How film photography can make you happier

Shooting on film seems like a ridiculous thing to do, I know that. It’s unpredictable, inconvenient, expensive and restrictive. But what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been practising it is that these are the very things that also make it compelling, addictive, joyful and life-enhancing. 

Shooting on film has surpassed all of my expectations and its effects have been more far reaching than just enabling me to get better at photography. Rather than just switching to a different format of camera, I seem to have switched to a different way of living. I have regained some much needed balance in my life and changed my relationship with my phone and with photography forever. Here’s why.

It helps you be more present

Being unable to access and share images immediately has helped me finally break the ‘insta’ of Instagram and the compulsion to share my experiences in real time. In fact I’ve rather daringly taken trips recently that I haven’t mentioned on instagram at all! I now share my photos days or even weeks after I’ve taken them, leaving me to enjoy being with my friends and family in real time, in real life. It’s helped me gain some precious distance from my hyper-connected, online life.

Because buying film and having it developed costs actual money, I am far more judicious about the photographs I take and have left behind my digital trigger-happy ways. I rarely take more than one image of a subject and I don’t waste precious exposures on a memory I have no wish to treasure. As the amount of time I spend taking photographs reduces, the enjoyment I feel in being present in each moment soars.

It's quite marvellous to hold a roll of film in your hand and know that that little object contains some of your precious memories. I've rediscovered the joy of sending my rolls away to be developed and the delicious anticipation of waiting for them to be returned. Somehow waiting patiently (or impatiently) makes the results of my endeavours more meaningful and having the opportunity to lose myself in my memories weeks after I’ve returned home is a welcome distraction from the stresses of daily life.

It encourages you to hold things more lightly 

At first it’s odd to not be able to see the image you’ve taken immediately displayed on the screen of your camera, but once you’re used to it it’s wonderfully liberating. No fretting, no fussing, no re-taking of the image, no deleting. My experience so far has been that around two thirds of my images are ‘good’ and about half of those I love. This attrition rate is far more marked than with a digital camera where one can just delete the unwanted shots. 

If an image turns out well, then great. If it doesn’t, then there really is nothing I can do about it, I can’t very well go back and retake it. This indisputable fact has done so much to remove the stress of photography for me. I have no choice but to hold it lightly and let unsuccessful images go. It’s actually been really nice to return to the days of having just a handful of great images to record a holiday or event rather than hundreds of assorted quality ones.

Mistakes become magical surprises and you will discover enchanting little worlds

The first holiday I shot on film was in November in the Outer Hebrides. When I got the scans back on returning home, I was crushed. I was so used to the way digital photography creates reliable records of my adventures that I was sorely disappointed and upset that my images bore little resemblance to the pictures in my head. Some of my images were under exposed, some over, the colour renderings, the light leaks, the double exposures had conspired to create unreliable witnesses. I was distraught and thought that probably my experiment with film was over. 

On Lauren’s advice, I closed the files and didn’t look at them again for a few days, resisting the urge to just delete them. But when I reopened them something incredible unfolded before my eyes – wonderful, magical perfect little worlds like scenes from little story books. Miniature, complete worlds that I wanted to dive into and explore. Light leaks became enchanting messages from the sky, overexposures added an ethereal, heavenly quality and underexposures added soporific atmosphere. Double exposures are still, to me, an unfathomable form of magic and the graininess added a sense of quietude and timelessness.

It was at this point that it 'clicked' and I finally understood the secret draw of film photography. I realised that my camera and I don’t see the world in quite the same way and that this dissonance is where the enchantment lives. My film images have a sense of dimension that, for me, just isn’t possible with digital photography and once I’d seen that I knew there was to be no going back. I was hooked.

A double exposure that Richard took on Skye on my first roll. I still have no idea how he took it, and nor does he!

A light leak from my first ever roll.

The river at Glen Dye. It was actually a bright copper colour but I love how it turned out entirely different.

The joy of mechanical pursuits

In this modern age, everything seems to run on electricity. Technological advancements seek to separate us from task and process, often helpfully, but there is still real, unbridled joy to be found in using mechanical tools.

I have felt this with operating locks on canal boat holidays, on using a pedal sewing machine and even a ratchet screwdriver. There’s something about these manual tasks that allows us to enter states of deep work and use our brains and our hands in different ways. Using mechanical objects is unendingly satisfying and quiet and can give us a real respite from the relentlessness of modern life. 

It makes shooting on manual easy

Shooting manual on film is devastatingly simple. Whilst I’ve understood intellectually for some time how the exposure triangle works, I’ve struggled to get good results in practice with my DSLR. 

The sheer number of possible combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO on modern cameras makes it impenetrable to me. In contrast, on my old Pentax the ISO is set by the film and the shutter speed and aperture are in full increments and so the number of possibly combinations are greatly reduced. Using a simple, mechanical camera has cemented my knowledge of exposure in a way my DSLR never could.

It lightens workflow

I am the sort of person who feels desperately overwhelmed by unanswered emails, unread notifications, piles of paperwork and other things that need sorting though. My phone’s bulging camera roll distresses me greatly, but I lack the energy to sort, edit, store and delete the thousands of images squatting there.

For this reason shooting on film has been a revelation. An email arrives, I download a handful of folders, one for each roll, each folder containing a maximum of thirty-six images. I simple load the folders into Lightroom, flag the images I love, and it’s done. I know this may sound like a rather pedestrian benefit, but I can’t overemphasis the difference this has made to my stress levels when I trying to write a blog post or website page on a deadline.

There are many, many other reasons I could mention for why I have fallen in love with shooting on film, such as the lack of editing required, the removal of the need for filters, from how taking fewer photographs has given me the space to create little videos again. The list goes on. Eschewing my iPhone and DSLR for the joys of a twenty five year old simple film camera might have felt at first like a ridiculous thing to do, but for me it’s been one of the most joyful things I’ve ever done.

If you're interested in joining the Learn to Shoot on Film course that Lauren Keim and I have created, intake closes this Friday, 15th March. You can find out more here.

My favourite images from the frosty landscapes in Scotland on New Year's Day

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