Why I Ditched Digital to Embrace Film Photography
Professional photographer Natalie Allen lays out why she switched to analog image making, and how it changed the way she shoots
The human brain's "wants" and "desires" are transient by nature. Our love for tangible commodities are short-lived, often being replaced by the warped necessity to upgrade. During the early ages of my business, when I photographed friends for a quick $20 in high school, I longed for the biggest and baddest Canon camera on the market. Once I saved enough money from my serving gigs to upgrade from a cropped sensor to a full-frame (substantial difference in overall quality) my work only improved by small technical specs—the same Natalie Allen was still shooting the same over-exposed, slighting off composed photographs. It wasn't until years of practice and substantial experience in the industry that I finally started to build a personality in this craft.
Then there came an exciting turning point in my career last year. As I strutted around beautiful landscapes with thousands of dollars strapped around my neck, I felt strangely uneasy. I would often look inside the dusty scopes of vintage National Geographic magazines and couldn't help but want my work to echo the same nostalgic, homey feeling. Iconic photography from the 70's is, obviously, all shot by either 35mm or 120mm film.
I then noticed a pattern with all of my favorite photographers—Ansel Adams, Kevin Russ, Sally Mann, Molly Steele, Magdalena Wosinska—they all emulated analog documentation. I used to craft mood boards with magazine tear outs and Mod Podge glue in my journals of random film photographs also found on Tumblr or Pinterest, thirsty to replicate this undoubted inspiration.
"From this experiment I’ve learned that “Gear” is an excuse."
Enough was enough, I said. I decided to pick up my father's old Nikon point-and-shoot for the sake of trying something new. After a few rolls of disastrous mistakes and other happy accidentals, I found a strange love for the peculiar morphosis my photography gained through film—the colorful light leaks, vibrant colors, and natural grain unforced by digital manipulation. There was effortless ease that came through my visual storytelling, something I so desperately longed for that digital would never gift. Each composited shot becomes more and more intentional, allowing myself as the photographer to live fully in the present moment.
From this experiment I’ve learned that “Gear” is an excuse. But it's not all black and white. Are we talking about how the camera impacts the “quality” of an image, or how it influences the “look” of a photographer’s work? Well, both.
There are photographs taken by a $50 point-and-shoot that have moved me in stronger ways than those captured by a $5,000 camera. Hell, there are scenes in feature-length movies filmed with an iPhone6 that made me cry ugly tears (Florida Project, anyone?). Proper utilization of externalities such as light, composition, subject matter, and color are what primarily drive the emotion of a photograph.
Many photographers who work with expensive gear do so by experience. Our talent in this craft needs to live up to the specs we often salivate for. Because there are, to be fair, certain technical aspects and functions provided in luxury camera bodies that frankly cannot be found in most analog varieties. The photographers who seek wifi-luxury, quality-driven HDR modes, fully-customizable white balances, endless navigation, and grain-free captures... perhaps the higher-end digitized equipment should be of higher purpose.
"Above all, create images that make your heart go wild—images that make you feel something."
Finding a suited balance between shooting film and digital comes with time, and to be honest, it’s still something I’m trying to adequately figure out. I’ve learned by first dividing digital vs. film by what’s professional vs. personal.
Most commissions, particularly those editorial or commercial based, beg for more of a bright, simple, airy, look that digital can so effortlessly capture. Likewise, this industry runs on fast-turnaround times that are nearly impossible to follow when working with analog equipment. However, the more personal, premeditated projects bound by a raw human experience, I’ve found, are best conquered by the nostalgic film camera as they are both—artistically and physically speaking—complementary of one another. It’s an obvious stylistic choice.
Through this passion of practice, I’ve begun pitching proposals to clients on film-only shoots that have reached some success. Here’s to reshaping new ideas in the commercial photo industry; may we savor the unique, artistic innocence over the dull and overdone concepts we far too often see.
For beginner photographers looking to inspire others (or better yet, themselves!), do not be discouraged by the often unpredictable nature of film or a lack of experience with a new tool, the images shot on your camera will look entirely different than those of another photographer with the same equipment. And if you feel you don’t have the financial means to supply a fantastic outcome with your work, focus on what stylistic aspects of film you love so much and try to emulate them in your digital work.
The reality is, film and processing isn’t cheap, but VSCO is. There’s definitely a difference, as any sharp eye can tell, but if relying on that latter allows you to hone your style while saving to shoot more of the former, then that may be a path worth considering. Either way, the key is to honor the diversity of your work and find your style as it comes.
And for the professional and skilled hobbyists of equal curiosity, I’ll remind that growth fosters in the uncomfortability. Seek new opportunities in superseding ways and challenge yourself with a new medium or subject. We never stop learning, if we never stop exploring.
Focus on the story. The subject. The activism. The drive. Move your audience with the fascination of simplicity and passion. Cameras are our mechanical tools, yes, but they are only a working fraction of our overall production. Move past the stigma of gear. Be better than your camera.
Above all, create images that make your heart go wild—images that make you feel something.