Last week-end, I tried a Nikon N90S that had just been delivered by UPS. The N90S does not feel very different from a conventional Nikon dSLR such as a D90 or a D7200. And instinctively, I started using it the same way I generally use a digital camera. Auto-everything, just compose the picture, press the shutter release, check the picture the LCD, adjust the exposure or the focus, and shoot again. Except that the N90s is a film camera. There was no LCD to check the picture. I won’t know if the camera nailed it until the film comes back from the lab. It could be weeks from now. And I started wondering why I had brought this camera, that wants to be used like a modern dSLR, but does not offer the convenience of digital.
It does not seem logical to shoot film:
– it’s expensive
– film is low ISO only (typically 100 to 800 ISO)
– there is a limited choice of film, and it’s difficult to find
– Film is not flexible – if you’ve loaded your camera with Kodak’s TRI-X, you’ll have 36 contrasty and grainy Black and White pictures. No magic switch or menu option will transform it into an Ektar or a Velvia on the fly.
– it takes days or weeks to get to see your pictures
– and most images are consumed on a smartphone or a computer monitor, or printed on a inkjet or giclee printer. Unless you enlarge your negatives in a dark room and only hang the prints on a wall, the images will have to be digitized at some point. So why go through the pain of using film, if you always end up processing digital images.
Most of the reasons given by the apologists of film are false pretenses:
Google “why shoot film” or check the Web sites of photo labs. You will often find the same reasons for shooting film. Most of them don’t resist a close examination:
– “Film forces you to be picky because each image shot has a cost” – true, but nothing prevents you from being picky with a digital camera,
– “Film forces you to think and operate with method” – there is no possibility to check the picture immediately after it’s taken and adjust the parameters accordingly – trial and error does not work – you have to think hard and get it right. Again it’s true, but nothing prevents you from operating slowly and deliberately with a digital camera,
– “With a film camera, you’re not tempted to lose time looking at your images on the LCD, you can focus on the subject and the next opportunity”. True. But on a digital camera it’s simply a matter of discipline. Most digital cameras can be set not to display the image immediately after it has been shot, and nothing forces you to push the “play” button. (my digital cameras are set NOT to display the image which has been taken – but it came back to bite me a few times – when the images were not correctly exposed, and I only found about it when it was too late).
Some are true, but up to a point only…
You read frequently that in spite of all the film simulation modes (in camera or in Lightroom post processing), there is still something unique in the way film looks. Maybe. I’m not denying that some images originally shot on film look different. But I don’t know for sure if it’s the film, or something else. Because unless you use an enlarger and develop your prints in your own dark room, it’s likely that your workflow – and the processing chain of the lab who scan your film roll – are relying on digital technologies at some point. Minilabs and industrial labs have been printing from scans for years (even before consumers switched from film to digital), and that special film look you like so much may just be a product of the scanning software controlling the lab’s Fuji Frontier (or its Noritsu).
“Using film gives you access to cheap full frame and medium format equipment” – True, you can get the “full frame” 35mm or the medium format experience for less than $100. But the cost difference is not as high as it used to be (you can get a very good second hand Full Frame dSLRs for $700), and digital medium format cameras, while still very expensive, will become more accessible when new cameras such as Fujifim’s GFX reach the second hand market and start pushing the price of older cameras downwards.
“Film can be stored for hundreds of years – and digital images are fragile”. True, CDs and DVD may degrade over time, hard drives fail, and cloud storage only lives as long as the company offering the service stays in business. Digital imaging is based on short lived standards – will electronic devices of Y2050 still read today’s jPEGS, DNG and RAW files, will they mount the drives, the disks, the USB keys we store images on? . All those concerns are valid. Keeping digital images on the long run will require work (moving images from an obsolete support or from a retiring on-line service to more current media, convert image files from old formats to newer formats). But it’s an archival issue, and archival of film also requires work – a shoebox can only get you so far.
There still are plenty of reasons, good or bad, to shoot film…
– a desire to be different,
– the refusal to fall for the latest and greatest electronic gimmickry,
– the love of film as a medium,
– the love of old cameras (mechanical devices made of aluminum, steel and brass) – there is no other way to use old cameras than to shoot film,
– love of old lenses,
– a preference for the way you had to work with those old film cameras (because you learned that way and you don’t mind showing your age…)
– the thrill of risking wasting a photoshoot with cameras that are getting old and unreliable (not for me – I mostly use Nikons…),
– the unpredictability of results with old and inaccurate cameras and expired film (basically, you let chance and mother nature be creative on your behalf)
– a search for authenticity and simplicity. Digital photography can be overwhelming (so many options, so many filters, so many plug-ins, so many ways to modify or improve the images, in the camera or on a computer, before and after shooting). Film is simpler. You load the film, your arm the shutter, you set the aperture and the shutter speed, you adjust the focus. You compose. You press the shutter release. And you’re done.