In this age of digital and with digital resolution approaching or even superseding that of most film, why would anyone want to shoot photographs using film technology?.
For many people the answer is simple. Film photography is – and always was – fun!.
Not Either / Or, but both
This article is not written to argue silver vs digital. They are two different aspects of the hobby and provide different experiences. It’s like like comparing estate cars or hatchbacks – there’s no point, they’ll both carry your ready meals back from the supermarket. This website is about film so here I will promote the forgotten virtues of film photography.
I did have a problem with industry view during the digital photography revolution in that the digital world had set its sights on obsoleting film by positioning itself as a replacement rather than complementary. That’s what sparked this never ending debate of film vs. digital.
The truth is there is plenty of room for both technologies. I am glad to see film usage is rising again and the more abstract art of creative film photography is returning right alongside the fine art of picture taking – now clearly dominated by digital technologies. Most photographers I know shoot both.
Art is Discovery as well as Creativity
Film photography is not about resolution, it is about art. It is also about discovery as well as creativity. In the digital world photographers use Photoshop for their creativity. When using Photoshop you need really to know in advance what effect you want to “create” and will rarely “discover” anything new or dramatic. This is because you are starting with an “exactly what you see” image (that all digital cameras are striving for) and the computer only does what it is told by you. You also end up sitting in front of a computer screen for hours manipulating your images - something many people do all day for their day job! – and this is not for me I’m afraid.
With film, not only can you do Photoshop if you want to, but for many people the creative art takes advantage of real world phenomena rather than computer manipulation and discovery is often forced by much rule breaking. You can use a variety of different film emulsions, types of cameras, modified cameras, toy cameras, unusual shooting techniques, variations in chemistry or cross processing and so on. The effects of your creativity and experiments are only revealed to you on processing, sometimes yielding fantastic and unexpected results. This also adds a level of anticipation and excitement that you just do not get shooting digital.
Camera and film defects are your best friend.
Digital tries harder and harder to reproduce exactly what you see, ten photographs of a scene taken with ten different digital cameras will all look much the same these days, with differences mainly limited to resolution and colour balance. On consumer cameras, a few ugly jpeg artifacts are thrown in.
Simple cheap film cameras on the other hand don’t produce the “accurate” images that digital strives for. Instead they can be used produce fantastic and unpredictable artistic effects, especially using cheap plastic toy cameras with their cheap plastic lenses, use of date film, cross processing and added light leaks etc.
This was used to good effect by a group of Viennese students, whose exhibition of random shots with an ultra cheap plastic camera, the Lomo LCA, led to a whole new artistic photography craze beginning in the 1990′s and now called Lomography, which lives on today. Take a look at Lomography on Flickr. And the lomography website. This technique is low cost and makes the normally uninteresting, interesting. Sadly there are those that emulate or fake lomo images by copying the stye in Photo shop. While technically clever, it kind of misses the point. They are simulating the results of the art achieved by others, not creating anything new or adding to it. They’re probably the same people who own wii’s and playstations and play virtual leisure activities like table tennis and golf. Why simulate the world when it’s still there – and far more fun in real life?
One of my favorite cameras is my Lubitel 166U also made in Russia by Lomo. This is a reasonable quality plastic medium format camera with a glass focusing lens and useful exposure range. It takes very good sharp images when stopped down, but open up that lens aperture and you get rich colours, nice swirly bokeh and subtle vignetting that, despite being imperfections, add life and character to the images. My Lubi cost me £10.00 and even if your’e just looking for the detail it will probably beat most consumer digitals.
I also shoot using a Zenith 11 35mm camera. These cameras are cheap, versatile, very robust, work in sub zero temperatures and don’t need batteries – so can go places you wouldn’t, or couldn’t take a digital. All these cameras were cheap, even when they were new, proving that high quality images are now much more expensive to achieve.
Film Photography is cheap
Film photography is not expensive. You can buy a very good camera and a hell of a lot of film and processing before you get close to the price of a “decent” digital camera. Plus you can process film yourself if you want to. It is easy and you don’t need a darkroom. If you’re careful, the materials for black and white processing can work out less than 25p per roll to process. I will provide full instructions on this website showing how to process both black and white and colour films. If you are scanning, printing with film is no more expensive than digital.
If you get processing done by a lab, you can just go for develop only, then scan your film. You can scan film to good standards, well into the megapixels (if they are important to you), on some fairly low cost scanners such as the Canon 9950F and the Plustek 7200. Film can be obtained for peanuts. Look for out of date film and special offers. The date on film is often fairly meaningless. It doesn’t just die when a certain date passes and unlike food, it wont make you ill when it’s out of date!. Most normal speed black and white film will work beyond ten years beyond its date when stored in its original packaging, especially if cold stored in the fridge.
Depth of Field
Small CCD sensors mean short focal length lenses. This means you cannot achieve those powerful shallow depth of field effects like you can with a roll film camera or 35mm. Only high end digital cameras with large image sensors can do this.
Today, millions of pictures are being taken and deleted at source – often within minutes. When you look at old photos, often it’s the ones you would have deleted if digital had been invented, that turn out to be the most interesting years in the future. In the digital domain, files are being lost over time due to censorship, hard disk upgrades, computer theft, hardware failure, CD rot and scratches, yet film taken a hundred years ago survives today, even if it’s had a hard life.
No Batteries Needed
The majority of Vintage film cameras will take great pictures. Most don’t need batteries to work so will never let you down (unless you run out of film of course!). My Russian made Zenith 11 still works when it’s well below freezing, damp or baking hot outside!. It just doesn’t care!.
Admire the Beautiful Engineering
Camera Collecting is a hobby in itself. Film cameras solved a problem to an exceptional high standard and without any electronics. Like mechanical clocks and watches, cameras are beautifully engineered and fascinating in themselves. The chemical process is precise, reliable and produces stunning images. Camera collecting is a hobby in itself, but don’t store them in cupboards, use them.
Best of both worlds.
Film negatives are easily scanned into digital files at resolutions beyond 30 megapixels. Yes it’s true that a 5 quid camera off ebay could provide a realistic resolution over 30 megapixels. Because you can scan film, you can also do photoshop, archive to CD, display in electronic photo frames, whatever you want with a film camera, but also all that arty stuff too.
The art of photography includes many alternative process you can play with if you have a dark room. This is a bit different and possibly much more interesting than playing with Photoshop filters. I’ve just developed a roll of film in Tesco’s Rich Roast Coffee for instance!!. Just for fun.
Why do anything? Why use a bicycle when you could drive? Why drive a classic or vintage car when you could drive a much more comfortable modern, air conditioned, quiet car. Why windsurf, or why sail out into a harbour just to come back again? Why eat ridiculously expensive meals that don’t even fill you up? Why climb a mountain just to come back down again? Why jump out of an aeroplane with a sheet over your head?. Most of the things we do don’t need a purpose – it’s is just for fun.
How do I get started?
Find an old film camera (any camera) or buy one on eBay. You can get cameras free from friends, or from 99p upwards!. Buy some film, put the film in the camera, go out and find some things to take photos of. Get right up close to your subject and click the shutter. Send the film for processing. Job done. You have now started. Once the bug has bitten you’ll probably want to read more articles here or around the web. Go to flickr for inspiration and ideas – there are millions of film users there. Just play and have fun, don’t worry that there’s no LCD to see your photos at the time you take them, that’s part of the fun.
I’ll look forward to seeing your photos on Flickr!!