Learning Requires Feedback (or Why I Got a Digital Camera)

Soon after I began seriously considering buying a film camera, I read a lot of photography blogs. At the outset, the goal was to learn enough about photography and cameras to take decent garden pics. There was never any desire to be a “photographer.” It seems that the type of camera that newbies to the field should buy is a common topic. Just about every single site, except Casual Photophile, recommended a manual camera from the 70s–Canon AE-1, Minolta ST-T, or Pentax K1000. These are all experienced photographers, so I can’t dispute their advice. However, now in hindsight, after a year of trying to learn photography,  I have to respectfully disagree. For anyone like myself—trying to learn from books and an occasional class, a manual film camera is the slowest and possibly the most expensive way to go.  Let’s look at this in terms of cost and efficacy. 

A roll of color film costs 4.00-15.00 or more depending on the brand. Black and white film costs 3.50-7.00 per roll. Mail-in film processing is 12.00-15.00 or more per roll for color, and black and white runs higher. Here in Atlanta, a roll of black and white is 15.00+ for developing and scanning. Thus, the total cost for B&W is easily 20.00 per roll! Color is about the same or more. Think about this—20 bucks per roll.  

Learning requires feedback, and the more timely the feedback, the better the learning experience. Trying to understand exposure compensation made this point for me. Exposure compensation made sense, conceptually, the time I first read about it. I experimented using only cameras with EC dials because trying to do this with just a plain manual was confusing. Even with an EC dial, it was frustrating trying to do the shots and learn from the images. Since I was rarely able to shoot an entire roll in a day, by the time a roll was completed, processed, and returned, often three weeks or more would have passed.

Frequently, I could not see any differences between the shots. Should I have gone 1.5 stops? Two stops? Keep in mind, this at 20.00 per roll. And, after waiting weeks, the original scene was gone, so going back to reshoot was impossible. It soon became apparent that learning DoF, hyper-focal distance, lighting, and exploring the zone system would eat up a lot of money, and the feedback would be no better or faster. I loved the look of film, but simple economics required a change. 

Spending hundreds of dollars on film processing just to learn was unrealistic. I bought a digital camera. Fortunately, digital cameras are inexpensive. I was able to buy an Olympus e300 8MP camera, lenses, and accessories for about 40.00. An adapter for MC/MD lenses cost about 12.00. From then on, learning photographic principles was easy—read a topic, pick a subject, shoot, review the image, repeat. What I struggled with while using film, I was able to experiment with easily using a digital camera. Better living through technology! Depth of field? Pick a subject, pick an aperture, shoot, repeat–results in seconds. Now, whenever I am testing a new concept or idea, I shoot digital first and go back to film when I’m ready to capture images to keep. I also check new lenses with digital to find weaknesses before shooting with film. 

For those like me, who want to or have to learn photography on their own, feedback—fast and frequent— is essential. The only way to learn is to see what went right and what did not. The faster one can see and analyze mistakes, the more efficacious the learning process. I love film, but film is not the most efficient way to learn photographic principles.  

Having digital, film, and manual cameras, I find I choose each for different purposes. When the goal is testing an idea or principle, digital is my first choice. When I know what I want to shoot for keeps, I use an AF camera. The SR-T comes out when I want to test my skills and see how much I’ve learned or need to learn.  

Learning requires feedback, and for me, digital is the most cost-effective way to experiment and learn. 

2 Comments

  1. When I got back into cameras I also developed my old-roads hobby. Holy frijoles, was it expensive to shoot film on those trips. I could go through 2, 3, 4 rolls easy. So I bought a digital point and shoot. I started shooting 300 or more photos on a trip! Just the repetition of it with no additional cost constraint helped me be so much better at making photographs.

    1. Author

      Yep! The cost struck me after I realized the first seven rolls had cost me a total of about 140.00 total! And those first rolls had only a few keepers. Photography requires learning by doing, so an older digital makes economic and educational sense.

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