The Pain of Shooting Film and Why It's Worth It

The Pain of Shooting Film and Why It's Worth It

When you're shooting film, especially large format film, you have a lot of time to think. When your hands are in a bag and you're loading or unloading many sheets of film, the mind tends to wander and probably the subject that crosses my mind the most is "why?" Shooting digitally would be so much faster. I could be out having a beer somewhere! I could be editing some images in Photoshop from an editorial gig that I've been putting off. Hell, I could be practicing my juggling skills (or learning to juggle). So, why am I instead up to my elbows in this bag, enduring the necessary tedium of film life? Here are some common doubts I have and the reasons I push past them!

Digital Is Faster

Without a doubt, the number one argument you'll hear from film photographers when they are defending shooting film is that film slows you down. That's fine, well, and good and all, but I have stuff to do! I'm a father, student, professional photographer, and I bartend at night. The little free time that I have shouldn't be spent mulling over a shot, agonizing whether or not to press the shutter, right? Well, yes and no. There's a certain amount of freedom gained from shooting until you're blue in the face so that you know that you have the shot. But with that freedom and security comes a price. The editing process can be a bit soul-sucking. Staring at a computer screen constantly hitting the right arrow and rating images that look the same becomes numbing. I don't know about you, but I start to feel like I'm a hamster on a treadmill. 

When I'm shooting large format, I may take 6-8 photos in a shoot. That's it. "But what if you don't get the shot?" Well, if I didn't see the shot, I didn't take the picture. To be fair, I'll also proof with a digital to check lighting. I'd use Polaroid, but since it's pretty much gone the way of the dodo, it isn't an option. After that, it's all about working the pose and the composition to get what I want. I feel more like an artist than I ever did shooting purely digitally. So yes, the speed of digital is undeniable, but there is a certain amount of satisfaction that is gained from doing it slowly and making hard choices about what you're capturing. You feel more like the captain of the ship as opposed to playing second fiddle to technology.

Portrait of Catelyn, shot on 4x5 with Portra 400

Film Is Risky

There are certain jobs that I will not shoot film for. My confidence just isn't there yet. Also, most commercial work requires being able to give and get immediate feedback. That just isn't possible with a film workflow. Film can be a risky endeavor, especially if you're shooting large format. Between loading the film, the integrity of your holders, doing everything in the correct order from loading the film, opening and closing the shutter, focusing, your subject moving around, dealing with extremely shallow depths of field, and many other potential pitfalls, it would seem that it's a recipe for disaster. And it's true. When you're learning to shoot with film, you will fail. You will fail many, many times. You'll forget to set your ISO correctly while metering. You'll leave the shutter open and expose the film accidently. You'll forget to compensate for bellows draw. Doesn't shooting digitally make more sense when you can catch your mistakes before they hurt anything?

Of course it does! But that isn't the point of shooting. At least, it isn't for me. I started shooting years ago on film for two reasons: I was genuinely interested in capturing the world around me, and I was hooked by the anticipation of getting my film back from the lab. What was I going to get? How did this little experiment pay off? I made a different choice with this shot, and I can't wait to see what happened! When you shoot film, you have to commit. And, as any young person will tell you, commitment can be scary. But man, what a rush! When I pull my film out of the tank and look at it, my heart rate goes up. Every. Single. Time. Where is that feeling with digital? Where is the anticipation? You know immediately if you got the shot. For commercial work, that can be of the utmost importance, but for work that means something to me personally, the choice is clear.

Portrait of Abby, shot on Mamiya RZ67 with Fuji Acros 100

Film Is Expensive

Yup. It is. When you get into large format photography, a sheet of color will run you over $4.00/sheet. That's no joke. Then you've got lab fees if you're outsourcing or chemical costs if you're doing it yourself. Either way, the costs add up. Premium 120 and 35mm film isn't much easier on the wallet, although you do have more low-cost alternatives for color film. You can easily find 35mm film for $2.00/roll. On the flip side, though, you can buy a used 35mm film camera for $30. You can find a used large format camera to get you started for $200. There are so many options in medium format that I could easily make another post out of them. You can find anything from a Holga for $35 to a Contax 645 for $3000+. With film, the latitude of options is staggering when it comes to hardware, so you should be able to find something in your budget if you want to give it a try. Also, home development of black and white or color is significantly cheaper than lab development (and more fun). 

Portrait of Anastasia, shot on 4x5 with Ilford HP5 Plus 400

Scanning Film Sucks

Yeah, I got nothing. It's boring. Dust spotting is a pain. It's just a necessary evil if you're not printing with an enlarger. Of course, if you send out to a lab they will do it for you, but that can get pricey in a hurry.

Digital Is Better Quality

Yes. Yes it is. I know that's not the line that a lot of film photographers peddle, but I'm not going to be one of those guys. The amount of detail, clarity, and fidelity that digital can offer is astounding with today's cameras. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that film is magically better. It isn't. But it is different. When you start getting to the larger formats, around 6x7 and larger, there is a very clear difference in the look of the image. There's a certain falloff in the depth of field that is difficult to attain in digital. I'm not going to say it's impossible, because we all know it isn't. Some people are amazing in Photoshop and can fake a film image with no problem. Personally, I like the real thing, but I won't say that it can't be faked. Yes, film can achieve the clarity of digital at larger formats, but for that, you'll need to be using drum scanners and I just don't have a budget for that. 

But here's the thing: Does technical superiority matter? Think of the great photographs of old. Think of the masters. It doesn't matter what genre of photography. Think of famous works that have stood the test of time. Now, were they shot with film or digital? I'd bet that a vast majority were shot on film. That's not knocking digital at all. But what it is saying is that a technically inferior medium can have a greater impact in the hands of the right person. When an image hits you square in the eyes, it doesn't matter if it was taken with a Holga or a D5. An impactful image ignores format. 

Portrait of Catelyn, shot on 4x5 with blue filter, Kodak TMax 400

Longevity in a Digital World

This isn't really a doubt, but it's something to think about as photographers who create work that makes us proud. I live to think of the story of Vivian Maier. Long story short, she was a nanny who had a passion for photography. She left thousands of images unprinted and unseen until various collectors discovered her prints and negatives. She would later come to posthumous acclaim for her images, seen in galleries around the world. Now the question I have is: Could this happen in a purely digital world? Images stored on devices that are destined to fail have an inherent ephemeral quality about them. What happens when media changes? What happens to those shelves full of hard drives cease to have a computer that can read them? In 50 years, will people still be using USB? Yeah, I think not. Will those drives still be working? Again, doubtful. What kind of legacy are you leaving behind if the next technical revolution renders your storage medium obsolete? Of course, printing is the obvious solution here, but how many of us religiously print our keepers? I'd say not enough. Ever increasingly, I'm delivering more and more files to clients digitally. People want prints less and less.

With negatives and slides, longevity is greatly improved. Nothing lasts forever, but the chances of someone being able to salvage a negative in 50 years over a hard drive are undeniable. I'm no great artist, but I'd like to think that, at least on occasion, I create an image that matters. So for photos that really mean something to me, if I have a choice, I'm shooting film.

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27 Comments

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Hans,
enjoyed reading your opinion piece. Just wish the title was maybe different. Shooting film isn't really a "pain" IMO. It is what it is. The only "painful" part to me (at least) is the expense of scanning. At least getting a good decent sized scanned. Why I love shooting film:

1 - The large amount of analog information you have in each image you take is amazing. A MF negative can be optically drummed scanned up to 200mp! Twice the size of the latest digital MF camera. If you have an image that's a keeper, you can have it in amazing detail and blown up to gallery size no problem. 4x5 and 8x10 film can easily yield a gigapixel scan.

2 - The format!! What I mean by that is the format of the lenses. I love shooting on my 503cw b/c those lenses are made/optimized to shoot a square image. The look/distortion you get from a 6x6 lens has it's own look just like a 6x7 lens and just an 8x10 lens. large format lenses are made to cover an 8x10 (or larger) area.. and that's going to give you a WAY different look & feel then an image made with a lens designed to have a 36mmx24mm image circle. Cropping a 35mm digital image to a square is not the same thing.

Glad to see people shooting film. With all that being said. I WISH I had the money to regularly shoot 8x10 chrome which IMO is the highest quality image I've ever seen. Happy shooting!

best,
-Alexis

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks for reading! I've never tried to shoot 8x10 for the simple reason that I know I'd fall in love with it and theres no way in hell I can afford to shoot it!

Binky Bass's picture

I took three cameras camping last week end, D7100, Zenit 11, Nikomat ftn. pull out the film camera and they start to hate your guts cause 1. Your taking to long 2. They cant gather round to see the pic on a screen....for camping I say not worth it.. Lol.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I actually had a 10 year old refuse to believe me when I told her there was no screen on my camera a month ago. She just thought I must be hiding it somewhere

José J. Soto's picture

Hahaha, I had the same thing happen to me, and the kid wanted me to open the back so he could see the "hidden screen".

Those are valid points in the article.

I've been shooting with film since 1980 and I still use that Canon A-1 today. I have coveted buying a medium format camera (Mamiya 645 and Mamiya RZ67) and a large format camera for a while. In 2013, I added a used Canon New F-1 and also a Canon 5D III.

Shooting with digital does provide benefits, such as being able to change ISO depending on conditions without having to change film.

I treat my 5D like it's a film camera. I turned off image review and for white balance, if I'm outside, it's set to daylight.

I've worked in the computer industry since the mid 1970's. I've seen external storage change from 8" floppies, to 5.25", to 3.5", to CD, DVD, and BluRay. File formats can also change. JPEG is ubiquitous, but who is to say that the new JPEG format won't be compatible with prior versions?

Film is a tangible object. One can look at film against the light and see what the photo is, even with negative film. One cannot see what a photo on digital media is without using software.

Gypsy Frank's picture

For what you spent on that 5DMkIII, you could've bought two RZ67s, lenses, backs and a few bricks of 120 film.

Gil Aegerter's picture

Interesting article. For me shooting film is about how I visualize the image. I'm much more likely to have a complete vision of what I want before I shoot on film. With digital, the visualization can be an evolving process -- go in with half an idea and progress from there. As far as which format will be here many decades from now, nothing lasts forever, and there's beauty in that.

Hans Rosemond's picture

It definitely is a different workflow dealing with film vs digital. I think there's a more mechanical A + B = C mentality dealing with digital as opposed to using your gut a bit more with film. But that might just be me. Either approach has its time to shine in my work

Spy Black's picture

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that film is magically better. It isn't. But it is different."

I'm glad to see a film user who "gets it".

Oh god not me. I trained in commercial photography with film. Shooting 5x4 inch film, worrying about scratching the neg loading it, unloading it, the developing process, the drying marks etc.

Nope, no nostalgia for me. Digital fully encapsulates the characteristics of film. I have no beef with those using it, but I am so glad those days are over.

Photography is much, much more fun without film.

john pritchett's picture

For over 30 years I shot film corporately and personally but was so glad when digital came along. Bought a used 4x5 outfit a few months ago thinking I'd shoot film again. Nope, but it looks cool! Anyone need a nice Calumet 4x5 complete outfit?

totally agree!!! Its been years since I shot in film...never thought that 3 years ago film become a trend here in Indonesia. even though the cost has gone up really crazy!
it is nostalgic for me in shooting in film. Always bring some adventure feeling for me. but well with its price real high today, I think's I will rarely shot in film. it's a shame.....but that's how advancement its.
Digital is having better quality these day, but in my mind, every image I capture in film is always seem timeless, I mean everlasting...well maybe for me I guess.
btw, nice article

Good article, although when you mainly shoot for yourself you have the luxury to shoot what you want over what is quicker. I prefer the look of film over digital. Also I don't really care how long it takes to focus, instant gratification isn't always gratifying. I like the anticipation of getting the negatives back or developing them myself.

I grew up with nothing but film SO to me it's like gong home. I do visualize the concept more when I know it will be shot on film. Digital I just start with an inkling of an idea and go from there.

I agree that 50 years from now that digital storage will have drastically changed (again) and what we have will be useless as archival images.

I photograph my client portrait work with digital, then move to medium format and then take a few frames with 4x5. Since my clients commission me for a portrait and I get to choose a select number of frames to show the client for them to choose from, it turns out to be a great process and not time consuming at all.

Jeff Colburn's picture

Hi,

Great article. I do miss shooting film, and I'm still considering going back to it. There has been talk about the Digital Dark Ages http://petapixel.com/2015/02/17/print-your-photos-or-risk-losing-them-to... and how we could lose all the images shot in the first century of digital photography. Film and digital are tools. Use the right tool for the job at hand.

Have Fun,
Jeff

Bruce Stenman's picture

I have shot with 4x5 sheet film and 6x6 and 35mm roll film and done my own developing and printing and it was OK. but I was using 32 ASA film for most work and on rare occasions using ASA 400 Tri-X film. I was not on a National Geographic budget so I shot cautiously and when down to the last 4 frames of a 36 exposure roll of film I would hesitate to take shots. I sure did very little experimentation when shooting film.

Color as with chrome film and having to deal with very limited dynamic range and having to do masks to compensate which was very time consuming and I would do it for 1% of my pictures. No way to adjust colors or hue or saturation after the fact and the result was many photographers using Velvia to get a boosted color that was very artificial. A single Cibachrome print took me an hour to produce and if I wanted a duplicate print it took another hour.

With digital I had the ability to burn and dodge in color just as I had done with B&W film but could not do with color film images. I could adjust DR or white balance and make skin and food look real. I could safely send a file off for printing by a lab with an upload and not have to worry about my slides or negatives getting lost in the mail or damaged by the lab.

With my switch to 100% digital in 2001 shortly after taking a trip to do underwater photography in Truk and dealing with the post 9/11 insanity at the airports, I also gained a bathroom in my house and sold off my enlarger and darkroom equipment.

When traveling overseas I know if I got a key shot or not and do not have to wait until I get home and can get the film processed. This is the biggest advantage with digital as it is not possible to get Kodachrome processed overseas or even Ektachrome film for that matter at most places.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Another reason to shoot film: my digital cameras aren't weatherproof. My Mamiya Press doesn't care.

many are weatherproof.

B Jones's picture

Many (most) are not weatherproof, they are weather resistant.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Honestly, I think weatherproofing/resistance is sort of a non-issue. There are many options with film cameras that are tough and there are many digital cameras that are tough as well. Even with no electric components, all manual cameras are subject to mold and corrosion given enough time.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Yes, there are plenty of weatherproof digital cameras - I just don't own one, and given my current situation, I'm not likely to. The Nikon D600 isn't weatherproof - the D750 is ... but there's a price difference, even buying used. Fuji has one weatherproff body, the XT, and a handful of weatherproff lenses; my 18-55 isn't one of those - neither is my XE2.

I paid $160 for my Mamiya 645 and 60mm lens - even if it craps out eventually, I can get another one. Forget how much the Mamiya Press was - not a lot more. And 6x45 and especially 6x9 are capable of resolving more info than most FF digital, depending on you scan. (Plus there's the whole "analog look," which I won't get into)

The point is, I shoot film in a way that's logical for ME. I get shots with it I wouldn't get otherwise, and that's kinda the point.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Yes, but they tend to be expensive, and more the point, I don't own one. My medium format gear was dirt cheap.

The point is, it gets me shots I wouldn't otherwise risk, and that should be the point of film - whether it's going out in a blizzard, or getting an "analog look." (TBH, I want my film stuff to look as clean as digital, and my digital to have "complex" colors like analog)

Sean Reese's picture

Great read! I just recently started shooting with a Graflex Crown Graphic and 40 year old expired film because I love the look. I have been working with a MOD 54 and Patterson 3 reel tank and found that while developing, the sheets do not stay on the MOD 54 which if very frustrating but I got some very interesting scans from that.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I definitely slow down on my agitation when using the mod54. I find that when i keep a slow pace, development is pretty even

Sean Reese's picture

OK, cool. I will try that this weekend. I have a couple of test sheets that I loaded to the film holders in my studio hoping that the red light didn't kill the film.

John Browning's picture

Film is like an old Fender tube amp. It takes longer and it is so rewarding in it's results.
I could not agree more, PRINT! If it matters, PRINT! Use archival papers and pigments and PRINT! Mathew brady's work survives today because of good old analogue technology.
If the (never seen a darkroom) youth of today embraced this It would be great. I may be old and use old techniques, but so do the Amish craftsmen, and those same youth clamor to purchase their quality goods. It also seems vinyl records are making a comeback to a whole new crowd.
There is hope yet.