Film? What’s that all about?


Without doubt film photography is enjoying a bit of a renaissance at present, and this might seem a little odd given that shooting and processing film is both more expensive and less convenient than working digitally. Now let’s be clear,  this is not another article speculating as to which technology is ‘better’, film or digital. I see little value in that particular debate as the answer is simple, it’s clearly the latter. Digital imaging is easier, cheaper, faster, more versatile and more often than not what the client wants. And it’s not simply a matter of convenience, modern digital SLR cameras deliver images of spectacular quality, detail and clarity, and we are now able to make huge prints with relative ease, without breaking the bank. Additionally the digital imaging workflow is considerably cleaner in terms of the environment (ignoring for the moment the burning of fossil fuels to generate the required electricity to charge batteries and power computers). All this suggests that we should be ringing the death knell for traditional film, yet film endures.


 Old Habits Die Hard

Well, actually they don’t. Having practiced photography for many years (since the late 70s to be precise) I know film, I am comfortable with film, but I am no Luddite. The  introduction of digital imaging has transformed photography almost beyond recognition, and from the moment I felt that the technology was sufficiently ripe I have fully embraced it to become an avid digital photographer. Now when I shoot I am no longer constrained by the need to reload every so many frames. I am unconcerned as to whether I have a sufficient number of rolls in my pockets to complete the job, and I need not fret about my pictures ‘coming out’ until the fixing is complete, or the lab technician presents me with my sleeved transparencies. When we shoot digitally we know immediately. We shoot, we check, we shoot again. Given this, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would bother with film, yet people do, and with increasing enthusiasm in the last couple of years or so, I am amongst their number. (Perhaps the question I should really be asking is ‘why am I shooting film?’)

What then is the attraction of film? What does film give us that digital imaging does not? Here then are some observations which may serve to shed a little light on this matter. Firstly I have considered the question of quality.


‘Film is better… isn’t it?’

A number of film photographers suggest that correctly processed film negatives hold more detail than their digital equivalent formats. The occasionally controversial Ken Rockwell is adamant on this point, calling film the ‘real raw’. Others claim that film is sharper, or that film has a superior tonal range. This may well be true  and I have certainly found that in shooting monochrome in particular I am able to hold more detail, especially in the highlights, which digital tends to clip abruptly. In practice though, with the rapid development of increasingly capable sensors and in camera processing ‘engines’, these limitations are far less pronounced. Moreover I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these subtle and arguably subjective quality limitations are only really a issue for us as producers. The consumer (the audience) looks at the image, the content, not the last 1/4 stop of highlight separation in the top left corner. Thinking rationally the cost, complexity and protracted nature of the film workflow presents a far greater obstacle than a possible slight loss of dynamic range. For most of us, most of the time, the supposed ‘superior’ quality of film is irrelevant.

Many who shoot film scan their negatives and process them through Photoshop, Lightroom or similar. I too have tried this and I have to say that scanning 35mm monochrome negs creates sharp, full toned but really grainy results. I have taken those same negs into the darkroom and made 20×16 prints which sport almost no appreciable grain and certainly much, much less than the scans. Colour work I have had scanned by a lab. These are better in terms of grain, but I have no effective control over the process. This is not a criticism of the lab, simply a condition of this work flow. Consequently, I have mixed results and this can be frustrating. Lets not forget here, that we are now talking about digital images. If we scan our negs, we have digitised them, and a large part of the quality of result is dependant upon the quality of scanning. A few years ago I remember watching a report on ‘The Gadget Show’ in which the presenters attempted a comparison between film and digital capture. In this article the same shots were taken with a film camera and then a DSLR. From these shots huge prints were made (the size of a building), using an exceptionally large format inkjet printer and after much inspection and deliberation, the presenters declared that the digital camera had the edge. What a surprise! What a waste of time! Firstly, how did the film image get to the stage of being inkjet printed? That’s right, they scanned it, so its not analogue any more, is it? Secondly, who wants to make a print two storeys high? Not me, the walls in my lounge aren’t that big. I just want to make a fine print, maybe A3? The truer test would have been to make a digital print at a sensible size and compare it to one hand printed in a darkroom. If you are working towards a digital outcome, then maybe film isn’t going to give you its best quality because of the degradation suffered by the digitising process. So much is dependant on the quality of the scanning. The analogy is often made with vinyl and CDs. Vinyl sounds great played on a Lynn turntable, pumped out through Mission speakers, but record it onto a computer using a ‘Digitise your old vinyl’ USB device acquired for 3 cereal packet tops (plus £1.99 postage), it ain’t gonna be as good as the CD is it? So, should quality be your concern, this is my recommendation. If prints are your primary objective, then there is definitely a case for film but only if you print in a darkroom and you make the prints yourself.


The Cult of Lomography

One of the reasons for the current resurgence in film is the popularity of the LOMO brand and many photographers, especially of the younger generation have discovered film through ‘Lomography’. The original Lomo* cameras were made in Russia, were not very good on the whole, but they were relatively cheap and thus they were used primarily by those on a budget. In the 90s the LOMO brand re-emerged and a number of artists/photographers experimented with and promoted the use of these cameras, exploiting their unique ‘qualities’ such as excessive chromatic aberration, uncoated optics and poorly fitting backs that leaked light. The cult of Lomography was born; who could have foreseen its impact? Lomo cameras are now being remanufactured in China, Lomo shops are springing up all over the world and everybody wants to play. No harm in that, I have been known to experiment with these cameras myself and it can be both fun and rewarding. The irony here is that now that the digital image technology has matured we are buying cheaply made (if not cheaply sold) plastic cameras and even processing our digital snaps through apps that do their damnedest to simulate pictures from the 70s, most of which would have at the time come back from the mini-lab covered in ‘quality advice’ stickers, en route to the bin. This is interesting, almost like the arts and crafts movement of the C19th century, where artists and craftsmen romanticised over rural, pre industrial lifestyles and attempted to return to the idea of traditional crafts and the joy of making. ‘Lomography’ encourages us to explore the qualities of a given camera and to exploit its idiosyncrasies for visual effect. The implication here is that we might chose to shoot film not for its quality (high/low) but for its qualities, its look and feel, its form.  Its not that film is better than (or worse than) digital, it is different.


Film is More Zen

Another consideration with reference to film and film photography is not so much the quality of the material but the way we use it. Unlike digital, shooting film means that each frame is money spent. Every time the shutter is pressed represents a significant expenditure, the cost of the film, the processing and printing. I have calculated that typically shooting a roll of 35mm monochrome film has a real cost to me of around £7 (approx. $10 US at the time of writing), colour negative double this amount, and this is before making any prints. Shooting other formats is even more expensive. Factor in that you are far more limited by the number of available frames by the quantity of film in your pocket and it is easy to see that a certain precision and economy is called for in the field. It is also suggested that the film shooter needs to be more precise as there is no immediate image review. This at first may appear to be a disadvantage, but many film aficionados regard the constant checking of the screen on the back of the camera (I believe the popular term is ‘chimping’) as a distraction, an interruption of the creative process. Thus the argument is that the film photographer is more measured, more conscious of each frame, and thus more focused, more ‘zen’.


Synergy – At One with the Machine

Perhaps a principle irritation of working digitally is the design of the cameras. DSLRs, mirrorless, etc. offer an vast rage of settings and functions designed we are told to allow us to make better pictures, more easily. Modern cameras are a complex evolution of what is essentially a simple device and it is easy to forget that the process of taking a photograph is not really that complicated – set the shutter speed, the aperture, frame up, focus and press. The problem presents itself when we want to exercise more control. Setting the basics manually is now a more difficult, less intuitive and ultimately frustrating. Pressing a tiny button with cold, wet fingers (I live in the UK) whilst turning the command wheel three clicks to the left, or is it the right, just to go one stop on the aperture scale is just plan awkward when compared to the more traditional aperture ring, and more importantly requires me to think about it. I don’t want to be thinking about the controls, I want to be thinking about the picture! At this point I suggest that the technology is getting in the way.

Film cameras however are by and large much less sophisticated. With the possible exception of some of the the last generation 35mm SLRs most are of a generic design with simple dedicated controls for shutter speed, aperture, ISO and focus. Part of the attraction of shooting film comes from the freedom to use simple, unobtrusive tools that let me concentrate on my photography, not my camera.


Stuck In Post

In considering the post production workflow, another significant challenge for film emerges. Ideally working with film requires darkroom access and the skills to ‘wet’ print. For photographers of my generation, the darkroom is a familiar environment synonymous with the creative process, we have had to relearn our skills to move into digital world. I can tell you that digital imaging is no less demanding, just more accessible. The advances in the technology of the past few years have been staggering, with high quality cameras and sophisticated software being available to all. It is also the case that digital post production (by which I mean selecting and editing) fits in more readily to our lifestyles. We can leave the process hanging at any stage and say go for a pint, then pick up exactly where we left off when we return, or the next day, or next week. To go into the darkroom is to make a commitment, a commitment in terms of time, resources and concentration; once you start printing, you need to see the process through. Even once you have finished printing, there is the washing and drying that needs to be monitored and completed satisfactorily. You can’t just dip in and out, but here in lies my point. In the darkroom you focus on the task and you make the print. In Photoshop/Lightroom/Aperture the temptation is to tinker, and distractions are never far away (here’s a tip – turn ‘off auto send and receive’ in your email client!).

Working digitally there are many more decisions to make. Firstly, chances are that you have shot hundreds of frames, because you can. Now you have to decide which pictures to work with. Shooting film means less frames, fewer alternatives, a simpler choice. Secondly, how to process. For example, should the image be in colour or monochrome? If monochrome then should I simulate shooting through a yellow filter or a red? What about a tint? How about a border? Perhaps I should make two versions, no three, but which one is the ‘best’…. The temptation in digital imaging is to process for processing’s sake, doing things because we can, and perhaps all to often losing sight of our original intention, never quite able to decide when the picture is ‘finished’. In film photography many of these choices are dealt with when shooting. Choice of film, exposure, filtration, etc. these variables are fixed at the point of conception. I suggest then that film photography relies more on pre-visualisation, digital imaging tempts us to drown in sea of post visualisation possibilities.


‘Film is great’…‘film cameras are better’…‘film photographers are real photographers’…‘old stuff is great, new stuff sucks’…

This certainly is not my position and I am not advocating that everyone should shoot film or that film photography is somehow purer and therefore ‘proper’ photography. The point here is that it is neither necessary nor productive to look at these two technologies as competing. Each possesses its own qualities, strengths and limitations. For many of the reasons I have outlined above, I like to shoot film, but for some of the reasons I have also outlined above, sometimes it is simply not appropriate. Practicing one does preclude practicing the other. If film photography is of interest to you (and I suspect it might as you are reading this article) then great, go for it! If not, don’t, but don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t. Working with film can be an engaging, challenging, frustrating, disappointing, demanding but ultimately rewarding experience. You may choose film for its inherent image qualities and for the influence that the workflow has on your creative process. You may even choose film just for the fun of it. Consider this. A classic Jaguar is expensive to run, lacks many of the basic equipment and comforts of, and can easily be outperformed by, a modern basic family hatchback. So, a clear victory for the Yaris then…

* The term ‘Lomography’ is fast becoming synonymous with all film photography, not just the plastic fantastic. By way of example I have recently noted on the Lomo blog images taken with the likes of the Pentax MX and the Olympus OM2, using such exotic film stock as Ilford Delta. Is this ‘Lomography’ or is this just ‘photography’? Not all film cameras are Lomo cameras, in fact there are a myriad of film cameras out there of real quality, many sitting on shelves, hidden away in draws and attics, collecting dust. 

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Duncan Shepherd