An odd segmentation appears if you scratch the surface of camera user statistics. It appears that standard digital camera (m43, APS-C, FF) users are mostly amateurs – let’s face it, mostly middle aged blokes – and a large majority of the commercial pros. While younger people, artists and high-end pros very rarely use those, preferring film cameras or larger format digital. (The apparent 90/10 divide between men and women in our hobby is another, but that’s a story for another day).
Larger format digital makes total sense, if you can afford it. A different look, better glass, better files. In a way (and it’s only logical), the same difference in abilities exists between MF digital cameras and ‘other’ digital cameras as between those ‘other’ digital cameras and smartphones. In difficult light (where, to be honest, a solid majority of interesting photographs exist) MF cameras seem happier to produce more natural-looking images.
Film, on the other hand, is more difficult for me to wrap my brain around.
It would be easy – and wrong – to pass off film photography as nothing but a fad for kids trying to look cool and avoid direct competition with other photographers by carving a technological niche for themselves. Let’s be honest, film is a major pain in the arse (that’s butt, in the US of A). During my darkest hours of digital ergonomic depression, I fell for film as an antidote. Twice. Without success.
Don’t judge me. If you’ve never used a Mamiya 7 or any other equally well sorted camera at the very end of the evolution chain of film photography, you don’t know what it’s like. Criticize Leica, their old tech and their stratospheric prices all you want, but they get that. Still, in spite of the magic of using a great camera and the mesmerizing experience of looking at large slides on a light table, the utter pain of living in a rural area and not being able to have your film processed without a trip to the big city and a very long wait, well … it wasn’t for me.
So why are so many photographers – damn good photographers, at that – drawn to film, when it so obviously restricts your movements? The following video, rather better put together than your average 10 minutes on YouTube, answers this questions through multiple interviews and facets. I’d like to react to multiple quotes from the video and, while I’m at it, pick your brains about them too.
“Level of intimacy and craftsmanship that comes into the image. Anything that has to do with the computer actually distances me from the photograph“.
Now, that was a hard one for me to understand. To me, creative post-processing (which excludes sweating over the impossible removal of a colour cast) is 80% of the fun of photography. I loved being in a darkroom before the days of digital. That was where the magic happened. How could anyone not want to edit their photos?
But then it dawned on me that my loathing of the meaningless tech talk that occupies 90% of the photographic Internet has a natural extension in the realm of PP. Not only does PP not have to be done on a computer, but what happens when PP is performed without a computer is that tech nonsense such as histograms and sharpening fly out of the window, leaving only the essentials that actually create a mood (as opposed to replicating a process for identical looking images with “good” black point and highlights that don’t clip). When burnt highlights look good rather than clipping hideously, you don’t bother about keeping them in check so much. In many, many ways, digital has spent decades finding solutions to problems it introduced in the first place. So, yeah, maybe staying away from the computer can make sense!
OK, I’m not 100% convinced, but definitely get what the person’s saying here.
“I love the tactility, the medium being so physical“. Well, having finally realised (’bout time) that printing was necessary to fill a very real void in my hobby, one that was making me resent digital more than it deserved, I totally understand the desire for tactility.
At least for prints. For negatives? Emmm … really? Negatives are huge pain in the arse/butt. Then again, so are disk drives, partition thingies, RAID whatever, boring cloud storage …
So, here again, I understand, without agreeing entirely. I don’t backup my stuff, because life is short and laziness strong. But, if I was going to obsess about backup, I probably would enjoy negatives equally not as drives. YMMV.
“The negative is a physical object as opposed to a file”. A very similar argument to the previous ones. And, to me, one that doesn’t hold up in 24×36. The resolution from most 24×36 film simply isn’t great. Yes, you can choose a superb Leica lens and microfilm to record 60Mpx of data or more but, even then, the tactile experience of a small negative eludes me. Get into Medium Format however (preferably 6×6 or larger), and things begin to change. With Large Format (4×5 inches and above), the tactile experience is very, very real. And I can only imagine what a 14 inch glass plate must be like to behold.
Ultimately, though, I think this is more about control over the complete process. It’s about photography as a craft rather than photography as a productivity-driven hobby. It is grounding. Just like people stay in retreats with no WiFi or phone coverage just to unplug from a harmful way of life, that way of thinking about the complete imaging process is probably aslo a form of slow-photography detox.
Not only that, but a way of focusing on a single process. When you’re coating your own plates, you have to experiment with recipes. In the beginning, you’re probably happy that a picture comes out of it at all. It’s really hard (having failed more often at 4×5 than I care to admit, my mind boggles at the thought of hand-coated 14 inch plates). And over the years, you fine tune your recipe to your liking, you create a style for yourself. Not two, just one. And that can lead to extraordinary results, as evidenced by Sally Mann, one of the greatest photographers alive, who follows that approach.
It just takes a lot more commitment, introspection and courage. And that aspect really speaks very deeply to me.
“Cameras built to last a lifetime”. Oh my … the concept … But how can we waste our money and rare earth, if our cameras last forever ???
The Mamiya 7 exists. Yup. That’s reason enough for anything. Just look at his photographs. “It still works for me”. You bet it does … When I rule the world, the Mamiya 7 will rise from the ashes.
“The film has characteristics, a certain palette“. Who cares, now that we have presets, right? Well, no. It matters, a lot. I’ll get back to that one further down. [Thread 1] (or “Hold that thought”, whatever rocks your boat 😉 )
“I find it problematic that a file has no characteristics and that you have to introduce them”. He wishes! I find it problematic that my files have so much of a colour bias and that I have to correct them. What was cool with film was that you knew what to expect (if the film was not too old, well preserved, if you didn’t wait for ages to process it or mess up processing, etc, that is). Rendering was quite predictable, not a crapshoot based on light quality. But, getting back to the point being made, it is true that digital files often look too clean and lifeless. Check out the motorbike above and compare it to the night shots in the video. Emotionally, night and day, right? I guess that’s why Fuji cameras and their in camera emulations are so popular.
“A camera that matches the story”. A really interesting point. We’re entering the realm of philosophy and art. But isn’t that the point of being a photographer??? It would probably be unfair to say that sort of approach is totally impossible with digital, since it’s possible to adapt old lenses onto modern bodies, and it’s possible to emulate the look of an old film in PP. But I get why someone would want to do it more “organically” (btw, what a stunning portrait from that Brownie. I doubt you could replicate this exactly, whatever the preset. And that photo alone is proof that specs are utterly meaningless. A Brownie has the worst specs this side of a politician’s brain, but the look of that photograph is incredible).
“Film makes you slow down and notice things you wouldn’t otherwise”. A double edged sword, I guess. Many digital photographers specialise and thrive in a discipline that requires fast AF and fast burst rates. Our contributors Adrian and Bob are two such examples of how technological advances can be put to great use to make images that would be near impossible otherwise. For other types, it’s true that slowing down can be very beneficial. Again, that takes commitment, a real desire to improve rather than to cling to your belief system. Most people refuse to acknowledge that, in order to improve, you need to change. It’s not easy.
“With film, you worry about your shot and get a big surprise when you collect your prints”. OK, to me, this is the most important and complex point in the video. This is where I’d like to pick up [Thread 1].
Why, oh why would you want your prints to be a surprise and not a deterministic process? That completely baffled rationalist yours truly. But maybe the question should be rephrased differently. And perhaps there are really two questions/answers.
First, the element of surprise is what makes this art and not science. As long as there is this element of uncertainty, there is anticipation. We live in a world of instant feedback. Corporate efficiency is largely equivalent to the efficiency of the feedback process. Instant Feedback is what made Amazon and Facebook. It’s only logical that human beings who feel stifled by that would want to stay well away from the instant feedback of digital photography.
Secondly, even more important in my mind, is the fact that – in a way – digital is bottom up, film is top down. With some variation, digital files are clean, objective and neutral files, which you build from the ground up, and via post-processing, into a final print. Film, in many ways, works in the opposite direction. The medium begets the look. You have little control over the fact that a film is very cold and low contrast or very warm and high contrast. You can, however, create your photograph in such a way that it works great with a given film. The same photograph (framing, settings) would look terrible using a different one. In stead of the largely divergent thinking of digital, film adds a little bit of convergent that helps you narrow down your vision and style.
This speaks to me on two levels. First, the case for digital is often about control, film’s about creativity. Digital gave birth to a whole debacle of technical recipes such as ETTR that are meant to keep the photograph “perfect”, where in fact so many interesting and beautiful things happen as you leave the technically perfect and enter the world of subjective bending (ask Man Ray and Andre Kertesz). You could point out the irony of these words, coming from a worshiper of Ansel Adams and his Zone System. But Adams didn’t create the ZS so we would all shoot boringly technically perfect photographs over and over again. He created the ZS so we could knowingly place zones wherever we wanted them to fall, in order to fullfil a vision! Two very different things, and digital’s obsession with technical standardisation has largely eluded the most interesting one.
It’s actually pretty ironic that, because of ugly shadow noise (now largely a thing of the past) and horrible highlight clipping, digital has made proper exposure more important than in the days of film (at least negative film).
Secondly, probably the most important point here is that creativity is always at its best when constrained. Give someone a white page and the struggle to create something is immense. Impose a subject, a very narrow vertical frame and thick coal crayons (for example) and, suddenly, a spark can be seen in the artist’s eye.
Shooting with film is probably a tremendous way of training your creativity. In stead of fantasizing over 15 bits of dynamic range (which by the way, do not make digital indispensable, just look at how much better film handles highlights in this video, at about 5′, or check out this Mamiya 7 photo on Flickr and weep) you learn how your film renders shadows and highlights, just like a painter learns how his pigments render the sky and the sea and you learn how to create a photograph that suits the film. Ever wonder why some photographers never changed from their old Tri-X when so many other films had been invented? They’d honed their look to perfection with that film and knew their photographs wouldn’t be anywhere near as nice using an other.
“It’s not about arriving at the destination, it’s about driving the car” Amen, brother! A camera where the photographer can actually enjoy the experience”. Are somebody else’s knees trembling at the sight of that camera at 8’15”? “Just look at the little print at 8’38” and tell me you don’t want that! I won’t believe you. I want that. In fact, I’ve written to Mint (because the camera no longer is on their website) and here’s what they told me:
Thank you for your interest in InstantKon RF70. Due to overwhelming demand, RF70 won’t be available to the public until (march – mid 2019) . If you want one, this is the right place:
That camera looks so much like my folding Fujica 645 and the Voigtlander Bassa and other more recent 6×7 or 6×9 beauties …
In other words, go film. Petapixel sure seem to agree (better looks, better DR, more fun …) As do Time, who also recommend these cameras. In fact B&H recommend quite a few themselves (what, no Mamiya 7???) And it appears that film production is going up, not down, not bad in a troubled industry!
Now, though, time for a bit of real life honesty. Am I going to go back to film? NO WAYYYYYY ! Been there, twice. It’s not for me. Let’s put it this way. I’d love to. I really would. And if you haven’t been tainted by decades of lazy-arse digital photography yourself, I definitely think you should give it a try. But I’m not ready for that. My life isn’t geared that way.
However, film photography for digital dummies can probably be broken down into easier steps. Instant film, as offered by Mint, is one solution. Digital Fuji owners can challenge themselves to a complete week or month of using one film emulation for every single one of their photographs. We can all set our ISO to 160 for 3 weeks. Me, I’m going to challenge myself to that “surprise” thing that my rational brain recoiled from so vehemently. So, this evening, I’m putting tape over my rear screen and will not chimp or review any of my photographs for one week. Let’s see how many turn out to be keepers when I’m not able to delete bad ones on the spot … should be plenty of humiliating fun to look forward to 😉
As a closing thought, if you wonder where all the women have gone in our hobby, the answer is simple: they’re using film, and rather brilliantly. How about you? Tempted by the sirens of a vibrant film world, or are you as pathetically scared of the process as I am? 😉
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