A Taste of Film Photography without the Processing

Fly fishing in a Montana lake
35mm slide film

In "Full-Tilt Manual: Going Analog with Your Digital Camera," Allan Weitz describes setting up your digital camera to make it work like a manual film camera. Of course, your images are still digital, not analog; but trying this is a good learning experience for sharpening your exposure and focusing skills. For this exercise to work, your camera must allow you to change the shutter speed, aperture and ISO manually (M mode) as well as let you focus the lens by eye (no auto focus). So you'll need a camera body with manual exposure mode and a lens capable of manual focus.

Camera set to Manual exposure mode

Here are the 10 changes Weitz recommends you make on your digital camera to experiment with the analog approach:
  1. Hide or cover the rear LCD panel so you can't "chimp" (review or check) your photos as you take them. You'll have to wait until you get the photos downloaded to a computer (or printed) to see your results. (Still faster than 1-hour film processing!)
  2. Turn off auto focus. Be sure your lens has a manual focus ring, not just a zoom ring.
  3. Turn off auto exposure (i.e., shoot in M mode).
  4. Choose either a camera light meter or a hand-held light meter. The camera's meter is just fine for this experiment.
  5. Set the ISO. Stick to the "whole" ISO numbers like 100, 200, 400, etc. since these were our only options in film days.
  6. Select shutter speeds and apertures. Remember that apertures control depth of field and shutter speeds affect the appearance of motion. In combination, they affect the total exposure. Start with the setting that's most important to you (depth of field or motion) and adjust the exposure using the opposite control. Check the camera's meter for a guide to an average exposure.
  7. Use the Sunny 16 Rule to adjust exposure, foregoing a meter entirely. The short version is on a clear, sunny day: a) set the aperture to f/16, b) set the desired ISO for the lighting conditions (e.g. 100 ISO) and c) set the shutter speed to match the ISO (1/100th second in this example). 
  8. Leave the White Balance set to Daylight/Sunny. For a true analog experience, use color correction filters on the lens instead of changing the white balance setting. Screw on a Wratten #81A or #81B warming filter for cloudy conditions, a Wratten #80A cooling filter for incandescent light, or an FL-D magenta filter for fluorescent light.
  9. Use the EVF (electronic view finder) on mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless camera owners have an advantage since the EVF gives a real-time preview of their exposure and color balance choices. Film cameras have only optical viewfinders that display shutter speed, aperture, and an exposure meter. If you're using a digital SLR camera, your viewfinder experience will be very similar to a manual film camera. 
  10. Turn off Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction controls. Mr. Weitz says to leave this on, but analog film equipment did not have this feature. Instead use a shutter speed at least equal to the length of the lens you have mounted on the camera. For an 18mm-55mm zoom lens, use a shutter speed of at least 1/60th second or faster (there is no 1/55th shutter speed). I recommend at least 1/125th second to prevent blurry photos due to camera movement.
Color correction filters, clockwise from top
81B warming filter, 80A cooling filter, FL-D fluorescent filter

I would add a few other suggestions to Weitz's.

1) Shoot large, best quality JPEG files. These are similar to shooting color slide (transparency) film and clearly show your exposure, color correction and focus choices. If you shoot raw files, you are closer to the experience of "developing" your own film since these files require computer processing before use.

2) Use a small capacity memory card that holds fewer than 50 frames. A roll of film had no more than 36 frames, so we learned to choose our subjects carefully.

3) Take your memory card to a local photo lab and have them make 4x6 prints for you before you download the files to your computer. (The lab will also copy the original files to a CD for you---your "negatives.") This is how many of us first saw the results of our photographic efforts!

Give this set-up a try and experience a little of what it's like to shoot film frames instead of digital ones!

Watch for announcements of my fall digital photography classes in Missoula, Montana, coming soon!