5 tips to shoot digital with a film mindset

As a digital shooter, film has been more than once very tempting. But even if I like film very much, I don't find it worth the hassle, but here are 5 tips I have found to carry the film mindset over to digital.

Wait, why not shoot film?

Let's get something out of the way first, why not shoot film from the get-go? Well the reason is simple, the cost and the extra steps needed. Film is getting more expensive everyday and let's not even talk about how much labs are racking up these days, but even if this wasn't a factor, shooting film involves multiple steps, like shoot, send to lab, get it back from lab, scan. While some are fine with these, I don't think it's worth the hassle but that is just me, some people love it that way! With that being said, let's begin.


Digital with a film mindset


1) Bypass the digital look

When it comes to digital vs film arguments there is usually an argument along the lines of “digital looks like digital and film looks much better”. Well if you ask me, things are designed to be that way. Take for example Fuji Velvia, that film has been engineered to give you saturated colors, contrast, etc. While most digital cameras out of the box are designed to give you the straightest image as possible, so of course it looks like crap.




I like to think in terms of pre-processing and post processing. Film was pre-processsed, all the chemical wizardry that makes the colors and the feel of the film stock is done all pre-exposure, while in digital it has to be post-processed, the magic happens after. It's easy to be turned off by your images when you don't know post processing but all you have in a digital image is a starting point and it must be seen as much.


Also if you shoot a film stock long enough, you start having a feel for it, you start seeing reality with that film stock applied, in other words you start visualizing with it. You can also do the same thing in digital in the form of presets. I have some that I use on all of my images so I know how they work and know what image I am going to get even before shooting. So use and get familiar with presets, check out ours or make your own, it not only speeds up your workflow, but it also duplicates the film stock experience.


2) Restrict yourself


Film only allows for 24 to 36 exposures, and while shooting it, there is a sense of how much of a limited resource you have in your hands. I think that is a good thing (I wrote on limitation creativity before). What happens is, you start being much more selective about your images, you ignore many shots because you know that if you shoot a frame, there is another one that won't be made.




To take that mindset to digital, it's all about realizing that just because you can make a shot doesn't mean that you should. I have a 128gb card in my camera, it's pretty much unlimited images if you ask me. But I don't go and fill it up just because I can 🙂 I think it's like money, just because you have some doesn't mean you have to spend it all. You can start by seeing how many shots you make every shooting session and see if you can get it down.


The benefits of being preselective (vs being post selective when you hit the computer) I think is added confidence. Your hit rate will go up by design, making you more confident in yourself. Plus let's face it, it makes for less space on the computer!

3) Add the psychological aspects of film



Not only there is a sense of limited resources when you shoot film, there is a psychological thing that happens…..what you shoot feels valuable and tangible. Valuable (in the sense of monetary) because every shot costs, not only the film, but also the processing and shipping if you don't print yourself. Tangible because at the end of the roll, you end up with a physical product in your hands.


Contrast this with digital, where shots don't feel like they cost anything because the initial price of the memory card has been forgotten and where at the end of the day you have nothing in your hands, only data that you can't touch. So….how does one feel like every digital shot is valuable? Well we can start by simply overriding the psychology. Pricing is a factor in our emotional enjoyment of something, that's why you will enjoy a $5000 bottle of wine much more than a $5 one, even if they are both the same.


But truth be told, this kind of psychology is very hard to overturn, if you paid for something it's hard not to enjoy it more than something you didn't pay for. So the solution I have found is to simply print your images. That will also cover the tangible part. Isn't the image all that matters? A digital image might not start life as a physical object but it can become one by printing it….. tada! Tangibility!. Add to that your costs of paper and ink and you've made your images valuable. Again, it's not really to convince anyone but yourself, overturning your own psychology.


Print, frame, hang. Do that enough times and it will eventually happen that it won't matter if you if you end up printing or not, it's all about seeing the end result in your mind so that you can feel it as more valuable and tangible.

3) Simplify your camera

There is usually a focus associated with shooting film, I think it is due to it's simplicity. No complicated menus (usually!!! some monsters like the Nikon F5s can get pretty complex), no overloading of the senses. You can get cameras that will duplicate the film experience, like the Epson RD1 and the Fuji X100 with it's OVF but you can also simplify what you already have.


That means turn off the complicated screen setup, most cameras have an option to show only the basic settings like ISO, shutter speed and aperture with an exposure scale. Or if your camera allows, turn the screen off completely and shoot with the OVF if available. This sort of simplicity allows for a more unencumbered image making experience. Hate it or love them, digital Leicas use this to great effect, and their users love their simplicity. While you can't make your camera simple, you can try to make it simpler. There definitely needs to be an initial setup but besides that, my camera is always on the most basic mode as possible, Manual 😉


4) Get more involved in making images

In film there is no such thing as image review. And what that means is a more involved mental process. Take a film camera, look trough the viewfinder, it will tell you what your exposure should be, and nothing else. If you start messing with the controls, you have to visualize how the image going to be like, how the light is going to look like when underexposed. Long story short, it involves you.






It is easy on the other hand to shoot passively in digital. You look at the screen and the end result is already there. To bypass this you can turn off image review and if you can, turn the screen off. If your camera is screen only, there is usually an option to turn off image preview so that when you see the screen it's not going to reflect he actual exposure of the shot.


What that does is it forces you to pay attention and that in turn will make you more involved in what you are doing. It makes you more present in other words. It will only take you a few mistakes in exposure for you to start being much more attentive to it but I think that comes from removing the instant feedback of digital, or else it's just too easy to become complacent with the screen.


5) Treat your images like wine

Shooting film is usually an exercice in patience. I mean you can burn a roll in a minute but to actually see your images takes at least an hour. But closer to real life, it's probably a week or so before you see your images, even longer depending on how fast or slow the post office is. What that means is, by the time you see your images, you are so far removed from the experience of making the images that you end up being a better judge of your images.






Some images you believed look great end up being so-so while that shot you didn't think was to hot ends up being amazing. So letting the images ferment makes for a better selection process with a more objective eye.


You can also let your images ferment in digital, you just need to cut off the temptation to dump your memory card every time you shoot. I personally take at least a week to 3-4 months before I dump my memory card. And let me tell you, it really helps you see your images more clearly. Time is really what transforms you from being emotive to being more objective.



While one could simply shoot film, the downsides like the costs and the added steps turns off many like myself. But there are many benefits to shooting digital while having a film mindset: Limiting yourself, simplifying and letting your images ferment are a few of the golden nuggets one gets from shooting film. But while film users are forced by their constraints, digital shooters need to use self imposed restraints, but these are very beneficial as we have seen in the points above. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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6 thoughts on “5 tips to shoot digital with a film mindset”

  1. When I first started shooting digital, I became a sloppy shooter. Instead of taking time and thinking about what I wanted my image to look like, I would shoot 30 or 40 (or more or less) from different angles, perspectives and settings and then decide which looked best.

    I eventually learned to slow down, decide what I wanted to see, and set up the image to reflect what I wanted. Then I would still shoot multiple images from different angles and perspectives, but with a different mindset. Instead of just shooting for volume hoping something would look good, I would shoot for image and tweak a little. I still do very little post processing. I try to get my image correct in camera.

    1. Great! Those are great words that probably say it better than I do 🙂 I do think the processing part is up to the photographer, for me what I have in camera is just the start!

  2. I love the idea of waiting several weeks before seeing the images. I think it must separate out the emotion from it and let you see the image as just that – an image of something. I’ve been putting off looking at something from last July just because I needed a new computer to be able to handle it all (my lap top was topped off….) and it’s taken time to get that up and running. This idea makes me happier and more excited about the fact that I haven’t done it. (Of course the people I did it for are certainly wondering whatever happened to me – no, they’re ok with it.) Thanks for sharing that piece of your process.

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  4. Pingback: 6 consigli per scattare in digitale con una mentalità analogica

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