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.
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.
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.
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.
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.