What shooting film has taught me By Zhao TianYu

What shooting film has taught me

By Zhao TianYu

About two weeks ago I made the decision to go back to film. Well ‘go back’ may not be entirely accurate – as someone who was born in the digital age, I have never shot film before (if you discount the times when I was still a child and used my parents’ film camera). I made the change because I found myself stuck in a creativity dead-end when it comes to street photography: after my recent trips to Bangkok and Nepal, I found the city I live in (Singapore) pretty boring, though some may disagree. I found myself keep going to the same places, use the same technique, and shoot more or less the same subjects. I read books, studied other people’s work, and I’ve decided maybe it’s time for a change in the medium as well as the approach. I bought a rangefinder and a couple rolls of film and my digital camera has been sitting in the dry cab since.

So now two weeks have passed, and I’ve shot about 10 rolls of film. Sure that’s not a lot, and I’m by no means a pro when it comes to film photography (I still lab scan my negatives). But I’ve learnt a lot from these two weeks, more than years of shooting digital. I’ve heard people say there’s no reason to shoot film from a technical point of view cause digital is much more versatile and convenient, but it is precisely the reason I switched back to film cause it is HARD. It helped me to slow down, and as a result I think a lot more when I shoot. I leant to guess the light, I learnt to look for interesting compositions or juxtapositions cause every frame must count since it costs me money, and learnt to appreciate the city I live in. It took a lot more time for me to finish 36 frames, but I have much more keepers.

Another reason why I prefer film is because the feeling when you get back your negatives and found out you have nailed the shot is extremely satisfying. Sure I’ve had screw-ups and disappointments along the way, but in general I found film photography to be much more rewarding than digital. With film I won’t chimp and look at my LCD screen all the time, and I often forgot what I took until I see the scan results. But it was precisely the reason that made me a better photographer, because I learnt to distance myself from my work. I became much more critical when editing my works, and when I’m not impressed by the results I’ve seen, I go out and shoot more. I stopped uploading my work everyday, and in fact this is the first time I’ve shown my street works to the public in two weeks. After all, you are only as good as your weakest shot.

Here are some of the images I took over the last two weeks. Hope you’ll like them. All images were taken with Leica M6 TTL (I was lucky to find a wonderful new old stock of the Millennium Black Paint edition) and 35mm Summilux FLE on Tri-x.

Check out my instagram account @tianyuzhao




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  1. I started with roll film in the mid 1960s and started processing b/w in 1970 so it has been a while. I still remember the first time my dad developed a print in front of me it seemed like magic. As others have said the difference between films is something digital does not have right now. You have some beautiful photos and great composition.

  2. Myself, I don’t miss film – at least a week, maybe two between snapping a shot and seeing the results, and by that time I don’t have a clue what the situation was or my settings.

    Not to mention the $$$.

    But there is one thing I miss about film. In general, the patina of the various film types. In specific ?


    They took it away from me 🙁

  3. yeah, some in a while, every body say the AF speed is everthing, so every company claim to be “the fastest auto focus in the world” and bla bla bla … and consumer complain, about the AF is still not fast enough … but u buy leica with no AF and u happy with manual focus … so what is the meaning to be “fastest in the world” ?

    not so long ago, High ISO is everything, so every company race to make the cleanes and more insane High ISO … in my mind, what the hell ? what is everybody thinking ? is everybody want to shoot at night to see like it took on the daylight ? why don’t u just shoot it on daylight in the first place ?

    and now, every body say … ” it look digital ” … and again … “What the fxxx … !!?? of course it look digital … u looking that picture on the LCD SCREEN …!!! or retina display or what ever u want to call it …

    if u want to look like the film image, don’t scan it !! PRINT IT … !! and hang it on the wall … and see every one that sees that picture … are they look it closely ? like 1 inch on the eye ? like we always see 100% picture on the computer ?

    come on man … what i saw, every body enjoy looking their picture is about one or two feet away from the picture … why ? coz they want to see ALL THE PICTURE, i mean ALL, and to explore,

    they want to know, what is the story on the picture or behind the picture, where did he or she took the picture, what is the massage behind that old picture …

    so like john said … “Some nice photos…but it has nothing to do with them being film.”

    and that’s it …

    so if that a good picture … yeah it good picture, nothing to do with the film or digital
    but if the picture were bad … maybe that picture is just not suit your’e taste


    • yes and no, John. Shooting film is a different experience, it does make you slow down a bit and consider what you are shooting. Therefore it does affect the results. Not saying that these images couldn’t be achieved on a digital camera, technically they could. But as we know, technique is only part of the art….most of it’s the eye of the photographer and the relationship with the camera and medium. So the medium does affect the end result.

  4. Beautiful shots!
    I started to shoot film in 1988, and switched to digital only in 2001. Film taught me of few things: that the only technical thing you must think about when shooting are aperture, speed and exposure (no silly filters/modes/special effects to care about), and that you have to get the composition right when you frame the shot (no shooting/chimping/repeating). Translating this into digital has allowed me to have a nice ratio of keepers even if I usually shoot comparatively few frames (the most was three hundreds frames shot in a two-days vacation in Rome). And it is a way of shooting you can do with ANY modern camera…

  5. 1st photo is the best
    I also sometimes shoot film for all the same reasons… slowing down, appreciating the moment and waiting for negatives 😉

  6. Hi Zhao,

    I love the composition of these shots. If shooting film is what brings out your creativity, then great stuff! I don’t shoot film anymore as I cannot deal with the post processing of getting the negatives transferred to digital…it just takes too long. But what I do to try and boost my creativity, by thinking more about my compositions, is to shoot manual focus and not to turn on the LCD review on my camera. Those two things take me back in time a bit and I can focus on the shot. I get the “shooting film feel” :). I don’t look at my photos until I get home, or even weeks later. I just take pictures and at some point, I check them out. Also, it helps that people don’t see you constantly chimping in the field.

    Again, nice work – good luck!

    • Hi JH,

      Yes I can understand some of the frustrations you had shooting film. It’s just that I happened to be rather idle recently so I have time to slowly scan the negatives to my laptop (I subsequently bought a scanner after I’ve posted this). But yes I guess regardless whether it is digital or film, slowing down is always a good way to boost your creativity. Even when I was in Nepal for travelling with my digital camera, I rarely take more than 50, 60 images per day. Compared to people who can burn a few thousand shots per day that’s very little, but I’d rather slow it down and have more keepers, which also saves my time when I post-process them as I don’t have to go through thousands of pictures to find the good ones.


    • Haha nice to find someone who loves film for the same reasons. As to the ‘problem’, I did sent Steve a lot more images, probably 10. But 3 of the images failed to load properly in the original email so I re-sent those 3 images, which were the ones shown here. But if you would like to check out my other works, feel free to take a tour at my instagram account!

    • Haha honestly I couldn’t remember. I think it’s probably the guy on the right. It was taken inside a pitch black museum display that’s how the scene actually looks like.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts -I know a lot of people who are becoming tired of digital and are returning to film and especially to rangefinder cameras so there must be something in this ? Curiously most of them are young people which might surprise you -it did me!

    Maybe it’s the tactile organic nature of the thing and the engagement with the process. Perhaps we have too much digital stuff in our lives already so we appreciate the analogue as a break.
    One guy said to me that digital is like convenience food and film is like learning to cook. I think this is not fair as there is wonderful work being done in both digital and film …but for some rapid fire digital types maybe a little bit of truth ?

    While out walking with my M8 there recently a guy asked me “Are you a street photographer?” I said yes . Great and I see you use film ! he said Brilliant .

    You say it has slowed you down and made you a better photographer – I like your images so it must be working!

    Best Wishes

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