Why I shoot film

 

Shooting film Leica camera
My Small Walking Camera

I shoot film for all my principal photography. It is a personal choice.

My reasons for choosing film rather than digital are part technical, part aesthetic and part emotional. Ultimately, I think film makes me a better photographer, I enjoy the process more and I like the way the pictures look.

Film looks filmy and it’s fun to use. But I don’t want to make light of film, film offers some serious benefits for the serious photographic artist.

There is no doubt that digital is the best option for most kinds of photography.  So this is not a film versus digital debate. It is personal.

Firstly, film is an incredible teacher. My film cameras are really just dumb boxes, and film is very unforgiving when exposed to light. So when I shoot film, especially with a dumb camera, I have no choice but to learn to be a good technical photographer.  If I don’t, anything creative I might try to do, probably won’t look very good.  It is my keenness to learn photography which drives me towards film.

Using film puts in a particular environment which has a huge influence on how I make pictures.

Let me explain.

I mostly use two simple film cameras; a Mamiya 7II and a Leica M6. They are just dumb black boxes with great lenses; No Picture Control System, No Scene Recognition Software, No Active D-Lighting, No P Mode, No Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors, No 19-point AF System with improved AI Servo II AF Subject Tracking, No Intelligent Viewfinder, No 63-Zone Dual-Layer Metering System, No Full HD video, No Megapixels, No CMOS Sensor and it’s Not Designed by Giugiaro!!

When I pick up this camera it is just me, some film and a handheld light meter. Film cuts my hi-tech umbilical cord. I don’t have a computer in my camera to save me, to lean on, or to make up for my lack of skills.  It’s just me.

Film is expensive and I only have 6, 10 or 36 frames in my camera. I can’t fire off hundreds or thousands of shots hoping that a few will be great. Film’s expense and frame limit is a ‘drag wheel’ which forces me to get good shots every few frames. The physicality of film, by its very nature, has limitations which compels me to get it right.

The result is that film slows me down. It requires me to think, plan, learn and to see. Every single aspect of what will make a great photograph needs to be thought through. My eyes need to be on alert and the technical and creative sides of my mind need to work quickly and in unison.

Also, when I shoot film, I need to be able to see what my photograph will look like in my mind, because I can not see it on the back of a camera. And if I don’t like what I see in my mind I need to know how to change it. The only way to do this well, is for camera and mind to become one. I need to be so familiar with my camera’s settings and so experienced in making it capture an image, that working the camera becomes completely instinctive and transparent. Almost as if the camera ceases to exist as I shoot.

Making a photograph in your mind and knowing how to quickly instruct your camera to make-it-so is very empowering to the creative process. Knowledge and taking pictures in my head, sets me free. Film simply puts me in this zone better than digital does.

In essence, the use of film requires me to think, see better and sharpen my skills,  and this makes me a better photographer!

Now, you might say that it’s really up to me and that digital is just as good a teacher if I were disciplined and got my act together. And yes, you are 100% right.  But you’re a better person than I am, for as much as I do try, film just makes me try that much harder.

 

So, why else do I shoot film?

I think film still has some technical benefits, although many will disagree. For example, under very low light and for very long exposures, both of which I shoot often, I believe that film captures smoother and more delicate tonal detail than digital. High end digital is getting very good but I think film just has a more pleasing look under these conditions. And in bright or high contrast light, the milky base of film gives highlights a nice soft landing.  Further, digital can also be very noisy under certain conditions and the dithering pattern of noise in a photograph is something I do not like. It is not like film grain, it has a different texture.

A good scan off a great transparency will give you a lot of detail in a very large file. I have read different and conflicting thoughts on the megapixel equivalent of film with many people seeming to suggest that a good scan from a 6×7 film can give you a 100+MP image. I don’t know and to be honest I don’t care too much about the number. What I do know is that a good scan off my film gives me incredible detail and a very large useful file.

Film, and the different film types, bring their own qualities to the workflow and pictures. One particular film, Fuji’s Velvia 50,  brings its own characteristics into play.  In days of old,  photographers would choose different films for different effects. Today you can paint those effects in via Software.  However if you want the original look and feel,  many of these films are still available. I particularly like Velvia’s tendency to soak up colours and add a kick of contrast. I like how it captures those colours which are soft and delicate; soft colours around moving water on a long exposure are stunning on Velvia. ( And as a side note, Velvia is not us heavy and contrasty as people think if you use it carefully. Velvia can provide a velvety soft feel if you know what you are doing.) The tonal detail is wonderful. With a long exposure before sun-up Velvia seams to intensify those colours much like a tapered red wine glass concentrates a wine’s flavour and aroma to emphasise varietal characteristics. ( ok, I know that’s a bit much ). But for me, Velvia captures colour beautifully. Some don’t like the effect. I love it!!

Film also imbues a photograph with “film grain”. Film grain has a natural textural look which I think is beautiful. I find that the video signal of digital, produces a very flat almost sterile image; too clean and too cold in character at its best and too noisy at its worst. In comparison, I like the depth and texture that film brings to a photograph. This is why many software applications offer an extensive array of film textures so that digital photographers can put back into an image some of the character which has been lost in moving from film.  The film look verses video look is a significant reason why directors still choose film to make many movies.

You can see examples of my black & white street, and my black and white and colour landscape work here.

There is also the emotional aspect of film. I do like the sense of ‘theatre’ and personal satisfaction which film gives me; the opening of a roll,  the loading of the camera, the winding of the shutter. It is tangible. It just feels good. I don’t underestimate the emotion of film. Photography is after all a passion for me. It is not a job and anything which adds to the passion and enjoyment of the experience gets full marks from me. Film is fun.

Film has its own story to tell. In time film may be gone and I like the idea that I will have created  bodies of work using a medium that no longer exists and which cannot be recreated in the same way. On this point alone there is a wonderful conversation to be had when discussing a body of work that was captured on original film. It just makes the work more special.

I like what film can teach me, that it helps make me a better photographer. I like its look and how it makes me feel. It is that simple.

As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with other people who enjoy photography. I have learnt from what others have shared with me, so I like to pass it on.

Thank you, Steve.

 

Street photography Leica M camera
I walk and I look. When I see something that interests me, I take a picture.

 

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© Copyright Steve Coleman. All rights retained. All images and writings are registered with the United States Copyright Office. Unauthorised reproduction or use of these images is strictly forbidden without the written permission of Steve Coleman. www.lightinframe.com

One thought

  1. Dear Steve,
    Thank you so much for this post and also for the Mamiya 7 ii review and how-to video.

    I picked up photography again after almost a decade and bought a Nikon DX camera. I never sold my Minolta 35mm camera though. After almost two years of shooting digital (and spending hundreds of euros on software), I’m sorely disappointed by digital cameras. My 24 MP camera is actually around 8MP because of the Bayer pattern sensor. I have never been able to make photos on digital cameras the way I could on my 35mm camera. The tonal range, the grain, the lenses which max out at 1.5 stops and 10% focal length at both extremes, all are contributing to my hesitation to continue with digital. Plus my 18 year old Minolta works as well now as it did then, while there is no guarantee that my current RAW files will be readable 10 years from now (I feel DNG is also equally ephemeral).

    This post reminded me of how I used to enjoy shooting with my 35mm camera and how I had to make every shot count because there was no opportunity of “chimping” the LCD screen.

    I’ve made up my mind to sell my DX and buy a Mamiya 7ii and lenses. Your post sealed my decision, thanks!

    Thanks once again and keep blogging!
    Kind regards,
    Shaan.

  2. I’m just adding digital to my photography toolbox. (Nothing digital on my website so far) You have so much heart in the creation of the stunning landscapes I’ve seen, that what you write makes perfect sense. I believe that working with film first gives one a better understanding of what to look for when photographing digitally. Thanks for sharing your experience and emotions.

  3. Hi Steve, just saw the link to this on Twitter. I’d recently written a far less exhaustive post on why I use film myself. Hadn’t considered the emotional attachment I have though. This was a really great post.

    Thanks,
    Dana

  4. Great article, Steve!

    I’m writing a similar ‘why film’ page for my new blog at the moment…
    Trying to write from the heart without it sounding like I’m anti-digital, because my choice of using film isn’t about that.

    You’ve done just that with the above piece – well done!

    A recent twitter outburst about film snobbery, from a digital photographer who’s work & success I admire, has left me feeling I should perhaps tread cautiously with my choice of words.

    Then tonight I come across this post. Proof to write from the heart & be true to yourself. Thank you for that & thanks to twitter that we stumbled upon each other this week https://twitter.com/#!/willowandtwine

    em

  5. There are many reasons why I now prefer film over digital. Many are already known i.e you have to think more about your shots, the tonal range, dynamic range etc…yes these are well known. Some also mention the feel of the camera, it’s greater quality and longevity, that’s obvious. Speaking of longevity, it is quite beneficial to use the same camera for a long time (5+years). Using the camera eventually becomes second nature, you don’t think of it anymore in fact it seems invisible. This is when you really become quick and precise (i do alot of street photography). But mostly I love film because of what I can do in a darkroom with some good paper. I love a print so much sometimes it’s scary, it looks just so incredible, yet I rarely feel like printing my digital stuff for some reason regardless of positive feedback. There’s just something more with film, the feeling of something real and tangible that I just can’t seem to get with digital.

    1. Hi Phil, thank you for leaving your comments. Its always good to hear from like minded souls. I do like the tangible feeling of film as well… that the photograph starts off with something real that I can hold and load into my camera. Nothing wrong with digital at all. Its just me. I have always felt odd taking wonderful landscapes and never seeing it on a piece of film. Just as invisible data just does not quench my soul. Just me.

  6. Thanks Steve for a wonderful post. I completely agree with all of your fine points. I am in the process of going back to film full time and building a darkroom. I have had my digital thrill and always felt something was missing. And I think recently I discovered what it was: the creation of a one of a kind print in the darkroom. I feel like in the digital world my creative process ends during processing the image for web display. I don’t have a printer and don’t get to prepare a final prints very often. I miss the darkroom experience, the care and effort that goes into creating that final piece of my artistic vision. And yes, I can repeat the process multiple times yet each image I create will have it’s own unique differences. And you can’t accomplish that with digital. I hope and pray that film will never become obsolete, if it does it will be a sad day for humanity.

    1. Aleks, thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I really do appreciate it. And sorry for not replying sooner. I know what you mean by \”something missing\” I don\’t think film will ever go. It will become an art method and will always have a strong enough following that some small manufactures of film will do well to keep producing… just like the \”Impossible Project\” here: http://www.the-impossible-project.com/

  7. Great article, Steve. I like the part about the camera being just a dumb box – so true! It is up to us to expose that film with no computers or whiz-bang gizmos helping us. To me film just has a look that I can’t get in digital. I have gone through two nice dSLRs but I continually grab one of my film cameras when I go out to shoot.

    Cheers,
    Robb

  8. Thank you Steve for such a great post. You hit on so many reasons why I too still prefer to shoot with film over digital. One big difference is the process – the journey – a photographer goes through and you put it so well: ‘The result is that film slows me down. It requires me to think, plan, learn and to see. Every single aspect of what will make a great photograph needs to be thought through.’

    I feel like that encapsulates much of what is missing with the digital process. Call me old skool but I’m sticking with film as long as they’ll make it.

    Cheers,
    Shannon

    1. Hi Shannon, Yep it is so much about the journey for many film photographers. It might be unfair to say this but I find in my dealings with photographers it is the film photographers who are much more emotional about all kinds of stuff, photography included. Do photographers who have a higher emotional \’factor\’ get drawn to film? I don\’t know. I would not be surprised. Cheers, Steve.

      PS sorry for the late reply.

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