To preface all of this, I shoot film 90% of the time (if not more). I firmly believe that my work is more meaningful because of it. I also believe that we all have our own thoughts/opinion and there is no universally observed benefit to shooting film.
For being a medium that has been around for decades and has been almost completely overtaken by digital in the photography market, it still receives a lot of attention. In just the past few months, there have been multiple articles on the topic of film photography. One of which argued that experienced photographers are making a mistake if they do not suggest film as a starting place for aspiring photographers. In another article, Lee boldly stated that film “is overrated.” While I must admit I conceded more points to the latter of those two, I could not disagree more with the conclusion.
To Lee’s points, film work is rarely as sharp as digital – a decent modern camera/lens set up would be sharper than 35mm scanned by an Epson V600 or camera. Film work has just as much of a need for editing as digital shots so the idea that they’re easier and/or go "unedited" is simply untrue. Finally, the "look" of film is not so easy to pin down and just about any film stock can be emulated.
To that I would also add the cost of maintaining photography as a hobby or business. The cost of a 32gb SD card can easily be had for less than a roll of slide film and with film, there’s also the additional cost of developing. So, for 35mm, you could easily be out $25 for 36 exposures whereas with digital, the initial investment is enough to carry you through thousands of exposures. In the end, the cost of your film photography business or habit will continue to grow just to be able to take photographs whereas with digital, costs are generally associated with upgrading or expanding ones equipment.
With that said, I still prefer to shoot film. I found that with digital, the ability – almost compulsion – to shoot more and more in hopes of getting those winning shots eventually eroded at the importance of any one frame. Indeed, I would argue that with every additional shot I took of the same thing in the same situation, the more diluted the meaning each frame became. While the same behavior can be found in film just as well, it’s much less likely given the incurred expense of each exposure. However, that is not to say that the cost of a frame is a sort of penalty applied to indecision leading to more confident and decisive exposures. In fact, the compiling costs could hold back a new photographer from exploring every avenue of their interests.
In response to the sharpness comparison, I would agree that a high speed film in my Nikon F2 is likely going result in a more grainy and less sharp image than a digital camera could produce at the same ISO. However, the argument of modern lenses as the source does not necessarily hold up when comparing a digital camera to an autofocus film camera. The Nikon F100 can observe the same benefits of sharpness and modern coatings of new lenses just the same as a new Nikon DSLR. Moreover, medium format and large format cameras can produce incredible detail. An 8x10 image has approximately 60 times [(8*10)/(1.42*0.95)] the surface area compared with a full frame camera. Further, a 4x5 camera’s surface area is approximately 15 times larger, a 6x7 is nearly 5 times larger, a 6x6 image is still 4 times larger, and the smallest medium format image (645) is still more than 3 times larger than a full frame digital camera’s sensor. The additional information collected in these larger than full frame formats translates to additional perceived detail when compared at the same size output.
In addition, the method of scanning of negatives can make a huge difference in the resulting image. Drum scanners are well known for pulling out more detail than one might have previously thought possible. Then there are some other big names in scanners, Noritsu and Frontier, that produce excellent results and are used in some of the biggest labs in the country. Finally, there are the more economical choices like a flatbed scanner that could be had for right at $200 and/or repurposing a digital camera do "scanning".
Anyone who has shot film enough knows that different film stocks are wildly different. As such, there is not one such aesthetic that could be considered the “film look.” And I would argue each film stock could be emulated for any digital image. Then there’s the argument that it’s easier because film is “unedited” which simply does not happen. Color negative film unedited would look like a weird, orange-ish image. And if it was cloudy outside when shooting, white balancing would be a must unless you wanted a strongly blue tinted image.
There is, however, a natural component with film that cannot be emulated (i.e., the response curve). The response curve for a digital sensor is linear which makes it substantially better for long exposures and better for retaining detail in the shadows. Most film on the other hand have a logarithmic response curve which is why there can be an issue of reciprocity failure. As a result, it is extraordinarily difficult to overexpose film beyond the point of no return. However, every film stock is different and how they respond to over or under-exposure is different.
In conclusion, I do not believe that shooting film would make anyone a better photographer. I also don’t believe that the previously stated points should keep someone from trying it out. Personally, I found that my digital work was without purpose. In the grand sea of amazing photographs available at everyone’s fingertips, my work will never stand the test of time and be sought after for generations to come (or even this generation). Instead, I wanted work that meant something to me. By that time, I felt like there was a slightly sterile, plastic-y feeling about my digital work. Picking up film again for the first time since I was younger, I found myself drawn to that work. I was creating photographs I felt a strong personal connection with and that’s what I wanted.
I do not expect to sway anyone one way or the other. I do, on the other hand, hope that this article presented both sides of the argument enough to give someone a fair understanding of what to expect should they want to start shooting film. Who knows – you may find yourself shooting it more than digital!