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.
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.
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).
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.
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.