Thursday, 2016-03-31



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Thursday, 2016-03-24

Thoughts on film

Posts extolling the joys and benefits of photography using film (or “analog” as it’s now inevitably known) have always been present since the digital photography revolution, but I’m noting an upswing now in the nooks and crannies of the internets that I frequent.


Now, it’s easy to see why. Film aficionados are dependent on a relatively large industrial base — manufacturing and distributing film stock, a perishable medium, is non-trivial — so growing the user base (or at least slowing its decline) is paramount for the survival of the craft.

I have shot film. I learned photography using film. And I’ll say that for nearly every conceivable use case digital is objectively better.

Now, this doesn’t invalidate people who love film, who use it regularly, or who really enjoy the paraphernalia of shooting film. These are valid choices — if we remove the requirements of timely delivery of high-quality, high-resolution digital assets to clients, whether these clients are entities paying for the asset or more nebulous things like “social networks”.

Let’s tackle the talking points, shall we?

Shooting film teaches you about photography

Now I can actually see the point of this. Instead of dealing with auto-ISO, exposure modes, and scene buttons, you’re faced with a shutter dial, an aperture dial and a match needle. Shoot enough and you’ll get an instinctive feel for how the two hang together.


That is, if you’re using a classic manual focus camera, like the Pentax K1000, the Nikon FM, or Olympus OM-1. If you’re using a newer film camera you’ll notice that they can be just as complicated as digital cameras, because it turned out all that automation actually helped people make pictures they wanted to keep.

Instead of getting a film camera, you can invest maybe 15 minutes watching a Youtube video and then half a day using your digital camera in manual mode, and learn the basics of exposure that way. It’s not that hard.

A bonus is you can directly check the effects on the back of the screen, instead of waiting for the film to be developed and correlating the shots with handheld notes about exposure.

Shooting film makes you slow down and appreciate every shot

Well obviously. But do you think the masters of photography scrimped and hoarded film? No they didn’t, they had the same hit rate the rest of us have but they had the dedication to keep shooting no matter what the cost. Independent wealth (Cartier-Bresson), grants (Frank) or plain scrimping and saving (Maier) enabled them to keep shooting and getting wheat from the chaff.

Giulio and Michael

As a digital shooter, every shot is basically free at the margin. But instead of using this opportunity to shoot more and getting better, people are complaining about full hard drives and slow editing.

The answer is not to shoot less, it’s to shoot more but better. This is true with film or digital.

Shooting film is a more tactile experience

I can’t really argue with this — at least not with the classic manual cameras noted above! Try shooting a plastic wundermachine from the 90s and you’ll be disabused of the notion, unless the buzz of an autowinder and the whine of screw-driven autofocus is part of your preferred tactile experience.


I can also understand that if you’re in front of a computer all day you might want to relax with making images “the old fashioned way”. But at least then you’re aware of the tradeoffs.

Pictures taken with film have a unique look

I’ll grant this for images taken with medium format or large format. The interplay between field of view and focal length give these formats a unique look that’s hard to replicate in software.


For small-format images though? I bet there’s a filter or preset for every film worth shooting. Even if there isn’t, you carefully crafted, exquisitely presented “lo-fi” film images will be met with “Cool! what filter did you use?”. That is if you’re lucky.

So, you really hate film, don’t you?

Actually I don’t. It’s a free world (at least where I am, thanks for that) and you are welcome to shoot film and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But you’re not going to convince me, because I’ve heard it all before. And I’ll definitely not grade your work on a curve because you shoot film.