“I love shooting on film, it slows me down”. Heard that before? It makes me wonder what the person was doing with digital. You don’t have to hold down the shutter button until the memory card is full, you know. And why can’t you take time and care with a digital camera?
I wonder if the influencing factor is cost? Per frame, film can be more expensive than digital. After all, the cost of one more shot in digital is zero. Maybe not though, as Instax is very popular even at a pound a pop.
Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t see immediately what you’ve taken. There is no chimping the camera to see if the exposure, framing, focus etc are right. They have to be what you intended with film, as it’s harder to make adjustments in post.
Perhaps it’s because digital allows you to take multiple shots of things that go fast, then choose the best one. The top end digital cameras can do burst rates way higher than film could. My Pentax MX could, with the proper motordrive, take 5fps. You can easily double that now with digital, or even more. Ilford used to make a special 72 exposure version of HP5 for motor-driven cameras, and some pro cameras could take a 250 exposure back. With digital you can wack in a big memory card and blaze away like a John Woo film.
Maybe that is the difference? Film has less capacity, so you have to take more care. Do you lay a million eggs in order that some survive, or do you nurture one and make sure?
I must say though that I started out with film and I’ve never treated it like it was made of silver. If I wanted to shoot a lot, I did. I might actually take fewer shots on digital, as I can check immediately that I’ve got what I wanted. I was always inclined to bracket the exposure with film, or just to take two shots of the same thing in case my fumbling skills got scratches or dust on one of them (or I found a hole in the emulsion).
Some things do need careful exposure and time though, but I can see no need for a difference in approach between digital and analogue. Perhaps what people mean is that some film cameras lack auto-focus, auto-exposure etc so it takes longer to set them up. But that’s stretching it, because you can go as auto or manual as you want in either medium.
Some things stay still
So I don’t really know. I do know that some film cameras take time to set up and adjust, so that may be the ‘slowing down’. On the other hand, how many options and settings does your digital camera have?
What is slow though, is turning exposed film into pictures. With digital you shoot, pop the card and start work on the computer. I’ve heard people brag about how many shots they take at a wedding or a sports event. If you have to edit all of these, make a selection and then do all the Photoshopping, digital must take nearly as long as developing a film and scanning it. But for the odd few shots, digital is far faster to get to a shareable result. But this makes the ‘slowing down’ of film an undesirable thing.
So, to quote the Hypersensitive Photographers podcast, I think it’s all bollocks. I think people are claiming for film some pseudo-artistic connection with their craft. It’s virtue-signalling. If you want to slow down, think more, take more care, then do just that. It doesn’t matter what type of image recording medium you use. Just stop claiming that you’re so fast you need analogue to slow you down. If you don’t engage your brain normally, what are you up to?
When I discovered scanning and Photoshop I sold all my darkroom equipment. I can’t see myself ever going back to silver printing.
Don’t get me wrong – proper printing was very satisfying. I had a decent enlarger, Multigrade filters, an enlarging exposure meter and an extractor fan. I even had the time to use them. I could spend all night in the darkroom, and did. It was a separate and dedicated room, so nobody would bang on the door demanding to use the toilet/ bath/ shower/ sink. I was the coolest of darkroom dudes.
I was prepared to put the effort in too. I dodged and burned and kept careful notes. The reward was a proper physical object. But it’s hard work. I’d be poring over my contact sheets deciding which ones to print. Then I would make some test prints, unless it was obvious on the baseboard that the shot was out of focus or blurred. Then I would think about them for a while. And then I would spend the long sessions needed to turn this particular pig’s ear into at least a cotton purse.
I got some good results that I am still happy with. But turning-out a load of 6x4s to show people the pictures from a family event was horse work. It’s no wonder film photographers used to shoot two or three rolls for a wedding and not the thousand or more that we expect from digital. Even if you get someone else to develop and machine-print the proofs you still had to identify and label them to pass them around.
Incidentally, a hero of mine called Terry Cryer was giving a talk when someone asked him about shooting weddings. He explained his approach of providing a high quality boxed album with twelve pictures, chosen by him and no-one else, and getting cash on the nail. But he’s hardcore, and if you hired him it would be because you knew and wanted his work.
So one day I bought a mildly capable flatbed scanner with film carriers and a copy of Photoshop Elements. After a frenzied period of self instruction from library books and breaking every setting, I gradually learned how to do in daylight with a computer what I could previously only do in the dark with my hands. And layers. Oh, I learned to love layers. I could make an adjustment, look at it, fiddle with it and then throw it away and still have the original image. If I learned something new and clever I could go back and reapply it to earlier images.
I also discovered toning. I had done a bit of sepia toning on silver prints previously, but the results were mixed and the process made bad smells. What I found with Photoshop is that I could so split toning, making my highlights warm and my shadows cool. I found a site on t’interweb that gave the RGB values for various Pantone colours or I could sample a colour and use it. This meant I could tone a picture of a vintage MG in British Racing Green. It let me tone the background in a portrait to match the colour that the person’s wall was painted. It looked like they had stuck the picture directly on the wall and put a frame round it.
But the main joy was applying learning as it happened. I was watching a how to video and learned that you could apply dodging and burning to just the highlights or just the shadows. So I went back to some earlier pictures, hid the original adjustment layers and tried the new ideas. Then I could switch between the two sets of effects to see the difference. And all without giving up easy access to tea and biscuits.
The joy of digital meant that I could break off at any time, for any length of time and pick it up again at a moment’s notice (or once Windows had finished installing updates).
Elements is perfectly capable of doing these things. Indeed, I’m running an old copy of version 7 that I got cut-price from Amazon. You can stick all this Creative Cloud give me money every month nonsense. If it wasn’t Elements it would be GIMP, but Elements got there first and I haven’t broken it yet. I’m keeping my gimp in reserve, if I can say that. What I did do though was build my own cheat’s guide to Photoshop. If I saw a technique in a magazine or article I would make notes of the processing sequence and the layers. This became my cookbook, which helps me remember what I did if I ever do something good.
The only thing I lack is a good printer. I have one that will do up to A4 but I don’t use it enough to keep the heads clean, which makes me want to use it less. I’ve got a totally brilliant Canon Selphy dye sublimation printer that does 6×4 prints that won’t smudge. It’s expensive compared to ink-jet, but perfect for jobs when I need to turn out rapid postcard prints at high speed that won’t spoil. And the way the print appears out of the top of the printer with the colours building on each pass is perfect entertainment for anyone waiting for their print. For the big stuff though I send it off. I can send the digital file directly to a printer who can turn out better results more quickly than I could, for less total cost. Plus they can do all the funnies like canvas mounting, block mounting with bleed round the edges and so on.
What I’m thinking of next is to get them to gradually make a series of prints at A4 size. I will arrange one or more pictures per sheet plus some binding margin. Maybe some words or captions if I feel like it. I have it in my head to then source a hot-melt binding machine and make up some photo books. Basically photo albums but with the pictures fixed. The good thing is, of course, that I can work on each picture individually and then use Photoshop to do the page layouts, sending each page as a single file to be printed. I could never do this with a conventional darkroom. I used the same idea to make a banner. I got the printer to give me the dimensions of the PVC sheet and made up a page in Photoshop, then laid out my pictures and text on it. Zapped it to them by email, wait a few days and picked up a super waterproof banner with grommets in the corners for hanging. That too would have been a right bugger to do using conventional printing.
But, as has been said elsewhere, my original negatives are analogue. If a better scanner comes along I can rescan them. If someone makes a computer that takes film and makes silver prints, I could do that too. If all the computers in the world die in flaming misery I can still contact print them. So come the apocalypse, I’ll be there with my EMP-proof camera, my smelly chemicals and fumblings in the dark and I’ll be turning out cartes de visite of you stood on a pile of zombies in return for the odd spare rat or pidgeon.
Shoot a film camera and you will have been asked this. The smart answer would be “no, they stopped making film, but I can dispose of your old film cameras if you give them to me”.
The other question is “why are you shooting film? Don’t you have a phone / digital camera / any friends / a life?”
Yes, I do have some of the above. Though I admit that my presence on Twitface, Flinger or Instabrag is minimal, as I post fewer than Graham’s Number of pictures online each week and anyone I think is following me is only heading for the same bus in the morning. But I like taking pictures on film. Specifically I like taking monochrome pictures on black and white film.
Part of it, I suppose, is that this is what I learned with. My photographic heroes all shot black and white and I so wanted to be like them. I gradually learned to see the difference between tone and colour (like shooting a green tree against a blue sky through a red filter and getting featureless murk as a result). I kept going because I enjoyed it and for a long time film was better than digital. In recent years I thought I would one day be sending my cameras off to landfill when the film finally ran out. There was no point in trying to buy better cameras as nobody was making them any more. I would keep the lenses though, as they all worked on my digital kit. Ilford dodged death and kept going, so that meant my favourite films were available throughout the dark years to keep me going. Then film got funky and rose from the grave and all was right with the world again.
So why does anyone stick with an analogue craft process in a world of bytes? Part of it for me is the investment in each frame. That was why I had to work so hard at the conversion when I bought a decent digital SLR. If I had just picked it up and used it I would have known no difference. But I wanted to know if it reacted like slide film or negative and what the hundreds of functions did. Did I want in-camera sharpening or automatic white balance? Do I want to save both a jpg and a raw file? It turns out I need to treat the highlights like slide film and avoid burning them out, but I need to treat the shadows like negative film and give the picture as much light as it will take. The difference is that I have learned how to do this on film but it was new to me on digital.
I still shoot digital like I was paying by the frame though. I hear of people shooting thousands of frames for a single event. How does anyone put a wedding album together, say, from more than a thousand pictures? I went to a talk by a sports photographer who covered football matches. He had his camera linked to a laptop that had a live data connection. The competition was so fierce in his field that he started uploading captioned pictures as soon as the match started. His basic ‘boring game, nothing to see here’ would be at least a thousand pictures taken. He had set up keyboard macros on the laptop to save time from having to type each player’s name.
I learned of a camera feature for the first time with digital: the number of shutter actuations. It had never occurred to me using film that there was an upper design limit to the number of times the shutter would work. Perhaps film cameras have exactly the same limitation, but nobody has ever reached it? My original film SLR is nearly 40 years old and I’ve shot a lot of film, but I have a hunch it will be something like the meter or mechanics that dies first. I have heard of 20 year old cameras with shutter problems, but there does seem to be a difference between the vertically-run metal Copal shutters and the traditional horizontal cloth curtains. But if I shot one film a week for those 40 years I might have fired the shutter around 80,000 times. Our footie-shooting pal on two matches a week could hit this in one year. Second-hand DSLR, anyone?
So, rant over: the preciousness of each frame. Given at most 36 shots before a slow reload, I do tend to take more care with each one. Although I also tend to take two shots of anything important. This is a legacy of all the past mistakes in handling and processing. The opposite used to be true too: we used to joke about the film that went in for processing with Christmas at each end and a summer holiday in the middle. I was never that bad, but there is a risk if you have more than one camera that some of them sit on the shelf.
Is there an equivalent in the digital world for gear acquisition syndrome? There probably is, but I expect it’s focused on whatever is new and shiny. I did hear someone on a podcast saying that he had two copies of the same camera, one in black and one in chrome, and he would have to buy two copies of a new lens he wanted so that he could match black with black and chrome with chrome. I hope that is an extreme case.
I think the difference is using film. Providing the shutter works and it can focus the lens, the camera body is immaterial. The key parts are the lens and the film, and changing either one of them can change everything about how the picture looks. The only way you can change the film in a digital camera is to change the body. Perhaps this is what drives the turnover of kit. And yet there is a massive demand amongst film shooters to buy more cameras. There is even a Facebook group dedicated to GAS (also known as the burglar’s guide to cameras). I can see the attraction if you have always longed for some exotic professional gadget in your skinty youth, but there must come a point where you have more cameras than you can really use? It is tempting though, especially if what you want is to try a thing rather than own a badge. Half-frame? Medium format? Rangefinder? I can understand that. But wanting to have one of each model and variant of your particular object of lust? That’s collecting.
It’s ironic that we all thought we would be left with working cameras but nothing to shoot in them, while we are more likely to find we have film but nothing to shoot it in that still works. Still get film for it? Take a look at Analogue Wonderland’s stock list, or the list of available films put together by Em. Some of the processing labs managed to survive the lean years too, and can turn your film into digital scans. There used to be a processor on every street, but there’s enough left to make things viable.
As for the cameras, the old and simple ones will probably survive better than the clever ones. That could be why something like the Pentax K1000 still fetches good prices while the later autofocus, auto everything models can be had for the price of a fancy coffee. I’ve got a 1930s vintage Balda folding camera that still takes cracking pictures and a 1990s Minolta that died when the electronics developed a leak and let the smoke out. Who cares? What what need is something that keeps the dark in and can drive a good lens. The rest of the picture is the film, and I can change everything by changing that and not the camera.
The other aspect of film that has relevance, but is not the reason I use it, is longevity. Film is a physical object and black and white film in particular can last a very long time. My mum gave me a carrier bag full of old negatives that came from clearing-out when my grandparents died. Despite the fact that the negatives come in every popular format ever used I have usable images that go back as far as my grandparents as young people, my parents as babies and children and me as a babe in arms. There is even colour: my granddad had been told or read that a good colour photograph needs something red in the frame to draw the eye into the picture. So I have pictures of family and relatives taken in his back garden with a red plastic watering can playing a cameo role in every one. I’m not sure that my kids will be able to read the raw files off my old hard disks in years to come.
So I like using film. I like being able to get at least 170 (at current count) different styles of image using the same camera. I like having to think about what I’m doing and I like being responsible for how well things turn out. I’m a Film Using Photographer (and a duck).