Why I like Film Photography

Film is experiencing something of a renaissance these days, as attested on social media (#ishootfilm #filmisnotdead), and, perhaps more importantly, by the reappearance of numerous previously discontinued film emulsions—there is, again, money to be made from film.

The contemporary Church of Analogue Photography is a broad one. On the one end sit the old hands, the ‘patriarchs’ who never gave up on film in the first place. Their’s is the voice of experience, of continuity in the old quest for handmade excellence. They worry about tonality and longevity, the perfect negative, the perfect print. They are, for most, whether consciously or not, practitioners of fine art, understanding the potential of film, but also that analogue on its own doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Then there are the ‘youngsters’, of the new generation of photographers who grew up with both feet firmly planted in the digital world. They seem drawn to film because of the mystique of the past, because it is different, less sterile, less predictable, less mainstream. They have stumbled through the wardrobe into this weird magical world, and they are in love.

At times their passion gets the better of them, and the patriarchs sometimes look down at them—they are yet to discover that film alone doesn’t a worthwhile picture make. But by the same token they are less constrained by the received wisdom, reverently passed down from the old masters, as to what makes a good picture, and that’s not such a bad thing. And let’s face it, they are the reason companies like Kodak are resurrecting emulsions.

And of course, there are the born again film photographers, those of us who didn’t keep faith and abandoned film for the convenience of digital some years back, but somehow, for a variety of reasons, found our way back into the fold—perhaps because in some ways it is an opportunity to wind back the clock a bit, perhaps because we have run into insurmountable limitations of digital in our own creative quest. Or perhaps, surprisingly, it’s just pure old economics. (‘What?!’, I hear you gasp.)

When I started using film again this year after a break of some 17 years, it was definitely the latter. I had for some time pined after a medium format camera, and had my eye on the Fujifilm GFX50S. Alas, there was a small snag. Even though the Fuji is at the ‘entry level’ end of the medium format spectrum, I was looking at a better part of £15k to ‘enter’; in the end not even a looming significant birthday was enough to justify such an expense.

Film to the rescue! A very decent medium format film set up, plus a scanner, can be had for a 1/10th of the cost. ‘But, surely, the film is expensive!’

Is it? The £13.5k I have saved will buy so much film that by the time I break even with the upfront cost of a MF digital set up, the digital camera will be obsolete several times over; film cameras don’t suffer from such a problem, an excellent camera from a mid 20th century is still an excellent camera today.

Yet, while my reasons for returning to film were entirely pragmatic, and my intention was merely the hybrid workflow (scan, then post process as ‘normal’), film rather quickly got to me as a medium in its own right; there is just something about it.

The the old hands will tell you the something is tonality: film can represent considerably greater number of shades of colour, or grey scale, than a 12- or 14- bit digital sensor. This is, of course, impossible to show online, but is obvious when comparing a darkroom print with a digital one. But to be honest, for me that’s not it. For me that ‘something’ is the process that film brings with it, the enforced learning.

The modern digital camera is a wonderful tool. Things like multipoint exposure measuring mean that in 90% cases it will take an acceptable picture, which then usually can be muscled into a reasonable shape later. The cheapness of the digital image means that to photograph a sunrise I can simply take a few hundred pictures over a couple of hours, then pick one later. With a mirror less camera, I can do exposure compensation by the eye. Autofocus and manual focus assist mean my images are rarely unfocused.

But (all) such automation brings with itself the dumbing down of the operator skills that have come to be known as the Automation Paradox. It means I need not to understand how light gets turned into an image, what ‘exposure’ represents, how the morning gets born. Film lays that bare. You proudly work that hand-held light meter, expecting a perfect image, and bang, it’s too dark, or too light, or, in the B&W case, just an uninteresting monolithic grey. You don’t know why, because you are not used to taking detailed notes, yet.

And so I find that with film everything becomes more deliberate: I think more about what I see, what I want to convey, about light, structure, texture. About how that sunrise is going to unfold. The whole process becomes less about ‘taking’ and more about ‘seeing’, I stop being on the outside of the picture, and get sucked right in.

It’s not that I can’t do all of that with a digital camera, but I don’t have to, and so, being a lazy git at heart, I don’t; film forces me to, and that makes it, if nothing else, a wonderful learning medium.

But the process doesn’t end there. I enjoy developing films, learning how the choice of developer and time impacts the result (not to mention home development significantly reducing the costs). And the real fun comes in the darkroom. The tactile nature of it all, working out how to unlock the potential glimpsed in the negative: deciding what to burn and what to dodge, crafting the tools to do that, choosing what multigrade combination will best represent the mental image I have. The whole trial and error on the way to The Print.

I don’t necessarily believe that film is better, merely that film and digital are significantly different media. The true strength of film comes out when printed, while digital has a natural impedance match to digital presentation in an online world—I think there is little to be gained by film if the intended end is the screen. There are also subjects at which digital excels—wildlife and sports photography come immediately to mind. It would be silly to limit oneself to one or the other. But all in all, I find film to be more fun, and in particular B&W film.

In the digital world B&W is more often than not just a last ditch effort to rescue a bad image, and it shows; with film it’s always a fully independent form, one that requires a different way of looking at the world, an ability to see in monochrome. Without the safety net of arbitrary colour remixing in post irreversible decisions need to be made at the point of shooting: light assessed, filters chosen. But the upside of that is that it’s precisely the indiscriminate remixing of colour that is the reason why so many a digital B&W image jars, feels artificial, unreal; IR aside, film B&W images tend to always look somehow ‘natural’.

Perhaps the biggest thing I have learnt this year taking pictures is that B&W landscape is very hard to do well, very unforgiving. Hence most of my better B&W images this year have been of trees, and even people, only two or three true landscapes that I am happy with—here is my challenge for 2019.

Have a good one!