Why I still shoot film

Two decades after the film industry peaked, I'm still shooting film.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://ramblingpolymath.com/2020/12/why-i-still-shoot-film/

My perspective is that 35mm film is inferior in every way to 35mm digital. 35mm digital IQ is superior. 35mm digital lenses are superior. 35mm digital dynamic range is higher, and the colour is more true to life. Too many things can go wrong with making prints from 35mm film - in the camera, in the development process, in the printing process. There are far fewer variables with 35mm digital. 35mm film takes much more work. More work does not mean better images. It just means more work.

Many of us are used to the way 35mm film looks from seeing it in magazines or family albums. We have cultural emotions and memories associated with 35mm film. At some point, all of these people, including myself, will be dead, and only weirdos will make inane statements like “I like the aesthetics of film”. Just like in 50 years, when vegans rule, the statement, “I like fish” will seem weird.

I shoot 35mm film because it reminds me of the 1970s when I was 10 years old, and my dad piled us into his white Volkswagen Beetle for a road trip around the mountains of St. Vincent or to the beach. He always took photos using his Asahi Optical Co. Pentax Spotmatic II. Or when my uncle, Dad’s brother, would host his yearly “cookout” with all the family. At the end of the day, he would break out his slide projector, and we would go through the family photos and laugh and have fun.

Every time I pick up my X-700 or XD-11, those are the memories that come back to me.

I’ll quote Ken Rockwell who I think hit the nail on the head.

If and only if you’re an accomplished artist who can extract every last drop from film’s quality then film, meaning large format film, technically is better than digital in every way. Few people have the skill to work film out to this level, thus the debate.

Convenience has always won out over ultimate quality throughout the history of photography. Huge home-made wet glass plates led to store-bought dry plates which led to 8 x 10" sheet film which led to 4 x 5" sheet film which led to 2-1/4" roll film which led to 35mm which led to digital. As the years roll on the ultimate quality obtained in each smaller medium drops, while the average results obtained by everyone climbs. In 1860 only a few skilled artisans like my great-great-great-grandfather in Scotland could coax any sort of an image at all from a plate camera while normal people couldn’t even take photos at all. In 1940 normal people got fuzzy snaps from their Brownies and flashbulbs while artists got incredible results on 8 x 10" film. Today artists still mess with 4 x 5" cameras and normal people are getting the best photos they ever have on 3 MP digital cameras printed at the local photo lab.

So why the debate? I suspect the debate is among amateurs who’ve really only shot 35mm since it’s been the only popular amateur film format for the past 25 years. Pros never say “film,” they say a format like “120,” “4x5,” “6x17,” “8x20” or “35” since “film” could mean so many things. Amateurs say “film” since they only use one format and presume 35mm. Therein lies the potential for debate when people don’t first define their terminology. Today’s digital SLRs replace 35mm, no big deal. ~ Ken Rockwell

Thank you for such an insightful comment Khurt. The debate between film and digital is ongoing and I don’t think it will be settled anytime soon. Though it would seem we are on the same wavelength. I wanted to highlight a few of your points.

I agree wholeheartedly. Film is not a replacement for digital until you are shooting 4x5 or 8x10 large format and even then, as Ken Rockwell points out, you really have to know what you’re doing. I shoot film as a hobby and fun and in situations where quality and reliability aren’t critical.

While I agree film is more work. The implication that work does not mean better images, really depends on how you look at it and what it is that you’re are shooting. In studio photography — something that I’ll admit have only a limited experience (a few years in college) —the amount of work spent composing and lighting the scene is 90% of the shot, while the photo itself, whether digital or film, is practically insignificant by comparison.

This absolutely true. Digital is far safer for professionals and amateurs alike. You will have fewer issues shooting digital. This also gets into a debate that I’ve heard brought up repeatedly, and is echoed in the quote from Ken Rockwell, the idea that film is dead in a digital world. And the truth is film is totally impractical in a professional setting.

I couldn’t have said this better. In the professional world, time is money and film is expensive, slow, and compared to digital, relatively unreliable. Those that shoot film professionally today are the exception to the rule.

However for amateurs and enthusiasts the process of making something is often times more important than the result itself. If you are shooting for your own enjoyment or to post to Instagram, what you shoot, whether its digital on a Canon Rebel T6 or a Nikon D4s, or film on a Leica M6 is irrelevant. If you choose to shoot film you have to accept certain realities and understand the limitations if you want to take great shots and even then you’re at the mercy of the emulsion and probably a lab.

I can only hope there are weirdos keeping the film industry alive in 50 years. Alas, I somehow doubt it. Film has certainly had a resurgence, but at some point the machinery needed to continue will no longer make economic sense to repair and replace. This is part of the reason I started this project as I wanted to document the qualities of photochemical imaging before it is too late.

With that said, I do not think we will forget the aesthetic of film, however, at least from a cinematic standpoint. However it will be done digitally and will be an emulation of the desirable parts of film. I love that Fujifilm has taken it upon themselves to simulate their more popular and historically important stocks digitally in camera. While these simulations are imperfect in their replication of film, the advantages of digital are still there.

On this note, sometime this spring I am planning on doing a film vs. emulation comparison. That will look at these simulations in closer detail.

I didn’t intend to get it into it when I started using Ritchie Roesch’s film simulation recipes but soon I found myself wanting to shoot that same film.. Fuji’s digital camera got me back into film.

I look forward to seeing the results of your comparison.