If you have a good old film camera you might want to hold onto it, at least until you you’ve considered my ten reasons for preferring film over digital photography.
First though, let me explain that I’m not a luddite, and do enjoy photographing digitally. I couldn’t manage to capture birds in flight without the tracking automatic focus of recent DSLRs . Nor could I document an event and get the keeper shots to my clients within hours. But often I’m not in a hurry, and if my subjects aren’t moving too fast, in other words, if I’m doing “slow photography,” then I prefer using a good old film camera and a roll of film suited to the light conditions. Here’s why:
Film has a wider dynamic range, which is to say that it can record a wider range of lights and darks (highlights and shadows) than digital sensors. To get a well exposed photograph you have to preserve detail at these two ends of the tonal spectrum. In general, I do better with this challenge when I use film.
Film has better white balance
With film I almost never have to adjust the white balance of my photos. What’s white balance? It’s the proper representing of white colored objects, so that say, a white T-shirt appears in the photo as white, not off-white, or slightly yellow. A good white balance insures that other colors are represented accurately too. A good color film achieves white balance automatically. When I scan my color film negatives I don’t need to adjust the white balance in the scanned files because the proper white balance has already been recorded in the negative.
I find that film records subtle transitions in tones more accurately. After I had been using film for a while I noticed that my pictures looked subtler, especially the ones taken in gentle light. My digital shots look clear and crisp, but they do not record the nuances of light that so delight me as a photographer.
- I find that if I’m doing black and white photography, film gives a more pleasing rendering of the tones in a scene, more grays, and with the proper film, darker shadows. The British Ilford film company manufactures films solely for black and white photography; and I find their films record gray scales in exquisite ways.
- Film is in general a durable storage medium, perhaps not so much the dye-based films used in color negative films, because dyes fade over time. But processed black and white silver halide films, if they are kept in dust-free and fire proof environments, will preserve the fidelity of the original photos indefinitely. By contrast, digital photos stored on CDs must periodically be recopied, because digitally recorded files degenerate and eventually become unreadable.
Professional scans of film negatives provide more digital information than the largest and most sophisticated digital sensors. Perhaps this may not remain so as the cost of producing large sensors declines, but at present a good film negative still gives you more information, and that means better large prints.
Well made film cameras are more durable than digital ones. They’re simpler. There’s less to break. Although the two DSLR cameras I own are reputed to be “built like a tank,” one has a burned out pixel, the other a faulty meter. And neither is that old!
Some old cameras are entirely mechanical and need no batteries. These are the best choice for traveling in places where electricity is unavailable or unreliable.
Film cameras have fewer controls, and they are easy to access; they are not buried in labyrinthine menus. My favorite old cameras have three controls, and they are manual: shutter speed dial, lens aperture ring, and focus ring. With no automatic settings, I’m forced to carefully consider the image I want to produce. With forethought about the light on my subject and the capabilities of my film and camera, I make calculated mechanical and artistic decisions. Working this way, photography becomes less reactive, more pensive. With slow photography, this is the way it should be!
Finally, I simply like the look of film. I like a little grain. I like the subtle transitions in tone. I like the color rendering. Sometimes the images I make with film convey my impression and interpretation of a scene rather than merely record a facsimile. This I like!
Now, let’s consider the apparent disadvantages of using film:
I’ve made a few exposures on a roll which I think will turn out really super, but then I have to wait a long time to expose the remaining frames with worthwhile material; or else, I just shoot casually to use up the remainder. This problem can be avoided by buying film in bulk and loading the canisters with strips of fewer frames.
The main advantage of shooting digitally, in my opinion, is being able to adjust the ISO for different lighting situations. Once you have loaded a roll of film you must shoot all its frames at the same ISO. For instance, you can’t expose one frame at 400 and others at 800. This is true for the vast majority of films. However, Ilford’s XP2 Super has such a wide latitude that one can, in fact, shoot not just at the recommended 400, but also at 800, and I’m told, even at 1600, with good results. The film is processed at the recommended 400 ISO. Frames shot at higher ISOs are, of course, underexposed. The scans of these frames will be dark. However, because of the wide latitude of this film, amazing detail can be retrieved from the shadows. So, if I anticipate widely varying light conditions I load my camera with this amazingly flexible film, Ilford XP2 Super. This makes up a bit for the disadvantage of not being able to adjust the ISO.
It costs something to shoot film. To buy a roll of thirty-six exposures, one pays from $3.50 to $7.00. Then, from $4.00 to $7.00 to process the negatives. With digital photography there is no cost for film or processing. But is digital photography really free? By no means! The cameras are expensive, become obsolete in a year and quickly lose their resale value, and on account of their complexity may require expensive repair. When equipment costs are factored in, shooting with film is perhaps less expensive than shooting with pricey digital cameras.
Scanning negatives takes a long time. Yep, no qualification there. My flatbed scanner, an Epson V500, takes at least a couple minutes to render each scan. Then, cleaning up the scan in Photoshop, that is, ridding it of marks left by dust and insufficiently rinsed residue from the chemical processing, can take up to ten minutes or more. All in all, I figure about twelve minutes of work to turn one film frame into an excellent digital file. If you require fast turn around, shooting film obviously isn’t for you. But hey, I’m retired, and this labor of love is well worth the effort!
In this Flickr collection you can browse sets of photos I’ve made with various types of film, both black and white and color. You may want to check out my description of each type and brand of film.