5 Reasons Why Film Photography is still relevant

Lets start this article with a disclaimer: This is will not be a Film vs Digital debate. 

So, why tackle the subject of film photography again? It surely has been done to death and written about by a million people already. Well, the reason is simple. I love film, and I worry that it might go away. Forever.  The worst part is that it wouldn't be due to it being inferior or unfit for purpose, but due to it being misunderstood. 

1. Digital is the bad guy

Not true. But also true. Let me explain:

Digital photography is wonderful in so many ways. It has come leaps and bounds in the last ten years and the best thing is, it will continue to do so. It will get better, and better and better and just when you think it can't, it will get better again. It's easy as well - after the initial financial outlay to buy your  body, a lens and a memory card, so long as your treat them well, that is all you will ever need. Sure, you will progress, and get better at what you do and the only way to fulfill your creative vision will be to buy X so that you can do Y, but all in all its simple - camera, lens, battery and memory card. You're done.  Take your camera out with you and after every shot you take you can review on your rear LCD, you don't like your shot? Delete, Reframe, zoom out, take it again and move on. But what does this all mean within the larger scheme of things? I'm no philosopher, but i know that if people are presented with a cheaper, easier way of doing things, we are likely to take it. And if this new way of doing things becomes the norm, we slowly but surely forget about the older ways. Look at what happenned to Betamax, arguably a superior format to VHS, at least image wise, but VHS won, because it was more cost effective to manufacture. Vinyl? Well, we were lucky with vinyl, but we can by no means pretend that it has become the standard again. And nor it shouldn't. Digital will supersede it, emulating the crackle perfectly, to the point that not even your dad, with his collection of 45's dating to 1973 will be able to tell. But that isn't what this article is about.

A digital photo, yesterday.

A digital photo, yesterday.

Not everything is about absolute quality, or perfection, sometimes its about imperfection, emotion and feeling. Something that cannot be equated with charts, tables and data. Coming from a generation that was born into an analog world but grew up in a digital one, i was fortunate to have the remnants of the old but with an eye on the new, and have the chance to experience both when each still ruled. And what about film? Well this is the question.  Is it purely nostalgia from people who remember Uncle Peter's old slides from the 60's or is there something more substantial there? Film is tangible, it has a physical presence and a chemical process - it feels dare i say it, more real. For lack of a better word, it's different to digital, neither better, nor worse - but different enough to almost warrant a different name. Not just in the way a photograph comes alive and how its created but also in terms of our response to it. Digital has spoiled us with its ease, efficiency and cost effectiveness, but film with its mystery, imperfection and distinct look still has a place in our digital age.

2 The Journey not the destination

What a statement to make! Fortunately, i wrote it with my tongue firmly on my cheek. There is some truth to this however. Let me explain: 

Film is annoying. The costs are never ending, there's lots of waiting involved and then there's the scanning. Oh, the scanning! With digital you have none of this, well, there's the cost, but once you've bought your camera, you're basically done. You can be in the red, and still go out and shoot. Not so with film. Christmas hit you hard? Forget it. Down to your last fiver with a week to go til pay day? Forget it. Film comes with caveats, it requires a healthy bank account and patience. Lots of patience. But what about when your wallet is healthy? And those scans came out like you hoped? What a feeling!  It rewards you in a very different way, whereas with a digital photo you may have spent an age in front of your monitor looking at the same image again and again,  with film, at least initially,  you're almost grateful and relieved. Grateful that the shot where you thought you're mum blinked when you fired the shutter actually came out great. Or the roll where you accidentally opened the rear door exposing the film actually came out with wonderful light leaks.

Light Leaks, a happy accident - Fuji Natura 1600

Light Leaks, a happy accident - Fuji Natura 1600

Shooting Film is a very subjective experience, to many of the older generation who for years tried to escape the clutches of grain in their photos, the cleaner look of digital is exactly what they've always wanted, whereas for younger photographers, it is the grain and imperfection that becomes the reason to shoot film. Film requires you to think more, for one,  every shot you take has a cost attached to it, so you can't just fire the shutter at everything you see unless you fancy making a serious dent into your finances. But that isn't intended to put you off, it simply forces you to slow down a bit and consider what you are shooting. You develop a relationship with your shutter speed and aperture and become very intimate with your viewfinder, peering through, carefully analysing the split image before firing the shutter. I began shooting film because i liked the look of it but i fell in love with it because of the way it changed how i looked at photography. 

3. #nofilter needed

We have a lot to be thankful to Instagram for, not just for giving people a another incentive to use photography as a social medium, but also in terms with familiarising people with film. For one, the original posting format on Instagram was square, which is based on 6x6 medium format film photography, popularised by Hasselblad with their V sytem cameras. Instagram also gave us filters, and love them or hate them, it gave us the film look for everyday photography - even if it was only to post a photo of your Monday morning bowl of porridge. More importantly, each filter is based on a particular film, from Polaroid SX-70, expired slide film to classic Kodachrome -it allowed people to give each shot a 'look' albeit in a rough and ready way. Although I have no reference point for this, I imagine that Instagram helped in paving the way for many companies, such as VSCO and Mastin Labs to develop pro-level software for digital photographers to use in Lightroom and Photoshop to give their digital shots 'the film look'. Now we can have glorious Portra 400, Fuji 400H and discontinued film like Ektachrome and Agfa Chrome available to everyone with a  digital camera.

The film look. Grain added - Canon 7D

The film look. Grain added - Canon 7D

Whats even better, is that both VSCO and Mastin Labs both let you know which stock you are replicating, rather than just naming them random things. Whether these presets are accurate is entirely subjective, but just the fact they are available to everyone can only be a good thing and keeping the lineage from digital to film alive and known to a new generation of photographers. Being a shooter of film myself, i can see that a lot of digital shooters apply a film look to their digital photos and sometimes i wonder, why not simply shoot film? I know it isn't always possible either due to financial constraints, time or personal preference, but i sometimes feel a little sad that we as photographers are not doing everything we can to keep the format, we owe so much to, alive. I'd never suggest anyone go to shooting 100% film, but for any serious photographer who emulates film, give shooting film a whirl, i promise you, you won't be disappointed. 

4. It might make you a better photographer

I am biased though, because that's how i feel about my own journey . I think that not because I think my photos are necessarily better, but because i am happier in my understanding of photography and in the way shooting film has allowed me to see the world around me.  I'm also a cynic, not bad cynic, but a cynic nonetheless, and i sometimes feel that if i make things too easy for myself I'll get lazy. And that's how I felt with digital, it wasn't the look or the medium, it was the process. The amount of times i see people shooting handheld outdoors at 6400 ISO at f/22 or Canon 7D's used with the pop up flash in a museum even though they have a fast lens and adequate lighting. Digital cameras are so good they can make us detached from the photographic process. That's not to say that everyone is like that, but the possibility is there simply because the technology allows it. Many film cameras force the user to have a more intimate relationship with their machine. Loading the film and manually setting the ISO to match film speed, helps you understand the idea behind ISO and what it means to have a lower or higher value. Slowing down to manually focus forces you to compose your shot better, not only due the lack of auto-focus but also due to not having a finite amount of film rolls at your disposal. It isn't any one thing, its many different factors that contribute to being more at one with the camera. 

5. Film is forever

Film is physical, it exists in so far as you can hold it in your hand. It has the benefits of not only being a capture medium but also an archival medium all in one. Digital is physical only at the point of print, before that it exists as data needing to be read by an external device. However, the reality is that this is a non issue, but it is nice to know, that if someone finds 60 year old negatives stored in an attic, they have the potential to look as fresh as the day they were picked up from the lab. You can print straight off the neg, digitise, or print from the digital file, the choice is yours.

Kodachrome slide from the 1960's scanned on a Reflecta ProScan 10T scanner

Kodachrome slide from the 1960's scanned on a Reflecta ProScan 10T scanner

I'm not sure what the future holds for film photography, the recent work by the fine folk at Cinestill, with 35mm and medium format, together with the success Ferrania had with their crowdfunding campaign puts my mind at ease that the future is bright.   We owe a great deal to film and I'd like to think that artistically it still has a lot to offer, not just to stir our emotions and hark back to days gone by, but as a genuine alternative for image capture. Medium Format is still used by many pros who feel the colours and dynamic range inherent to the format, let alone the resolution,  still cant quite be matched by digital.  I will continue to shoot film as long as it's available, and i'm hoping that if you haven't already,  you'll give it a try before its too late.