There are lots of articles kicking about online about why people shoot film. Most of these just cover the same old ground, such as how the limited number of frames makes you ‘slow down’; how there’s some kind of virtuous joy to be had in the delayed gratification of waiting for the images to get back from the lab; or because ‘grain is beautiful’.
I’ve always held off on writing a blog directly addressing this topic, as doing so seemed a bit redundant. The last thing anybody really needs is some other chump prattling on about how great film is. The thing is though, none of the reasons folks often list off for their supposed love of film after shooting a few rolls of 35mm really accurately capture just why I personally still shoot the stuff. I don’t really care about grain, and actually actively dislike overly grainy films like Delta 3200. I am so impatient to see the shots that I often develop and scan the films as soon as I’ve finished taking them, and I think that ‘slowing down’ is actually over-romanticised nonsense which discourages you from taking pictures at all, rather than enabling creativity.
The thing that nobody really addresses is that the reasons for shooting film will vary dependent on a whole host factors, and it can’t really just be boiled down to a neat list of universally applicable truisms. Sometimes it’s because you want to use a particular camera. Sometimes it’s because you want the particular look a specific film or chemical process will give you. Sometimes, you are just bored of the same old smoothed out generic digital crap that gets punted out by every photographer and their dog (literally) on Instagram and just want a change.
Why not to shoot film.
In truth, there are piles of reasons not to shoot film. The most obvious being that it is expensive – and getting more so all the time. The cost of the film itself is just the beginning, with a single 35mm roll costing on average about £15-30 to buy and have developed at a commercial lab. You can of course bulk roll, develop and scan the stuff yourself, but that involves a fairly significant initial outlay for all of the required bottles, tanks, hardware and software… as well as all of the ongoing consumables like developer, fixer, etc. There’s also the time involved in learning how to do all of this – and to do it well, which means a whole lot of trial and error, with hard lessons along the way. Even (or especially) after years of processing, you can still easily screw things up and ruin whole rolls or sets of chemistry. Things go wrong and leave you with weird colours, scratches or dust, light leaks, or ultra curly negatives. Imperfections can add character, but they are also often a huge pain in the arse.
Should you somehow do everything perfectly, you then hit the horrors of scanning. Medium format scanners are notoriously crap, and even if you are only shooting 35mm, the software available looks and operates like something from the 90s – clunky, and counter-intuitive. After hours of fiddling with drivers and scanning, you can end up with about twenty odd soft focussed, dusty, off-colour images that definitely weren’t worth all the time or money you’ve sunk into them.
Why bother with film at all?
So, if everything is that costly, and such an unpredictable pain, why bother shooting film at all? This is a question that I have spent a long time pondering, as over the years I have shot and developed thousands upon thousands of frames, so there must be something drawing me back – especially since I have really come to hate many things about the process, and been endlessly frustrated at the many things that can (and do) go wrong.
Rather than worry about the shifting reasons that I have shot film over the years, or about the risk of falling into the trap of the well-worn clichés, I’ve decided to put together some of the thoughts and observations that I’ve had as to why I personally still go through all of the hassle. Luckily, I don’t write this blog simply to attract readers for advertising revenue, so can take some time to meander on.
Me and film.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had some kind of fascination with taking pictures. One of my earliest memories was getting a 35mm film camera as a present (not the one pictured below). I bring this up not as some kind of “look how long I’ve been a photographer” one-upmanship, but more to illustrate that for me photography was originally always tied to film, rather than something I discovered retroactively, which I think probably changes (or explains) things a bit. For me film wasn’t a novelty – it was the only option for taking photos of friends that I would only get to see see once a year.
There is no denying that modern digital cameras are impressive. However, they are also almost always deathly boring to use. With a few very high-end exceptions, they are simply functional devices, often lacking in any real depth of character. For example, I have and use a Sony A7, which allows me to mount a whole host of strange lenses and capture some really amazing images… but it is horrifically ugly. Genuinely(and I can’t stress this enough), I hate the way it looks and feels. It just doesn’t provide any real excitement to use. It is a tool and nothing more.
On the other hand, there are seemingly limitless amounts of film cameras out there that are a downright pleasure to use, for a whole variety of reasons (there simply isn’t any digital camera out there that can compare to the charm and stature of the Hasselblad 500CM). Even with busted light meters or a myriad of annoying idiosyncratic quirks and limited feature sets, the mechanical nature of even the cheapest film cameras gives what feels to me like a much more personal connection with what you are doing.
For folks who have only ever shot digital, that probably sounds like guff, but I love film cameras, and I love being able to use these old, manually operated boxes to capture something. Producing images in that way still feels like magic to me in a way that doing so with digital just simply doesn’t, and the satisfaction I get from that alone almost makes all of the inconveniences worth it.
My favourite pictures are always on film.
Even though I have lots of digital images that I love, whenever I think of the favourite pictures I’ve taken, they are always ones that have been shot on film. For example, sets such as ‘Chicago by Night‘, ‘Italy in Black and White‘, and the more recent ‘Japan 2019: 35mm colour‘ immediately spring to mind, whereas I can barely recall the equivalent digital posts. More often than not, I have stronger memories and a warmer attachment to the pictures I shoot on film than I do with digital.
Shooting, not documenting.
I travel a fair bit, and like putting together a blog with pictures from where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. I began to notice a marked difference in how much I enjoyed taking photos on different trips depending on whether I was shooting film or digital. Upon reflection, I realised that it was because my approach to both was subtly, but pretty clearly different. With digital, I would often default to shooting all sorts of otherwise uninteresting scenes, purely because they would be good for giving context, or showing what the place we were visiting was like generally. When I switched to film, all of that went out of the window, and I found that I shot things purely because I found them interesting. That difference alone meant that the process itself was far less stressful (i.e. I wasn’t worrying about whether or not I was documenting something ‘properly’ for a blog), but also that I liked the results much more as well. At the end of the day, getting a roll of 24 pictures that I really like is far more satisfying than 200 shots where most of them are just filler.
Film looks great.
Aye okay, so this one could’t really be avoided. Film really does just look brilliant. Colours can be much richer and more deeply saturated… and on clear sunny days in particular, I will always prefer film, as the blues in the sky come out beautifully compared to the thin, washed out light blue shade you get on digital. Grain always beats noise, and the unpredictable imperfections can add more than you ever expected from a scene.
Of course that isn’t always the case. A light leak might ruin a great shot, or you might want a more subtle effect… choosing to use a lower contrast, less saturated, or higher grain film on purpose. That leads nicely on to the next point
You have to make choices before you shoot, rather than just do everything in post processing.
The natural inclination when shooting on a digital camera is to default to a setting which is as ‘flat’ as possible, to allow for the maximum amount of choice later on in post-processing. The thing about this approach is that you essentially postpone many of the creative choices, rather than them being an integral part of the shot.
You know that feeling where you are scrolling through the thousands of titles available on Netflix, and realise that after an hour you’ve not been able to decide on a single thing to watch? That kind of decision fatigue as a result of unlimited choice is one of the things that consistently kills creativity for me – whether it’s taking pictures, listening to/writing music, or reading books. Having to decide how a photograph will look after the fact quickly becomes an exercise in Photoshop, which I have very little interest in. With film, you are limited (or at least partially restricted) by the choices you make before you take the picture, and can’t just modify everything afterwards in the same way that you would with digital.
A long time ago I had a heated discussion with someone who argued that technology would inevitably ‘catch up’, and digital would be able to replicate all of the things that people like(d) about film – ‘natural’ looking grain and all. Their contention was that if I still preferred to shoot film, then that meant that it was really the process that I enjoyed, as opposed to the output itself. I think it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Even if digital can one day precisely replicate the look and feel of film, that wouldn’t be enough – because all of those choices would inevitably be made retrospectively.
You could of course choose to only shoot your digital camera in a mode which already has effects applied. Built in black and white film emulation is increasingly impressive, and it can be a great tool. Not all of my cameras do have great presets though, and to be honest, I’ve found it almost impossible not to gravitate towards shooting RAW ‘just in case’ I want to use the colour images later on. Again, the paradox of choice cripples me in practice. I would much rather leave some things to chance, as a natural outcome of the process.
There’s more connection with film.
To be clear: I love digital, for a whole host of reasons. I love the way the colours look from my Leica M. I love how discreet the Ricoh GR is, and how it lets me grab shots on the street that I would never be able to get otherwise. For paid work, shooting digital is almost always the smartest option, and definitely the most efficient. The speedy turnaround has allowed me to do things I could never have done, and capture images I would never have gotten otherwise. However, when shooting images purely for me as an expressive creative outlet, I don’t want the whole process to be done in an instant. I want to have a deeper connection with what I’m doing, and with film I get that.
Rather than just clicking the button and immediately getting the picture, I feel far more involved in every stage of the image production. I’ll have deliberately picked out a specific camera from my collection that I think is suitable for what I have to shoot; will often have metered in my head rather than relying on any kind of electronics; will have had to think carefully about when and how to shoot with the films I have available for the look I want (which I probably bulk rolled), rather than just relying on the built in ISO capabilities or shooting in RAW; I’ll have imagined the shot in my head, then transported the films carefully and looked after them until I get the time to develop them in a very hands on way with chemicals I have mixed. I’ll have hung the negatives up to dry, cut and flattened them, then spent the time going through each one individually to scan. That is a very different approach to banging off a bunch of digital pictures and being done with them, or spending hours editing images after the fact. For me, it’s a process that feels much more tangible, and one that I find far more rewarding.
That’s it. The reasons I think I shoot film. You may, and probably will disagree, but that’s fine – I’m not trying to convince you. Digital is great, but so is film. Aye, it is a huge pain in the arse and far too expensive and time consuming… some months I am sick of how slow and unpredictable the whole process is (not to mention the smell of fixer), and other months I can’t imagine ever picking up a digital camera again. The reasons for all of that can and almost definitely will continue to shift and evolve over time. Ultimately, that’s probably why I still like it.