Should Film Still Be Taught in School?

Old time developing, still done the same way today. Photo courtesy of

I may be a bit (or a lot) biased when it comes to this topic because I love the way film looks and feels, but I am a firm believer in the fact that you cannot truly learn a craft without first understanding how it originated, not to go without mentioning that digital cameras out-date themselves within two years while my forty year old Canon AE-1 is still going strong. The reason I decided to write about it this week is simple: the conversation seems to be EVERYWHERE. The reason being is because it is deciding the future of learning film in the photography curriculum.

A LinkedIn web group, Photography Professionals, recently had a thread going strong on the topic and some very sound responses were too good not to share.

Group member Ivan Bassols Rodenas says, “The thing is simple: If you want to be a photographer, you must to know how use and work with both, film and digital. If you want to study painting or sculpture or others you need to know (at least know) the different techniques, and then, you will use all that you want or prefer, that’s your choice, but your choice will be based on your knowledge of the different techniques. In photography is the same, especially when film and digital lives together and there is a little market that wants photography in film, call them nostalgic or vintage, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure that film will coexist for a long time with new techniques, maybe as “an art”, but If you want to be a photographer you must know all techniques to photography, maybe you don’t use never, but if in your work someday one client ask you about film you will be able to talk him with knowledge as a professional. A controversial topic that I have noticed trending these past few months is the debate of whether or not to continue teaching film in photography curriculum. We live in a digital world, so it seems that teaching digital photography instead of film would make more sense. However, if you look closely at the differences between the instruction and way of learning on each tool, its quite obvious to me that film is the necessary one to learn on.”

Personally, I think that digital can not teach the patience that film has taught me. I learned on a film camera, a little Vivitar SLR, and then quickly began using digital. When I resumed using film it really blew my mind how lazy I had gotten by relying on my digital camera to automatically correct and to be able to “fix” things in post processing. Using film, I am forced to be able to calculate settings in my head quickly, not worry about looking at the back of my camera after every shot but yet instead focusing on the present and what is through my lens, and it also taught me to not “waste” a frame. Removing film classes from the photo curriculum would be photography blasphemy. It really surprises me that so many older photography professors are choosing to go strictly digital.

Negatives laying out on the light, ready to be printed and enlarged. Photo courtesy of

Film is expensive (and the prices are climbing) but as someone once said, film teaches you how to quickly stop making the same mistakes. Once you make mistakes on a roll that cost you $20+ to process, chances are you won’t make those mistakes again. As for those saying that film is unprofitable due to rising processing costs, there is a growing niche market for wedding photographers who use only film. There are still people in this world who can differentiate between film photos and digital photos and I don’t plan on forsaking them anytime soon.

A photographer and teacher named Paul Gadd from Kuala Lumpur, uses nothing but film. He believes that teaching film is the only way to truly learn. “What we teach here is history, we teach them how to make a pinhole camera. So we get the guys to make theirs and then they go out to shoot just to get used to the cameras and they process the film. And then they go out again. I get people to shoot people because personally I’m a portrait photographer so I always get them to face people.”

“It is the whole process of taking a shot, sit in with the subjects rather than photographing from afar and once you have done that it is going into the process with the chemicals and the smell. When you photograph something from pressing the shutter until going into the darkroom and actually coming out with print it is much more rewarding than sitting in front of the computer screen for eight to 10 hours trying to correct everything you screwed up in the first place.”

“With film as well, you tend to be more careful about how you shoot. You think about exposure, you think about composition because film is not cheap. And this is the good thing about film. It makes you think. Because with digital you don’t need to think, you just shoot a thousand frames and you can delete and choose one. So with digital there is no thinking about it.” – As told to Lydia Koh, writer for the Malaysian Insider, see the entire story here.

*Climbing down off of my soapbox now* I hope all of my readers attempt to understand why learning film is so important while studying the art of photography and continue to do so yourselves. Do you think art is more rewarding the more effort you put into it? I do too 🙂

10 thoughts on “Should Film Still Be Taught in School?

  1. I certainly agree with you on this one! Film teaches things that digital just can’t, at least not in the same hands on way. There’s something truly amazing about processing your own film and prints and literally watching your images develop and come to life. There’s a sense of reward and accomplishment that just isn’t the same when you’re working with digital. And I agree that once you make a mistake chance are you won’t make it again!

    I also think that becasue you can make so many adjustments with digital formats with the click of the button something is being lost in the way we shoot. With film there is more dedication to the shooting process, to get it done right the first time and make minor adjustments in the dark room. I learned in the dark room and wouldn’t have had it any other way. Nothing is quote the same as the smell of the dark room and the creativity it can inspire. Lastly, by working in film you not only know how to make corrections and what corrections to make but you understand the fundamentals of what you are doing and get a deeper understanding of the basic elements that go into the whole photographic process. Yes you can change the contrast and exposure on your laptop but do you know how to do it in camera? It’s not always about the easy way to the end result but the journey to your fianl image that matters.

    • Very well said. *clapping* Thank you for all of your input, I should have just interviewed you! But really, all of this is very nail on the head. It really kills me that so many schools are scrapping film as “something of the past or outdated”. OUTDATED! ugh >_< It really worries me.

  2. I definitely think film should still be taught in school! Just about anyone can use a digital camera, including me….. I think it takes a lot of know how to capture a great photograph on film… what better place to learn than in school. In my opinion you are one of the great catchers of photographs, be it, portraits, scenery, news items, etc. I look forward to seeing more from you! Great job writing this blog….it says it all.

    • Thank you ❤ !

      It doesn't take much to learn to be able to capture a properly focused and exposed photo on film but knowing how to do it will greatly improve anyone's photography on BOTH film and digital.

  3. IMO the biggest difference in terms of learning isn’t the fact that film is film, or the chemistry, or the nostalgia. None of that matters in a learning environment. What *does* matter is that there is not one single digital camera on the market anywhere with real physical controls that match click stops on a dial to one stop increments in aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Not one offers lenses with hyperfocal distances marked on them. Not one, with the exception of certain models of Leica, but even Leica has abandoned real controls and real focus one some of their models. Even late-model auto-focus auto-everything wonder film cameras abandoned this approach back in the 1980’s beginning with the Minolta Maxxum and then the Canon EOS marques. It’s not a film vs. digital argument: it’s a complicated auto-camera vs. simple mechanical camera argument.

    Everyone talks about “simplicity” of cameras today… I’m sorry but IMO it doesn’t get any more simple than a camera with the following controls: aperture dial, shutter speed dial, focus, and ISO setting. Even the most stripped-down digital camera has hundreds of more controls than this. And dSLR’s are an absolute nightmare of customizable settings and controls that change what they do depending on what setting you are in. PNS cameras have fewer settings but are less-likely to give you proper feedback. All of them have abandoned “stops” and show apertures and shutter speeds in either non-increments or 1/3rd or 1/4th increments so that manual mode in these cameras is fundamentally *slower* than on a real mechanical camera.

    Scroll the aperture dial from f/2 to f/22 on a dSLR with 1/3 stops… it takes *forever* and you are wearing out fragile parts in the process. With a solid mechanical camera, this is a simple twist of a dial, usually about 2/3’s of a revolution, and you can *physically feel* each stop as you pass it… which means you can shoot mechanical cameras and change their settings without looking at them. Read that again: the dSLR forces you to look down a tiny barrel of a viewfinder or at a glare-prone screen to figure out what setting you are on, while a mechanical camera you can actually just *know* without looking. And if you do have to look, everything is clearly marked. And not just the setting you are on now. At a glance you can see how many clicks it will take to get to a different setting. On a dSLR that is fundamentally impossible. You will never know just looking at the object how far you will have to turn which knob (or even which knob does it) to get a certain setting.

    This is fundamentally, on every level, why you cannot really *learn* photography on a dSLR. Photography is the art of capturing light. And that art is about a balance. It’s a balance between the amount of light available, the speed of the film, the speed of the shutter, the size of the aperture, and the desired result. With a mechanical camera, those factors are clearly in your control and the relationship between them becomes part of how you see the world. That is what it means to be a master of your medium. You have to know light. You have to understand light. And you have to understand the limits of your equipment and why those limits exist.

    • “With a mechanical camera, those factors are clearly in your control and the relationship between them becomes part of how you see the world. That is what it means to be a master of your medium. You have to know light. You have to understand light. And you have to understand the limits of your equipment and why those limits exist.” – THIS.

      Very well said! When I take a photograph, I just want to take a photograph. I don’t need to have to sit and think about what “setting” I’m on or what the image on the back of my screen looks like. For me, photography is in the moment and having so many distractions on a camera is so hindering to being present.

  4. I totally agree that film should still be taught in school. Leaving it out would be an injustice to all the very well known film photographers that have captured some amazing images. Images that define our history.

  5. Photography didn’t start with 35mm film, or film of any size for that matter. So your comment about not learning a craft without understanding how it originated is interesting as it didn’t start with film and this blog is about film. I think Patrick makes a lot of good and interesting points.

    • I know it did not start with 35mm, that would be silly to think that it did. Photography has a long history. If we really want to discuss origins we can talk pewter plates and camera obscuras. This post was not directed at learning the history of photography and I never stated that photography began with film. This post was directed at needing to learn how film works, which is a better teacher to how a camera works than digital, to truly know the craft. Other things should be learned too that do not include film to perfect the art of photography and many of them I have yet to attempt. I mainly wrote this in response to the fact that so many schools are completely getting rid of film photography classes, as they say it is “outdated”.

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