Phone vs. Film: Lessons From the First Roll

GSU Library

On June 12th, 2021, I sent my first roll of film to be developed, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nothing of photography or composition, and I was confident that the pictures wouldn’t be any good at all. Against all odds, they looked stunning. I mean, I know that sometimes I can get full of myself, but these pictures make it too easy for me. Just look at these colors! There’s something about these photos that make them feel different, but why? I thought of this question often as I stared blankly at my photos for days with no food or water. I’m confident that many people have access to a decent camera because of their cell phones, so what separates 35 mm film from your smartphone?

Let’s set up the match. On one corner of the ring, we have my personal cell phone, the returning champion, an apple product sponsored by T-Mobile; it’s the mean machine, the iPhone 11 pro (We’ll call this contestant Hewell). Hewell has a 12-megapixel camera with image stabilization technology! With four different cameras built into the phone, Hewell is unstoppable. He can take panoramas. He can take portraits. He can take pictures in the dark. He’s got HDR (not sure what that means yet, but we’ll learn together). Hewell can take bursts of photos with the tap of a button.

Picture taken on Hewell (iPhone 11) of me taking a picture

On the other corner of the ring, we’ve got the old-timer. First produced in 1991 with the time’s top-of-the-line autofocus technology, we’ve got the heavy, robust Nikon N6006 (also known as the F601)! We will refer to this camera as Millie. Millie uses specially made Nikkor lenses to take beautiful pictures with 35 mm film. She is an SLR (which means single lens reflex… whatever that means) that does not have image stabilization, and the risk of blurry photos is significantly higher than on Hewell’s camera(s). Millie needs a 223A lithium battery to function, and these batteries die often. Millie has a small LCD panel where you can adjust her various settings. Millie is in a higher weight class than Hewell the iPhone, and she requires a camera bag for convenient travel. Let’s be honest, Hewell has the advantage in almost every way.

There are ground rules. For one, Hewell and Millie’s specifications are not going to be the focus of the match. Having used Millie for a month now, I want to explore the differences in “feel” and, perhaps more pretentiously, “the vibe” of each camera. In other words, what do each of these cameras have to offer you as a consumer or someone just interested in photography?

Let’s start with Hewell. Hewell, the iPhone 11 has a fantastic camera with an array of functions that elevate your experience. Anyone interested in photography can begin learning with a smartphone. That’s incredible, and it makes me regret attempting to learn with a film camera. Hewell is foremost, extremely easy to use, and taking pictures has never been easier. Hewell’s two advantages that greatly supersede the need for a film camera are its image stabilization and night mode functions. These alone make taking photos on a smartphone camera much more effortless than a film camera. Not to mention, there is nothing stopping someone from picking up my phone and taking 300 photos. If someone decided to “prank” me and completely waste an entire roll of film on my camera, that’s just 36 exposures. From my experience with Millie, taking a photo feels like a risk, and I was constantly worried about wasting one of my precious exposures; this is a non-issue when taking pictures with an iPhone.

I barely scratched the surface of Hewell’s capabilities as a camera, and Millie is already on the ropes. I’ve only worked with Millie for a short time now, and I have to ask myself– If I want to learn how to take good pictures, why would I choose to use a film camera? After using my Nikon for a month, the answer is much clearer now; It’s just so exciting. Shooting on film is a very alien experience to me, and exploring this obsolete practice augmented my creativity. Before I took a picture on Millie, I had to think about what I was trying to do–each shot mattered. I forced myself to understand and learn the basics. Otherwise, it would cost my gas money. The anticipation of the development process is riveting, and I was very excited and scared to see my photos developed for the first time. This process and experience do not exist within smartphone photography. Working with an iPhone is infinitely practical, and that is not a debate. Maybe I’m crazy, and I’m slowly assimilating into this film photography cult that secretly controls the masses. Still, after using my Nikon N6006, I believe that there is something lost in taking photos digitally using my cellphone.

So, where are we now? I think that this can all boil down to“, iPhone camera easy film camera more fun.” To me, this is true. But, I do not think that film photography is for everyone, let alone that film photography will strive as long as digital phone photography. If you’d like to learn about photography like me, and you want to save your pennies, then using a smartphone is your ideal learning tool. But, if you’re up for the risk, then it wouldn’t hurt to try learning on a film camera.

Nico and Millie

One thought on “Phone vs. Film: Lessons From the First Roll

  1. This is such an awesome post. I love how you provided so much information and made it really easy for the user to decide which camera would work best for them. My husband has the iPhone 12 Pro and his camera is better than mine so that’s the one I use to record my videos. Thanks for the info!

    Liked by 1 person

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