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Give Film a Shot! And Ode to Analog Photography

We are in the 21st century. The world has gone digital. It has changed the way we communicate, watch movies, listen to music and take photos.

Nowadays you can take a photo on your mobile phone and it will already be on your home computer when you get home. Everything is synced in the cloud and computers are getting smaller and more portable. We used to talk about kilobytes and megabytes we now talk gigabytes and terabytes. Computing power keeps doubling every 18 months and the forward march of technology is seemingly unstoppable.

Who would dream of using a camera that doesn’t require batteries to operate?

The answer is: A surprising number of people.

The real question of course, is why? That’s what I will be discussing in this post.

Why Shoot 35mm Film

It’s Different

Everybody is going around with the latest DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and smartphones. Film is quite rare. Anyone below the age of 20 might just about remember using a film camera in their childhood, if at all.

When you carry a vintage film camera people want to try it and ask you questions: it sets you apart, and so it’s always a conversation starter. It’s also nice to disconnect from the digital life once in a while. Using something that doesn’t have an LCD screen and batteries is refreshing!

I have also noticed that most people tend to be less camera shy if they know that the camera is not digital. I think the reason is that the picture is not available immediately to review and that they feel more reassured that it won’t end up online. I think that it has a lot to do with the personality of the photographer as well.

You Take Fewer Photographs

Some people see this as a negative (excuse the awful pun) point. As I am not a professional photographer I am not under any time pressure, and I don’t have to worry about the number of shots that I take. If I miss a shot because I was changing film or whatever else then… c’est la vie! There is always tomorrow!

I prefer to take my time thinking about the composition, the light and the overall feel. These are the things that really matter in photography. If it’s a static scene such as an interesting piece of architecture, and it’s in my home town then I can always come back another day when I feel the light would be more suitable for the subject. You can be happy if you get one nice photo of a place you visit. Don’t look for the obvious angles where everybody has their cameras set up. Take a walk around the place and it’s usually in the harder to reach places where the best photos are to be found. That may mean walking around for 30 minutes or climbing seven flights of stairs, but the end result will be worth it.

To get this photo I even had to go into a restricted part of the complex, it was an incredibly hot day, and I was leaving the country in a couple of hours, yet I still decided to visit this grim place.

The fact that each time I press the shutter it costs me money also helps. This creates a physical barrier which prevents mindless trigger-happy snapping… not to mention that I would be changing rolls of film every few minutes like that!

Film forces you to think about the photos you take. Without an LCD screen you will lose the habit of checking each photo immediately after you take it and learn to previsualize a scene. What’s more, if you wait a while before getting your photos developed and seeing them, it helps you to stay emotionally distant from the photos whilst editing. Thus you are more objective when you select the few photos to print or upload online. Everyone takes plenty of rubbish photos, the secret is only showing the good ones!

There is no way out with a fully manual film camera…you have to use your brain!

Get the ‘Film Look’

I guess this is quite an obvious one! If you do a quick google search you can find a ton of [expensive] software and plugins to emulate the so called “film look”. That, frankly, is ridiculous.

Film has something special that can’t quite be described. It has great dynamic range and a huge margin of error for exposure. No need to bother with that terrible HDR technique and complex matrix light metering systems. The good old sunny 16 rule never fails once you have calibrated that incredible light measuring device that never gets fooled: your brain. You never have to worry about suddenly blowing out the highlights of your image. When film is really overexposed (by a ridiculous amount—it has a huge margin for overexposure, especially with colour negative and black and white film) the highlights will gradually fade to white, and you won’t just get a complete blob of white for a sky.

By getting rid of all these silly distractions one can concentrate on actually taking great pictures instead of fiddling about with settings. Film has its own built in white balance and so there is never any auto white balance setting that can be fooled and give you horrendous results indoors or in difficult light.

Film has grain. Live with it, learn to love it. It’s not that nasty digital noise than you see in high ISO digital images. It’s beautiful, individual and non-intrusive grain. You can get ISO 50 or 100 film that is as clear and fine as anything that digital can throw at it and some black and white films go up as high as 3200 and have lovely and pleasant grain. Film grain feels like it’s an organic part of the photo you have taken.

The huge advantage of film is that you can swap out and try different sensors. Every film interprets a scene in a different way and it’s up to the photographer to learn to use them!

Tip: at first, stick to one film and get used to how it reacts with different colours and different types of light and then branch out and experiment. That is the really fun part of shooting film.

The beautiful colours that come out when shooting film is something that just cannot be matched by digital. The skin tones look natural and the colours feel right. It’s almost as if you have created a fond memory of the actual scene.

Black & White

If you love black and white, you will love film. Nothing from digital (even the new and incredibly expensive Leica M Monochrome) can touch film when it comes to black and white. The tones, the grain…the feel. It will also teach you to look for interesting shapes and patterns. One could write an entire article (or even a blog!) on shooting black and white film. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

You can be lazy

I enjoy the act of the taking photos and also enjoy doing some editing, but I have other interests too. I compose music, practice the piano, travel and cycle. So for my photography I want to travel along the path of least resistance when it comes to spending time organising photos and backing up files etc.

The great thing with film photography is that it keeps things simple but you have the option of a fully digital workflow if you require it. It also means you can spend more time with friends, girlfriends, pets and strangers instead of backing up hard drives and reformatting memory cards. It also means that during the day when you are out and about you are enjoying the day and living in the moment instead of constantly checking the screen on the camera.

One possible workflow:

a) Take photographs

b) Take more photographs

c) Take even more photographs

d) When you have built up a number of rolls then drop them off to your local shop for development.

e) If you are just going to get prints then that is it! All done! Pick up your negatives and print and enjoy your masterpieces. You can also ask them to give you a set of scans so you have digital files to play around with at home. You can process these as you would with any digital files except that they will look far better.

When I want to do some more serious editing and I want to have control then I just scan them into the computer with my Epson V700 film scanner and while I make a coffee the scanner gives me 36 stupidly high quality (and high resolution if you choose) RAW or JPEG pictures straight onto my desktop.

I never have to fumble around with numerous memory cards and various hard disks for hundreds of crappy digital files. All these hard drives have to be backed up and then there is still the risk that they fail and you lose everything.

I then have a master copy in the form of the negative, a secondary copy as a print and also a digital file if I want it! It will be much easier 5 or 10 years from now to access you old photos as they actually exist instead of just being 0s and 1s in an old hard disk somewhere. Let’s not even talk about how one is going to open a proprietary RAW file ten or more years from now…

Film also let’s me be lazy with my cameras when I am out and about. No need to try and find my way through a huge amount of complex menu options and try and remember what all the various buttons do. I control shutter speed on the camera body and aperture and focus on the lens. It’s just so simple. I also don’t have to remember to charge my batteries the night before or worry about keeping my camera “on” (it’s always on and ready to shoot).

The great thing about film is that it gives you choice. You can shoot film and have a real hard backup and still enjoy all the benefits of digital such as sending pictures via email or uploading them to Facebook or Flickr.

Film Cameras are Amazing

They really don’t make them like they used to. This really applies to cameras these days. Most of them are made of plastic and are not mean to last much more than 5 years.

I own three film cameras:

  • Pentax K1000 – This is a tough-as-nails camera for everyday shooting. I took it to Cambodia with me and it was rained on, crushed, dropped and it just carried on working. Mine is 35 years old. Full manual controls but it does give you a needle based light sensor which takes one tiny easy to find battery that lasts for years. You do need to learn when to keep the needle in the middle and when to over/under expose. This camera uses the K mount and so you have a massive collection of superb Pentax lenses to choose from and they are all (mostly) quite cheap and easy to find.
  • Olympus Pen EES-2 – Truly a point and shoot. One of the few automatic cameras in the world that would still work after a nuclear holocaust. It doesn’t have any batteries whatsoever but still gives you a fully automatic shooting experience. How is that possible? Selenium-based light meter…basically it’s powered by the sun. The only thing you have to set is the focus distance. It has 4 icons. 1 Metre, 2 Metres, 5 Metres and Infinity. It couldn’t be simpler. It’s a great street photography camera as it’s always on and you can point and shoot with zero delay. Did I mention it also shoots half frame photos so you can get over 72 images on one roll of film?
  • Leica M3 – Arguably the best camera ever. The Leica that all other Leicas would like to be. Fully manual, no light meter and a massive viewfinder for really accurate focusing. It’s absolutely beautiful and a masterpiece of engineering. It was voted the top gadget of all time by experts at Ebay.co.uk and Stuff Magazine.

All three of these cameras work perfectly well and, with the occasional tuneup, will carry on working for decades. And they feel real in your hand.

Most interchangeable lens film cameras come with a prime lens, usually a 50mm. These fixed-focal length lenses are far superior in sharpness and optical quality than the cheap auto-focus zoom lens kits that come standard with DSLRs these days.

You can even splash out and get yourself a really fast 50mm lens like the Pentax SMC K 50mm f1.2 for way less than any mid range auto-focus lens. The shallow depth of field of a fast lens shot wide open, can be great for flattering portraits and also for isolating objects. They can also make the large viewfinders in Film SLR cameras even brighter.

Isn’t Shooting Film Really Expensive

This is a question I get asked all the time. The answer is that it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be.

The ‘El-Cheapo’ Method

Get yourself a used Pentax K1000 (or MX/KM etc..) and a 50mm f2 or “nifty fifty” as it’s sometimes called. That will set you back roughly £50 or less. You now have a full frame SLR camera. Get yourself an “el-cheapo” film scanner. There are quite a few around for less than £100.

So far you have spent £150 and you have the equipment to shoot images that can rival full-frame digital cameras that cost £2000+ (no lens!)…

It will take you many, many years to shoot and develop £1850 worth of film. In the last year I’ve spent maybe £150 on buying and developing film and I have an entire folder full of negatives! This works for me.

The ‘Price is No Concern’ Method

Get yourself a Leica MP from an “à la carte” store for roughly £4500 depending on what options you choose. Then get yourself a 35mm 50mm and a 90mm or 135mm lens, all from Leica. Depending on exactly which lenses you get that will set you back at least £5000 but easily £15000+ if, for example, you choose Leica’s 50mm f0.95 which will set you back a cool £8000.

Then, you buy a drum scanner, which, apart from being incredibly difficult and time consuming to use, is also at least a £6000 investment, if not much more.

Of course, only shoot really expensive slide film and have it developed at a fancy store for £15 to £20 a film.

Each person will find the way that is more suitable for them.

Well…

In conclusion, I think it’s important to do what you like. Film, digital, oil painting… it doesn’t really matter what you use as long as you concentrate on the important things such as light, timing and perspective.

If you have never shot a roll of film in your life, go and get yourself a cheapo film camera and try it. Even if you find that you can’t stand shooting film you will have had a new experience and that is never a bad thing!


About the author: Emanuele Faja is a designer, film photography lover, and creative director at Whisper & Company. This post was also published here.

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