Why I Put Film Back into My Camera Bag

One of my oldest cameras: A Zeiss Ikon Nettar 515/2, circa 1938. It still works well, and uses readily available 120 film.

One of my oldest cameras: A Zeiss Ikon Nettar 515/2, circa 1938. It still works well, and uses readily available 120 film.

"I guess you've just never made the jump into the digital world, huh?"

It wasn't so much a question as a condescending remark about my use of film in the digital era.  My inquisitor was a fellow customer at a local camera shop that carries a range of used film photography gear alongside the latest DSLRs and accessories.  The guy obviously considered me a dinosaur.

The truth is that I was an early adopter of digital photography.  It was a logical extension of my interest in high-tech gadgetry and digital media.  My first digital camera was a second-hand Kodak DC40, made in 1995.  It looked more like rubberized binoculars than anything resembling today's digital wonders.  The tiny LCD screen was strictly for displaying text. There was no removable memory card, and even on the "high quality" setting, images were about 1/3 of a megapixel.  Still, I happily shot thousands of photos with that simple camera.  A couple years later, I moved up to a used Kodak DC200 with a FULL megapixel of resolution!

Since that time, I've owned a series of progressively more sophisticated digital cameras.  For less than $500 today, you can buy a refurbished, entry level DSLR with a decent 18-55mm zoom lens capable of delivering sharp, high resolution images that would have made a professional photographer from 25 years ago jealous.  Under normal lighting conditions, even a total novice can set the camera on full Auto mode, press the button, and end up with a razor-sharp, properly exposed (if not necessarily interesting) image that they can share online with friends and family almost instantly.  What's not to love?

There's absolutely no reason not to use and enjoy these cameras.  There are the film purists who consider digital the devil, won't let a digital scanner anywhere near their negatives and who swear that if film ever goes away they'll shelve their cameras and never take another photo. Personally, I think those people are silly.  Even the great Ansel Adams, who invented the Zone System and perfected the art of dodging and burning in the darkroom, advocated modern developments like the Polaroid camera because it provided instant feedback.  He also envisioned a future where images were produced digitally, and it's not a stretch to say he'd probably be a leading Photoshop guru if he'd been born a few decades later.

Nonetheless, it's also true that shooting film is a unique experience in several ways:

  • Film photography is tactile.  When you handle a roll or pack of film (or sheets of film for the hardcore), there's a real, physical connection.  This is especially true if you process your own film.  The medium you are handling will become the actual photos you make; it's not just a temporary storage device filled with 0s and 1s.  You can't accidentally "delete" a negative, and negatives don't experience read/ write failures (although there are plenty of other ways you can mess them up through carelessness - ask me about the time I used fixer before developer).
  • Film photography delays gratification and heightens anticipation. With the exception of instant films, shooting film in general doesn't allow for "chimping" (looking over each shot on the LCD screen right after you take it).  Sometimes that results in disappointment later on; just as often, hopefully more so, delayed gratification results in joyful surprise when the photograph exceeds your expectations.
  • Film photography is like getting a new sensor every time you load a roll of film. Pick one of the many film types still on the market today, and you get to decide whether it's color, black & white, fast and bursting with moody, beautiful grain or slow and incredibly fine-grained.  You can "upgrade" a 50 year old camera by using the latest Kodak Portra film.  A high quality lens from 50 years ago is still a high quality lens today, so your pictures will look as sharp or bokeh-licious as any modern DSLR.
  • Film photography gives you a look that people spend a lot of money trying to achieve with plugins in Photoshop or Lightroom.  There's nothing wrong with using plugins and creative editing to produce the photo you envision, but it's often easier and cheaper to get that grainy film look by using actual film.
  • Film photography connects you to a simpler past and traditional ways of creating an art form.  A painter could use magic markers on poster board, but I suspect there are compelling reasons to use quality brushes and paint and canvas (you'll have to ask a painter about that).  There's something very satisfying about picking up and shooting photos with vintage gear that may well be decades or even a century older than you are!  Of course, if you want things a little more automated, some great film cameras were made in the 1990s and early 2000s that are as easy to use as any digital camera but still provide the film experience.
  • On a related point, as long as film remains available (and it seems likely it will be produced in some form for the foreseeable future), film photography resists obsolescence. Sure, some kinds of film aren't made anymore.  But most any 35mm or medium format camera will be just as usable 25 years from now.  (And many older cameras can be easily modified to take different film formats.)  I love my current digital camera system, but it's highly unlikely I'll be using the current body beyond 5 years from the date I bought it. By way of contrast, I enjoy taking my 50 year old Yashica 635 TLR out for occasional photo walks - I've taken some good pictures with it.
  • Film provides long-term archival capability.  While colors may fade over many years, if film is stored carefully the material will last a very long time.  Probably much longer than you or I will last.  Digital has the potential to last indefinitely, but only if  the storage medium is continuously refreshed. One early digital camera stored pictures on a 3.5" floppy disk. While you can still buy an external USB floppy drive, they are far from standard equipment and haven't been used by manufacturers in desktop machines for years.  Optical drives are likewise on their way out as external hard drives and "the cloud" grow in popularity. Digital archival is not fail-proof.
  • Film photography has a coolness and macho factor. Most film shooters, if they're honest, will admit it's fun to shoot something that the majority of people don't realize is still viable. You get to show off awesome vintage gear (and maybe some manual photography skills) that doesn't look like what every other photographer is using.  And I get to educate the general public: "Yes, they still make film for that."
  • Film photography is just plain fun.  There are a number of plastic "toy" cameras available - old and new - that create unusual photos resembling Instagram or Hipstamatic pictures, but on film.  Film advocates sometimes criticize the toy trend because it can promote the false impression that film inherently produces cruddy photos (which is absolutely not the case), but the toys are fun to play with.  Most of these cameras have few, if any, real controls which encourages spontaneous and random shots that may feature soft focus, light leaks, heavy vignetting and other appealing imperfections.

There are probably dozens more reasons why a photographer might choose to use film in this day and age.  All of the bullets above have been pointed out by others at one time or another, but considered together they build a good case for the continued use of film both for professionals and the hobbyist.

Of course digital photography has many advantages of its own, and is admittedly more efficient than film.  When I'm shooting a social event, or a situation where low-light performance is critical, digital is usually the logical choice.  Even the fastest films in production fall short of the crazy low-light capabilities of newer digital gear.  For individual portraits or landscape work, I often choose to use film for a particular look.  At least in my own experience, the use of film favors a mindful, slower paced process that furthers artistic vision.

So which is "better"?  I don't think there's one answer to that question.  The answer is whichever medium best suits your style and needs at the moment.  Happily, film and even older photographic techniques are enjoying a modest resurgence in popularity today. There's no better time to blend old and new technologies to create the kinds of photographs you like to make!