Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Still a Place for Film?

So, recently I decided to shoot some film because I realized I still had a bunch of it in a refrigerator, and also, I was curious how it might affect the way I took photos (compared to using a digital camera). My main question: Is there any reason to still shoot film...especially 35mm film?

Look of Film
First, I have to say, there are shots like these that only film can "pull off". This type of shot just looks crappy with digital cameras...DSLRs or otherwise. I think the dynamic range of print film and its "organic" grain structure make something like this work somehow. Sure, the digital camera makers try to emulate the looks of different films; but they're still just that: emulations, not the real thing.

Scarcity Breeds Scrutiny
Buying, developing, and scanning film isn't cheap in terms of money or time. When you're shooting film, you think twice before pressing that shutter release button. It's going to cost you something to take each shot; it better be worthwhile! I think there's something valuable about scrutinizing each shot carefully before taking it; the process engenders critical perception and evaluation, which seems to be an important part of growing as a accomplished photographer. Every once in a while I could kick myself for not triggering the shutter and thereby missing a possibly good shot! But more often than not, I'm glad for the discipline of framing and then resisting a pointless shot.

Creativity and Sensor Variety
Every time you put a different type of film into your camera, it's like putting a different sensor into your digital camera! How's that to stimulate creativity?! You get to decide on whether to have a color or black & white sensor, how it's going to handle highlights and shadows, color saturation, what sort of grain structure the image will have, and so on. If you don't like the "look" of the images you're getting, try a different film! What a great way to get a large variety of different types of images from one camera...:-).

Variable Sensor Resolution
I've recently been on a mission to get a compact camera with 35mm full-frame resolution. There have been some initial forays into this area by a couple of digital camera manufacturers (Sigma, Olympus), but there are issues with these preliminary offerings...and prices are at a premium.

There are some great compact film cameras (many of them no longer in production) from companies like Leica, Olympus, Yashica, Contax, Ricoh, Konica, etc that take 35mm SLR-quality photos with true 35mm full-frame resolution and beautiful bokeh on 35mm film. And that film can be scanned at various resolutions to yield almost any resolution digital file you need. I like to get my film developed and immediately scanned to digital files (I think most film processors now offer affordable scanning when you develop the film with them). And if you get a really great shot that you want to print large, you can always go back to the film frame and get it scanned at a different/higher resolution.

Light as Film
One thing that struck me about film cameras is how much lighter they are than their digital counterparts. Once you jam in an LCD and the rest of the electronics that go into a digital camera, it starts to get a little heavy and--often--bulky. Film cameras don't require much electronics (some have none); and if you make the camera body out of lightweight materials (e.g., various plastics), a compact film camera can weigh a matter of ounces. And since film consists of paper, thin plastic, resins, and a bit of thin metal, a "loaded" film camera weighs little more than an empty one.

Persistence of Analog
There are a few things I find unsettling about having most of my photos exist as digital entities only:
  1. I'm sure that someday, my computer (or whatever it might end up being called) will no longer be able to read information off of today's CDs and DVDs. Today's CDs and DVDs will become yesterday's floppy disks. There will be a window in which I'll have to copy all of my images to some other storage medium, or I can just say goodbye to my archives of digital images.
  2. I try to be good about backing up the images on my hard drive to other media. But this does not always happen. The spectre of losing images due to the failure of technological devices (which happens all too often) occasionally enters my consciousness...and is certainly a real danger.
  3. I keep hearing about how the quality of digital images on storage media degrades over time. I suspect film degrades some over time as well. I'm not sure which degrades faster; maybe I don't want to know...(!)
In any case, having photos on both an analog medium like film and also as digital images provides the ultimate in flexibility, accessibility, and safekeeping. There's some comfort in knowing you'll always be able to view, enlarge, scan, and print from an analog format like film regardless of what happens with digital/computer technology.

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is: http://www.mgm-photography.com/.

1 comment:

  1. Its one reason I keep my a2e and velvia handy. Digital is awesome but sometimes you can't beat film for making a scene special. Having used velvia 50 on a mamiya rz67 alongside a 5dmkII I'd use the velvia all the time if it wasnt for the bulk of the camera.