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Film is not dead, not by a long shot. If anything it’s seeing a resurgence as digital photographers look for something distinctive to give their photos a unique feel. Their glass will fit easily into a Canon EOS3 or Nikon F100, and the cameras are familiar to use. As more and more individuals shoot digital, those who choose to shoot film are certainly in a minority, so for them a more unique look is achievable.
We should thank the ease of digital photography for raising the stakes in the photography field. The digital gear is so good nowadays that it’s easy for many people to be good photographers. If you have shot film in the past and felt underwhelmed by the results, then it was probably your technique and your lab who was letting you down. Nowadays we may have fewer labs, but those labs which are remaining are better than ever.
People who Shoot Film Gotta Know Their Sh*t – They Can’t Afford Not To.
Film costs money. Especially Medium Format. The ammo ain’t cheap. This is good, as it helps to focus the mind. Giving someone £1000 of imaginary money to invest in stocks and shares is not the same as them using their own money. If there’s nothing at stake, who cares?
Digital photography shuns the use of light meters, it asks people to fire off a few thousand shots and sift through and edit them later. But why not nail the perfect shot first time? It can be done, so why not focus and do it? If you want to shoot film, nailing the shot first time is your ‘modus operandi’. Slow down and focus.
Film costs, but it’s not as bad as some would think. When you factor in the price of replacing digital gear every couple of years, shooting film starts to look much better value. I always say to people who ask me whether film is expensive; it is, but you’re paying for the medium. The film costs money, and the processing and scanning costs money, but the cameras are far less important than they are in digital photography.
With a digital camera, the ‘lab’ is inside the camera. With film, any half decent light-tight box with a good piece of glass on the front, and an accomplished operator will produce consistently good results. For example any old 1970s film SLR camera like an OM1 can still produce great looking photos with a box of Fuji Pro400H and a tendency toward over-exposure (see below). I’ll say it’s the difference between shooting a home video and going to see a movie shot on 35mm. One looks realistic, while the other is lifted into a magical, mystical place. Film is dreamy.
Thank You Digital, for Making us All Better Photographers
We must thank digital cameras for what they have given to the world of photography, even to the world of film photography. The ease of use of digital camera equipment and the consistency of the results has brought more and more into the hobby.
Where taking photos once meant consistently bad results, the digital cameras and digital workflow has involved more and more photographers in the science of photography, exposure, and with their digital cameras in hand they have gone out and exposed frames and looked at the results. Through trial and error, people have been using digital cameras to improve their understanding of photography. Thanks to digital, film is more popular then ever.
So digital cameras have ’lowered barriers to market entry’, and from a larger pool of people taking up the hobby of photography, we also see larger numbers of those established digital shooters also experimenting with film; lomography, 35mm film, medium format film are all grest ways of having fun with the celluloid format, and not it’s not just popular with old duffers, according to ilford, 30% of its film users are under the age of 35.
Could we see a resurgence in film sales? What about medium format film? It would be nice if someone took the Contax 645 and re-engineered it and started selling it new again. I’m not so sure it will happen, but there would be plenty more beautiful images in the world. However popular digital becomes, film will always appeal more to a certain aesthetic.
Just as photography became the instant image capture medium, relegating painting to ‘the arts’, so digital has relegated film photography to ‘fine art photography’. Anyone who cares about aesthetics, basically. Photojournalists? Nah. Sports, magazines? Not a chance. Fashion? Maybe, but it’s still likely to be digital, and probably MF.
The majority of individuals nowadays are of the ’instant gratification’ seeking variety. They think they can buy their way to the excellence they are seeking. We can hardly blame them, as our society is one which promotes the notion of consumerism. “If I buy this car/house/camera/motorcycle (delete as appropriate) my life will be better. It won’t, I’m afraid. But it’s the sell the advertisers have been pushing for many years, and the majority still buy it.
There’s no better substitute for skill and expertise than going out and doing it every day. 10,000 hours of practice will bring mastery. Not reading this. Not buying another camera or Lightroom plugin. Work out why you want to photograph, and then get out there and shoot. Shoot, Assess and Adjust, and then Repeat. But most would rather their camera did the hard work, hone that after firing off enough FPS, and sifting through the images, some of the shots will be worth keeping. But this thinking nelated their potential to achieve mastery. If you have a machine gun that shoots 10 rounds a second, you may hit the target, but it doesn’t make you a better shooter than that sniper with focus, technique, and a single trigger press.
What does Film Give you that Digital Can’t?
The ability to handle light in ways which are pleasing to the viewer. Digital sensors are a bit like slide film, with a narrow exposure latitude (the difference in stops between the bright elements and the dark elements of the frame). They are improving all of the time, but digital sensors still cannot handle the highlights, backlit and high contrast photography scenes as well as film. With film you expose for the shadows, and never mind the highlights. With digital you expose for the highlights, because once they’re gone……they ain’t coming back and your image looks tacky.
Film gives you a one off, and a backup (hard) copy of that image. Who knows what scanning resolution may be available in the year 2025? Those 35mm negatives can be rescanned for more resolution and depth, but the digital files cannot ever be bigger than they are. In most medium size scans, the image becomes pixelated before you get to the grain resolution.
Colours. Colours available on film are a million times better than those of digital. What’s more the modern hybrid workflow allows the adjustment of those frames to increase punch (contrast) by adjusting blacks whites, highlights and shadows and the overall density of the image, while keeping the colours largely untouched. This gives you the best of both worlds.
Cross processing slide film is something that we can try to emulate in the digital world, but it never quite comes close to the real deal. The following images were taken on an Olympus XA2 camera (£7 on eBay) with cross processed Fuji Provia 400X (sadly now discontinued in 120 format), and cross processed Agfa Precisa CT. These are exactly as came back from the lab. Jon Canlas’s shots of cross processed Kodak E100VS (very saturated) are beautiful. Here’s hoping Kodak will one day revive its slide film business.
Skin tones. When you want to capture detail, digital is king. Cars, motorcycles, fashion retouching, real estate. Digital gives you bright, punchy, vivid sharp images. But this is not so good when you are talking about people. Film gives lovely skin tones especially when overexposed, where digital shows a bit too much. Take those glasses off!
Film is better in the dark than it used to be, but it’s still no match to digital in low light situations. Underexposed areas look muddy and need blackening in PP. Unless we are talking about Ilford 3200, or the new Kodak C41 films based on Kodak’s ’Vision 3’ motion picture technology, most films when underexposed look rubbish. Get out your tripod, push your film as high as you dare; 3 stops will do nicely, or use a flash and black and white film.
There’s No Scrimping With Film
Film forces you to do things properly. If you’re serious about learning the ropes of film, buy yourself an incident light meter like the one I have, and 10 rolls of one film emulsion, say portra 400, and shoot nothing but that stock for the next month. See whether you like the results, and see how the film works for you.
Get out your handheld light meter and meter for your shots before you expose them (overexpose Portra 400 by metering with the bulb in). Set your meter for the ISO of the film you’re shooting, meter and then set your camera to the same settings. Leave the camera settings alone unless the light changes, or you’re shooting from a different angle (facing the sun versus frontlit). Trust your meter.
Shooting at one ISO, you will quickly get used to the light conditions and you will know what exposure setting to use just from experience. If you find yourself in a lower than ideal condition, you can push your entire roll of film up to 3 stops with good results, or you can underexposed your film by a couple of stops and still achieve decent results. Pushing film tends to increase the contrast, whether you like that or not is up to you.
Read the instructions: Before you go out and burn through 10 rolls of film, slow down, pick up your camera’s instruction manual, and read it. These things don’t tend to be like the digital equivalents which require whole books to give us the lowdown on the setting (remember there is a whole lab in there, and labs are complicated).
Understand the intricacies of your camera, to avoid disappointment come return time. For example, if you own a nikon film SLR, make sure that the “closest subject priority” are disabled, or risk getting 36 blurred exposures. Whoever came up with that ridiculous feature should be given the sack. If you’re planning on using a flash, ditto.
Read the instructions, and see how the two work together, to avoid disappointment . There is no instant feedback in film photography, so you had better know what you’re doing or you’re going to waste your time as well as your money.
Have fun, leave comments and share your own experiences below!
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