Let me start by saying that I’m a digital camera junkie. I love technology. I love everything about working with digital images… the number of images that can fit on a tiny memory card, the sharpness and amount of detail that can be captured with good bodies and lenses, the instant gratification that comes from looking at an LCD screen and the amount of flexibility available while editing. Why, then, would I ever want to shoot film instead of digital?
First off, this is not a film vs. digital debate. Some people like shooting film, others prefer digital. Each has its own unique benefits. Each also has a downside. I’m not trying to defend either medium of photography. I think everyone should shoot with whatever makes them happy. Instead, I want to tell you why I started shooting film last year and why I’m still shooting it today.
About a year ago I was browsing the stalls of an antique shop and came across a Yashica-D twin lens reflex (TLR) camera. For some reason I felt compelled to buy it and shoot a few rolls of film. Having never used a TLR before, the first time I opened the lens shade and looked inside I was mesmerized by what I saw. I became infatuated with peering down through the ground glass viewfinder at the reversed image of what was in front of me. While I metered for my exposure and slowly focused and composed each shot, I found myself really paying attention to my composition and waiting for the perfect moment to trip the shutter. After all, I only have 12 shots per roll of 120 film. Each shot has to count!
Once I finished a few rolls of film, I needed to get them developed. The wait was agonizing! I was so used to the instant gratification of digital that waiting for film to be developed and scanned was torture. I could barely even remember what was on those rolls of film. Eventually, the day came that the lab let me know that my images were ready to download. I felt like I was back in the days of dial-up while I waited for my zip files to download… it seemed to take forever! When they were finally on my computer, I opened up my first film scans.
I really didn’t know what to expect. Would they be in focus? Would they be properly exposed? I didn’t even know if the camera worked or if I loaded the film properly, so I wasn’t sure there would even be any images to see! To my delight, the images on my computer screen were beautiful! They were vibrant, properly exposed and in focus. They had a very different feel to them than I was used to, but it immediately felt right to me. I was smitten.
It’s been over a year now since those first rolls of film. I finally feel like I’m figuring out my personal tastes for cameras, film stocks and applications. Although I have started weaving film into my professional work, I don’t plan on it ever replacing digital. Instead, it’s more of a “product” that I can offer my clients, similar to a new type of album or canvas. Film is something that my clients can choose if they wish, but my default remains digital.
For personal work, I choose to shoot film. For the last four trips I’ve taken, the majority of my images were captured on film. Even as I type this, I’m sitting on a plane that’s heading towards San Francisco. In my camera bag I’ve got my Nikon F100 and a Polaroid SX-70. It’s not that film is easier to work with. Believe me… lugging around a TLR or a Polaroid camera that uses pack film is far from convenient. Instead, I feel like it allows me to see more of what’s around me. I don’t feel compelled to take a photo of everything that looks interesting just because I can. I ask myself, “is that worth taking a picture of?” and, based on the answer, I either take a photo or move on. When I do decide to take a photo, I slow down my entire process. I carefully consider my subject and composition. If I’m using a rangefinder or a camera without autofocus, I take my time focusing. Instead of taking 1/500th of a second to take a photo, my process can stretch out to a minute or more. I usually take one photo, hope that it was properly exposed and in focus and then I move on.
When I send my rolls of film out for developing and scanning, it can sometimes take up to a month to get the scanned images back. When they do come back, they are essentially finished images. It’s amazing what a good lab can do for your images. They take care of exposure, white balance and contrast. If you just want to download them and print them, they are going to look great. Of course, some are inevitably soft, but that’s just the way things go. The majority of my film images are good shots that I consider “keepers” (a much higher percentage than compared to digital).
The Appeal of Film
So what exactly is the appeal of film? It’s going to be different for everyone, but I can tell you why I love using it. First off, I slow down when I shoot with film. I shoot more carefully and I shoot fewer images. The images are not as “perfect” as digital images, but the tone, softness and grain of my film work is something that I enjoy very much. I love sending off my rolls of film, waiting anxiously for the scans to arrive and having beautiful images (and sometimes unexpected surprises) come back to me. I really enjoy trying new types of film and seeing which ones fit my shooting style best. But most of all, I think I love the cameras. To me, there is a certain thrill and satisfaction that comes from using a camera that is considered by many to be a useless, antiquated piece of history. I have found that many older cameras have their own unique qualities and feel, both in the way that they function and in the images that they produce. My Yashica-D gives me very different results than my Holga, which gives me very different results than my Mamiya 645 did. Although they all use the same type of film they all create entirely different images. Given the number of film cameras available and all of the different types of film that can be used, the combinations that are possible and the unique images resulting from any given combination are endless!
Although film may be slower, less perfect, less predictable and sometimes even more expensive than digital, it has definitely found a place in my heart. I embrace it’s imperfections and celebrate it’s analogue nature. When I want perfect, predictable, immediate and consistent results, I shoot digital. When I want something else, I choose to shoot film.
But one thing that film experience taught me, which I now apply to digital as well, is to take time and do a better job with composing, framing and taking images, not spray and pray just because I can…