Why I shoot film
I shoot film for most of my photography. It is a personal choice.
My reasons for choosing film rather than digital are part technical, part aesthetic and part emotional. Ultimately, I think film makes me a better photographer. I enjoy the process more and I like the way the pictures look. It’s really that simple.
Film looks filmy and it’s fun to use. I think film also offers some significant benefits for the serious photographer.
There is no doubt that digital is the best option for most kinds of photography. So this is not a film versus digital debate. It is personal.
Firstly, film and my film cameras, are incredible teachers. My cameras are really just dumb boxes, and film is very unforgiving when exposed to light. So when I shoot film, especially with a dumb camera, I have no choice but to learn to be a good technical photographer. If I don’t, anything creative I might try to do, probably won’t look very good. It is my keenness to learn photography which initially drove me towards film.
Using film puts me in a particular environment and mindset which has a huge influence on how I make pictures.
Let me explain.
I mostly use two simple film cameras; a Mamiya 7II and a Leica M6. They are just black boxes with great lenses; No Picture Control System, No Scene Recognition Software, No pre-loaded presets, No Active D-Lighting, No P Mode, No Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors, No 19-point AF System with improved AI Servo II AF Subject Tracking, No Intelligent Viewfinder, No 63-Zone Dual-Layer Metering System, No Full HD video, No Megapixels, No CMOS Sensor and none of 300 other button option combinations.
When I pick up this camera it is just me, some film and a handheld light meter. Film cuts my hi-tech umbilical cord. I don’t have a computer in my camera to save me, to lean on, or to make up for my lack of skills. It’s just me.
Film is expensive and I only have 6, 10 or 36 frames in my camera. I can’t fire off hundreds or thousands of shots hoping that a few will be great. Film’s expense and frame limit is a ‘drag wheel’ which forces me to get good shots every few frames. The physicality of film, by its very nature, has limitations which compels me to get it right.
The result is that film slows me down. It requires me to think, plan, learn and to see. My tools choice puts extra responsibility on me. Every single aspect of what will make a great photograph needs to be thought through and actively managed. My eyes need to be on alert and the technical and creative sides of my mind need to work quickly and in unison.
Also, when I shoot film, I need to be able to see what my photograph will look like in my mind, because I can not see it on the back of a camera. And if I don’t like what I see in my mind I need to know how to change it. The only way to do this well, is for camera and mind to become one. I need to be so familiar with my camera’s settings and so experienced in making it capture an image, that working the camera becomes completely instinctive and transparent. What happens over time is that my camera ceases to exist as I shoot. I’m not working my camera, I am working my mind and my mind is in the scene. There are no tool distractions. I am at one with the scene, looking for things I find interesting. And that is what I need to be doing.
Making a photograph in your mind and knowing how to quickly instruct your camera to make-it-so is very empowering to the creative process. Knowledge and taking pictures in my head, sets me free. Film simply puts me in this zone better than digital does. By default most digital gear has so many button choices. It pulls you away from what good photography is about, making interesting pictures.
In essence, the use of film requires me to think, see better and sharpen my skills, and this makes me a better photographer!
Now, you might say that it’s really up to me and that digital is just as good a teacher if I were disciplined and got my act together. And yes, you are 100% right. But you’re a better person than I am, for as much as I do try, film just makes me try that much harder.
So, why else do I shoot film?
I think film still has some technical benefits, although many will disagree. For example, when I shoot landscape photography, under very low light and for very long exposures, I believe that film captures smoother and more delicate tonal detail than digital. Digital is getting very good but I think film just has both a more pleasing look, and a better technical performance, under these conditions. And in bright or high contrast light, the milky base of film gives highlights a nice soft landing. Further, digital can also be very noisy under certain conditions and the dithering pattern of noise in a photograph is something I do not like. It is not like film grain, it has a different texture and a different aesthetic look and a different emotional feel.
A good scan off a great transparency will give you a lot of detail in a very large file. I have read different and conflicting thoughts on the megapixel equivalent of film with many people seeming to suggest that a good scan from a 6×7 film can give you a 100+MP image. I don’t know and to be honest I don’t care too much about the numbers. What I do know is that a good scan off my film gives me incredible detail and a very large useful file.
Film, and the different film types, bring their own qualities to the workflow and pictures. For landscapes, one particular film, Fuji’s Velvia 50, brings its own characteristics into play. In days of old, photographers would choose different films for different effects. Today you can paint those effects in via Software. However if you want the original look and feel, many of these films are still available. I particularly like Velvia’s tendency to soak up colours and add a kick of contrast. I like how it captures those colours which are soft and delicate; soft colours around moving water, on a long exposure, are stunning on Velvia. ( And as a side note, Velvia is not us heavy and contrasty as people think if you use it carefully. Velvia can provide a velvety soft feel if you know what you are doing.) The tonal detail is wonderful. With a long exposure before sun-up Velvia seams to intensify those colours much like a tapered red wine glass concentrates a wine’s flavour and aroma to emphasise varietal characteristics. ( ok, I know that’s a bit much ). But for me, Velvia captures colour beautifully. Some don’t like the effect. I love it!!
Most importantly, film also brings real and organic film grain into a photograph. Film grain has a natural textural look which I think is beautiful. I find that the video signal of digital, produces a very flat almost sterile image; too clean and too cold in character at its best and too noisy at its worst. In comparison, I like the depth and texture that film brings to a photograph. This is why many software applications offer an extensive array of film textures so that digital photographers can put back into an image some of the character which has been lost in moving from film. The film look verses video look is a significant reason why directors still choose film to make many movies.
You can see examples of my black & white street, and my black and white and colour landscape work here.
There is also the emotional aspect of film. I do like the sense of ‘theatre’ and personal satisfaction which film gives me; the opening of a roll, the loading of the camera, the winding of the shutter. It is tangible. It just feels good. I don’t underestimate the emotion of film. Photography is after all a passion for me. It is not a job and anything which adds to the passion and enjoyment of the experience gets full marks from me. Film is fun.
Film has its own story to tell. In time film may be gone and I like the idea that I will have created bodies of work using a medium that no longer exists and which cannot be recreated in the same way. On this point alone there is a wonderful conversation to be had when discussing a body of work that was captured on original film. It just makes the work special.
I like what film can teach me, that it helps make me a better photographer. I like its look and how it makes me feel. It is that simple.
As always, if you enjoyed reading this, please share it with other people who enjoy photography. I have learnt from what others have shared with me, so I like to pass it on.
Thank you, Steve.