Why Film Photography?

It’s been a few month’s since I last posted an opinion piece of this nature so I thought perhaps it’s about time for another one, and since I’m an avid promoter of the glorious usage of film it seemed like a good subject to discuss. Now before we start, this is an opinion piece, I’m not going to describe myself as an expert on the subject by any stretch of the imagination (despite my idea’s of grandeur above my station I will happily admit when in the words of Game of Throne’s “I know nothing”) and thus please take anything I say with a pinch of salt. As with previous opinion piece’s I’ve written I think I’ll be splitting this down into a few general points that I feel put across my point, if you think I’ve missed any or if you don’t agree then please comment away below, I’d love to hear other people’s views on the matter.

So Film, a dead or dying medium of photography? a relic of the past? Something held onto by those of us too stuck in our way’s to move into the future? Personally I don’t think so. I’m old enough to remember using film the first time around, and when I say that I mean before digital was even an option to us mere mortal’s (Digital Photography is a lot older than you think, it was just prohibitively expensive for a long time), however I am also young enough to have really only used Digital when I actually knew what I was doing. I had my first digital camera as a 16th birthday present, a Fuji Finepix of some kind if I remember rightly (see I’m not that old), I’d say that was my first proper camera as any film camera I had used previously had been either a single use throwaway job or a cheap one with Batman or some Disney character or other emblazoned over the front of it. My first DSLR then came a lot later than all of this. I think the point I’m trying to make here is that, I’m not someone clinging to their past and the way they used to do things, I never really did these things in the first place. Sure as a kid I meddled around with my parents’ and grandparents’ camera’s, but I’ve re-discovered Film Photography rather than stuck with it through the whole digital revolution, as many other’s have as well. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of people in their 20’s and perhaps early 30’s (ahem I am nearly one of those) are shooting film because we want to see what it’s like and not because we’re clinging to a past that we didn’t actually experience.

It’s that experience I want to talk about next, have you ever looked at famous photograph’s, the work of famous and historical photographer’s or even the image’s your parent’s have in a shoebox somewhere of your childhood and thought; How did that happen? No me neither, I, like I assume the rest of you, know how a camera works. However what I have done is thought; I want to try out the equipment they used. This is why I have a Leica IIIc, an Olympus OM-1, Olympus Trip, Canon AE-1 etc etc, I wanted to experience the feeling of making a photograph the way that people from before my time did. Let me tell you it’s a wonderful experience, I don’t think you’ve ever truly lived as a photographer until you’ve heard the strange buzz/whirr of a Canon AE-1 when you wind on the shutter, the soft and deft click of the cloth shutter in an old Leica, discovering the word “parallax” when using a TLR or the infuriating fiddly nature of loading film in the first place. That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I want to share with you. Then there’s the whole host of classic and wonderful equipment that is available to try, photography has existed for what, 150 years if not more, digital has been around for a tiny fraction of that time, there’s at least a hundred years of wonderful toy’s to play with that you’ll miss out on and Ebay is a great starting point for hunting down classic’s.

Expense is something we’ll look at next, because let’s face it that’s the main reason film has died out to the level it’s at. A digital camera and a decent size memory card will keep you going for a damn long time before you need to spend any more money, we all know photography is not the cheapest hobby on the planet but if one thing is for certain it’s this; Digital is cheaper in the long run than Film. Right, now we’ve got that out the way I’m going to make a justification for the price; At the end of the day I just prefer film and I am OK to spend a certain level of money on it beyond what I could save with digital, I know that wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people but let’s give an analogy to explain it. Other than photography I am very much into car’s, I drive an Alfa Romeo and the reason I drive it is because I love Italian car’s, I love the brand and I love the feel I have when driving it. I could buy a Ford, a Renault, a Toyota, but although it is essentially the same thing (they all have four wheels and an engine after all), it isn’t the same is it? There’s a reason a classic Ferrari made in the 60’s costs so much compared to a Fiesta, it doesn’t need to be explained we all just know that. Now put that analogy to work on film photography, you can do the same thing’s with a digital camera, in fact you can likely do them better, quicker, and easier, but you don’t want to do you? You chose to pick up a Nikon F and load a roll of Ilford because like the guy who take’s his old car for a drive on the weekend, it just feels right to you. And that is my point on the expense of using film, it’s not cheap in monetary terms, but I didn’t get into photography to save money, I got into it to enjoy myself, that’s the true value.

I feel there’s a nice social element to shooting film, one that I hadn’t experienced previously when shooting digital, for example can you remember the last time someone came up to you when you were taking a photo on your phone, or using a standard DSLR and had them say “ooooh that’s a nice camera, what is that?”? No me neither. With film that seem’s to happen to me on a regular basis, maybe it’s the novelty factor or maybe it’s that people are genuinely interested but it happen’s quite regularly to me. I’ve been stood on a pier shooting with my Yashica TLR and an elderly gentleman stopped, stared, hobbled over and was genuinely thrilled to see someone taking pictures with a similar model to one he’d used in the 1950’s when he was serving in the RAF oversea’s. I’ve been sat in a coffee shop with my Leica IIIc on the table and had a man sit next to me and not leave for an hour as he hadn’t seen one for years and wanted to talk about it. I’ve had the guy’s on the Olympus stand at the UK Photography Show drooling over my OM-1 (and ahem give me a ton of free stuff although that might have had nothing to do with that) and talk to me for ages about it. All of these situations are genuine, they’ve all happened and they’re just a few examples of people being interested and wanting to talk to you because you are shooting a film camera. Are you a people person? Because if you like talking to nice and friendly people film photography seem’s to have opened up this window for me to interact with people around me.

This point is likely going to be the most controversial and I’ll re-iterate at this point, it’s my opinion and also is an opinion based on my experience. The point is this; I think using film make’s us better photographer’s. Yes feel free to disagree if you like but let me first explain. I had a situation the other day where I got talking to a guy in the street, once again because he saw I was shooting film and he was interested, he was a pro photographer and told me about another pro he’d had a conversation with that went like this; Photographer 1: “Do you guess what settings to use, you know when you’re taking a photograph on a shoot?”, Photographer 2: “what? Um no, why do you ask?”, Photographer 1: “Well I’ve never really understood that much about the setting’s so I tend to just guess and hope they turn out ok, or shoot on auto. Don’t you do that?”. Now I don’t doubt that’s not a common occurrence but it raised an interesting point for me, until I started shooting film I was very much like that photographer, I didn’t guess so much but I let the camera control me, not the other way around. Now I know that if you want you can find plenty of information online that will tell you how to operate a camera properly, how to use the correct settings for situations and scene’s etc etc, but Digital I think has made us lazy, it certainly did to me. Now with Film, depending on what you’re shooting with obviously, you can’t be lazy, you’ve got to learn about how your aperture and shutter speed will affect the image you’re trying to make, how the ISO of the film is going to react to the light available, about manually focussing. In fact it’s inadvertently change the way I go about making a photograph because it’s slowed me down, it takes longer to shoot with Film and thus has made me stop and thing more about the composition of the scene, on digital I could just snap away a hundred shot’s and just pick the best one. You can’t do that with Film. Now perhaps this is just me but I personally put my development as a photographer to using film, I’ve certainly felt that my digital work has changed because of it.

The final point I’m going to make is purely about the film itself, because at the end of the day I think the main reason anybody gets into Film Photography is this, the look. Ever wondered why all these modern hipster camera’s have arty farty filter’s on them? It’s because film look’s cool. Yes I said it, it does, that’s not even an opinion that’s a fact. Film has a particular and peculiar quality to it, and try as you might it can’t really be replicated by digital, both of them involve the capturing of light and creating an image but film does this through a chemical reaction, it’s organic and it look’s like it. Film grain looks so much better than digital noise, and it’s because it looks like it’s natural, it should be there, noise is just noise. The colour’s you get with particular film’s are different as well, again because of the chemistry, no two film types are exactly the same, whereas the sensor’s in every Nikon D5 I would guess are exactly the same. Yes digital has the advantage of being, almost, foolproof, you can take a hundred images on a digital camera and they’ll look the same, uniform, and probably all equally good, film doesn’t work that way, which can be frustrating and understandably the reason why many people wouldn’t even want to try. But that’s why I love shooting film, it’s natural feeling, it’s natural looking, and any impurities or failures are just natural as well. And again, come on, film looks bloody cool.

So there we have it, a few reason’s why I shoot with film and why I think you should too. Yes it’s not cheap, yes it’s frustrating, yes digital is easier, but come on did you get into photography to save money and take the easy way out? Of course you didn’t.

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