Is Street Photography Meant To Be Shot On Film

My film photography is not clinically perfect, it’s not razor-sharp, highlights are sometimes purposefully blown, shadows are often sacrificed, and I incorporate more “movement” into my work (motion blur) than I do with digital.  Thankfully the camera in street photography is much less important than subject matter and light.

With digital photography it’s all about dynamic range, ISO, and megapixels…  This is virtually a moot point with film photography.  When you shoot with film you can still adjust your cameras ISO but it does not change the sensitivity of the film, it simply changes the exposure and you’ll have to compensate in the darkroom.  I find this immensely satisfying.  There is very little to think about other than capturing meaningful moments.


The slight imperfections of shooting with film correlate well with the imperfection of life in my eyes.  We aren’t perfect, no matter what we look like on the outside there is always some sort of turmoil at one time or another within us.  Why did he or she say that?  Why don’t I have this or that?  When will this finally happen for me?  Should I have done that?  For me, the imperfections of film perfectly records this reality.

8479199299-r1-016-6aPlease don’t misunderstand me, this is not a “film is better than digital” argument.  I do still shoot street photography with a digital Leica and will continue to do so.  All I’m saying is that shooting street photography with a film camera feels like the way it is supposed to be…  To me.

8477009034-r1-003-0Just like street photography, shooting with film can be quite unpredictable.  There was no way for me to know that the image above would have been impacted by light leak.  This is not something I could have captured with a digital camera…  Even though I can add the light leak look in post processing with digital files, I’m not sure I would have thought to do it here (or to this extent).

8472009036-r1-024-10aMy keeper rate, the percentage of “usable” images I capture, is far higher when shooting with film due to the fact that I’m very particular about what I shoot since I know it will cost me roughly $.90 per shot (purchase film, develop, and scan).  Admittedly, that is not a film attribute as much is it is a product of me not hating my money.

8479199299-r1-008-2aShooting with film has helped me with my timing as well, there is no such thing as continuous shooting with my Leica M7.  I’m lucky if I get one shot every few seconds because of the need to manually advance the film after each shot.

8473199303-r1-072-34aBecause of all of the “shortcomings” of film I am forced to contemplate each shot before I take it.  I thought I was deliberate before, but am realizing that film takes it to an entirely new level.  The need to take it slow and anticipate the scene as it unfolds in front of you when shooting with film is a huge asset in street photography.

8478009033-r1-044-20aAll of the images you see here were taken with the Leica M7 and Kodak Portra 400 .  The film was sent to Indiefilmlab for development and scanning.  The only further post processing I did was to straighten a few of the images.

8478009033-r1-048-22aIf you’re considering shooting your street photography with film it’s important to know some of the limitations.  Cost and image size are the two biggest sacrifices.  None of the images you see here can easily be printed larger than 16×20″ (it’s possible to make huge prints of 35mm film but it would require some special equipment and lots of time).  In regards to cost…  I spent roughly $300 to have 11 rolls of film developed and scanned so you probably aren’t going to want to waste a lot of your film on shots of your cat Muffins licking herself.

So, is street photography meant to be shot on film?  My honest opinion is that it’s meant to be shot on anything that gets you motivated to go out and shoot day after day.  For me, right now that is film.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading.

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3 replies on “Is Street Photography Meant To Be Shot On Film”
  1. Everything you can do with film you can do with digital. It just requires discipline and intent. Just because you can shoot 14 frames per second does not mean you should. Put the digital camera in single frame mode. Just because you can dynamically adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed does not mean you should. Put the camera i manual mode and take your time.

    Personally, I just can’t stand film. I hated processing negatives in the dark room. I hated the smell of the chemicals. I hated the while my eyes adjusted from the dark room to the normal room.

    Digital was freeing.

  2. says: John Robin

    I shoot both film and digital. I like digital for the flexibility of ISO settings and the immediacy of seeing results on the camera. It is useful for action photography and to see if some effect I’m trying to get is working. My film camera is a Minolta 6×6 twin lens reflex. Talk about being deliberate! With only 12 frames you really want to be sure when you commit to release the shutter!

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Haha, yes… You’ve got to be even more deliberate in that situation. I think a digital + film approach is perfect as opposed to one or the other. It sounds like you have the right idea, a camera (or type of camera) is a tool and not all tools can be used for all things. That’s the great thing about photography and photographers in general, we are all after the same thing… A great photo… But we can approach it many different ways which is what makes our images unique from one another. Thanks for the feedback!

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