that’s far more rewarding than 35mm film. Seeing your results coming to life in front of you after taking the shot, never gets old. But instant film is a whole different beast to 35mm film.

And so we come to the big question. Is the experience of shooting film and digital really that different? I hear people romanticise and talking with so much praise about using film cameras, as if they are something special, although that’s probably because it’s all new to them.

Let’s look at what we do on our film and digital cameras.

We look at what we want to photograph, and then we ensure the dials (or on screen settings etc) on our camera are set correctly so we have the correct exposure. If we’re happy we double check the composition and then take the photograph.

As a Fujifilm user, I have all the dials present that are on my 35mm cameras. I take all the steps, and get the same enjoyment once I’ve pressed the shutter release. There is no difference at all to the technique of taking the photo. It’s composition, exposure triangle and shutter release.

So, what’s different?

Obviously, with film you don’t see the image you’ve taken until they get developed. But like many, I don’t “chimp” and I don’t see the images I’ve taken until I get home and they’re uploaded. So, there is no difference there.

Having only 24 or 36 frames to use, and no way of correcting errors, whatever they may be, is of course the big one. I think this, more than any is what separates the two experiences. Many years ago, during the golden age of film, it didn’t matter so much, as film and processing was cheap. These days however, things are a little more expensive, so you are more aware of what you photograph, and don’t use the last few images from a roll on your pets! (Ah yes, those were the days).

Of course, getting this far we realise there is so far no real difference to the experience, the 24/36 frames thing can either be seen as a positive or a negative, whichever way you look at it, and you can easily replicate that experience by using a tiny SD card or using self-control. And so, it comes down to the final product. That moment you receive your images on print.

With film, your film stock decides the look of your image. You use that stock, knowing the look you want. With digital of course, regardless of if you shoot raw or jpeg, you can change the look of your final image.

I’m a firm believer that no digital processing should take place with film. You may as well just shoot digital if that is your intention. And so, when I shoot film, I have the negatives developed straight to print. I have had them scanned to digital, but it’s not something I will usually do. As I said, I could just use my digital cameras if I wanted to do this.

In Conclusion

Both digital photography and analogue photography are what you make them. The tool you use it’s almost identical in the parameters you set and the way you control the light (although ISO is of course different, it acts in a similar way). These days you have to be more cautious shooting film because of the cost involved, but back in the day you didn’t. So, it’s different now because of that reason.

I love the idea at how romantic it sounds to shoot film, I love the look that film gives, and I love the combined process and techniques that both offer. However, I don’t miss shooting film anymore. Everything I just mentioned can be achieved in digital, the process, the techniques and finally, and most importantly, the look.

Published by Mark G.Adams

Fujifilm Documentary Photographer & Blogger.

7 thoughts on “Is the experience of using a 35mm film camera really different to a digital camera?

  1. I was born in the ’50s, and shot film for many decades before transitioning to digital. My ability to shoot slide film, which requires that you get everything “right” before you press the shutter release is what I brought with me in the move to digital. I never adopted the “fix it in post” mentality.

    For me though, the thing that really changed is the daily cost. After you have the hardware, you can actually go use it. When I bought my Leica M6 in the late ’80s, fulfilling a dream, I could not immediately buy the film and processing to use it while paying off the thousands of dollars for the camera and lens.

    This weekend, I shot a large music festival in my town. The math based on 25 dollars per roll for film and processing (slide film) would have put my cost at over $500 for this one event. Luckily I was using my X-T3, so other than the cost to charge my spare batteries, I spent nothing and had a great, fun day.

    Today, in my retirement, I could not go back to film.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Exactly… We can all reminisce and romanticise about film, but just like you, I always have tried to get it right in camera, because of film! It’s all about your mentality and how you treat the tool you are using.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article Mark, and I agree.
    My personal view is, if you really want to learn how to shoot, understand and be able to apply the exposure triangle, then an analog camera with shutter dial and aperture on the lens is the best choice, that being said – we Fuji photographers have that in a digital version, being able to shoot as it used to be is a plus i think. That’s why Fujifilm has so many followers probably. And our 35mm film ? that’s just a recipe now.
    I think we should also consider the fact that real film isn’t exactly environmentally friendly either.
    All the more reason to buy a Fuji, and get a film.. uhh .. recipe from MGA.

    Liked by 2 people

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