Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Film?

Why Film?

In this article, I write from the perspective of someone who still shoots mostly digital but enjoys mixing in film, purely for the joy of it.  I don't feel that film is for everyone but I do feel that film is just the ticket for many photographers (such as myself) who are looking to expand their "creative horizons".

Also, this article is not at all about switching to film but about adding a bit of film to the mix.  My current mix is about 80% digital, 20% film and it's a mix that varies over time.

Why We Photograph

Pentax MX with Fuji Acros 100 Film.  Taken Jan, 2015.

For many people, photography is not a passion in it's own right.  For these people, photos are primarily for preserving memories.  I'll briefly state now that I fully respect this attitude - these people are simply spending their finite time on other investments and that's everyone's personal choice to make.

For people that are not into the passion of photography, digital is a great solution.  It's fast, convenient, and easy to share. Technical quality is excellent.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are professionals. Now we are talking about trading images for money.  Some here may benefit from film's ability to target specific markets but many of the mainstream clients will not appreciate the differences enough to pay for film's extra overhead.

So who is left to appreciate film?  Basically two groups: the artist and the hobbyist.

What might they appreciate?  The unique properties and opportunities that only film can provide. Let's explore each one:

Distilled to the Essence

Pentax MX with Kodak Ektar 100.  Taken Dec 2014.

Digital provides so many tools during image making.  Live histograms, instant preview, assistance in exposure, white balance, and even automating exposure choices.

Can we take good photos without all of this help?

A high quality mechanical camera removes all of these technical aids and replaces them with a great feeling of connection with the environment.  You plan your shot, take it, and deal with the fact that you can't confirm it's optimal.  The lack of feedback means you're more likely to slow down a bit, think more, take more care - those are good things.

...and when you finally see the images they are almost always fine, great even, and it's a good feeling.

Shoot With Pro Gear

Horseman VH View Camera with Kodak Porta 160.  Taken Oct, 2015.

It turns out that you can now buy film equipment that used to cost thousands for hundreds, or less.  Equipment that was mostly exclusive to professionals could justify when it was new.

So what, right?  Today's cameras can produce images that are so much better...

It's true that 35 mm film cameras are slightly beat by digital in technical image quality (although they still have image qualities that make them really nice).  But, like most image quality face-offs these days, it requires large print sizes (or pixel-peeping in photo editors) to spot the differences.  Then again, if large prints are your thing, you can (cheaply) go with a medium or large format film camera, of which digital currently has no answer (due to the extreme expense of creating a sensor of that size).

There is also shooting experience itself.  This is hard to explain to someone who has not taken a 70s or 80s camera designed for professionals out for a few days shooting.  They have not experienced the large viewfinders, mechanical accuracy and thoughtful designs which translate into highly enjoyable shooting experiences.

Finally, many film cameras designs provide experiences that are nothing like digital.  TLR's, View Cameras, Medium Format Rangefinders, and more.  Each one provides a different shooting experience and it's quite a bit of fun to try them all.

Deepen your Knowledge

Canon QL17 GIII with Portra 160.  Taken March, 2015.

Do you know what it's like to shoot "wide open" with 6x7 medium format film?  What about manipulating distortion and the focus plane with tilts and shifts on a view camera?

You can experiment with these things quite affordably with film and deepen your knowledge of photography in the process.

In contrast, if you want to try tilts and shifts in digital, you are limited to a handful of expensive specialty lenses that are quite limited in capability compared to what an affordable view camera can do.

For a simple example, a view camera can let you do an extreme tilt macro shot with a regular lens, perhaps getting the surface of a coin, leaf or other object aligned with the place of focus, and you can do it with your everyday lens  This is both useful (as macro DOF is always at a premium) and something that will give a "unique" look, possibly creating a image that "stands out from the crowd".  If nothing else, it's more opportunity to learn and experiment.

Spark Creative Energies

Yashica 124G with Ektar 100.  Taken Aug 2015.
It's easy to fall into the habit of taking the same type of photos and "seeing" the same opportunities at the same locations.  If you are doing this and are happy, then carry on.  Eventually, boredom might start to creep in, however.

I believe that one path to finding new creative inspiration is to change something that forces you out of your comfort zone.  A new lens can sometimes accomplish this.  Using (or not using) a tripod is another avenue.  Bringing only a film camera is yet another.

I think the more I shoot with film over the years, the better my digital work becomes (at least to me!).  One reason is because getting a nice image with black and white film really requires me to be patient and find the right mix of light and shadow, yet this same light and shadow mix is what helps improve any image.

It's Packed with Fun!

Pentax LX with Fuji Acros 100.  Taken Sep, 2015.

Ok, I can't say that will be true for you but I personally think that the whole process is fun.  Here are just a few things that I enjoy:

  • Looking at images on film and knowing that they do not just contain memories, but they were actually present on-scene for that moment.  They are a physical artifact from the memories they contain.
  • Running a fully mechanical camera with no batteries
  • Depending on films amazing ability to retain highlight detail and rarely being disappointed
  • Developing the film myself and seeing the images appear for the first time
  • Seeing images of my family and friends recorded in a pure-analog physical format and not just as a series of "zeros and ones".

How to Start

This is a personal thing so I can only offer so much guidance.

I will say that if you've never experienced an excellent mechanical 35mm, you should consider trying one, maybe from a friend to start :)   For brand, I recommend considering a brand that leverages your existing lens collection.  Then do a search for "best 35mm Canon" or "best 35mm Olympus", you get the idea.

If that sets off any sparks of happiness, try a bigger format at some point.  Many go with medium format.  Others go with large format.  Quite a few try everything :)

One thing to consider is that some bigger format cameras work like a large 35mm SLR while others offer additional options - like removable backs, tilts, shifts, and even a versatile bellows.  The later will definitely teach you more if it happens to be new ground.

In any case, I recommend one step at a time - start with one camera and lens.  Develop your results at a store for convenience, then take it from there.  Go at whatever pace you enjoy and try new things (like self developing) if and when you feel you are ready.  Also note that I have many more film articles on developing, scanning, etc.  Feel free to take a look!

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