My mother-in-law, a wonderful person, has always enjoyed taking pictures. Her first camera was a Kodak Box Camera when she was a little girl. She’ll turn 89 this October. I’ve rarely seen her without a camera since I’ve known her these past 39 years.
Today she owns two cameras, one a digital and the other a film 35mm. She’s had the film camera for many years; the digital was a recent gift. So guess which one she uses the most: Her favorite is the film camera. She’s hardly used the digital.
Most of us take the differences between digital and film workflow (meaning the procedures necessary to generate a picture for viewing) for granted. We’ve either grown up with computers or have been using them long enough that the use of computers to capture digital images, print them, mail them, etc is no big deal. But to someone in my mother-in-law’s generation, accepting that the picture you just snapped now resides on a small “chip” in the camera that you then have to somehow get into another device that can print it….well, that can be a big hurdle. Especially when they know how easy it is to snap the picture and take film to the drug store for processing and printing. Her biggest problem today is finding a place that sells film. So I recently hooked her up with my preferred film supplier, B&H Photo in NYC (www.bhphotovideo.com). Now she can just call them when she needs refills on film.
Wait. Did he say “his preferred film supplier??” Yes, I did. You see, I shoot more film than digital, even though I have a perfectly capable digital camera (a Nikon D200) and I know digital workflow inside and out. Nor am I an octogenarian like my mother-in-law. I’m a mere quintagenarian (is that what they call “50 somethings?”).
So why am I using film in this digital age?
I get that question alot from my photography friends, usually it comes with that “what a dinosaur” look to their faces. To be honest, sometimes even I wonder why I’m hanging onto this 20 Century technology, and am tempted many times by the simplicity and ease of using a fully digital workflow. Yet, I haven’t, and likely never will, give in to these temptations. Why not? Here’s my top six reasons:
1. I get higher quality images using film. With film, I get better resolution than my 10mp digital camera when I need bigger prints. Film lets me capture a much longer scale with film- I strive to capture in my images both deep shadow details and sunlit cloud details, a look that I adore in photographs. There are technical reasons why, but digital sensors aren’t as sensitive at both shadow and highlight ends of the light scale to create the same tonal range as film. Read what Ken Rockwell has to say about this.
2. I never have to worry about electronic failures that cause me to lose my images forever. Erased files, hard drive crashes, card failures–not a worry to me with film. Once I get the film developed I have it forever to rescan.
3. Film is extremely flexible since it’s a Write-Once-Read-Many format. For a single negative, I can scan it into digital form an unlimited number of times. I can scan it to 10mpixels for routine web or small print presentation, then later rescan them to 35mp (35mm negatives) or 75mp (120 medium format and 4×5 large format films) in true 16bit color. Thus, I can create huge prints (40″ x 60″ or more) this way, and those prints are high quality prints comparatively free of pixelation or other “overenlargement” artifacts that we get with 35mm digital cameras. You can buy the larger format digital cameras, but the cost compares to buying a car. No thanks.
4. Shooting film slows me down when shooting and speeds me up when processing my images. When shooting, I take more time composing each shot and shoot far fewer pictures of the same scene. By slowing down when shooting, I realize a greater appreciation for the scene; I’ve taken more time to analyze what’s before me and what inspired me to stop in the first place. I enjoy shooting more because of this. When I shoot digital, I know I have space on my memory cards for over 700 pictures. So like most digital photographers, I just snap away, taking perhaps dozens of pictures of one subject. It can be argued that this is an advantage, and in some ways it is. But–and here’s where film speeds me up– when I get home my job of culling my film shots is quicker than it is with digital. After all, I have far fewer (but better) images to deal with. I throw away alot more of my digital shots. And when I throw them away, I mean I delete them from my camera and computer, never to be seen again (see #2 above).
5. I love working with film. After thousands of times doing it, I still get a thrill seeing the negatives (both B&W and color) when I take them from the wash and hang them to dry. I get another thrill when I scan (i.e., digitize) them. And I always have the thrill when printing, which is my preferred way to present my final images. Yes, developing and scanning film is more work (actually I consider it play), and it takes experience to develop a reliable workflow for developing and scanning, and a bit of cost. But to me the thrills are worth the effort of working with film. I agree such hands-on approach is not for everyone. But, you don’t have to do it this way to use film (keep reading).
Like many professional fine art photographers, I use both film and digital cameras. While I prefer film for most of my professional work, I will use my digital camera when:
- it’s the only camera I have with me (this is ALWAYS the best camera available: the one you have with you!)
- interior shots. I haven’t yet invested the time and effort into mastering the use of filters to convert my daylight film to match the color of tungsten light.
- when I don’t trust myself to make the right exposure. I sometimes need immediate feedback after I shoot the frame (we call it ‘chimping’). Sometimes it’s difficult to meter sunrise/sunset conditions or when shooting into the sun, so rather than miss the shot I will shoot it with digital, making adjustments and multiple shots until I get it just right. One day I hope to learn a better way.
- related to the point just above, I use my digital camera like photographers-of-old used polaroids, to evaluate a shot before investing the time to set up the big cameras.
- when I am shooting subjects for which I don’t expect to need large, high quality prints. These include family shots, social events, and such.
- when I want (or need) a quick product– this doesn’t happen very often and it’s usually a matter of preference rather than need. Sometimes I just want to post a pretty picture on my Facebook page to say “look what I saw today!”
A digital camera is a great invention for many of our picture-taking situations. But it’s a mere rumor that “film is dead, long live digital.” In many ways, film is superior. I a few ways, digital is superior. If quality and flexibility is important to you, film is the way to go.
I use 35mm, 6×7 medium format, and 4×5 large format film cameras in my work. I don’t develop the 35mm negatives myself: I take them to my local Target Store and pay $1 per roll for them to do it (yes, I said $1). That’s cheaper than I can do it, and the store here in Leesburg does an excellent job. Target will also scan the film for about $3 per roll of 36, but I’d much rather scan it myself. It’s not that much work– in fact, as I write this article I’m also scanning my most recent 35mm rolls. Isn’t multitasking great?
So try this. Chances are good that you have a 35mm film camera sitting in a drawer somewhere. Dig it out and shoot a few rolls of film. When you get the prints back (or have your developer scan them to CD for you), compare the pictures with your more recent digital camera shots. I think you’ll be amazed at how much better film captures the essence of your experience. We’re so accustomed to seeing blocked out whites in our digital pictures today that I think we’ve lost appreciation for those delicate soft wispy whites and very fine tonal changes that our eyes actually see.
Let me know if you’re happy with the result. If you are, keep the film camera handy, chances are you’ll be using it more and more.