6 Reasons Why Shooting Film Will Make You a Better Street Photographer

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"The Look" – Hollywood, Los Angeles. Shot with my Contax IIIa Film Rangefinder.

Recently I have been shooting more street photography with my Contax IIIa Film Rangefinder. Although I still prefer digital for street photography in terms of convenience, security, as well as flexibility– I have started to learn the merits of shooting street photography with film.

I am not  film purist by any means, as I am still relatively new to shooting street photography with film. Furthermore, I have not yet processed my own film before. However if you have not tried to shoot street photography with film before, I hope this article will help inspire you to do so in order to break out of your comfort zone and continue to develop.

1. Shooting film will slow you down

"Lust" – Hollywood, Los Angeles. Shot with my Contax IIIa Film Rangefinder

Whenever I think digital, I think of the words instantaneous, fast, and quick. Therefore when I am shooting street photography with my Canon 5D, I feel a bit burdened by all the fancy technical gizmos. Auto-exposure, auto-focus, and continuous shutter make me feel rushed when I am out there shooting digital. However when shooting with film, I know that I only have 36 exposures or so for a roll, which helps me slow down and really make my shots count. I walk around the streets and let the moments come to me, instead of trying to chase them. Surprisingly this has worked pretty well for myself.

2. Shooting film will get you closer to your subjects

"Turn that Frown Upside Down!" – Hollywood, Los Angeles. Shot with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder. It is ridiculous how close I got to the guy.

Whenever I am shooting with film– knowing that I only have a few shots per roll it inspires me to be more brave when shooting. As Robert Capa once famously said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Furthermore since my film rangefinder is nearly silent when shooting, my subjects are not aware when I am taking photos of them, especially in extremely close proximity. When I am out on the streets with my Canon 5D, I often stick out like a sore thumb–which gets me to my next point…

3. Shooting film will make you invisible and non-threatening

"Shrek" – Hollywood, Los Angeles. Shot with my Contax IIIa Film Rangefinder. Feeling invisible on the streets.

Older film cameras have a knack of looking non-threatening and “vintage.” Also for some reason or another, they also help photographers look like pure hobbyists instead of being a professional as well. I noticed when I am walking on the streets with my film rangefinder, it seems that there are fewer people who aware of me. As for the people who do notice me, they often compliment me on my “old school” camera and feel comfortable when I am shooting around them.

As a street photographer, it is important to walk around to be as non-threatening and stealth as you can. You don’t want other people to be aware of your presence, or else it kills the opportunity for you to capture candid moments (which we strive for). Although I believe that being invisible on the streets is still mostly dependent on how you act in the streets, having a non-threatening looking camera doesn’t hurt as well.

4. Shooting film will help you master light

"Leaving" – Santa Monica 3rd Street. Shot with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder. Gotta love the light and shadows.

When I shot digital, I didn’t care too much for exposure as I knew that either a) my camera would adjust it for me automatically or b) I would be able to fix it in post-production. However considering I don’t process my own film, the exposure I shoot at is when I’m going to get back. Therefore I have to be very careful of my aperture and shutter speed when shooting on the streets, especially when the lighting situation is constantly changing. One moment I can be shooting in the shade, and the other moment I can be shooting in broad sunlight.

In order to determine the optimal exposure for my shots without a light meter, I have been using the Sunny 16 Rule. Quoting Wikipedia the basic rule is, “On a sunny day set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the [reciprocal of the] ISO film speed for a subject in direct sunlight. For example, on a sunny day with ISO 400 film / setting and aperture at f/16, set shutter speed to 1/400. Below is a chart I use as a reference as well to guess my exposure settings.

The Sunny 16 Reference Chart

When I shoot film, I am now much more aware of the light around me, and take it into consideration when shooting. Not only that, but I have been also making it a point to shoot during “golden hour“, which is either the first or last hour of sunlight when the light is often optimal for photography. This helps me capture much more beautiful images and shadows, which no amount of post-processing can achieve.

5. Shooting film will give you “the film look”

"Number Four" – Hollywood, Los Angeles. Shot with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder. I love the distinct "film" look this shot has.

When I shot digital, I never understood it when film photographers said how digital photos and film photos just looked different. At first I thought it was impossible to differentiate a film photograph to a digital one (as you can post-process digital photos to look like film). However after shooting film, I have started to truly realize that film does indeed have a distinct look which cannot be recreated in photoshop (although you can get quite close).

Shooting film in color helps me get much more saturated colors which look natural, while also having a dash of film grain. The overall effect is quite enchanting– as I feel that they have much more soul and life to them. Although I still feel that it is much more the content of the image than the look of the image that matters, “the film look” is something that every street photographer needs to experience and appreciate.

6. Shooting film will make you appreciate digital

"Circles" – West Los Angeles. Shot with my Contax IIIa rangefinder.

My first camera was a Canon Powershot SD600, and I have been spoiled with digital ever since. I vague memories of myself as a child using a disposable camera on school field trips, but other than that– I didn’t have any real film experience. Shoot, when I first started to shoot with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder, I actually ruined about 3-4 rolls of film by accidentally opening the back without rewinding the film (doh!).

Although shooting with film is an extremely rewarding experience, it helps you realize how truly convenient and awesome digital photography is. Shooting digital makes our lives so much easier in terms of capturing our images, uploading our images, and storing our images. I can’t imagine having to store, label, and organize thousands of rolls of film (compared to organizing my photos in Lightroom 3 on just several Terabyte hard drives). Not only that, but having destroyed all those rolls of film on accident was extremely frustrating as well.

For those of you who shoot both film and digital street photography, what do you believe are the pros and cons of using each format? Give us your opinion by leaving a comment below!