Film photography has been making a steady, slightly unexpected comeback for the past few years. In this article, I break down some of the reasons why that is happening, as well as say why it may be slightly dangerous for creatives.
Film photography is the classic way of creating images. At least that is what people shooting on film like to believe. Defining the classical way of taking images is like arguing that petrol cars are the classic way of getting around. Some like to go wet-plate, others cyanotypes, others digital, and some take photos on their Nokia in 2021.
The point I want to get across at the very start is that film isn't really a classical way of creating photographs, just like any establishment, it at some point disrupted the old one. Digital did that two decades ago, and god knows what will do it later this century.
Yet, it is interesting to see the comebacks and flashbacks to the “good old days” that people who sometimes, such as me, were too young to experience. I was born after the invention of the digital camera, in a way I am a child of the digital age. Many people like me take great pride in being able to take photos on film, others do it out of nostalgia I will analyze later on in this article.
My Journey With Film
I started off taking pictures at 15 on my dad’s EOS 300. Well, my first experience was breaking one when I put my finger into the shutter to see what happens. I was lucky to find a cheap replacement on the used market. The only reason I started with film was that I could not be patient enough to save up pocket money to get a half-decent digital Rebel. I had a blast with film, in fact, I still own the very camera.
At that point, film prices were not as ridiculously high, but digital had already passed film by a lot so times were pretty bad.
Fortunately, I had a camera that could expose not only correctly, but also consistently. While this meant my auto-exposed images were decent, manual exposure ones were sometimes a dog's dinner. Due to the high cost, however, I could quite literally not afford to miss another frame. Hence, the learning curve was steep, I managed to get the hang of settings in no time, and learn a few other things such as flash sync speed the hard way (by wasting rolls). The film was my way of taking pictures and I never really thought of taking up photography more seriously until I started getting offers to shoot things, and doing it on film was costly and time-consuming.
Overall, shooting on film was not really a conscious choice, rather a circumstance. I learned a great deal about image-making along the way. But I think film is making a comeback not only because it’s a great learning method.
Why Shoot Film and the Dangers of It
One of the events that changed my perception of modern photography was speaking to Rankin. His comment on people who shoot film intrigued me. He said that many photographers shoot film because it is a comfortable easy way to be in control of what happens after the image is taken.
I shoot film now and do it on assignment as well. Not nearly as much as I shoot tethered to two hard drives, but still. What I feel happens when I shoot film is that I become a much more closed photographer and images could possibly lack the creative input from the team. Bear in mind this applies to fashion mostly.
For me it’s hell, but for others it’s heaven. Depending on what your shooting style is, you may hate the fact that you have to (on most serious work) show the raw files right away. I know I hated it to the point of losing clients and being upset because I don’t want to send raws. Now that's changed. I can even throw in a good-looking raw file in my book and not be worried that someone will tear it apart. The film makes it very easy to only show the best of the best, even to the people that should see it all. At the same time, overcoming the fear of showing my work has actually helped me go further. The people on set are there to make the images better, their goal is also to get the best photo possible and have fun doing so.
Another reason people shoot film nowadays is that film is seen as a pure way of taking photos. After all, all big photographers have shot on film, heck, some still do. This makes sense because it takes decades of time and effort to get to the level of where those people are. Most have started at least all the way in the ’80s when film was the only option.
Now digital is king, therefore I am sure that if Albert Watson was to start now, he would be shooting digital. Rankin takes this further and suggests knowing all media, not only photography. Indeed, modern advertising is very far from film photos done in a Manhattan studio. Social, print, online, and so much more have taken over. Vogue covers automatically have a print and digital/moving still cover. While film is a viable solution to image-making, it is far from the only one that modern photographers should be familiar with.
Film is making comeback not only because of nostalgia and the authentic “look”. In professional photography, beyond a Gen Z kid snapping pics for Instagram, film offers a seemingly easy and classic way to create work. It is not inherently a bad way to work, however, there are dangers and pitfalls many creatives fall through when using film.
As a final thought, film is just an artistic medium, just like oil and canvas, marble, digital, and so on. What you choose to do with that medium is what makes the final difference. For that reason, in art school (which I am not a member of), students learn different mediums to then be able to pick what works for them. Film is fine if it works for you, but be aware of the dangers.