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…
Cameras used, for photo pairs from top to bottom: Yashica-D TLR, Holga, Nikon F100, Polaroid 360/Polaroid 635CL.
Some more film samples:
oh to be able to afford film… my best photos are with rolls i found in the back of a cupboard but digital is, in the end, cheaper
„Only 12 shots“. Do you use disposable cameras? Mine can be loaded with another roll. IMHO not a valid, altough often heard, argument.
Two significant and important thoughts…
Cutting your teeth on film with a 2 1/4 negative a very real start to understanding the process of making a negative( I too owned a that exact camera. It was my first purchase).
Secondly using film forces a person to THINK about what you are doing…
where is the light, where to stand, what to expose for, what about the detail of the subject and Eugene Smith used to say “if it isn’t a good photograph get closer”.
You are to trust the process with film, but with digital, in my opinion, you become careless. It is to easy to not have to think.
Your images are fine. I like yourself love looking down onto the ground glass. The world stops…I am only seeing what I compose within the frame.
It is a way of life.
I have an Agfa 8×10 and a 4×5 Sinar Still shoot. The Sinar I bought belonged to a photographer who used to shoot stills of Marlin Perkins. Digital is not archival.
I brought a Nikon FM on my once in a lifetime trip to Iceland. I took two rolls of Velvia to capture the incredible landscapes. When I got home I sent them along with a third roll to a lab. They responded that they only got one roll. You guessed it. The third roll was mostly practice shots taken by my 10-year old nephew. Crushed.
Very nice to read all this and I am pleased that you discovered the merits of film. I’ve been doing it for 5 decades now, but I have also incorporated digital into my work as well. As you said…..they both have their benefits – and drawbacks. I do prefer film though and even up to the time I retired, the 4 agencies I was shooting for preferred film, but accepted no less than 10 MP of digital work. How much medium format have you done and are your camera preferences? Not that it matters. I am just curious. Thank you for the article and keep shooting. Happy holidays to you and your family and be safe out there. It’s a different world now.
I have miayi camera
Thanks for this more honest article about your reasons for shooting film. I’ve been reading a lot about the rebirth of film interest and most of it is total garbage justification. Nonsense about how only film produces a worthwhile look, only film is hi-res, processing digitally isn’t real processing. Clearly showing the writers bias but never outright stating their real reason – they just like film. The truth is, shooting in film or digital is quite inexpensive to get into. Film SLR’s with lens can be had for around $100 and they are great cameras. But similarly a late model digital with lens can be had for only marginally more. My digital setup is circa 2012 but it still holds a candle to the latest releases as tech isn’t evolving all that rapidly now but more maturing with only incremental changes. I paid $390 for an M10 with kit lens, plus two excellent primes, bag and a teleconverter. It’s everything I need to shoot digital well. It cost less than my analogue setup did in the early 90’s (which was also old 2nd hand stuff but good quality). For me, I shoot digital these days because its cheaper per frame and I have total control over post processing. Something I did not have with film. I loved my film shots but typically I’d only get 1 or 2 keepers per roll of film. With film + processing now coming in at $45 (AUD) per roll, it’s a no brainer to use mostly digital for me. I just got a free analogue SLR body with a lens I purchased for $50. I may on occasion indulge in that bygone era for fun, but I don’t think it will ever be my primary medium because the alternative for me is creatively better end to end.
Yes! I shot film for nearly thirty years, including 35mm, 6x6cm, and 4x5in, then switched from Nikon 35mm to Canon Digital about ten years ago. Recently I made a big move from Canon to Nikon DSLR (Nikon D800E and D750) and am in love with digital photography. Then, yesterday I opened a box of 35mm transparencies, all of which have been stored archivally and many of which I digitized years ago, and started looking at some of the Kodachromes from the 1980s. How beautiful they still look! I thought about perhaps buying a 35mm camera again but the reality of the cost of shooting film didn’t really make sense, since it can cost upwards of $25 to shoot one roll of Velvia.
Earlier this week I bought a couple Nikkor AI-S lenses, a 24mm f/2.8 and the Micro Nikkor 55mm. I got a great deal on both and they are both like new. After shooting with the 55mm on my D800E I realized that setting the aperture and focusing manually was once a way of life, and really it’s not a big deal, especially if shooting on a tripod. Then, cruising eBay for other deals I came across one of my favorite Nikon 35mm cameras: the Nikon FE2, completely refurbished and in like-new condition. Better condition than the last one I sold many years ago. I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t resist buying it for less than $200! In one fell swoop I decided to shoot film again, at least on a limited basis, and probably more for black and white than color, although I am anxious to shoot some landscapes with Velvia 50. My greatest disappointment with film is the fact that Kodak stopped making Technical Pan B&W, the finest and most beautiful 35mm black and white and white film ever made.
Many thanks to Nasim and to all my fellow photographers here at Photography Life for your comments and inspiration. Oh, I have one question for Nasim, or anyone else as well:
Where is the best place to get slides and/film processed and scanned? Thanks!
John, please forgive the faux pas, I forgot it was you writing this article and not Nasim. I am anxious to know where you have your film processed. Thanks.
Not a problem Alan. Getting back into film can be a slippery (and expensive) slope, but is so much fun! Assuming you live in the US, there are actually quite a few options for processing/scanning. If you don’t live in the US, hopefully another reader here can help you out. Here are a few labs who I’d suggest trying out, from least to most expensive:
Pro Photo Connection
Indie Film Lab: http
Richard Photo Lab
There are plenty of other options out there, but these are three that I’ve tried. There’s also possibly a local lab if you live in a bigger city. I’d suggest finding a film group on Facebook, where you’ll likely get all of the info you need for your area. Have fun!
Many thanks, John!
“…although I am anxious to shoot some landscapes with Velvia 50…”. From your post I truly believe you mean eager. The word anxious comes from anxiety, fear, trepidation, and the like. Eager is looking forward to something, a delight. The root word of anxious is from Latin “angere”.
Cordially and respectfully submitted.
It seems I’m a little late to this thread…another film lover here. It’s easy. being 65 I shot film for most part of my life. I appreciate the benefits of digital and I oft make this comparison: if I have to drive because of job or any other serious reason for a few hundreds kilometers of course a modern car with air conditioning, silent engine, automatic shift is the best choice. I arrive where I need more relaxed. But if I want to enjoy the feeling of drive a sport car from the 50s with manual shift gives a very different pleasure. Now, if “I need the photo” digital is the medium, but if I want to enjoy the process film is my way to go.
I’m just back from a week in NYC with my wife and in my bag I had an old Zeiss Super Ikonta and a Leica x1. The Zeiss was my main camera, I used the x1 for interior (when needing higher iso) or difficult light situation (strong contrast or similar, the benefit of histogram!).
Oh, yes the i.phone for snapping!
Thanks for this beautiful post, sorry to be late in reading it!
robert (from Italy)
Thanks for the comment, Robert! I really like the analogy of driving for a living and driving a modern car versus a vintage car. I feel the same way! Hopefully you got some great photos in NYC with all of your cameras!