Monday, July 15, 2013

Getting a retro film feel with your digital camera


What was it like to shoot in the days of film? Those of us who have made the transition from film to digital have fond memories and mixed emotions about the change over. Some embrace the new technology while others miss the "good ol' days". Myself, I love the vast possibilities digital offers and that is why my old film cameras currently reside in a drawer collecting dust.

Recently I read a post on PhotoCamel.com about how someone with a digital camera could replicate the feel (aggravation, frustration, suspense, joy...?) of shooting film. The ensuing forum conversation ranged from, "what's the purpose," to, "what a great idea!" I thought I would share this little exercise with you.

First a short disclosure; This is not about how to or even an alternate method of shooting with a digital camera. It is simply an exercise designed for those who have never experienced shooting with a film camera. It replicates the experience (to a certain extent) of what it was like to shoot film and not have the instant access to images like modern cameras allow. For some of you it may just be a short walk down Nostalgia Boulevard without all the real frustrations. Now for the exercise;

Modifying the camera: In order to get as close to the feel of shooting film we have to rob ourselves of some digital niceties. Here we go...

  1. Switch your camera to manual - While some cameras had other modes, this was the most trustworthy and most common setting to shoot at. Make sure there are no automatic settings anywhere, including auto ISO.
  2. Switch your lens to manual focus - Autofocus is a newer development not accessible to most older film cameras. While lens technology has changed drastically switching to manual is the closest we can come to replicating the feel. Gone are our in-lens aperture settings and distance scales.
  3. Put all your f-stop settings to full stops only - Film cameras did not have the advantage of half or third stop increments. If you don't want to mess with this setting then discipline yourself to only dialing in full stops when you shoot for this exercise.
  4. Set your ISO to 400* - Film speed was determined by the roll you inserted. Unless you knew how to change rolls mid way (a big pain in the ass) you were stuck with this until the roll ended (24 or 36 exposures being the most common. (* Other common ISOs were 100, 200 and 800. While there were others also, they were less common.) A
  5. Set your image mode to JPEG - Unless you had your own darkroom you were subject to the developing and printing mode from your local drugstore or film developer. While you're at it, set your image mode to neutral. What you get from the camera is what you get. No RAW post editing in Lightroom or Photoshop.
  6. Turn off your preview - There was no previewing your images in the days of film so turn this feature off and mask off the screen with tape so you can't cheat. This will likely be your biggest challenge.


Modifying the film: Since we are using a digital camera we have to take certain steps to replicate the feel of using film. Most of this will be role playing but to keep track get a piece of masking tape and write down the film info and stick it to the back of your camera (this was a standard practice).

  1. Limit your 'roll' size - Film came in standard, measured lengths of number of frames. 12, 24 and 36 were the most common. If you knew your camera well enough you could usually squeeze in an extra frame. Choose your roll size and print it on the masking tape. Make sure you keep track of how many frames you shoot. Use a tick mark method so you don't loose track. Some suggestions include getting a smaller memory card (256MB to 1GB card) which can only store so many 'frames'.
  2. No modifying ISO mid 'roll' - As mentioned above, ISO was determined by the film inserted. 100 was usually for outdoor shooting, 400 for indoor and 800 for low light. Write down your ISO on the masking tape.


Getting your prints: Once a roll was shot it was taken to a local developer and processed. You never knew what you would get until the prints came back. If you want to retain this part of the process you'll need to be diligent in not previewing  your images on your computer. For maximum effect do the following...

  1. Send your 'roll' out for processing -  Since modern kiosks allow you to preview and edit your images before they are processed you need to recruit a volunteer. They will be in charge of taking the memory card (the 'roll') to your local photo printer. Ask them to drop them off under your name and do a next day pick up. 4x6 prints are fairly inexpensive nowadays so it shouldn't cost more than a couple of bucks. When you pick them up the next day it will feel like Christmas.

As I mentioned above, this is a simple exercise in nostalgia, however, there are some great skill building lessons inherent in this exercise. The biggest is in pre-envisioning your shot before pressing the shutter. Making sure the shot was right the first time took more effort since film and developing was a pricy process. Occasionally doing this exercise can help hone or sharpen some of these skills. Plus, it can be a fun distraction.

If you give this a try let us know what you thought of this exercise. Share your comments below.

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