What Gives Film Photography Its Magic and Why Is It So Popular Right Now?

The different experiences felt when shooting analog compared to digital is well known to photographers, but what is it about film photography that makes it so appealing to the point that ever more of us are picking up second-hand cameras from more than 25 years ago?

Photographer Teo Crawford has put together a thought-provoking and well-constructed video that explores what it is about film photography that gives us a sense of authenticity to the extent that many of us try to make our digital photographs match the film stocks of the past.

Regarding the fascination that younger generations who never experienced film photography seem to have developed, you could theorize that this comes from a desire to seek out creative technology that has an element of tactility and physical presence that sits in strong contrast to the virtual worlds into which they are so often immersed.

I recall reading some of explorer/author/photographer Brad Garrett’s thoughts on photography a few years ago. He describes the camera as being “an appendage to the urban body,” such as the extent that the camera changes our behavior and mindset. Perhaps it's no wonder that we want this appendage to offer more than 0s and 1s given that it is a tool that we use to try and make sense of the world around us. (On an unrelated note, Garrett's book Bunker is well worth your time.)

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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14 Comments

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

Interesting video. Put up some interesting thoughts, observations, and reasoning on the subject.
I do think though, that he missed one important aspect on the subject, the cameras themself.
Even though he mentions that it was easier to take many pictures with a digital camera and that people put more afford into using a film camera because of the limited capacity of a roll of film, I think the simplicity of the film cameras also plays an important role.

In the olden days [pre-1985] you had four to five functions you could control on a camera: ISO, Shutter, Aperture, focus and exp. compensation (on some cameras). You had a six option to control the final look of the picture, in what film you used. And that was about it. Oh, and you took one picture at the time unless you had a motordrive.
It was a much simpler way of working.

I think it is also that simplicity people are looking for as it brings them much more in control and it slows them down.
The latter is so important in our rushed and busy world.

To me photography is a hobby, a hobby in the same way fishing is. you can either by a modern rod with wheels and lures or you can go fly fishing. Using film cameras is the fly fishing of photography.

Keith Patrak's picture

You can do all those things with a digital camera too, just put it into manual mode.

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

It is not really that simple.

Do you want to shoot RAW or jpg? What quality, picture style and what format? Do you want the exposure comp. diel to work in full stop, half or third stop? And what dial do you want to use for it? Do you like back focus or are you more a traditional shooter? What white balance would you like to use? And do you want to use auto ISO or not? Have about a histogram in your viewfinder? And what do you want to assign the seven different buttons we have placed on your camera, that each change the function of the no-marked dials we have given you, that each change different settings depending on what mode you are in.

Contra, you have one format and one style (film) and that'll be 24x36 with an exp comp. in either full or half depending on the camera. You change it with one and only one dial. In the viewfinder you can see your shutter speed, aperture (if you bought an expensive camera) and a little hard to see needle that show if you hit a good exposure, and that is it. And all other dials have one function and are clearly marked as to what it does.

Complexity vs simplicity.

Brandon Hopkins's picture

I'm primarily a film shooter, but IMO you're still overthinking it with this reply. Manual mode with your iso set to one setting, shoot in raw, auto white balance. That's all you need to think about with digital to make it shoot similarly to film.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

I believe film photography is popular anytime, not just right now, and it will stay just as popular. I've seen tons of Tumblr and Instagram blogs based on film photography aesthetics, there are films grain effects in photo editors like Photoworks or PicsArt, there is a whole - dare I say so - subculture built around young people being charmed by film photography atmosphere. Hans is also right, film photography gives people an opportunity to slow things down and be more in control, so I don't think it can somehow lose its popularity anytime soon.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thank you for the insightful video. You have stated all the reasons I still shoot with film, both professionally and for fun. Don't get me wrong though. I also shoot digital, but the agencies I've shot for chose mostly the film images. A few years ago I did an experiment where I told the agencies I did work for that I was going to send them 2 copies of every image I sent to them and they could choose the one most desirable for their needs. I did this experiment 3 times and submitted 12 images with their copies, one from digital and of course one from film. Out of all the experiments they chose a ratio of 8 film shots to 54digital averaged out between the 3 experiments. Now this doesn't necessarily mean anything. There could be several factors for choosing how they did, but I did find it most interesting. I have always found analog to be more true to the feel of what I am seeing. Digital, to me, somehow tries to be more exacting, more precise and this is where it loses its 'feel' of the image being taken. Like it's trying too hard to make everything accurate and pristine. Film just captures what it sees via the exposure methods the photographer chooses. I like that I have substance in my hands, negatives, slides and prints. That's the true end product. With digital, it's caged in a file somewhere until someone chooses to print it or view it on a device. And any device you view it from can and will vary as different computers may give somewhat different hues or shades of color not consistent with other computers. I've seen this every time I view my digitals on my computer and then on my friends computers. I know I grew up with film since 1952, but I did get excited when digital showed up. Now I have come full circle and do most (not all) of my professional work with film. Got great images with digital too though.
Thank you for the video and the info. Keep shooting.

christian thompson's picture

Having worked professionally with analogue cameras for 10 years in the days before digital existed, its digital photography that has the magic, not analogue.
To me digital photography equals freedom from constraints and relief from the stress of not knowing exactly what is going to come out from the shoot, and the freedom to manipulate in post production alone is a monster benefit, worth its weight in gold.
I think people like silver halide photography for its nostalgia but only because they know that digital is there to back it up when they need it.

Keith Patrak's picture

It's just another retro trend, like vinyl records, flared trousers etc. They will be bringing back candles and oil lamps next and maybe the horse and cart too.

Wallace Thrasher's picture

Yep, film is slow because it is more complicated and can stress people out not knowing if they got the shot they were after until it much too late. It can be emulated by digital to the point that in a blind test, no one would know the difference. Film just doesn't make much sense just like the trendy tight, nut-hugging pants that seem to go hand in hand with film shooters.

ian Maitland's picture

My first professional photograph was taken by removing the lens cap from a process camera and counting to ten before replacing it. Wisely, in my case, I took up banking as a profession. I'm not creative enough to be a pro photographer.
Film, especially medium or large format, produces exceptional tonal quality in monochrome, and old Leicas produce outstanding photos of people. I regret my darkroom, but advanced age and other commitments made me give it up. Medium format film and a tripod slows down the whole process, and makes me think about the photo, with good results. Film is well worth the effort.

Jan Holler's picture

No, that's not convincing. I spent, when I was about as young as he is in the video, 2 years of much of my free time in a lab (b&w). I got to use an F3 with a 50mm f1.4 and got very excited about it. Now, so many years later, I still have my Nikon FA with a great selection of manual lenses. I also still have about 15 rolls of film that I have kept in a refrigerator since the eighties. I started shooting digitally in 2000. And I never felt tempted to go back to analog photography. Why, in fact? As a Nikon photographer, I never really had to give up the old analog world. I can still use my old lenses (and I do), I can still shoot manual (and I do). Nothing has changed except the medium. And that's the minor thing in the whole process. You can mimic just about any analog film 100%.
But of course there are good reasons to shoot analog, as Timothy pointed out very well above. But we are miles away from talking about a "revival of analog photography". Still, it's a very good thing that so many people are rediscovering it to keep it alive for a few more years. However, we all know how this ends. In 50 years, it will probably be gone forever.

Alastair Wilson's picture

Film did a job when I got into photography.
My first real camera was a Practica Nova (I still have it) it was followed by a Pentax ME back in the early eighties.
Of late I found myself trying to create the look of film on my digital cameras and felt they were sort of fake (I love the look of Don McCullin) so I dug out one of my SLRs and shot two rolls of HP5 at an event (classic car motor racing). When I ran out of film I got my Digital OMD out of the bag to continue, shot two frames back in the world of winking lights & info filled viewfinder and menu systems - somehow I had no enthusiasm, the technology jarred with the subject matter.

The results I got from my HP5 were exactly the look I'd been trying to achieve with my OMD straight out of the can.
I now mix and match, sometimes it's a day when I get into my old MGB GT, Nikon FE in the bag and potter down to the race circuit....

Dave Andersson's picture

I also credit Wes Anderson with much of this analogue revival. His movies are still pretty popular, and use of nostalgia and kitsch in his set decorations, music choices, etc, has had a tremendous influence on Millennial and Zoomer aesthetics these last 12ish years

There"s been an analog revival in the music world, as well. Between 2008 and 2017 or so the big focus in music production was digital synthesizers and such that were stored on your PC. But in the last few years, Korg, Sequential, and Moog have all spurred a huge revival in analog and even virtual analog hardware synthesizers, and aftermarket and used prices on gear you could find at pawn shops for a couple bucks 15 years ago are now in the thousands. And mostly for the same reasons as the guy states in the video. But also because of Stranger Things. That's a reason too

Andrew Almeida's picture

What a funny world we live in right now. Wait until these Snowflakes discover anologue Graphic Design...minds blown.