The Allure of Film Photography

The Allure of Film Photography

Post-processing at the computer for hours on end often leaves me feeling nostalgic. Maybe there’s something tangible to film photography that I’m overlooking. After seeing a fellow landscape photographer working his 4x5 near a tree in the local dunes, his approach to our hobby had me contemplating my choice of hardware. There are so many analog-inspired pictures circling the web, that it’s obvious that I’m not the only one. Today, I want to share my thoughts on film photography with you.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon. The area around my rectangular 30-inch display starts to darken as the sun dips behind the houses across the street. I take another sip of my long forgotten coffee. Needless to say, it has gone cold. I find myself detached from the real world. After having spent the better part of four hours in Photoshop and Lightroom, I wonder if it was worth my time.

Outdoor Photography

Personally, the most intriguing thing about landscape, nature, and macro photography is to reconnect with the natural world. We spend so much time with computers that many of us feel alienated when we are in the backcountry for any amount of time. It happens to me every first night out in the tent: Dreams intensify, I hear strange sounds, it’s either cold or hot, and there are critters constantly biting me. It’s exactly what I love about being outdoors.

The best part about photography is to be around the subject you’re most interested in. In outdoor photography, I think photographers can be much more present and in the moment, when you let Mother Nature clear your timetable every once in a while. But when we return home, we don’t spend more time with our subject. Our timetable builds up again and we allocate any precious spare time to processing our shots.

CGI

I’m not going to evade the truth. I spend hours on end in Photoshop. The added layers of mystique, atmosphere, look, and feel are as much part of the story that I want to tell my viewers as the press of the button. Don’t get me wrong. I love Photoshop. Computers though… Those are just the hardware required to pursue my vision and run Photoshop.

However, so many images presented on the web today feel detached from nature. It’s not just the moody landscape I’m referring to. There isn’t a professional portrait out there that hasn’t undergone some form of retouching. And we are past the time when CGI (computer generated imagery) was a category in itself, because it is becoming integral to many workflows nowadays.

As we start to lose sight between this enormous gray area of reality, pursuit of vision, keeping up with the masses, and producing genuine art, this period has me hearkening back to a time when things were simpler. I can feel the allure of film photography. Working with chemicals instead of pixels, it is much harder and obvious to actually put things in there that weren’t there with the photographer. No matter if they were inches apart from each other or "just enhanced to better translate the feeling to the viewer."

Computers and Selfies

I’m not the only one feeling the pull of film. VSCO has made a business out of the look of film through digital photography. Instagram started out that way too, and numerous lomo camera manufacturers aren’t doing bad either. And scrolling through the editor’s choice images on 500px, there’s a clear bias towards the faded look, blown highlights in the sky, and shallow shadows. So if you want to win the popularity contest there, all you need to do is put on a woodcutter’s flannel, head over to the woods, lie in a tent, shoot half a selfie with your phone’s camera pointing out the tent door, and pull it through a standard filter of your choice.

Editor's choice on 500px

Editor's Choice on 500px: Quite possibly, there are some biased opinions about a certain look on 500px' landscape selections. Take a look at the middle two rows.

No, I’m talking about real film. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Ben Horne’s YouTube channel. Especially his film reveal episodes, where Horne returns from a National Park with 10 to 20 sheets of 8x10 film and shows his reaction to his own work on camera. Those enormous sheets of slide film have the potential to outperform any current DSLR when it comes to printing big, so there’s no problem there. The dynamic range is also huge, as are the creative possibilities by tilting and shifting the lens on a technical camera.

The main difference is that you’re not judging your work on a computer screen, but by holding it in your hands. But what about sharing your work with the public? Gone are the days when you could display and sell your prints on any corner of the street and hoped to gain a following promising even more sales. That stuff is all digital and social now. So your scanned 8x10 slide film will have to compete on Facebook’s lovely compression with the masses anyway.

Autumn leaves in the water

"Through Chaos and Solitude" - Any image captured on film would still have to be scanned in order to get seen in today's market.

The Cost of Reminiscence

It makes me wonder if there’s a point to feeling this nostalgia at all. Personally, I’m driven by working in the field. And digital has many advantages over film in the field, too. For instance, it takes a lot less time to seeing the results and any adjustments can be made at a moment’s notice. With sheet film, you’d have to actually change the film holders, given the fact that you’ve prepared in advance for multiple exposures. Even medium format film is a costly endeavor too, not to mention the tens to hundreds of dollars required to buy a couple of sheets large format film. As for 35mm, well, that’s just for the hell of it. 35mm does not come close to today’s full-frame digital quality wise. But it does present you with a cheap enough taste of the allure of film photography.

Then again, when I look at my work after I’m done processing my images in Photoshop and Lightroom, my smile starts to come back. I’m briefly reminded of the wind and the rain on the Icelandic coast as I chuckle at the thought of my weather-resistant magnesium body going head-to-head with the wooden wind catcher that is an 8x10 technical camera. To me, the reminiscence of the shoot is the main reason for photography and that comes cheap at the price of sitting at a computer.

Let me know if you’ve ever considered switching to film photography in the comments and tell us why shooting film would make you feel good.

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17 Comments

I shoot both and I think that both have their place in my photography. Shooting with my 4x5 is slow, exacting, and meditative. Shooting with digital is easy and I don't have to worry quite as much about exposure and trying to get everything perfect. That being said, Photoshop is a critical part in both my workflows.

Stephen Fretz's picture

I use Lightroom on everything, and often - and clearly I have issues - use the VSCO film look presets on images I've scanned.

You can get a Mamiya RB67 and a lens for less than $300, and that's probably the sweet spot for film. You've got more data than any FF digital sensor if you drum scan, but if you use Ektar 100 or Portra 160, even scans with a cheap Epson or Canon flatbed scanner are good enough for prints up to 13x19. The Mamiya Universal and Fuji 6x9 are another low cost(ish) option, and have the same proportions as digital sensors.

Of just get a Yashicamat....

Stephen Fretz's picture

Just wanted to add that for color, nothing beats a hybrid work flow. No C-print matches what you can do in Lightroom and then print to an inkjet printer.

Franck Budynek's picture

Very nice and nostalgic article Daniel. I just sold my Sinar gear and my old and trusted F4 and F90x Nikon… with a kind of sadness. 20 years ago, I use to spend many hours of the night in a lab, trying to get the best out of my Kodak Technical Pan or out of my Velvia after a day of shooting. Coffee and cigarettes… Cardboard cuttings, freehand masking. We are craftsmen, so we use the tools available to us. Nothing changes, dedication, knowledge and creativity are still some of the building blocks on which we thrive. Today? Well… I spend many hours of the night at my desk, trying to get the best out of my D810 with Photoshop or Capture one… Though, I drink herbal tea and I quit smoking! I am still amazed by the beautiful work out there…

My Hasselblad 501CM is my absolute favorite camera to use...its so simple, the ground glass is incredible to look through, and its just such a high quality piece of equipment. Its been a LONG time since I helped my dad in the darkroom of a local university making prints from film...would like to do that when I get a bit more space.

BTW, I know how you can fix that cold coffee problem...

This misses a lot of film's key advantages. Too many people focus on the 'film look'. What is that? When shot and processed carefully film is by nature an extremely high quality medium. Shoot some Velvia 100 or 50 in a Nikon F6 with a Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art lens and yes, you will in fact 'come close' to some DSLRs when it comes to resolution. Negative film will be grainier but it will still have more latitude that a Canon, and slightly more than a Nikon. Shoot 120 and up and with a good scanner you can get some extremely high quality images. I have a dedicated film scanner and my Pentax 67 scans are 60mp and when my process is good they are shockingly high resolution. And this isn't even 4x5 yet. Yes at the pixel level detail is often paired with differing levels of grain, but generally that's part of the aesthetic. So don't always assume people shoot film to achieve some vintage look, that's short sighted. My home scanner is pretty good, and going forward, I can always have a film image either drum scanned, or optically printed when I want the best possible reproduction.

There is also the issue of longevity. I've recently been re-scanning 10 year old Portra 160VC and Ektachrome negatives from a Hasselblad. The negatives are in essentially the same condition they were in after first developing them, because they are stored carefully in a printfile, and because my house hasn't burnt down. I don't have digital images from 10 years ago. I lost a bunch when a hard drive failed, some files corrupted (to say nothing of the fact that 10 year old digital cameras pretty much sucked). Digital images (assuming they're not printed) are not archival, at all. This is why the government still shoots B&W film (selenium treated for further archivality) for historical preservation.

Imagine your work in 10 or 20 years. If you shoot film for personal work and you'd like to revisit old projects you can get out your old contact sheets, or slides and simply "look" at them, requiring only your eyes and maybe a light table, to make selections. What is an LR library going to be in 20 years? Will those .cr2s be readable? Non corrupted? Will you always have perfect DAM procedures? No existing physical HD, SSD, or disk is rated to last that long. My iMac doesn't have have a disk drive anymore! If your work is at all important to you in a long term sense, you should shoot film, or print every photograph with pigment inks. Or, accept the fact that your images probably won't be around for very long.

I shoot 90% of my commercial work digitally. I like digital photography a lot. However, I accept it's limitations. I shoot 100% of my personal work on film, and I am not chasing some hipster faded film look. I am making high quality images the right way. The film stocks we have now are amazing, better than they have ever been, and I actually really like the hybrid scanning workflow. It's easy to do at home, you have the advantages of LR and PS, and pigment printers from Epson have exceeded RA-4 print quality in many ways (fiber based paper!).

It's only the icing on the cake that my Pentax 67, Rolleiflex, and Leica M4 will continue to be relevant image making machines for as long as there is film for them (I have no doomsday expectations there). My 'work' Nikons are basically disposable tools on steep depreciation curves. Someday, SOMEONE will write a case for film that doesn't mention nostalgia. Portra 160 and Provia 100F are eff'ing cutting edge IMO.

Out of curiosity, what scanner are you using?

I use a Pacific Image Primefilm XA for 35mm. It scans full rolls and has autofocus. It's slower than a Pakon, but MUCH higher quality. for 120 I use the Pacific Image PF120. I was so impressed with the XA and the price is much cheaper than the Plustek. It's got some limitations (no batch scanning), but it's pretty much as good as a Coolscan 9000 for MUCH less $ and still in production. I think of my scanners the same way I think of enlargers in the darkroom, and so I do my culling on the light table for the most part.

Thanks...using a DSLR with a macro lens right now...its a bit of a pain and I've struggled to get the conversion to bring out the tonal quality that I've gotten from some cheap scans at my local camera shop. Unfortunately, those scans are only 4 MP, so I'm looking for options.

Stephen Fretz's picture

May I ask how you're scanning your MF stuff? (I agree with everything else you said). Also, how do you get your E6 stuff developed - or do you do that yourself?

Gypsy Frank's picture

I shoot both film and digital. I started digital, shot film for a while and am mostly digital again. My workflow hasn't gone back to digital because digital is "better". Neither is better than the other, they are both means to an end. In the end, I chose digital over film because digital is just more practical in the long run when it comes to cost. I shoot a lot... A LOT. Most of my work these days is documentary and portraiture with some commercial work thrown in a few times a month. While film based photography has the cooler cameras it's just impractical in terms of cost to shoot film with the amount of images I make. There's cost in dollars if you send your film to Pro lab (no Pro lab develops & scans film in the US for cheaper than $10/roll no matter how many rolls you send in...THIS IS ROBBERY!). There's cost in time if you develop and scan yourself at home (I can edit, color correct & print 100+ digital files faster than the time it would take to get your chemical to proper temp, develop, dry & scan at good DPI the same amount of images in film). IT'S. JUST. IMPRACTICAL. For the hobby shooter who takes 2 weeks to get through one roll, film can be funnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn! I haven't been that guy in years though. I still shoot a roll or 2 every three or four months just because NOTHING looks as good as medium format Ilford FP4 film....sheesh! But for all of my serious work, that stuff is done digitally. More practical. I know a guy in New York doing all of his street photography on Tri-X using a Leica M3......he shoots a lot of rolls and it takes him months to get through everything he's shot because he develops & scans/prints himself. 25 rolls he shot in June he's just now getting to processing.....THAT'S INSANE.

This is a delayed responsive because I just got the notification....

I don't think anyone would reasonably argue that film is faster or easier than digital. Of course it's not. We're just not all working under the gun all the time. If you don't need your images to exist in 20 or 30 years, but do need to see and edit them in a week or so, shoot digital! I would never say that the every day studio should shoot film. However I would say that if someone is working on a personal project that is important to them, or is working with particular clients who are not under a time crunch, film can bring a number of advantages to the table. I shoot my weddings 99% digital, but some of my clients mention to us frequently that they were looking for a wedding photographer that shoots some film. So, my Rolleiflex comes along for the ride. It's not about one thing taking the place of the other, it's about identifying which tool is right for you, and right for your job.

Greetings
I shoot both film and digital. I disagree about digital begining better than film, it isn't. A positive will run circles around any digital. So with that said lets move on to why I shoot film. You have to get it right in the camera, you have to plan and think it through, you have to know what your doing or you will screw it up and pay the price. I did shoot 4x5 but not a lot, I mostly shot 5x5 or 6x9. My main cameras were 35mm and if you know how shoot them they were very good. I would run through 100 to 300 rolls a month maybe more or less it depended on my assignments, but for my high end work I used my 5x5 mostly. I send my slides and negative film out for processing, but process my own B&W using my own formulas that I mixed up from scratch and print in the darkroom. Two developers, water bath, stop bath, water bath, fixer, rinse, dry, print. I won't scan my film because I believe if you do it becomes a digital and you might as well shoot a digital camera. There again I print my film in the darkroom. If I scan and print from a ink jet print I will shoot digital. In the darkroom I print straight up maybe a like dodging and burning but not much so it doesn't take very long, I know what I'm looking for. Some for digital I won't sit in front of the computer and PP for hours I have better things to do. If you work you images over and over they become a fantasy.
I love shooting film because it reminds me of the golden days of photography. When you, yes you had to get it right first time very time. No looking at the lcd and saying lets do it again I screwed up. You had to be prepared, think it through get it right the first time or not get paid.
As for cameras I shoot Sigma with the Foveon for my digital, and yes you have to know what your doing just like positive film or you'll screw yourself. The Foveon was design to be as close to slide film as possible. For my film I shoot Minolta, OM1n, or Leica. For 5x5 or 6x9 I shoot a Bronica and I use a hand held meter for all three types of camera systems.
Have fun
Roger

Spy Black's picture

Yeah, I dunno. I spent far more time working in film than I ever did with digital, with far less control. Things are much faster in Lightroom, Capture One, and Photoshop. Way faster. There's so much more finite control also. This whole idea of film having more dynamic range is laughable, because it requires massive amounts of work to extract it photographically. No, you're not gonna get it dodging and burning. You need to know sophisticated photo-optical masking techniques and the ability and skill of cutting ruby like a pro. And time. Lots of it. In short, you make far better use of the dynamic range you have in Nikon, Pentax, Sony, hell, even Canon cameras, with far less time and trouble.

Those of you who just scanned your film, congratulations, you just went back into the digital domain, with the colorspace of digital. In other words, you now have a digital image. Film? We've heard of it. If you're going to shoot film, you need to stay in the analog domain to get "the film look". That means if you shoot color negs, you need to print on color negative photographic paper if you want to get the colors that film gives you. You're not gonna get it off a digital printer, I don't care what anyone tells you.

Me? I'll stick with digital, thank you. I started shooting in 1973, and did professional darkroom work until the digital age made my career obsolete around '92 or so. For me, film ended when my beloved medium of choice, Kodachrome 25, ceased to exist. Film was great, it was a wonderful ride, but it's over. I hope film survives as a fine art medium, but it has a hard, uphill struggle, due to it's production needs.

Film is dead, long live film...

My switch happened two months ago, when I fell in love with pinhole photography and also assembled a darkroom and develop with caffenol. I switched from using my detail and resolution monster pentax 645d. I love the hands-on, tactile part of film photography. Loading the film holders, mixing the darkroom chemicals, and working in the darkroom and watching the magic of the image appearing in the chemicals; I have discovered a deep love for the entire process.
With pinhole photography, the aesthetic of the image is beautiful. Detail and resolution are out of the equation, there is little control of composition (however, i am getting better at guessing how the image will be framed), getting the exposure is much more complicated, and this all requires enormous time and patience. I know this is a nightmare for most, but I feel like I have found what I've been looking for with photography.

I shoot both digital and film as well, taking film up again about 2 years ago after a decade plus photographing solely digitally. I develop my own film, color and black and white, and make gelatin silver prints for b&w, but only use a hybrid approach for color, scanning color negatives and printing digitally (color wet printing is a little too involved for me currently) . Why do I do this? Because I love the look of film, imperfections and all, and I really enjoy processing things chemically rather than on a computer screen. Each approach is as valid as the other in terms of artistry and I enjoy the variety.

Jay Smith's picture

Good afternoon. My first film camera was given to me by my parents. It was a Kodak Brownie Fiesta. It shot roll film you had to place onto the spool in the back of the camera. I developed an appreciation for b&w. I then used a shipmate's 35 mm Minolta camera. After serving my country, I attended the Art Institute Of Boston and used a 4x5 view camera. I also learned the rule of thirds. This rule taught me how to properly compose and image within the camera viewfinder. I learned how to develop and print b&w images. I believe this is lost within the so called next generations photographers/artist. In my opinion, there is no longer a need for someone to have an eye for any image they might capture. All one has to do is have a very good computer program and this can make the worst photographic image into a masterpiece. One has to appreciate where the art of photography started in order to really appreciate how we have arrived today. I believe one has to study the early pioneers of photography, ie Ansel Adams, etc.. Ony then will one gain any appreciation for the art of photography.