Why Film – The Future of Film Photography

Why not film?

Film is more viable now than it has ever been in my opinion, particularly for fine art, nature, and landscape photographers.  My goal is to use the best tools for the job that renders the quality and results I am seeking.  For fine art black and white prints, that choice is easy, it is film.  A compact digital camera for family snapshots and photos on the beach with the kids is a wonderful choice.  If I am scoping out a potential scene for future consideration, then my compact digital camera is the perfect choice.  I even use my little Canon SL-1 as a composition tool before I unpack my large format gear.

When I want to create a fine art black and white print then film and either traditional darkroom printing or alternative UV printing is the best option for me to realize my creative vision.  That does not mean images captured on digital technology and edited on computers are any less in my opinion.  It also doesn’t mean that easier is better.  In landscape and nature photography, I believe film is the superior choice for me, even though it may take longer to develop, I think the time I save in the end is in my favor and and I am able to create and produce a superior image.

Film brings my creative vision to life for me.  I also feel a strong emotional connection to film images of other photographers work because for whatever reason, it simply oozes with emotion for me.  I also feel more part of the process when using classic methods such as film, dry plate, and wet plate collodion as opposed to “taking something”, I am part of something.

I am not the type to be a Lemming and blindly follow the crowd.  I cut my own path in life and apply that logic and style to my photography.  Film may be thought of as a dated approach to photography by some and when I hear that from a professional I love it.  Amateurs just don’t know any better so you can’t hold that against them.  Why do I love it when other pros say they use digital for their fine art work?  I know without even looking at their work that my prints will look better.  Since the likelihood of me selling enough of my fine art work to survive in this world is about zero, I suppose the only person I really need approval from is myself.

A properly marketed digital print will outsell a poorly marketed film-based masterpiece.  The moral of the story is that no matter which medium you choose, it isn’t about the medium at all.  It is about using it as a tool to help you achieve “your” vision.  No one other than yourself can make that determination.

Film is Good Enough for Steven Spielberg

Film is the medium of choice for Steven Spielberg.

Steven Spielberg said “as a filmmaker and as long as I still have final choice of mediums–I will always select film“.  Mr. Spielberg goes on to say in that interview that film is magical and if it were good enough for the legends of the industry, why isn’t it good enough for us?

I think Steven Spielberg independent of all his fame and critical acclaim is a smart man that has vision.  Without completely jumping off a cliff I think that art and modern times are two different topics and have absolutely no relationship.  We see this over and over again through time.  Even legends like Ansel Adams, Robert Frank or Walker Evans were not fully appreciated in their lifetime.  These artists knew something that I think modern society has long forgotten.  I am not silly enough to debate or argue the definition of art because we all know this isn’t a positive use of anyone’s time.

I think we need to take a deeper look at ourselves as a society and reflect a little.  I have a few simple questions that could possibly point us in the right direction.  What is time?  What does time really mean?  Is time something that we use as human beings to define, control or shape our life experience?  When I hear advocates of digital technology talk about time, I have never personally heard any of them talk about the artistic advantages of using digital over film.  Maybe I live in a cave or very small world–or maybe this observation is representative of the larger population?

If art is timeless then why are we worried about producing more of it faster and faster?  In real-world terms when I think about creating a fine art print time doesn’t even enter into my thought process other than on business terms.  If I am able to create a photograph or piece of art for someone that creates or stirs a feeling in them, then where does time come into the equation?

I humbly propose if artists and photographers stay focused on their art as opposed to the business pressures of the world that we would have more art that ultimately stands the test of time. I don’t think it is possible to survive in modern times on a romantic notion, however I do think it is possible to adopt as much as each of us can that ultimately provides a better balance.

I often say that life isn’t about quantity, it is about quality.  I would rather produce 10 pieces of art over my lifetime as opposed to taking thousands and thousands of photographs.

I agree with Mr. Spielberg.  As long as I have a choice I will always choose film.  As I have written previously I simply prefer the medium for a host of reasons and some of which are not tangible or able to be expressed by words.  Film also affords me the ability to express my vision in a way not possible with digital technology.  The feeling I get when using my Mamiya 7 Rangefinder, Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, Pentax 654N or Nikon F5 is unparalleled by any DSLR that I own (Nikon D3s, Nikon P7000, Canon T2i, Canon G10, Canon S95).  The process of developing my own film and watching the images take form are like no other experience I have in life.

My advice to newcomers to photography or even long time veterans is to go out and buy a film camera today and shoot a few rolls.  Learn how to develop your own black and white film at home and I suspect you will look at things a little differently.  If you don’t want to make beautiful black and white prints in a darkroom then you can buy a new scanner for less than $100 to bring your film into the modern digital workflow.  You can get a wonderful film camera today for less than you likely spend on a dinner out with your family.  The obvious places to find cameras are ebay, craigslist, keh.com and others.

Why do you use film?

As you can imagine asking an open ended question like this on the Internet yielded some very thoughtful replies and others were just silly.  However, for the most part I could characterize that many of the responders just simply prefer using film.  There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to selecting a medium for your art or photography.  It is my simple hope that we are not forced into a place where we have no choices other than digital.  The truth is that film and traditional photography is the preferred path for most fine art photographers and none of us in our lifetimes will ever see the end of film.  It makes for great party talk, but that is all it is.

For my landscape, architecture, macro and fine art work I will typically use large or medium format film.  The beautiful part of using film as my capture medium besides the superior technical details is that I am afforded the choice of multiple paths to create my prints.  By using film I have the ultimate master.  I can print in the darkroom (color or b/w) and I can also scan and create a host of digital products.  In the end, I make prints (not digital files or negatives).  I should provide a tangible example comparing film to a digital sensor.  When I use my top of the line Canon DSLR or my digital back for my Hasselblad camera systems, I typically need to bracket multiple exposures in order to expose for the full dynamic range of the scene.  Then I need to use an expensive computer and software to blend and manipulate those images in order to achieve what I can easily accomplish with a single exposure using film.  Manufacturers can make any claims they wish, such as 16 stops with the Nikon D-800, but that simply is not true and technical tests by independent labs can easily prove this.  A drum scan of negative film can yield 15 stops, and I know this to be true based on personal experience.  One isn’t right, and the other wrong, it just is what it is.  The goal is to pick the right tool for your project based on your own needs, desires, and experience. Please don’t say things like “digital is easier, better, faster, or cheaper”, because that isn’t true.

I can scan the negative or slide to bring it into my digital darkroom before printing an inkjet pigment on paper print.  For my black and white fine art prints I use film 100% of the time and print in the traditional darkroom on archival fiber paper or for alternative prints such as Palladium I use watercolor paper that I hand coat and print via UV light.

My ten year old F5 at 8 frames per second holds up pretty well against its newer brother the D3S at 9 frames per second or the D4.  I typically prefer the look of the images from my F5 over the D3S or D4, but at times I simply need the ability to shoot in large volume for a commercial assignment, and that would be extremely difficult with film.

A black and white print that sourced from any of my medium or large format cameras is superior from any color image that I converted in Photoshop from the digital RAW file.  There are even companies that make very expensive software tools to imitate the look of film.  I could use my Mamiya C220 TLR from 1968 loaded with Tri-X 400 and create prints that collectors would buy today.  Try that with a digital SLR from even 10 years ago, much less 5 decades ago.

I think you are going to see more professionals and artists go back to film because of the quality and end product.  There is no denying the many advantages of a digital workflow, but for me the focus is always on the end product (the print) and not how I got there.  I suspect that 99+% of all “photographers” today are hobbyist, ranging from avid amateurs that work at a very high skill level equaling that of of full time professional, to snap shot users taking photos of their families and things around them. I have evolved to an opinion that effectively states that I am deeply passionate about fine art photography, but if I had to depend on it to pay my way in this world I would live well below poverty standards.  I wish it weren’t so, but that is the harsh reality for the vast majority of working and aspiring photographers.  The evolution of the Internet and social media has also impacted how people consume and embrace visual images in my opinion too.  Why buy a print when you can look at the same image anytime you want online?

History has taught us that efficiency and convenience don’t always prove to be the best choice.  I think many artists are either already using film or will go back to it because of the superior results.  This approach isn’t for the average photographer because it simply doesn’t make sense any longer for them.  Now that the scanning and printing technology has evolved to the level it has, film is more viable today than it has been in the last 10 years for artists and professional photographers that want to keep one foot in the film world and one foot in the new technology.  When I need to create a timeless piece of art I rely on film and prints made by my own two hands.  The rub in all this is that I am likely the only person that will ever refer to my prints as timeless and my prints will probably be sold at my estate sale in a shoebox for 50 cents.  I am okay with that.

Why Do I Love Film Photography?

  • Probably the number one reason I use film is because I like the way my prints look when I create darkroom, alternative, or even inkjet pigment of paper prints.  It is the closest representation that I have ever seen to what I visualize in my minds eye and without going into the technical specifications of why film-based prints simply have a much broader tonal scale.  Comparing the tonal scale of a Pt/Pd print to an inkjet digital print reveals everything that you need to know.
  • I feel like I am part of the process and part of the image when using classic and traditional methods versus feeling like I am taking a “snapshot” with a digital sensor and computer.
  • I personally sense a higher degree of emotional connection to film based images.
  • As a fine art photographer my prints look unique and unlike digital inkjet prints that are printed from digital RAW files edited in software.  I find this to be a very good thing and sets me apart from others.  Different isn’t always better, but in the case of black and white photography film is the medium of choice for artists in my opinion.
  • Capturing on film provides the highest level of detail possible and the benefit for hybrid photographers is that your master (film) is the gold standard.  As the scanning technology improves over time you have the ultimate source file waiting for you to reuse over and over again taking advantage of the improvements over time or simply print directly from the negative in the darkroom.  It is the best of all worlds.
  • With film you have the option of a parallel workflow.  You could stay analog all the way from capture to print if you like or if you want you can scan your film and print digitally.
  • Exposure latitude is far superior with film over digital.  I can shoot Tri-X in any format (35mm, 120, LF) using the sunny 16 rule and get a fine print about 99% of the time.
  • The presence and color of negative or slide film just looks better in my opinion.
  • The cost of equipment isn’t even comparable against today’s digital gear.  If you count the number of film exposures a pro takes in comparison to a typical digital user I am absolutely sure the cost per “winner” isn’t even close.
  • I can produce prints with film not possible if I used a digital camera.
  • Film images have a three-dimensional x-factor quality as opposed to a harsher almost sterile look that you see with digital.  This has to do with the way that our eyes work.
  • Skin tones on film beat digital every time.  It isn’t even a close call.  Buy a roll of Kodak Portra 400 and take some portraits and then do the same with your digital SLR.  The skin tones are far superior with the Portra, but you can judge for yourself.
  • Film is the ultimate master source file and backup solution.
  • A frame of 35mm film scanned is approximately equal to a 21 to 25 MP DSLR.  When you get into medium format (6×6, 6×7, 6×9) or large format (4×5) you would need a 200MP to 300MP digital camera to even come close to matching film.  Even then you would end up with an image that you may not prefer.
  • Film is always sharp.  No need buy third party software packages.  With digital if you don’t sharpen your photos you are in trouble quickly.  I can use any of my film cameras with b/w film and either make prints or scans without any “sharpening” to produce crisp photos without any extra effort.
  • I can hold a color slide up to natural light and enjoy my images even if there is no electricity!  My current and future family will be able to look at my photos no matter what the technology is at a future date.  Try that with a digital file.
  • Film is the real HDR.  You would be hard pressed to exhaust the dynamic range of film as it relates to the relationship between the capture and printing process.  Compare this to a any digital sensor, even the most expensive medium format backs.
  • With film you have a higher hit ratio because you are more thoughtful about everything from composition to exposure.  I have personally found that I shoot 90% less frames when I am using film but my hit ratio for winning prints is substantially higher.
  • After I take my exposure with film my mind is on to the next photo and I am not distracted by looking at an LCD screen.  This is more significant than you might think because all of your attention is on the subject and not messing around with your camera.  I don’t to verify with a histogram with every single exposure that I am a good photographer.
  • I personally enjoy touching and handling film.  I love developing my own film and when I create black and white fine art prints the experience from capture to the final print is unrivaled by anything I can do in the digital world.  A silver gelatin print on archival fine art paper is the gold standard for collectors.
  • With a little extra effort and dedication you can produce visually superior prints with film than with your digital camera.

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