What's so Special About Film Photography Anyway?

Why do we love the colors of a printed photo in our family albums so much? It's something we've all asked. 

I even follow an Instagram feed called First Of The Roll, with the imperfect edges of photos creating a sense of nostalgia that definitely adds to and maybe even tells a deeper story. It makes you become aware and realize that someone, the photographer, was there, in that moment, and photographed the person or landscape they wanted to. Obviously, it's the case for digital photography too; we don't have bots going around taking photos of whatever needs photographing, but the story that proves it as such isn't told in the same tactile way. With these photos, the film reacted to the light at that moment in time. The error is almost another affirmation of someone being there and defines the moment of capture.

The faded colors of 35mm film is also something that people have been trying to emulate since the dawn of digital photography. Is it the imperfections that make us identify with it and resonate with it more?

In photography, as in music, we like old stories and imagining what it must’ve been like to live in a by-gone time. This video tries to explain why we love it so much and what it is that draws us to it.

I don’t think it will ever change. I think we will always look back at the times before, just like the next generations will look at us with our smartphones and think how primitive yet cool it was at the time.

What I’m taking from this video is that the tactile nature of imperfections tells a different story when compared to a clean and perfect digital photograph. There seems to be more depth added to the story through textures, light leaks, and the color variation from real life that the film photos have. It makes you see the humanity of it all, and it gives me the sense of bringing me closer to the story.

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23 Comments

Rob Mitchell's picture

The feeling of nostalgia. That’s all.

Will Murray's picture

I simply cannot get my head around technical failures being considered artistic; I suspect it's an emotional response to the easy perfection that has become pervasive in a digital world.

In any case, there is nothing special about film; it's just a different media. To some it allows them to feel special and different. To others, it provides a particular aesthetic - which can otherwise be reliably reproduced/simulated digitally.

And before anyone gets upset, I hung onto the delusion for years that film was superior (It's not) and I still shoot film on occasion.

Rob Mitchell's picture

All you see are film simulation filters anyway. Handbag fights about who makes the best camera and then process the RAW to look grainy and faded.
Can’t get my noggin around that. 😁

Will Murray's picture

The psychology is more interesting than the questions about the relative merits. Humans are strange.

It's not just a digital issue. For example, people were buying "distressed" furniture (aka, shabby chic) instead of the "perfect" new stuff long before computers were available. And many people still buy imperfect wood products (with all the ugly grain and knots) instead of perfect, digitally designed plastic pieces. Maybe you even have some inferior wood furniture yourself? But in any event, it is clearly physiological, and goes far, far beyond photography.

Mark Wyatt's picture

One important point to remember is that film had 150+ years of active development, and the results are amazing, and not grainy and faded! True some films are grainier, and maybe don't have the punch that digital does, but some films are quite sharp and have punch! True, digital can simulate many film looks, just like soy can simulate many food types, but do we eat only soy simulations?

Film went from "wow, we can capture an image in a box" to "Ansel Adams and beyond". Film had billions$ of investment developing it over the ages, and the result is the pinnacle of photo-chemical technology. True, digital has displaced a lot of film usage, but film also displaced a lot of painting, but artists still paint, and the results are still amazing (in some cases...).

Electric cars may some day displace ICE, but a Ferrari is still going to be a hell of a drive!

There are a slew of programs, and filters to make digital "look like film". All are easily recognizable as simulations. I know of none to make film look like digital .

Alex Yakimov's picture

such simulations usually “work” for someone who is not the biggest fan of film to begin with...All I can say it is nontrivial to reproduce film emulsion response curve (esp for color) in digital.

Greg Wilson's picture

"All are easily recognizable as simulations" - there was a blind test somewhere on Dpreview in the film photographers' forum, where film scans had were posted along with digital photos with RNI film profiles applied.

And the film photographers couldn't tell the difference correctly. I don't remember the exact numbers but results were something like 60/40 in favor of simulations looking like film against film looking like film.

Jarrett Hunt's picture

I love film. I don't get the love for dust on your scans. I'm having more fun shooting film than i did with my digital camera. I love developing and looking at my slides with a loupe.

Wouter this article is painful. Film is not about it's shortcomings, "the look" is not messed up images with light leaks and rough edges, those are mistakes. Film is not about screwing up all the time. I do darkroom work and proudly produce clean work, art. Stop cornering film into some messed up aesthetic, it's very childish.

My medium and large format stuff gets me insane resolution that spanks any digital camera available. Film is not just a broken toy

Nothing at all it's in the heads of many people that their is something to fiddling about with carcinogenic stuff

If your worried about cancer causing chemicals ,dont use computers, cell phones,electrontcs,electricity. Dont eat Bbq, diet soda, breath the air, drink tap water, use talcum powder, soaps, fried food, or any thing with any kind of preservatives including organic the preservatives are in the packaging you know, drink milk, use artificial sweetners, etc etc etc...or have any kind of plastics or stained wood furniture in you house.

Another post comparing film to digital. Lovely. Let me grab my popcorn. But first I'll offer a suggestion, one is not better, they are just different. Some artists like to create art digitally, others not. I used film for almost 30 years, and digital the last 10+, they are different. I find digital requires less space (I used to develop my own film and print my own photographs, I don't have the space for a darkroom anymore, and don't want to rent one), allows for a more shoot from the hip style (It doesn't cost anything if you try and fail, just delete and try again), ability to review to assure you capture what you wanted and the shot is what you were looking for, and again, experimentation and learning takes orders of magnitude less time with digital where you can review and try again in real time, it is 1000% better than keeping a shot notepad, comparing to your contact sheet, then reviewing your contact sheet later on with the intention learning from your mistakes, then enlarging only to find out that the model's eyes were closed because you couldn't quite make that out on the contact sheet... I won't miss my bouts with silver oxide poisoning from poorly ventilated darkrooms. But by all means, enjoy if that's your thing!

Dave Terry's picture

More pontificating and passive-moralizing about the higher spiritual plane film apparently exists on for some people. I feel like I have been reading this same redundant article for 15 years. These articles and videos on the subject are just stale cliche's and will hopefully stop within my lifetime. We get it, film is nice, and just so, so, so... **insert sonnet about the superior imperfection of film here**

Are we really trying to promote the fact that someone didn't advance far enough as art?

Why do some artists still use antiquated oil paints, when you could be using modern acrylics? Or make thinks out of clay and glass, when plastic is so much better. Or why are they even using paint, when they could be using a computer? Because they're artists, and don't have to explain why. They just create. As for the non-art photo world, they don't get to do what they want, they get to do what their clients, editors, producers, etc want. Simple as that. And if you don't understand that, try to think why you have some wood furniture, instead of just all plastic tables and chairs from Walmart in your house. Are you nostalgic for days gone by when wood was the only option?

Spy Black's picture

"What's so Special About Film Photography Anyway?"

Nothing.

Look at the top photos ever sold they all were shot on film. If you are an artist who wants to sell your work for top dollar digital is worthless.

I think that's mostly because digital is so new. In 30 years, I bet photos shot on digital will be selling for big bucks, too. And I say that as someone who mostly shoots film. But as I mentioned above, that's because *I* like film, not because I think others will. But part of me hopes you're right :)

The problem with digital there is no way to guarantee exclusivity. Film photos are going to be more valuable for years to come.

I have been in the hobby since I was 13 years old. I had a full darkroom setup and processed B&W, Color Slide and Color negative. The Besler 23C enlarge color head and color analyzer. I had a Lieca M3, Hassleblad 500c and a Nikon FE with motor drive. When I bough my first Kodak Digital Camera I gave up on film and never looked back. I now have a Nikon D3500 with several lenses and your would never get me to shoot film again. I would be like using a Model A Ford as an every day driver. I am now 63 so it's a long time hobby for me. I don't understand why anyone would want to go back to film. The frustration of winding film in the development tank, the stinky carcinogenic chemicals and the long times to make a print. Plus the cost. WHY ???? I guess people don't know any better.

Some painters still use oil paints instead of modern acrylic, and some of those still use very toxic pigments like cobalt, magnesium and even lead-based white. Not to mention the toxic solvents needed to thin the paint and clean the brushes. And the long drying time Why? I guess maybe the whole world is stupid except you.