Why I Still Shoot Film

Why I Still Shoot Film

Some say film is dead. And while I have to concede that at times, it can seem like it's certainly on a few crutches, I can't say it's dead... Because in reality, it's the most live photography medium I know. And so, I still shoot film. If it's something you've been curious about or if you've been wanting to try it out but don't know how to get started, this is for you.

In a digital age, expedience is everything. People want that instant gratification -- the one that the Internet age bred in our younger siblings and which bled into the older generations just the same. We want things now.

But no matter what technological revolutions come, we can’t seem to beat the “triple constraint” -- we can have something done very well at low cost, but then it can’t be done quickly. And unfortunately, with cost being a non-negotiable factor, the digital age has ultimately chipped away at the quality of work, willing to sacrifice greatness in order to satisfy the ever-growing impatience of society.

Yes, if I don’t shoot digital, I’ll get killed. There are stories out there about how some companies still request film. And that’s great to hear -- but it’s still by far the least requested medium out there. And if I don’t adapt, I won’t make it.

So yes, I have a D3 and some lenses to go along with it so I can cover the occasional event, Bat Mitzvah, or wedding. But no matter what, I still have a film camera -- be it my Nikon F6 or Hasselblad 203fe -- around the other shoulder.

Now, some of you might think that’s crazy. Digital quality has improved tremendously. And if I have a product assignment, can’t I just rent one of those awesome Hasselblad H4D systems?

Hasselblad H4D

Yes and no. Digital technology is on the cusp of taking over film. But in the same way that video game programers have had to ‘dumb’ down the features of animated humans because they’re too close to the real thing, yet not quite there (and that ends up looking even weirder to the human eye), digital technology still needs to grow longer legs to make the next big jump before it beats out film. I had the H4D for a while, but it just didn’t quite cut it. I was still spending time editing the color to get it to look like it came from film. Skin tones are better on medium format than on a Nikon D3 (or D4), but for ten times the cost, it’s not worth it -- not unless you’re shooting fashion, really.
Digital technology has low light covered -- nothing beats digital in that realm. And the other ‘forms of speed’ have been an advantage of digital practically since it came out with regard to instant feedback, frames per second, and even the availability of fast shutter speeds.
But I’ve already been over this: it’s not speed that’s the issue, here. It’s quality: the issue is color. I’ve just never been able to get that same beautiful color from the digital bodies that I’ve seen come from film. And oddly enough, we’ve spent all our time worrying about composition and lighting and makeup and hairstyles... In the meantime, we’ve completely lost track of color. And that’s part of what the fine art world still offers us, too. Color should just matter more...
The Pentax 67 is arguably the easiest-to-use and most portable 6x7 format camera, as its SLR-style body requires only a slight learning curve and stays relatively small -- but make no mistake...it's still a beast.

Every film frame that I shoot, assuming I don’t screw up, I immediately know is going to have the best color possible. There’s just something about that analog, chemical reaction that can’t screw up. Fuji Reala just looks exactly like you were there and adds the slightest hint of ‘special something’ that you just can’t quite explain. In fact, I’m not so sure it’s even a hint of anything at all -- perhaps it’s just that it seems strange to actually see real color! And on the other end of the spectrum, Kodak’s Ektar 100 looks so dreamy. It’s not real by any means, but you can’t deny that it makes virtually any scene better than reality.
Adding film shots as I shoot slows me down, sure. I have to switch cameras, focus manually, move to adjust to the different focal length of my lens, and then process and scan the photos within a week or two after that. But I’ve never had a client that complained about it. I give them digital copies within a few days so they’re ‘satisfied’ and a couple weeks later, the film arrives -- in all its analog glory complete with full resolution scans so they’re “usable” in today’s digital world.
Adding film shots gives an edge to my work. They don’t necessarily make or break a client’s decision to go with me. But they certainly keep them coming back and suggesting me to their friends.
I don’t need to do a special ‘first time’ discount. I don’t need to hand out a special discount card to first-time customers for their second shoots either. I just give them a little something extra. Later, I gently recommend that they add a standard ‘film’ package. It’s just a couple shots (not thousands) and isn’t even that much. I even charge them practically at cost because that way it’s not that much more for them. But more importantly, it lets me actually shoot film, which will always improve the quality of work that I have to show in my portfolio.
Want an edge? I suggest trying to shoot some film. If you don’t like it, sell off the couple hundred bucks in gear and get yourself a Lensbaby or go out for a beautiful meal with your significant other.

For those who want to try, here are some suggestions to get you started:

Hasselblad 203FE
You don’t have to shoot medium format. And while I like it, you can get most of the same films in a 35mm format to put in a rock solid Nikon F5 body that can be picked up for $300-350 used. Slap on a cheap manual focus (or even autofocus) prime lens for $100 or so, and you’ve got a film setup for under $500.
Then again, even if you do want to step up to medium format, the Hasselblad 500c and 80mm f2.8 or Mamiya RZ67 and 110mm f2.8 kits are basic, but perfectly suitable and can be picked up for around or just over $500. Any lens for those will be sharper than anything on 35mm -- and the larger negative will increase the ‘apparent’ sharpness even further. You’ll be amazed, even if loading film is a bit slower.

Finding good resources to help tell you which films are better than others can be a bit tricky and confusing. People have different opinions. But here’s what I like.
For color that looks accurate to the scene, I use Fujifilm Reala 100. Its low speed is great for daylight (or long exposures at night) and has very fine grain.
For dreamy color, I use Kodak Ektar 100. This film is extremely fine-grained and is just gorgeous.
And for out-of-this-world super-saturated color, I use Fujifilm Velvia 50. It’s slide film, so it produces a positive image that’s easy to look at without a contact sheet. Ken Rockwell has some undeniably convincing photos to show why he shoots Velvia 50 on his site.
Finally, for faster film that you might need if you’re shooting action or at night, I’d use Kodak Portra 800. The Portra series is good for portraits in general, but while I haven’t experimented much with other fast color films, I’ve heard about and experienced good results with the 800 speed at night. It can even be pushed a bit (ask at your lab) so you can shoot it at 1600 if you need the extra speed.
And finally, don’t forget about black and white. This might not be useful to everyone, but either way, Ilford has a wonderful series of black and white films -- it’s all they do. But if you want something that’s easy to get developed at your local drug store, Kodak BW400CN works wonders and is an all-around goodie.

Whatever you do: FIND A GOOD LAB! Don’t write off mailing your film out. Many excellent labs even offer this service at a discount to bring in extra, outside business. I send all my film out to PhotoworksSF in San Francisco. Their prices are reasonable and service is outstanding! Either way, there are dozens of great labs around the world. I’d give a list, but I can’t possibly cover every city -- that’s why Yelp is so awesome...use it.

Epson V750-M Scanner
Scanning is tough. It’s either expensive, not very good, or you have to do it yourself. I get to use the scanners my school has, but that’ll just last another year.
Aside from buying a used now-discontinued Nikon Coolscan 9000ED, which is extraordinarily expensive, I’d just get it scanned at the lab if you’re starting out. If you want to move up, you can get something like an Epson V700 (or the 750M version). They’re fantastic for the price, and I’m not sure the Nikon is even much better anymore, if at all. They’ll also let you scan your film more quickly, as setup is easier with a flatbed.
Remember, however, that wet mounting is important if you want to get that sharpness. I rarely do it, but when I really need that sharpness in an image, I’ll go through the effort. Wet mounting is just a process by which you sandwich your negative between two pieces of glass with a mounting solution. This method allows for extremely sharp scans compared to normal, dry-mounted ones. Here, you can find a good comparison of the two methods' results. Before I knew about this, I was bummed out and thought the $3000 Hasselblad lenses I had just weren’t as sharp as I thought they’d be. But then all made sense...

Also, remember that you can get actual photographic prints done from your negatives. This is special and always the way to go if you can afford it for prints -- some labs still do this...search online or call.

Also, a lot of “labs” send their film out to other labs that actually do the processing. This is something that has happened more and more since film labs consolidated with the lessening of film’s popularity. Sometimes you can find out where your film is sent out to and just send it there yourself to save a buck. Some might call that unsupportive of photo stores; but in the end, it'll be better if labs that do process specialize in only processing while stores can serve our gear needs. The choice is yours.

And Finally...
Don't forget that those shots are yours. I don't have an office to store everything in -- nor do I want the responsibility if there's a fire, flood, etc....so I give my negatives to the client. They do deserve to have them -- absolutely. However, keep a copy of the digital files. Your clients deserve to come back for a copy if something goes wrong with theirs (for a year or so, at least), and you should use those beautiful images for your portfolio!

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Was the "bat mitzvah" a pun or just a typo? :D

A bat mitzvah is an actual celebration...

Bat Mitzvah is a "Bar Mitzvah" for a girl..

Oops, I apologize for this. From an area where there are not much religious people. I'm smarter now, I guess!

Carlo Parducho's picture

sacrifice greatness in order to satisfy the ever-growing impatience of society" <----- I freakin love that line

Thanks for the write up, I would so love to try Film!

Hail Sagan's picture

Long live film!
Time to get some more 4x5 Velvia.

Erin's picture

I love shooting in film. I've only been doing photography seriously for 2 years now and it was a year ago I took up film as well. I also did a course which taught me how to develop my own film. It was all ID11 so I don't yet know how to develop C41 but even black and white film photographs have that extra something.

I absolutely love shooting film but I have to disagree with the author regarding digital color. With film, you're pretty much stuck with what ever the chemical technician that generated that film decided. But if you understand digital color correction, then you can get pretty much what ever color you want from your digital files. But you have to take the time to understand what it is you're doing to get the kind of colors you want. Here's a hint: simply neutralizing the black point and the white point will typically get you about three quarters of the way there.

I don't have a problem to get real color however I always try to get some moody film colors which is more difficult. ;)

The only downside confirming critical focus and quick turn-around, critical on any commercial shoot, the upswing to shooting MF digital.

I LOVE film. In my case it was the medium i started my "real" photography on. I wanted to step up from my digital point and shoot, and was looking at the hot new ( at the time) Nikon D60. My dad gave me one of his old film SLRs instead. At first I wasn't sure but when some of my first rolls came from the lab I was astounded and I've been shooting film ever since. A few years later i also bought a DSLR(Pentax K-7, bought it for it's acclaimed ruggedness), and though I love it and has brought back some great results, the is still nothing that can compare to film.
Some of my favorite film shots are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mateibotan/sets/72157625552002885/


Very timely article. I just bought a Mamiya and I'm trying out film for the first time and I have no idea what kind of film to get. This was a big help! Thank you!

hi what mamiya model n lens? and how do u meter? i want to get a mamiya7 and a wide

I just got RB67. I tried first local lab and I was disappointed what they did to the pictures. It was just test roll of fuji pro400H but they added extra contrast and saturation...and I paid $8 per roll and scans at totally useless resolution for $12. Waste of money.
Then I went to WalMart and send 2nd roll out. I had to wait 3weeks but I get it back the way it should be for only $2. Now I am going to send transparencies and Portra to see results.
Eventually I am going to buy scanner and develop film by myself for full control of the process.

Look for an epson V500 scanner - I got one refurbished/new for $99.00 from B&H. 

Jens Marklund's picture

Too cheap and lazy to shoot film these days. Buying a roll and getting it developed here, almost cost 20 bucks (both 120 and 135). Then you need to scan it too. I used to do that, when I had access to a Imacon Flextight through work, and scan the shit out of that film. Now I have to pay like 10 bucks and get shitty web-sized scans.

I still shoot over 100 rolls of film per year for both commissioned work and for my please. Film, especially in medium format when scanned at a high resolution has more 'megapixels' then any digital camera. I also love the medium for the process as I develop my own.

Good article and write up.
I feel like its written just so you can sell affiliate merchandise. Makes me feel like an idiot.

I love shooting film. I own a 5D Mark II and a 5D Mark III, and use them
often, but I shoot probably 60% film with my paid work and probably
about 80% film with my personal shooting (which is almost every week or

I have a Canon AE-1, Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, Mamiya 645 Pro TL, C330f, etc.

absolutely love the process, the cool lenses, the different looks, the
simplicity, the functions and the look that film offers me. Definitely a
passion of mine.

I love your film work you post on Flickr.

Great article, and its nice to see it on here as well. I've always shot film since I was around 6. I have digital and as others have said you can get the look of film with it but it is so much more work. I'm always disappointed with digital even the latest and greatest 36mp wunder nikons. I can easily get 50mp out of a wet scanned slide and the detail and colour is phenomenal straight out the gate.
The big drawback is that digital is very quickly killing off slide film and the next to go will be colour negative.

Black and white is the one area where digital will have to make serious inroads to equal the quality of any of the films stocks available. The Leica M-Monochrome is a step towards it but its still not as good as any of the b&w films.

[re digital advantages] "and even the availability of fast shutter speeds." Except the Minolta Maxxum 9's 1/12,000s max shutter speed.

thank you for this wonderful post!! I love analog photography in exactly that way: colors!

I would love to pick up a Medium format or other retro film camera to play with, I see some on the Boston Craigslist relatively often. Does anyone know of an article with more detailed info on what cam to buy, what film to buy, and the actual process of shooting medium format film as opposed to digital? Obviously I'm a complete n00b. Also: What's the per shot cost once you include development and whatnot?


There are a million options available. If you want to start with Medium Format, I'd recommend buying a cheaper TLR such a Yashica or if you want an SLR, a Mamiya 645. Don't buy from Craigslist if you want a camera that actually works, buy from KEH.com or other reputable camera retailer who will give you a good warranty. You will need to read a basic 35mm photography to learn about film. Here is a good website for that:


Cost varies wildly depending on what type of film you buy, how you have it processed and where and how they print or scan it or not. Direct message me if I can offer anymore help!

i get it, i love film for some things too, but... a scaner is just another digital camera boy, what are you talking about. and prints are shit and ruin the work 80% of the time...

I don't think any film shooter is unaware that a scanner is a digital camera of sorts. Many film shooters even digitize their film using a DSLR. What is your point? Any motion picture you've watched at home was first scanned also. Scanning film is nothing new, digital has been a sidekick to film for decades. Photoshop was invented to edit film, not digital images. Some photographs are 100% chemical/optical from start to finish and others are hybrids. Historically, film culture has not been anti-digital until digital culture became so anti-film.

agree with you all BUT you still need a lab (except for B&W). And what are we going to do when there will be no more?

Process it yourself (just like B&W).

There will continue to be labs as long as we continue to shoot film. Many film photographers, process themselves also, either 100% of their work or only some of it. If we base our photographic decisions on the availability of resources alone, we will just be aiding in the death of film.