Why I love film! A personal voyage.

Let me make it quite clear: I am NOT against digital. In fact, I do more shooting with digital than with film. Neither is this borne from nostalgia. Granted, I started off shooting film way back in 1984. But back then I was just a happy snapper with not a photographic care in the world. Although I loved my camera a Practica MTL5 and it’s Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm lens, I just thought it was a nothing-special little box. In the early 90’s I discovered Apple Macintosh computers in a big way and in the late 90’s I acquired my first digital camera a 0.3 mega pixel Casio QV-10. It was a relationship made in heaven. Two obsessions married. A few Olympus cameras later I then acquired my first digital SLR, the Canon EOS D60. That was in the April of 2003. I clearly remember reading in a professional photography magazine at that time and I quote “6 megapixels is all you need for a full A3 magazine spread”. It was a review of the D60 and proved the point by doing a full A3 spread. From that day to this, my mind is of the same, anything more than 6 megapixels is a waste for the vast majority of photographers. I used the D60 together with my Leica R3 and R4. Most shooting was made on the D60 and I was shooting colour film on the Leicas.

I was not a happy bunny!

Three reasons: Firstly, I really wasn’t very good. Secondly: I was dissatisfied with the results from the D60. I didn’t like it’s colour rendition and I felt the whole experience was lacking. Thirdly: The situation in camp Leica was equally poor. Although I was making some really good colour prints I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, something was missing, I felt empty. I lacked direction and inspiration.

A seminal moment occurred in my life when during a lunch break I was aimlessly wandering town. I happened to walk into a Newsagent to browse the magazines. Quite by perchance a magazine caught my eye. It was the October 2003 copy of Black and White Photography, issue 26. It had an amazing picture by Earnst Hass on the front cover. I was entranced! Mesmerised! In that very instant I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I had to do. It was a Eureka moment. I had to shoot black and white film.

But, why do I love film, especially black and white, especially 6×6 medium format film?

That has been a question that I have often asked myself. A question that is immensely difficult to answer. Even now it is difficult to explain. In this post I’ll just deal with the film aspect. I’ll save “Why I love Black and White” and “Why I love Square” for another post or two.

I love film because…

1) There is no instant preview. With digital you make the exposure and then you can instantly review it. Looking at the screen you can say to yourself “Look! There’s Sophie by the fountain! Oh! She’s still there”. If you don’t like the picture you make another one, and another one, and another one until you do. Nothing goes on in your head. With film you obviously don’t have that capability. As a result film makes you visualise the end result, you become much more observant and keen to get it right first time, you scrutinise the scene making sure you get it right. You become aware of the little details you miss with digital just like a calculator reduces your mental arithmetic or a spell check diminishes your ability and practice of spelling. Film, by its very nature makes you develop a keen sense of scene awareness. Over a period of time this pre-visualisation becomes uncannily accurate, your “hit” rate increases your use of multiple exposures of the same scene reduces. Your shooting becomes much more targeted and efficient. You shoot less and keep more. As a result your work load and costs reduce.

2) With digital you may have a tendency of making a large number of exposures and then instantly judging your reviews and deleting accordingly. You may end up with a good number of similar shots on your computer taking up your limited HDD space. Deciding which to keep and process may be agonising and time consuming leading to the oft inevitable snap decisions and bad decisions. You waste time because you end up processing a number of coarse files. No matter how good your equipment you can’t get a fine print from a coarse file. Generally with film I often process some time after the event. I have a drawer with a number of rolls of undeveloped film. They are all mixed up together. When I am in a developing mood I choose a few and develop them. Often I do not even know what is on the film. When I pull it from the developing tank, which in itself is exciting, I look at the negs with fresh eyes and look at the negatives anew. As the memory of the original event has faded you can make a really fresh judgement instead of a snap judgement on a screen or judging from a often large number of similar copies in a Lightroom library. You already have a better hit rate with less pictures so deciding which ones to keep is often not difficult. You develop less and keep more.

3) If you become a little jaded with the look of your film you can just change it. There are plenty of options from which to choose especially in monochrome. You can’t do that with digital. Once you have made your purchase you are stuck with what your camera gives you. So you had better like your colour rendition, noise and dynamic range etc.. You buy a digital Nikon or Canon you are stuck with it. You buy a film Nikon or Canon you can stuff it with any film you like and change it whenever you like – even mid-roll.

4) Film is incredibly flexible, more so than people realise. Film has an incredible dynamic range, monochrome especially. If you know how to expose and develop properly you can get even more from the film. Developing film is easy and inexpensive. Your development process should so well organised and practiced that your results will be ultra consistent. You will become so practised and adept that your pre-visualisation will be seen in your fine negatives. If they are not then you are doing something wrong. People who are or were dissatisfied with film and changed to digital at the first opportunity are either lazy workers or bad workers and usually both. With film you can be really sloppy with your metering or just guess if you must AND still get excellent results. With colour negative film you can over expose by up to three stops and no one will notice AND still retain those precious highlights. Modern scanners can extract an amazing amount of detail and data from film especially in the highlights of colour negative film. In short, you can shoot and not worry at all about losing your shadows or highlights. You don’t need to keep checking that histogram with film because you haven’t got one because you just don’t need one. Film is stress free shooting.

5) I love the “feel” that film gives me. I often find digital sterile. I love that organic feel to film. The way it responds to light, the texture of the grain, the tone of the colour. It’s not nostalgia more so the lack of “soul”, the sterility of digital that makes me appreciate the more flattering, organic and natural rendition of film. A well exposed and processed negative, which in itself is an easy task, requires less photoshopping than an equivalent digital file. There is more data in a negative than in any RAW file. Taking into account you shoot less with film, have a greater “hit” rate, you don’t waste time reviewing, loading and sorting HUNDREDS of digital files (often of the same subject). Even when you factor-in developing and scanning. Film saves you time.

6) Slide film in an inexpensive sub £100 camera has a richness of colour that digital just can’t match at the same price point! If you want to throw a few thousand pounds into a top or near top-of-the-range digital camera replete with lenses you can! Sub £200 medium format cameras are of such quality you’ll have to spend thousands to match it with digital. Film will save you thousands of $ or £.

7) Neither do you have to worry much about your gear being stolen. Generally its cheap enough to replace. Thieves want to steal kit they can sell or pass-on really quick so they are after digital kit and not your old fashioned film stuff they think nobody wants. But don’t go around with a Leica strap on your M2.

If I had to sum-up in one pithy phrase it is this Film makes you a better photographer. I am still working on that.

Well, that’s about it. I can think of a few more reasons why I love film but I think I have covered my main reasons. Take heart digital users I am going to do a post on “Why I love digital”. My conclusion just may surprise you.

Finally, I have to thank my friends Ike and Don who have contributed more to my joy of photography than they can ever imagine.

 Below: AGFA Isolette III, 75mm Solinar. Folding camera.

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  Below: Rolleiflex Automat, pre-war.

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Below: Hasselblad 500CM, Carl Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 Planar.

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Below: Yashica Mat 124G.

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 Below: Hasselblad 500CM, 80mm f/2.8 Planar.

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Below: Yashica Mat 124G, 80mm f/3.5 Yashinon.

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Below: Yashica Mat 124G, 80mm f/3.5 Yashinon.

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Below: Rolleiflex 2.8C, 80mm Carl Zeiss f/2.8 Planar.

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Below: Rolleiflex 2.8C, 80mm Carl Zeiss f/2.8 Planar.

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Below: Rolleiflex 2.8C, 80mm Carl Zeiss f/2.8 Planar.

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 Below: Rolleiflex 2.8C, 80mm Carl Zeiss f/2.8 Planar.

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Below: Rolleiflex 2.8C, 80mm Carl Zeiss f/2.8 Planar.

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Below: Zeiss Ikonta folding camera.

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