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?
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…
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:Camera:
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.
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.
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!