Lately you may have noticed an increasing number of posts in your Instagram, flickr, 500px and even Facebook that were tagged with #believeinfilm, #filmisnotdead or similar. What’s this all about? Are people really still using that old stuff? What drives people to use an old-fashioned technology if you have more comfortable modern alternatives?
I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences on why I like to shoot film in the digital age. Maybe this will inspire you to try it yourself.
Does this stuff even exist anymore?
People often ask this question because many think nowadays everything is only digital. Can you still buy film and all the related stuff like film cameras or developer chemicals? Well – you can. Several companies are still very engaged in the business although film is not very common any more and may be a more rare to find than it used to be. But here we are in the digital age. Everything you can think of and that you need to shoot film can be ordered online but maybe there is a shop near you still selling film.
Manufacturers like Ilford, Kodak, Fuji still produce film to this day, Kodak even announced to bring back its famous Ektachrome film by the end of 2017 so they do actually invest in this “outdated” technologoy while Ilford has never given up on film and still produces its HP5+, FP4+ and Delta high-end black and white films.
Considering the cameras you’d need to shoot analog: they are easy to find in thrift stores, on eBay and in Facebook user groups and probably your parents still have one or two cameras in the attic that they don’t use any more. You can buy anything from a cheap point and shoot around 10€, an advanced manual rangefinder with extremely high-end lenses or even a medium or large format bulky cam.
But still – why shoot film?
To me the main reason was that digital photography has become a bit boring too me over the years. The pictures were maybe a too perfect (technically, not esthetically), the gear was too controllable and the results were too predictable, the instant gratification felt a bit cheap after all. With limitless ISO, auto-exposure and all the modern technology there are no limits, it’s all just too easy. So I was ready to try something new, which – in this case – meant trying something old.
After a little research on analog technology I found out a lot of promising facts. With that kind of gear you can profit from almost 100 years of the industry’s development and investment in the analog technology which is still driven further to this day while it was at an extremely advanced level already years ago. For example digital photography still struggles to catch up with some of those advantages – just consider that a 35mm camera sensor will today is called “full frame” while this format on film belongs to the smallest available sizes.
Old cameras are often cheap but really great gear, very robust and built to last. They are easily available in many user groups, eBay etc.. Many current owners are happy to get rid of film cameras so your chance of making a good deal is not too bad. But to be honest, really excellent analog gear still sells at high prices.
Maybe all this sounds like I contradict myself because at first I wanted to get off the all too perfect digital photos and then I find that analog cameras and lenses are often times superior in terms of quality? That’s true – but at the same time the effort of taking a picture with an analog camera is higher and you need to be more thoughtful about what you are doing, you need to keep track of every step in the process, so there is no guaranteed, perfect and instant result as you’d expect it from modern cameras, you have no live preview etc.. There is a fixed constraint of 36 pictures per film and you have only one chance of getting it right at the first try, which teaches you a lot. This makes the whole process more exciting while at the same time there is an element of surprise because you never know what you’ll get.
Another almost obvious aspect that might be interesting is that there is no digital aging in film. Film will survive and has been around for almost 100 years and will last but who can give you a guarantee that your JPGs are still readable by any computer in 10 or 20 years? Film pictures from the last 2 centuries can be processed even today without a problem. I wouldn’t make a bet if the same goes for all the digital data we produce nowadays.
So if you still feel like digital photography must be superior to film, I could tell you that almost all of the world-famous photos that are burnt into our common cultural memory were shot on film.
The burnt girl in Vietnam? Einstein’s tongue? The Afghan girl with those blue eyes? Those American soldiers raising a flag? All were shot on film. Technical flawlessness is probably not the most important aspect of these pictures but it was good enough then and still is today. You may even argue that back in the days digital was just not available and these photos might have been taken with a digital camera if they had one then but that’s just hypothetical. You won’t automatically take photos like these but you will enter a world with a big history.
After taking photos on film you first have to process the film. This can be done easily if you develop it at home (recommended for black and white film) or by sending it to a lab (I do that for color films). Developing your film at home gives you total control over the whole process and the results while at the same time gives you a very satisfying feeling of really creating something with your hands – not at all comparable to taking a digital photo. It is easier than it sounds and you will find tons of instructions on developing b&w film online.
Finally we arrive in the digital age – of course we all like to share our photos online in different media. In order to do that you need to digitize your analog photos and there are many ways. You might get your film scanned by your lab, you can order prints from your film and scan them or you can scan your film at home, using a flatbed scanner, a specialized film scanner like a Plustek, Pakon or Noritsu which are all affordable and easy to handle. Depending on how much time and effort you want to invest you can choose a different model. If you want to have the whole process mostly automated you best go for a Pakon or Noritsu. I personally decided to do the scanning at home as I develop my films at home too. This gives me the maximum control over all steps from taking the pictures until having a digital image. This requires some time and money as well as a bit of computer skills but I found it was worth it.
Conclusion. Create photos – not digital trash
Analog photography does not make you a better photographer nor does it reward you with better photos automatically. But recently I heard a photographer say – he is a big advocate of digital photography – that the only chance of improving your photography is to take 200 photos and then throwing away 199 of them. In my opinion that means producing 199 junk photos on purpose in order to get one good shot. I’m not sure if that is the way to go for me or if I rather try to take every single photo serious. The process of sorting and finding the best one is still a good approach but I just don’t want to produce trash on purpose.
So far I have really enjoyed the whole slow and thoughtful process of analog photography a lot. I learned very much in many different fields and I love taking photos more than ever. So going “back” from digital to analog looks like a big step but the outcome to me is amazing in several aspects. I have to put more effort in your results but they feel more valuable to me. Maybe from an outside perspective it doesn’t make a difference at all – a photo is a photo – but for me it is more than that. Taking photos on film feels more like really creating something than just pressing the shutter button.