Film photography peaked right around the turn of the century. Within five years, digital sensors had seemly dealt the film industry a death blow.
Yet 20 years later, I’m still shooting film. So why do I cling to a dead medium? It’s a question I’ve often found myself asking as of late. Why do any of us still shoot film?
I’ve written a lot about film photography here. I’ve written about what it can teach you, why you should be editing your film scans, as well as a handful of reviews, but I haven’t really talked about why I stand by the medium.
The easy answer is: why not? But the truth is my reasons for shooting film today are far more complex. For one, film is not a recent curiosity. I’ve been shooting film since I was first introduced to photography as a child.
As a young teenager, I was attracted to the vintage rangefinders and SLRs that adorned the shelves of antique stores and thrift shops. In high school, I taught myself to develop film in my parents basement bathroom. In college, the experience helped me secure a job working in the university darkroom, where I taught photography students to load Patterson tanks and make prints.
However, in the years that followed my graduation, I lacked the resources, let alone the funds to continue my hobby.
A return to film
All of that changed late last year. I picked up a Soviet era FED 2 Rangefinder on eBay with the intention of picking up film photography again. The FED was in many ways the poor man’s Leica. Much of its design and optics were stolen from the German camera maker after Soviet forces seized much of the country in the months following World War II.
The camera was in immaculate condition, having been cleaned, lubed and adjusted by a seller in Ukraine, and I put a couple rolls of Kodak Gold 200 through it. When I got the scans back from the lab, I was hooked all over again.
An experiment in color
Initially, much of my inspiration was related to color, specifically the way film renders color.
Many of my digital images are processed using film emulation presets in Lightroom. But the thing about emulation is it's just a facsimile of the real thing.
So with this in mind, I began a series of reviews with the express purpose of exploring the qualities of various film stocks. To keep things as consistent as possible, I imported a Canon EOS-1 from Japan. The EOS-1 features extremely reliable autofocus and an accurate light meter.
Film vs. Reality
Digital cameras, today, do a reasonable job of rendering realistic colors.
The nature of digital sensors means it's possible to balance the saturation, contrast, and white balance from one shot to the next, something that is simply impossible with the fixed chemistry of film.
I think the goal here is to render an image that is both accurate and pleasing while providing advanced shooters with the flexibility to tune the image later.
With film, the white balance and saturation vary dramatically depending on how it’s exposed and the color of your light source.
This might sound like a disadvantage, but in my experience it often results in color shifts that add to the character of a photograph more than it takes away.
For example, daylight-balanced film will have a tendency of rendering shadow areas with a slight blue-green tint. This is often considered a desirable trait as it’s said to give images a cinematic look.
People often reference the simplicity of film. And there is some truth to this, at least as far as consumer films are concerned.
Consumer films tend to be cheaper, have ISOs of between 200 and 400 and produce warmer images with higher contrast, saturation, and grain than you’d find in more expensive professional stocks.
This means consumer films will tend to render images that look good straight from the lab and require little if any editing in post.
By comparison, professional stocks tend to produce images that are cooler, have a flatter contrast and more muted colors. This is because most professional film stocks around today were formulated during a period of time when most fashion and editorial photos were still shot on film, but were scanned and edited before publication.
For example, Fuji Pro 400H was engineered specifically to be scanned.
I think this is the reason I’ve gravitated toward consumer films and highly-saturated landscape stocks like Kodak Ektar 100.
What I’ve learned from a year of film
From this grand experiment I’ve learned there is a big difference between color accurate and aesthetically pleasing.
Most digital cameras will produce excellent, well-balanced images, whereas consumer film will give you a punchy, well-saturated image right off the bat.
Arguably the former is more valuable as you have fine control over the look you’re going for, while with film you’re at the mercy of the emulsion.
It’s from this observation that I’ve realized that much of what we consider desirable in a finished image is born in some part from the aesthetics of film.
Shooting color film in particular is a fantastic exercise in color theory. And while film has yielded its throne to digital sensors, it remains relevant today. Movies shot on digital cinema cameras are often color graded to look as if they were shot on film replicating the golden highlights and cool teal shadows common of Kodak film stocks.
Where is the next film review?
Another film review is in the works. Unfortunately, it looks like my latest batch of film may have gotten lost on its way to the lab. Either that or it's taking longer on account of the holiday shipping season. I'm hoping for the latter. Stay tuned!
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What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- Do you shoot film?
- What have you learned from film?
- Is film a deadend and a waste of money?