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The Ultimate Guide to Film Photography in the Digital Era

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Film photography is not dead. In fact, it is experiencing a resurgence of interest and appreciation among photographers and enthusiasts alike. Despite the convenience and ubiquity of digital technology, film photography offers a unique and rewarding experience that cannot be easily replicated or replaced.



Last week, I discussed one of the most legendary and sought after emulsions in the modern renaissance of film photography - Kodak Panatomic X - vaunted for its fine grain and ability to be enlarged massively with little to no visible grain. It's one of many reasons photographers are going back to their roots and getting involved in film photography.


In this article, we will discuss how film photography can be integrated with digital tools and platforms, and explore some of the benefits and challenges of using a hybrid workflow. We will also share some tips and tricks for digitising film, and offer some advice on how to share your film photos online.


Why Film Photography?

Before we dive into the technical aspects of film photography in the digital age, let us first consider why film photography is still relevant and appealing today.

Film photography has a distinctive aesthetic quality that sets it apart from digital photography. As I discuss in The Enduring Allure of Film Photography In the Digital Age, film captures light in a specific way, rendering tones, colours, and textures with a certain richness and character that cannot be easily replicated. Different film stocks exhibit their own unique palettes, ranging from vibrant and saturated hues to softer and more subdued tones. The subtle colour shifts and variations you see with film create an evocative mood that can bring a timeless quality to photographs.

Film photography also has a remarkable dynamic range, meaning it can preserve details in both highlights and shadows. This characteristic provides a subtle depth and a nuanced tonal range that digital images struggled to emulate for quite some time, though with HDR stacking techniques, can comfortably perform on the same level as film nowadays. However, with film, the resulting photographs possess a distinct sense of depth and dimensionality, enhancing the overall artistic impact.

[the] hybrid analogue-digital image for me was like no other I have been able to produce using my digital camera. The colour richness, texture and organic quality translated from the film, even though it was digitally processed.

- Gino Vairo, Hybrid photography: a marriage of film and digital formats | Olympus Passion


Another aspect of film photography that attracts many photographers is its deliberate and mindful process. Shooting with film requires more attention and care than shooting with digital, as each frame is limited and precious. You have to think carefully about your exposure, composition, focus, and timing before pressing the shutter. You also have to wait for your film to be developed before you can see the results, which adds an element of anticipation and surprise. And as Lucy Ridges, a fine art photographer who works heavily with film, mentions in her interview in Emulsive: "It’s to do with the aesthetic I love, the grain, the nostalgia that the colours of film seem to offer, the slight-softness of the look, the simplicity of it."

Film photography also offers a tangible and tactile experience that digital photography lacks. There is something satisfying about holding a roll of film in your hands, loading it into your camera, winding it after each shot, and unloading it when it's finished. There is also something magical about seeing your images come to life in the darkroom or on your scanner. Film photography connects you to the physical medium of photography in a way that digital photography does not.

The digital age has brought a new dimension to photography: it has become a more democratic medium that is easily accessible to everyone. But this also means that it has become more ephemeral and less meaningful. Film photography offers a way to counteract this trend by bringing back the value and the magic of the photographic image.

- Brett Day, Does Photography Really Mean Anything to Anyone in the Digital Age? | The Phoblographer


How to Integrate Film Photography with Digital Tools and Platforms

While film photography has its own charm and advantages, it also has its limitations and challenges. Film is expensive, fragile, and sensitive to light and temperature. Developing film can be time-consuming, costly, and environmentally unfriendly. Scanning film can be tedious, frustrating, and prone to dust and scratches. Sharing film photos online can be tricky, as you have to deal with different file formats, resolutions, colour spaces, and compression algorithms.


Put simply, the hybrid workflow just means the combination of digital and analog techniques in order to obtain our final images. That's it. It really isn't rocket science until you start getting into the details of it.

- Martin Monk, Film and the Hybrid Workflow: Analog Photography in the Digital Age | Skillshare


Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these obstacles by using digital tools and platforms that complement and enhance your film photography experience. Here are some of the steps you can take to incorporate film photography into your digital workflow:

Choose Your Film Camera

The first step is to choose your film camera. There are many types of film cameras available on the market today, from vintage classics to modern models. The most popular ones are 35mm SLRs (single lens reflex), which offer interchangeable lenses, manual controls, and through-the-lens viewing. Other options include rangefinders (which have a separate viewfinder), medium format cameras (which use larger film sizes), point-and-shoot cameras (which are compact and easy to use), instant cameras (which produce instant prints), toy cameras (which are cheap and quirky), pinhole cameras (which are simple and experimental), etc.


The choice of your film camera depends on your personal preference, budget, style, and purpose. You can find many great deals on second-hand film cameras online or at local thrift stores or flea markets. You can also borrow or rent one from a friend or a camera shop. You can even make your own camera from scratch or from recycled materials.

 
Consider these points:
  • The condition and functionality of the camera. Make sure it is clean, working, and free of any major defects or damages. Check the shutter, the aperture, the focus, the light meter, the battery, the film advance, the rewind, etc. If possible, test the camera with a roll of film before buying it.

  • The compatibility and availability of the lenses. Make sure the lenses you want to use are compatible with your camera body and mount. Also make sure they are in good shape and have no fungus, haze, scratches, or dust. You can find many affordable and high-quality lenses from various brands and eras online or at local camera shops.

  • The size and weight of the camera. Make sure the camera is comfortable to hold and carry around. You don't want a camera that is too bulky, heavy, or awkward to use. You also want a camera that fits your bag or case and doesn't take up too much space.

  • The features and options of the camera. Make sure the camera has the features and options you need and want. For example, do you prefer manual or automatic exposure? Do you need a self-timer or a flash? Do you want a built-in light meter or an external one? Do you like a viewfinder or a screen? Do you want a single-shot or a multi-shot mode? Do you want a fixed or a variable ISO? Do you want a rewind knob or a lever?

 

Choose Your Film Stock

The next step is to choose your film stock. There are many types of film stocks available on the market today, from colour to black and white, from negative to positive, from standard to professional, from fresh to expired, etc.

The choice of your film stock depends on your personal preference, budget, style, and purpose. You can find many great deals on film stocks online or at local photo labs or drugstores. You can also experiment with different film stocks to see how they affect your images.

 
Consider these points
  • The format and size of the film. Make sure the film matches the format and size of your camera. For example, if you have a 35mm camera, you need a 35mm film. If you have a medium format camera, you need a 120 or 220 film. If you have an instant camera, you need an instant film.

  • The speed and sensitivity of the film. Make sure the film suits the lighting conditions and the exposure settings of your camera. For example, if you are shooting in low light or with fast shutter speeds, you need a high-speed film (such as ISO 400 or above). If you are shooting in bright light or with slow shutter speeds, you need a low-speed film (such as ISO 100 or below).

  • The colour and tone of the film. Make sure the film matches the mood and atmosphere of your subject and scene. For example, if you are shooting portraits or landscapes, you might want a warm and vivid colour film (such as Kodak Portra or Fuji Velvia). If you are shooting street or documentary, you might want a cool and neutral colour film (such as Kodak Ektar or Fuji Provia). If you are shooting black and white, you might want a contrasty and grainy film (such as Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X).

 

Shoot Your Film

The third step is to shoot your film. This is where the fun begins. Shooting with film is an exciting and rewarding experience that challenges your creativity and skills as a photographer.


Taking the photograph is merely a (small) proportion of the total time it took to do everything that was needed to deliver a finished work and until the first decade of the 21st Century, most photographers spent hour upon hour in the dark and away from the amazing outside light and taking photographs to deliver just one print.

- Brian Richman, The Case for "Hybrid" Photography | Film Shooter's Collective

 
Tips and Tricks
  • Plan ahead. Before you go out shooting, make sure you have everything you need: your camera, your lenses, your film, your batteries, your accessories, etc. Also make sure you know where you are going, what you are shooting, when you are shooting, how you are shooting, etc. Having a clear idea of what you want to achieve will help you save time and money.

  • Check your settings. Before each shot, make sure you check your settings: your exposure (aperture, shutter speed, ISO), your focus (manual or automatic), your metering (spot, centre-weighted, matrix), your white balance (daylight, tungsten, cloudy), etc. Also make sure you check your frame: your composition (rule of thirds, golden ratio), your angle (high, low), your perspective (wide-angle, telephoto), etc. Having the right settings will help you get the best results.

  • Be selective. When shooting with film, remember that each frame is limited and precious. You don't want to waste your film on shots that are not worth it. Be selective about what you shoot: look for interesting subjects, scenes, moments, details and so on and so forth.

 

Develop Your Film

Once you have shot your film, you need to develop it to reveal the latent image. Developing film involves a series of chemical processes that make the exposed silver halides visible and permanent on the film base. You can either develop your film at home or send it to a professional lab.


 
Consider these points
  • Cost: Developing film at home can save you money in the long run, especially if you shoot a lot of film. However, you will need to invest in some equipment and chemicals upfront, and also factor in the time and effort involved. Sending your film to a lab can be more convenient and consistent, but also more expensive and dependent on the quality and availability of the service.

  • Control: Developing film at home gives you more control over the final outcome of your images. You can adjust the temperature, time, agitation, and dilution of the chemicals to achieve different effects and results. You can also experiment with different developers, toners, and alternative processes. Sending your film to a lab means you have to trust their standards and methods, and you may not get the exact look you want.

  • Convenience: Developing film at home requires a dedicated space, preferably a darkroom or a changing bag, where you can load and unload your film in complete darkness. You also need to store and dispose of the chemicals safely and responsibly. Sending your film to a lab means you don't have to worry about any of these issues, but you also have to wait for your film to be processed and returned to you, which can take days or weeks depending on the lab's turnaround time.

 

Digitise Your Film

The fourth step is to digitise your film. This is where you convert your analog images into digital files that you can edit, print, and share online. There are two main ways to digitise your film: scanning and photographing.


Scanning is the traditional method of digitising film, using a dedicated device that scans your film and creates a digital image file. Scanning can produce high-quality results, but it can also be expensive, time-consuming, and complicated. You need to have a scanner that can handle your film format and size, you need to have a software that can control your scanner and process your image files, and you need to have a computer that can run your software and store your files. You also need to deal with issues such as dust, scratches, colour correction, cropping, etc.



Use of computers allows a single “master” image to be produced by the photographer. Not a file with notes scribbled and the need to set up a darkroom and then perhaps 15 minutes or so per print, but just select the number of copies you want and press the “Print” button on the computer. No more seemingly endless nights in the darkroom, reeking of chemicals, spent producing “almost” correct prints and then selecting the best of the bunch for retouching and eventual display. All the retouching can be done in the day time on the computer screen and the number of copies needed can be printed directly, quickly and easily.

- Brian Richman, The Case for "Hybrid" Photography | Film Shooter's Collective


Photographing is the alternative method of digitising film, using a digital camera that photographs your film and creates a digital image file. Photographing can produce comparable results to scanning, but it can also be cheaper, faster, and simpler. You need to have a digital camera that can capture your film with enough resolution and quality, you need to have a light source that can illuminate your film evenly and accurately, and you need to have a mask or holder that can keep your film flat and aligned. You also need to deal with issues such as focus, exposure, white balance, distortion, etc.

 
Tips and Tricks
  • Choose the right method for your needs. Depending on your budget, time, equipment, and purpose, you may prefer scanning or photographing your film. Scanning may be better if you want more control over your image quality and settings, if you have a large amount of film to digitise, or if you want to preserve the original look of your film. Photographing may be better if you want more convenience and speed, if you have a small amount of film to digitise, or if you want to experiment with different looks for your film.

  • Choose the right format for your files. Depending on your editing and sharing needs, you may prefer different formats for your digital image files. The most common formats are JPEG and TIFF. JPEG is a compressed format that reduces the file size but also reduces the image quality. TIFF is an uncompressed format that preserves the file size but also preserves the image quality. JPEG may be better if you want to save space on your computer or online storage, if you want to share your images quickly and easily online, or if you don't plan to do much editing on your images. TIFF may be better if you want to retain all the details and information on your images, if you want to print your images at large sizes or high resolutions, or if you plan to do extensive editing on your images.

  • Choose the right resolution for your files. Depending on your printing and viewing needs, you may prefer different resolutions for your digital image files. The resolution is measured in pixels per inch (ppi) or dots per inch (dpi), and it determines how sharp and clear your images will appear on different devices or media. The higher the resolution, the better the image quality but also the larger the file size. The lower the resolution, the worse the image quality but also the smaller the file size.

 
The workflow I use is one that is only possible with the newest innovations in computer manipulation as well as many techniques as old as film itself. In the most basic of terms, I start out with a film capture, develop the film, scan the film, then use the digital file as the basis of my image, which I then refine and develop in Photoshop. This process allows me to get organic grain and use awesome film gear, yet still have the flexibility in post that digital affords."

— The Complete Guide to Hybrid Analog/Digital Workflow | Dan Finnen


Digitally Developing Your Film Photos


After you have scanned and digitised your film, you need to edit and enhance it to bring out the best of your images. Editing film photos involves using digital tools like Photoshop and Lightroom to adjust and refine the exposure, contrast, colour, sharpness, and other aspects of your photos. You can either edit your film photos yourself or outsource it to a professional service.

 
Consider these points:
  • Creativity: Editing film photos yourself can give you more creative freedom and expression over your images. You can use the digital tools to correct any flaws or mistakes in your film, or to add some artistic effects and filters to create a unique look. You can also experiment with different styles and presets to find the one that suits your vision. Outsourcing your film photos to a service means you have to trust their judgement and taste, and you may not get the exact look you want.

  • Skill: Editing film photos yourself can be challenging and rewarding, but also requires some skill and knowledge of the digital tools. You need to understand how to use the various functions and features of the software, and how to apply them effectively and tastefully to your images. You also need to have a good eye for colour, contrast, and composition. Outsourcing your film photos to a service means you don't have to worry about any of these issues, but you also lose some control and input over your images.

  • Time: Editing film photos yourself can be time-consuming and tedious, especially if you have a lot of images to work on. You need to spend hours in front of your computer, tweaking and fine-tuning every detail of your photos. You also need to back up and organize your files properly. Outsourcing your film photos to a service means you can save some time and effort, but you also have to wait for the service to deliver your edited images, which can take days or weeks depending on their workload.

 

Conclusion

Film photography is not dead. In fact, it is a creative choice that can enrich your digital workflow and help you develop your personal style. Film photography can teach you the fundamentals of exposure, composition, and lighting, as well as the importance of patience, discipline, and vision. Film photography can also inspire you to experiment with different techniques, formats, and genres, and to explore new possibilities of expression.


But film photography does not have to be a separate or isolated practice from digital photography. You can use the hybrid digital analog workflow to combine the best of both worlds and get the most out of your images. You can use digital tools and platforms to complement and enhance your film photography experience.


By using the hybrid digital analog workflow, you can enjoy both the analog and digital aspects of photography. You can get organic grain and awesome colours from film, and also have the convenience and flexibility of digital editing and sharing. You can create images that are unique, meaningful, and beautiful.


We hope this article has given you some insights and tips on how to use the hybrid digital analog workflow for your film photography. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. Happy shooting!

 

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