Everyone Compares iPhones to Online Movies, But What Does It Mean?

When the iPhone vs. film trend took over short video last week, I decided to dive a little deeper to find out what makes film more engaging than digital iPhone photography.

Any savvy photographer will likely scoff at an iPhone photographer’s misconception of film, but if you’re like me and your first camera was a smartphone, then there are plenty of differences to unpack.

  • sensor – Silicon chip that captures images in digital cameras. It may vary in size, but usually bigger is better.
  • Movie – It usually comes in rolls. Standard still cameras use 35mm film, but it can be larger or smaller.
  • ISO – This determines how sensitive your sensor or film is to light. Shooting at higher ISOs allows you to capture images in dark areas, but it can also make your images grainier.
  • opening – This number controls how wide the lens opening is. An aperture of F/2.8 is a very wide opening, while F/11 is a small hole for the camera to see through. This can control the amount of light entering the sensor/film and how much background blur is desired.
  • SLR – it’s like DLSR without the D(igital). So basically the purest form of a mechanical camera and everything is manual.

I want to get into film photography. Where should I start?

The film I used for all of these comparisons was Cinestill 800T.

Film is all the rage right now, and editing apps like VSCO that can apply film-inspired presets to images have been popular for years. However, if like me you started your photography journey digitally, you probably have many film-related questions.

Question one: I want to film. Where should I start? The answer to that question starts with making sure you have a lab near you that can process film. Many larger cities still do this, but finding one in a small town might be a bit of a challenge in 2022.

The film photos come from an Olympus OM2 program. The iPhone is an iPhone 13 Pro.

After that, you have to decide how seriously you want to take it. If you want to get some retro shots and don’t want to learn anything about photography, grab a disposable (yes, they still make them). If you want to treat yourself, a compact camera from the early 2000s is your best bet. These have lots of modern conveniences like autofocus, they’re small, easy to use and you can load them with all the cool 35mm film you can get your hands on. Plus, they’re easy to find online for less than $100.

If you want to take it to a higher level, you can get a larger SLR that offers more lens, better photos, and a bigger learning curve. Depending on how modern the camera is in this category, it can also have many automatic functions. For example, my Olympus SLR has a “program mode” that allows the camera to set shutter speed and aperture automatically. Still, I have to focus manually

The last beginner tip I would give out is to only get your film scans instead of the actual prints. While it feels nice to hold a stack of real photos, all photo sharing happens online these days, so the scans are much more useful. Even if you’re just starting out and you’re like me, when you get casts, there’s a high chance they’re blurry. So seriously, stick to the scans.

Film is cool, but what are its limits?

Now that you’ve picked up a film camera, you’ve probably learned its limitations. The film comes first. As unique as it looks, every film has a set ISO, making it harder to find a film that’s versatile at night and during the day. It’s possible, but you need to consider what film you’re shooting before you start shooting.

In addition to being ISO locked, films are also white balance locked. This helps you get consistent shots over an entire roll, but if you’re shooting film that’s balanced for tungsten light, like I am, you might end up with an interesting color cast.

The most common limitation (I like to think of it as a challenge) is that each throw only has a limited number of shots. Most 35mm film has 36, but if you get a medium format camera and shoot the larger 120mm film, there are usually between 10 and 15 exposures per roll.

The final challenge is to wait and evolve it. I use a Toronto lab that usually processes color film same day, but even then the wait time makes it a little harder to learn when you’re starting out. With a phone, you can see what a shot will look like before you take it and adjust accordingly. With a film camera, you can’t tell if that photo took at least hours and at most days or months. I can’t deny that it feels like my birthday every time I get a stack of photo scans in my email, but you can’t beat the immediacy of digital.

Other things I learned

Finding a movie you like is a long trial and error process. Try not to be too picky and just try lots of different options. While there aren’t as many to choose from as there used to be, there’s still plenty to experiment with. I started with Fujifilm as my mirrorless camera is from that brand for work, but after about eight months of shooting I’m starting to like Kodak a lot more.

The cameras are a lot of fun if you are into gadgets as they are all unique. The point and shoot market was extremely competitive from the 80’s through the early 2000’s, so there are a ton of options to choose from and learn from. I found a Canon Sureshot at a Salvation Army, for example, and it can even tell when it’s still and keep its shutter open longer, sort of a precursor to modern night modes in phone cameras. Others have weather protection, smarter focus buttons, and more.

They must be much more stable with film. I’m used to whipping up my phone, snapping it, and tucking it back into my jeans in a flash. But with film, the process requires a lot more focus, even with my modern (similar) point-and-shoot cameras. So now when I’m shooting a movie, I make sure to put my feet up and hold my position until I’m sure the picture will be taken.

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