It may seem strange to most photographers today why anyone would shoot with film when digital is so much more convenient. The quality of digital images has already surpassed 35mm film and, with the release of Nikon’s D800, may finally surpass that of medium format film as well. These are valid arguments but they do not stop me from shooting film and here’s why …
The main reason I shoot film is to preserve my most memorable experiences. Memorable does not necessarily mean best. Family travel photos won’t win awards but they are very important. By shooting film, I get three copies, in three different media, of the photos that mean a lot to me: the film strips, the prints and the film scans. Film has very long archival life. Same goes with cheap Fuji archival paper. I still have the negative strips and prints of my childhood years. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for digital images. After losing 95Gb worth of data when my hard disk crashed, I became paranoid and started investing in external drives. My important digital photos now have triplicate copies in separate disks. Yesterday I managed to chat my with friend whose house got broken into a few weeks ago. All his disks got stolen. He did have backup copies online but they were encrypted and the encryption key was in one of the disks that got stolen 😦 Really bad luck. Thieves will never run away with your film. OK, that’s a bit of an extreme case of bad luck but it need not go that far for you to lose access to your photos. I still have lots of photos stored in one of my IDE drives but modern computers do not have IDE controllers anymore. They all use SATA. Of course I can still recover them if I have to but that’s not the point. Digital technology moves too fast that storage becomes obsolete in just a few years. CD/DVD drives are now becoming useless as you might have noticed in laptops. Digital storage technology is like a dog trying to chase its own tail. You have to keep up or lose everything.
Shooting film does not make you a better photographer. Anyone who says so is just being boastful. Anyone who advises a beginner to shoot film to become better needs a serious reality check. It will force you to think a hundred times before clicking and that’s about it. Your skill won’t magically improve in an instant. The quality of your film shots are a good indication though of how far you have progressed in your photography. It shows that you can capture your vision in a single take without the need to chimp on an LCD screen. I have far greater percentage of keeper shots in film than my digital captures not because film made me better. I didn’t magically improve after 36 frames in a canister, but rather, I was just being conservative. It’s just human nature that if something seems inexpensive then we tend to abuse it and that translates into our digital photos quite clearly.
In terms of image quality, digital photos are superior. Digital images are very clean, almost grainless in low ISOs shots. Nearly perfect. However, that is just one aspect of image quality. There is another aspect where I think film is better and that’s character. It’s quite difficult to describe it. It has got something to do with the way film renders images. Here’s a bit of an experiment: Go through your childhood photos or any photo captured with film. Now go to Facebook where you find thousands of the same ordinary snaps of you and your friends. Do you notice how lifeless the digital images look? They look dull and boring. Film, on the other hand, has so much life in them. This is why I use film to capture family travel photos. I don’t care if the photos weren’t properly composed because they still look fantastic. Lomography is not just the hype that “elite” photographers poke fun at. Aside from being fun and care free, true Lomography photos have this character that digital lacks. I’m not just referring to the wild colors of cross-processed shots but every single one of them. Here’s another experiment: Do you know that you can buy the infamous Holga lens for whatever digital camera you have? It’s just $20. It was meant to let digital photographers enjoy the Holga without spending a fortune on film. The general feedback I have read was that “the lens is terrible”. Sorry but I think it’s not the lens but rather the medium. Digital is already dull and boring without the help of filters and photoshop and when you attach a crappy lens, image quality (whatever that is) goes south pretty quickly. Real Holga shots though have won several international awards even with their quirky exposure, bad vignette and softness.
I have only recently captured with slide film. To be exact, I have just finished my 72nd frame of Kodak E100VS. My reaction? WOW!!! How could I have missed this?! Every single frame looks stunning. The colors are so vibrant. There is so much depth that the photos look three dimensional. I’m sold! You’ve got to see it for yourself. Scanning slide film won’t cut it. I think that’s almost blasphemous. Scanning is no better than capturing the photo with a DSLR. So I bought five more rolls of slide film, this time another discontinued emulsion, the Kodak EBX. Not only that, I got myself a Mamiya 645 Pro TL and five rolls of Fuji Provia 100F. The camera is still in transit from the US as I’m writing this and could not wait to shoot with it.
Reciprocity failure of film is both a problem and a blessing. A problem because it could introduce weird color shifts in long exposures (10 seconds or longer). A blessing because it means you can do very very long exposures without introducing more noise or completely ruining the shot with ugly blown highlights. Think of star trails. You could literally expose film for hours. Try that with digital 😉 Film behaves quite differently. The exposure response is not linear but tends to flatten at the extreme shadows and highlights. What this means is that film will not have that ugly clipping that happens to incorrectly exposed digital shots. I have overexposed negative film by three stops and still managed to get acceptable results. Don’t even try it with digital. The obvious advantage is that if you shoot in difficult lighting conditions, say in snow, it is easier to push two stops higher and be assured that your highlights are in control.
Film is not for everyone. It is quite expensive, especially the cost of developing. Some photographers develop their own shots to save money and that’s next in my todo list. I hope film stays forever but who are we kidding. For the mean time, I’ll just keep on shooting with it while the cost is not yet very prohibitive.