Is Old School the Right School for Photography Education?


I was sitting around the other day chatting with some photographer friends and our conversation turned to our kids and education. We were soon talking about what kids should be learning to make it as a photographer in today’s ever changing world. Interestingly enough, we had some very different opinions about what they should be learning. My buddies said that they should absolutely have to shoot and process film; black and white for sure if not color. Oddly enough, I came out on the other side of this discussion.

While it is true that I cut my photography teeth the old fashioned way, by rolling my own film, and then processing and printing it in small darkrooms, I can’t say that this is what kids need to learn today. Let’s face it, when will they ever need to load film, mix chemistry, and screw around with an enlarger. I know there are those that say that it is a magical experience, but I also think that is romanticizing things a bit. Frankly, I have never been more productive and had more fun than right now, in the thick of the digital photographic area.

If one of my children were to express an interest in photography, I would rather they explore the boundaries of digital multimedia rather than waste their time learning something that will probably do little to nothing to advance their careers. And I don’t buy the argument that you learn more by only having 36 exposures in your camera that you can’t see until they are developed and printed. By then, you probably forgot just what you were doing when you shot them so you have little to learn from other than some bad exposures. Frankly, I believe that one of the greatest advancements in learning photography is the LCD screen. Having the instant feedback to know what you have achieved right after you pushed the button is an invaluable tool.


Let’s put it this way, what if you were learning a musical instrument and you couldn’t hear the notes you were playing until a week later? DO you think that you would really learn how to play or just get frustrated with the process? I believe that digital photography has opened the floodgates of learning and there isn’t really a reason to go back. T0 put it a different way, I don’t need to learn how to program computer punch cards to appreciate my current computer technology.

I believe that there is still a viable employment future in the field of photography but I don’t see film as anything more than a hobby that will do little to prepare anyone for the road ahead. Instead, I think a strong curriculum filled with learning photography basics, post-processing, videography, video processing, and even audio and computer skills are what it will take to make it the business. Oh, and don’t forget some classes on lighting and composition so that you stuff looks good.

So that’s my take on it. What’s your opinion? Please share in the comments and hit the poll below to let us know what you believe.


  1. Great informative and useful post. I got huge of important idea about photography from your post. Please keep sharing with us !!

  2. If you want to prepare kids today for a career in photography (or anything else)? Teach them how to market themselves. Most of any business today is finding effective ways of networking, creating a ‘tribe’, selling yourself as well as your product. The ‘life-long’ jobs at NG or Time or newspapers are long gone.

    My first ‘real’ camera was my dad’s Argus. It had four f/stops, five shutter speeds (including B), ‘guess focusing’, and no lightmeter. It was perfect for me. The unabashed truth, however, is that film is pretty much dead, at least from a business perspective. Yes, I still have film cameras, and yes I still shoot 120 film – for myself. But if you shoot film today you have to scan it to send it to someone and now you’ve got a digital image – no matter where it came from.

    I can agree with teaching new photographers the basics like DOF, perspective, composition, etc. because those things are the same no matter the equipment you’re using. But in a digital world you’re not limited to 4×5/ 8×10, 4×6/24×36, etc. If you can stitch together 3 or 9 or 500 images, you can make any perspective you want. F/stops and shutter speeds (and now ISO) are the trifecta of exposure, and you need to know how a lightmeter reads a scene (everything is medium gray), and how to accommodate for that. EV wasn’t even a term people used thirty years ago. You don’t need to learn how to clutch to drive a car anymore, and Aperture priority or Shutter priority or Program modes can take away much of the burden of making proper exposures – most of the time. However, if you want to elevate yourself from the masses and to make work that stands out, you still need to know how to go beyond the auto mode and develop creative vision.

    That’s also important – creative vision – because photography is not only what you see but how you see. Budding photographers need to learn how to SEE as a photographer, how to take that three-dimensional space in front of you and squash it down into two dimensions while maintaining relevance. You also need to learn how to integrate stills and video, because they’re both going to be needed in today’s world, where photography/videography are about telling stories, about creating connections as much or more as anything else.

    There’s an excellent subject on the topic here:

    There’s a lot more, but that’s enough for now.


    P.S. Last summer I was asked to give a talk on Lightroom for our photo group. I thought it would be easy; I’d solicit questions from people in advance and then I could just stand up there and answer them. However, the only question I really got from people was, “What is Lightroom and why would I want it anyway?” At that point I realized I needed to go back to the beginning and talk about the essentials of digital photography. I created a video of that talk… if you’re interested you can see it here:

  3. Mike Meyer says:

    I love making prints and developing film. It’s a lot of fun and watching a print come up in the developer is still magic… however, it is not necessary to learn photography. Shooting film and using an enlarger does not make you a better photographer. And if you should learn about film why not learn how to do tintypes also. Trust me, digital is way better and isn’t that what we are after? The best possible images. I think so. Happy shooting 🙂

  4. Tarek Charara says:

    The analogy between photography and playing the violin is a bit strange, I would have thought photography is a bit more like composing… You learn how to see, then you learn how to transpose that onto the medium of your choice. Playing the violin is the transposing (p)art. In photography that would be the printing. Film vs Digital? That’s a personal choice… I prefer film, it’s way more fun and rewarding than digital…

  5. I think it makes the most sense to teach young photographers straight-away in the use of digital media, in part because it simply enables them to spend more time in the capturing and evaluation of images, giving them a chance to be experimental and try new ideas, to learn their own style. On the other hand, I was grateful that our local high-school still wanted to take my old Beseler 45MXT!
    There would be some benefit however in learning to shoot an “old style” camera, where the young photographer would need to make more conscious choices … where do I focus? How much depth of field is right for this image, how shall I expose the image to create my vision, what shutter speed shall I use? Although all of these options are available on our fantastic digital cameras, there was a different sense in learning how to shift the exposure when using match-needle metering, or how to make decisions and trade-offs when working with a single film speed (though the flexibility offered by instantaneous adjustment of ISOs is terrific and enables a whole new dimension). I’d wager that “depth of field preview” was more likely used on your old film camera than it is today on your digital SLR. So, although I love my digital gear, I’m glad I had the chance to learn on an older camera where there was no alternative but to make a lot of conscious choices (and constrained by film costs and my meager salary…I had to choose carefully!).

  6. Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin says:

    i was saddened to read this. I feel like it’s similar to telling the painting/art world that we’ll take away their canvases and oil paints – because making similar imagery on the computer is faster, easier, and cheaper. While I absolutely love digital photography, I think learning the old school way is important and must not be lost. The hands on experience is valuable, as well as being more thoughtful when making the images. Having 36 frames tends to slow us down, either because of the cost, or because we feel that film is more precious. I am an advocate for continuing to teach photography with film, chemistry, and light sensitive paper. My students love learning on film and are beginning to understand where the Instagram and Hipstamatic aesthetics originated from.
    Kathleen McLaughlin, Lecturer, Loyola Marymount University, New York Film Academy, Academy of Art University

  7. “Let’s put it this way, what if you were learning a musical instrument and you couldn’t hear the notes you were playing”, said Beethoven. 😉

    I started off with film, I’d never developed or printed my own, I’d stuck to labs, and within a few short years made the leap to digital (with a D100 back in 2002).

    I learned more with digital in the first 4 or 5 months than I had done with film in the previous 4 or 5 years (but I had no help, no mentor, there was little info on the web, I was mostly figuring things out for myself). My N90s (my first ever camera), sat in the box for the next 10 years.

    Last year I pulled the N90s out of retirement and started shooting film again. This time developing it and printing it myself. It was an experience I felt digital had robbed me of a decade earlier (it was on my “to do” list). I figured either I’ll hate it and I’ll quit doing it, or I’ll enjoy it, and it’ll be a positive force in me and my work.

    It’s not that I particularly really wanted to shoot film, but I wanted to shoot black & whites, and I just felt very underwhelmed with digital RAW conversions, no matter which method I used to do that conversion.

    Since then I’ve picked up a couple of Nikkormats and a Mamiya C330Pro F, and I’m shooting film fairly regularly. It’s not something clients ask for, nor is it something I really advertise. I do it for me.

    I do think that going back and shooting film, and getting rid of all the bells and whistles of modern cameras has taught me some patience, and given me a new outlook on how I capture images. It’s certainly given me a new mindset that I can also bring to my digital work, that I probably wouldn’t have had, had I not gone back to shooting film alongside digital.

    I don’t necessarily think that shooting film should be a prerequisite to shooting digital, but I do think it’s something folks should experience at some point in their photography timeline, even if just to get another perspective. Whether it improves their photography will be down to the individual. Whether it makes business sense is another matter entirely.

  8. Kenny Paisley says:

    I believe that Mike has a point. Photographers need to have a special vision. A photographer needs to have a special talent. They should employ their creative skills to produce captivating images.


  1. […] Is there still a need to learn by developing film? – by Jeff Revell (Photowalk Pro) […]

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