In the beginning, there was only film. And it was good.
And on the second day (actually the year 2000), digital cameras started appearing in the consumer market and film was virtually left for dead in less than a decade, a stunning turn of events considering that film was the dominant photography media for eighty years.
Today, the dwindling demand for film has killed off many emulsions, leaving the selection of film stock limited and ever shrinking. However, there is a small renaissance of film by photography enthusiasts who appreciate the experience of shooting with film.
Digital offers a lot of advantages for the photographer, and like most I do shoot digital on many occasions and assignments. However in my spare time and capacity, I enjoy shooting film for my own pleasure, and here are some reasons why film continue to appeal to me…
Feelings of permanence
In that fraction of a second when an image is exposed on film, I know that the moment is captured eternally on emulsion, forever etched in silver. When the image is immutable and unchangeable, encased in a strip of celluloid, it gives me the feeling of permanence and importance accorded to a single unchanging moment.
Feeling of being there
I came across an article that resonated with my experience with film. The author came across some old film taken by his dad during the Vietnam War. The awareness that the piece of film in his hand actually came from the battlefield and passed through his dad’s hand as he loaded it into his camera connected him to his dad and the war. Likewise, holding the film I shot when I was much younger brings back much nostalgia.
Deliberate consideration during shooting
Each 35mm roll holds a maximum of 36 images, with medium format yielding much less. The realization of limited opportunities, coupled with the rising prices of film, makes one more conscious and selective about composition, lighting and subjects before the finger hits the shutter button.
Instills discipline to get it right
Of course one can digitize film images through scanning and edit the images digitally, but the tonal range is much more restricted by the scanner quality compared to shooting digitally out right. That makes digital editing more tedious, and instills a little more discipline in getting it right during exposure. It’s not such a RAW deal after all (pun intended).
Second-guessing is not an option
Incessantly reviewing digital images after every shot is so common that there is a name for such behavior. “Chimping” is named after the “ooh” and “aah” sounds that photographers make when reviewing their images, remarkably similar to the calls of excited chimpanzees. Film photographers are forced by the lack of instant review to be surer of their techniques over time, forces you to be better technically after every roll. To be fair, they “chimp” when they get their film or photos back from the lab.
Many film photographers accumulate a few rolls of film before heading to the lab, which means we usually do not get to see them till a week or a month later. According to famed street photographer Gary Winogrand (who had 9000 rolls of unseen images when he passed away), waiting to see your images makes one more objective when you do go around editing them, and I kind of agree with him.
Zen clarity of a blank slate
This is a difficult point to discuss with photographers who have never shot film. When you load in a fresh roll of film into a camera, there is a certain focus and “quietness of the mind”, like a fresh canvas placed in front of an artist. Some might rubbish such a notion, but like I said – you got to try it to feel it.
The dark art of film
It is possible to process film and print photos by oneself, and with monochrome it is actually pretty simple for the basics. Some do not like the smell and duration in a darkroom, but the moment of seeing your images appear in front of your eyes is magical. Digital retouching might be more powerful and consistent, but the satisfaction of creating a great image in the darkroom is immense and beyond words.
A big reason why I love film photography is because I get to use mechanical cameras and manual lenses. You know, the solid chunks of metal that operates with buttery precision, offering tactile feedback that makes film photography all the more enjoyable. Philosophers had always said that life is about the journey and not the destination. It is equally true for photographers then – enjoy the experience and not just the final image.
At the end of the day…
I love digital photography, and I am relatively competent in digital editing. But at the end of the day, photography should remain a passion for me, and that is stroked by the archaic art of film, mechanical camera and wet processing. Not everyone who tries film photography will love it, but not giving yourself the opportunity to try it is to deny yourself the chance to the poetic and beautiful craft of silver halide imaging that generations of photographers had experienced and loved.