“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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