“Look who’s talking”, you’ll say. But please let me make my case, it’s worth it 😉
Digital photography has freed us of so many constraints and increased our shooting envelope so much that hundreds of brilliant young photographers have embraced it and created work that simply wouldn’t have been feasible before. And even in the mainstream arena, we’re now able to reap the benefits of the technology with a cheap and easy barrier to entry.
And I’m not just suggesting convenience.
Clicks essentially being free, we try more, experiment more and achieve more. Low light ability being so great, we follow ideas that would have seemed silly, or would have required a tripod. Then, there’s all the social aspects, the easier backups …The list of benefits of digital technologies is very long.
On the flip side, I’m also stunned by the number of serious (and seriously good) photographers in my small network who stuggle with creativity issues, lack of enthusiasm, or clicker’s block. And I think it’s too easy and superficial to simply put that down to the effects of covid, climatic devastation and medieval warmongering on our collective moods.
Like it or not, digital has its downsides. And here’s why I feel trying film could be a fun and beneficial experience for many of us.
But film is slow, limited and expensive to process, right? Precisely.
There’s a reason why high end HiFi nuts still use turntables. There’s a reason so many photographic artists use film (and new stock is popping up everywhere). There’s a reason why Hollywood still prefers a cumbersome analog mess for many of its blockbusters.
It measures objectively worse but looks and sounds subjectively wonderful. Onwards.
Film has a look, baked in. It only produces nice results in the right conditions, with the right exposure and the right processing.
So, you have to learn to previsualise your shots with that look in mind. You have to train yourself to nail the shot in camera rather than rely on post processing to save an uninspiring mess. That’s not entirely true, mind you, as you can scan and add post processing later, but the photo will work mainly if that PP enhances the natural bias rather than fights it.
The challenge, in itself, and the learning curve are what bring so much pleasure to many amateur film photographers. Progress is palpable and fast. And good results can never be replicated starting from a neutral digital file. Approximated, yes. Replicated? Not in a month of Digidays.
The fact is, we love learning. And that alone can reignite a passion.
This is closely related to the previous point, but acts differently on our psyche.
Creatives know how daunting starting with a blank slate can be. Adding constraints to a brief helps limit the range of possibilities.
Experienced photographers, whether they use film or digital, have learned how to zoom in on a specific style. That’s the goal. But starting from a neutral, bland file in a PP suite with a million of slider options makes that almost unreachable in realistic time, for a newcomer. That’s why initial Instagram filters were so popular. Try all 10 (?) options and one was bound to blow your mind. Film, while not quite as locked in, slashes a good number of those variables (through colour cast, response curve, halation, fixed ISO …)
There’s one notable exception to the above section : exposure latitude.
Moving back to the fake 15 stops of dynamic range of digital sensors from the real 14 stops of latitude of many negative films is going to be a real shock to the system. So, here, where it counts, film gives us more options. And that’s not all.
Obsessed as it has been with low light performance, the digital world has neglected the top end of its exposure range. To the point that photographer using state of the art cameras regularly underexpose by one, two or more stops to save highlights and colour fidelity, while still occasionally getting terribly abrupt tonal changes in the highlights. A $50 film camera, with a $50 lens and common-garden negative film, on the other hand, will not suffer than this and will feel far more realistic in spite of measuring worse in many of the industry standard tests.
Leica was once ridiculed for selling a camera with no rear LCD.
The fact is, you have never experienced flow in photography, if your rear LCD was not off. The constant mind-switching from subject to camera has made quite sure of that.
100% guaranteed 😉
We live in a culture far more interested in not failing than in succeeding.
You rarely get fired for not achieving greatness. Taking chances with nothing to show for it, on the other hand … oh dear.
With film, you’ll fail. A lot. Interestingly. Some great shots will be unexpected, others you hoped to be wonderful will make you scratch your head. Then the proportion of the first respective to the second will rapidly grow, leading to intense elation, as well as the excrutiating frustration of not really understanding why. And, over time, you’ll learn to trust your vision, your instinct, whether using film or digital.
The ONE quantitative metric that makes any sense to me is sensor size. Not that bigger is better. But every size comes with its own distinct aesthetic. Smartphone photographs, without computational wizardry, look significantly different from full frame.
Extend that two steps more and you get to 6×7 cm and large format, measured in inches because the metric system runs out of digits to do so. Thing is … today, you can’t buy a 6×7 digital camera. Let alone 8×10. Tiny medium format options such as the Hasselblad X1D are pricy enough, and there’s not much around that both bigger and easily transportable. No so with film. 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, 6×17 … you name it. My sweet spot is 6×7. I adore that look and format. What’s your prefered size?
And, actually, there’s more. A lot more. Most important of which is that film photographers tend to compose differently, as if accepting a form of imperfection and integrating it into their shots with wizard-like flair. It’s not something I feel comfortable talking about at this point, but it could be the most important point of all. I hope to have something intelligent to write about this in the future.
Back to the opening words … who am I to write about this? What gives me the right to lecture anyone about film, having been a digital junky for over 10 years?
I can only speak from memory. It’s true. And I am deeply sorry for being unable to illustrate this post with analog photographs.
But those memories are vivid and rekindled with every new video of film-centric youtubers such as Willem Verbeeck or Granidays. As my X1D dons a greyer beard, day after day, the struggle for monetary attention between my dream version of the X2D (better highlights, fewer bugs, possibly video, and a larger sensor – hey, it’s my dream) and the probably romanticized memories of my two Mamiya 7s, grows intenser and intenser.
The fact is I know from experience how exciting and frustrating an analog life can be. Nothing has equalled the excitement of huge slides with incredible colour and detail from the Mamiyas, except possibly the sadness of loosing ALL of them in a house move (yeah, and then Memorex lost ALL my subsequent digital files, you could say I’m backup cursed 😉 )
And more importantly, I’m not suggesting you sell your gear to finance a complete life change. An old Nikon, Olympus, or (35mm) Mamiya can be yours for pennies, and a plastic fantastic from Zeiss will bring the lot up to the cost of a couple’s evening in a half decent restaurant. A Mamiya 7 – my, and many others’ contender for best camera ever designed – with 2 – still largely unmatched – lenses, will require a far greater outlay, of course. Say, the price of a fancy, high-aperture, soulless bells and whistles, zoom? #JustSayin’
Analysing my “production” shows me that I far prefer digital b&w to mono film! As illustrated by the photographs on this post, digital b&w also beats digital colour by a long shot, too. But, with film, colour is my default choice. So, a Mamiya 7 for colour and an X2D for monochrome, mebbe? That would challenge my life-long “one camera” policy and my record-setting laziness, but it does sound appealing …
But this is not about me. What are you waiting for? And when you take the plunge, do me a favour. Hold me accountable for my writings and make me do the same 😉
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I have recently been given two film cameras; a Nikon F2 and an Oly OM-10. The former has Ilford Delta 100 loaded and the Oly a roll of Jessops colour film dated Dec 2003, price £2.99! It’s an experiment, right? They certainly slow me down as I have to figure out how they work each time I take a shot….I may or may not share the results when I get them processed!
I keep seeing youngsters out with film cams, it’s obviously a “thing”.
Wow, you should be so lucky 🙂 🙂 🙂 Film is a bit more pricey these days, but if your 2003 roll is sticky, you can still experiment fairly cheaply. You should probably over expose that old roll by half a stop or one stop. It’s probably lost a bit of sensitivity. And the colours might be all over the shop, but that could be very pretty 🙂
Yes, it’s a thing and it’s growing again. I think it’s the simplicity and the tactile experience, compared to our computer cameras.
Great article, except I would argue in #4 flow that what about the large ground glass… sort of a LCD is it not. The majority of my analog photography was all seen on a ground glass from 4×5 or 8×10.
A couple format/size I liked to work in was 10×12 or 9×7… very different but maybe preferring 9×7 as vertical. (For some reason I always liked a vertical.) Both were derived from built analog enlarged negatives, positives and masks from original 4×5. 8×10 usually stayed 8×10 even though I would still build new contact positive/ negatives from them (using masks for desired control.) The reason for this extra labor was I got a print I could not get from a single camera negative alone.
Nice photos as well. However I would suggest adding the analog is hardly analog when displayed digitally. Ha, I’m an old, dedicated platinum/palladium printmaker. But then over the last ten years have gravitated to digital cinema. But, the issue remains… how to display? A well made analog print has a certain life to it and how can this be approached digitally? (And I’m talking digital ink printers as well.) The analog theater has been around for some time, but for me still falls behind the well made print. I am confident that digital displays will some day get to the level of well crafted analog prints and perhaps even surpass (might need 16-bit)… but that is not today.
Hmmm you are right Jeffrey! The ground glass of large format cameras do involve a different level of thinking. I’m not experience enough to judge whether that breaks flow or not, but it sure is a different experience. It’s true that the photographs made with those have a different quality to those made with “snappy” cameras. The tripod itself is a lt more left brain, isn’t it?
10×12 … inches? I that the print?
No, analog on a screen isn’t really analog. And the sad fact is that few film photographers print. We should all print! In fact, I think that platinum/palladium printing from digital files must be very interesting, and probably more interesting that merely displaying scanned film on a screen.
Yes, 10×12 inches… both the negatives and the print. Actually I tried 11×14 but liked 10×12 better… and it gave more of a boarder on the film for handling. I can hold 4×5 film by the edges with one hand… but no way with larger film. (this was all analog film… digital just does not really have it for pt/pd… even though some have tried.)
And yes, those chem smells… …and the fingers/hands in the soup (I never used tongs for scratching the emulsion.)
The photo is really in the mind before the tripod is even set up… utilizing the skills of anticipation… It might be said the the photos for me were not a moment from the past but a moment from the future… skills I am grateful to now have to use with movement. But yes, seeing the world on the ground glass is something to behold.
Have you ever tried carbon printing? I’ve only seen a few good carbon prints in my life, but they too are superb in their tonality.
I think a new generation of photographers is eager to get back to something more physical. Maybe not as committed as what you are describing, but certainly less virtual than phones and instagram.
No, have not done carbon. I have seen some excellent prints by Dana Strout… lives near me in Maine. I have a couple of his, traded for over thirty years ago in Santa Fe. He would be one to contact if interested in the process.
Thanks! I’ve been in contact with Calvin Greer, who prints for you, and also teaches carbon printing in workshops. I’d love to get in touch with Dana. Any chance of interviewing him or you on those great printing processes ?
I checked out Calvin’s site… seems he has made this into a nice business with a great modern processing lab. Is he a photographer or mainly a printer? His videos show he knows what he is doing and has the skills… makes it look easy. (Do note that his workshop description suggests having a previous experience with carbon printing or similar… not for beginners.)
I know that I am always interested to talk of pt/pd printing, and am still fascinated with other photographic printmaking techniques.
Jeffrey, I’d love that. You can just write a post, or I’m happy to interview you if that’s easier for you! I’ll get in touch privately.
Yes Calvin’s workshops are for the initiated. One thing I find particularly interesting with carbon printing is that it can be done in colour as well. I’ve never seen a colour carbon print in person, but would dearly love to. Erwin Olaf’s monochrome carbon prints are extraordinary. But then so are platinum/palladium prints. Those by Sally Mann are the stuff of dreams.
LOL – my great great uncles used mostly 10×12, but occasionally as much as 16×20. Contact prints from those plates were sensational.
Yes, analogue, just like digital, is exciting and challenging. I’ve had exciting and challenging times using both mediums. I am now digitally stocked, which comes with its own learning curve and bag of excitement and challenges; but hey, I still have 30 rolls of Kodak BW400CN B&W Film in the fridge just waiting to be taken on a walk. When that walk happens I’m not sure. When it does, I’ll find it both a challenging and exciting exercise because I’ll be going down memory lane, but knowing it’ll be time limited with a return trip back to my digital realm.
Yes, and cohabitation seems difficult, sadly. I’d really be temped by a monochrome digital camera, Leica Q2, for instance, and a Mamiya 7 for colour. But that seems nice only on paper. My guess is the logistics would be a pain.
Your occasional analog flings seem more realistic. Do let me know when you next do that 😉
Indeed, regarding what you said, and I quote “… My guess is the logistics would be a pain…” In sum, correct. It’s a right royal pain. I’ve fallen foul of doing that a couple of times, in the past – taking both digital and film cameras on the same exercise. Result, a confusing clash of ideas, decisions and missed opportunities. Solution, put one camera back camera bag and forget it’s there. The only benefit is using the modern digital cameras metering system for guidance and decision making for film based exposure, particularly when the light is tricky. Lastly, I’ll certainly let you know when I do next take a walk with a roll or two of film.
Pascal, This is a thought-provoking essay, for which many thanks. But it recalls my film days not with nostalgia but with gratitude that digital came along. For what I do, the digital process beats the film one hands down (and I don’t get those hands bathed in noxious chemicals either). I like much of the product as well, even its color-infidelity to actual reality (v. imagined reality). As well, your stunning B&W images are just superb in my estimation, and better than Ansel’s prints. Your eye for composition helps, of course, but I really just like the look.
Be careful, Lad. I am only now starting to de-blush after reading your comments on my photographs. Now that consecration is here, at that level, it can only be downhill from here. This could be the end of DS 😉 😉
More seriously, thank you very much for the kind words.
I think film photography has come a long way. You can now order films with envelopes to send back to the lad and retrieve developped film, contact sheet and scanned files in a few days. Or you can do more yourself. Or get an instant camera, which seem to make up a lot of the analog market. There’s something for every level of implication. But yes, I get what you say, and wouldn’t want to get into chemicals either. Except for carbon printing, which I am hoping to take up by the end of the year.
All the best
Hmm. How many contributors are there on DS? A hundred? Two hundred? An attack of GAS on this scale will see them all, pursued by a clatter of high heels, and screams of “I thought it was bad enough when you bought all those other cameras! NOW look what you’ve done to our budget!”
Pour moi – film was the feedstock of all my cameras, till about15 years ago. And cine started c. 1983 but gradually faded as my attention moved elsewhere. I think the last time I picked up my cine camera must have been around 2008. It’s still gathering dust, somewhere.
B&W was fascinating – and yes, the developer and fixer – the stench of chemicals through the house – the prints lying all over the floor in the formal lounge and the dining room. I gave practically all of my film negs to a friend in England when I moved to this house, but I’ve retrieved three of them from him, so that when I stop being lazy about it, I can scan them onto the computer and post them on DS. To prove a point. One which you’ve just made for Hassy, with these fabulous images. None of which of course are “stills” from any of the movies that you’ve made.
But if you pay a little extra for your cellphone, you can do all your cine on that! Doesn’t everybody, these days? Wherever else does all that guff on YouTube come from?
Ah, if anything, those leave you fond memories of another age 🙂
No, stills from movies are not going to happen for me, I don’t think. That was the plan, for a while, but it’s unrealistic, given my workload.
Most vloggers use hybrid cameras. Stabilisation and flippy screens are essential, apparently. Not my cuppa, but I can see the draw for others. Still, phones can produce decent videos I guess. The ergonomics would be more of a problem than the image quality.
Naah – if I DO go back to movies, I want a cine camera. I do understand that for some purposes a video function on something like a Z-9 is “useful” – EXAMPLE: a sports photographer whose editor requires “the perfect moment” – so grab 30-100 frames, and select the one when the action is “perfect” – and cine is the ONLY way they can achieve this.
But that’s quite different from making movies!
If I want to go steeplechasing, I need a horse to do it. And the same goes for ANY form of photography – yes I know it is “possible” to take a “photo” with a hybrid that fits in your pocket and does 90% of the job on an internal computer. Mais ce n’est pas pour moi! I get off on having the right tools for the job.
Pascal, I spent a long time contemplating your B&W pictures – gorgeous, hence the « exercise » – and wondering about their « soul » vs analog… I am not sure, but I feel the main perception is maybe more related to the characters of the lenses than to anything else… but I might be wrong 🙂
As you know, putting my 30 years old Zuiko Macro on the Sony A7R2 created results… in-between 🙂
Hard to define, in fact!
As for the « chore » of analog processing, things become easy when we are fortunate enough to live close to a still active development lab! In Montreal, two compagnies never stopped offering B&W, negatives and positives labs, and one does a superb job, more reliable than what I could achieve with my Jobo semi-automated lab home.
And analog could be robust, too; in 1995, I traveled 3 months in China and Tibet, with 15 rolls of Fujichrome 50; my backpack went through hell, under heavy rain, or spending a day stored on top of a near-boiling Diesel engine cover, etc…
Back home in Switzerland, I had no damage, 3 (!) out-of-focus slides on 450… everything else spot on, with gorgeous colors… I still have my Leitz projector, with two 90mm (one special curved to accommodate for the slides « pop » under heat), will get it cleaned and lubricated one day… time for nostalgia 🙂
And zero time in PP… come back, wait a week for the lab, then… enjoy.
I think I miss those days too…
Yeah, I think it’s a complete chain (of signal processing) starting with the lenses, as in HiFi 🙂 And film-era lenses had a more charming look.
There’s a lot of satisfaction in processing film and printing it at home. But it takes sooo much time. That’s probably why the number of photographs have exploded since digital came along.
I still have my Leitz profector too 🙂
LOL – scanning through your images once more, en route to the comments, I realised why “Nope, not film #4” struck a chord. That’s exactly what the garden looked like, the night I went to a rather hedonistic party at the home of an eminent lady barrister, when I was a law student – along with over a dozen others. Her behaviour was bizarre – stark naked, streaking through that kind of garden, with young guys in hot pursuit. Her husband – the then director of the Weapons Research Establishment – encased in a glazed gazebo, sitting at his desk, attending to his affairs, ignoring the party.
It got decidedly worse, later – but that part of the story isn’t fit for publication on these pages. Enough to add that it got so “worse” that I simply walked out and took a taxi, elsewhere.
Pete, that reads like a scene out of a novel. Eyes wide shut or something similar. I’m sorry noone was at hand to add the lady barrister to my image 😉