Will you use film in 2020? I won’t, and here’s why

Film vs. Digital – One 32 GB SD card can hold ~35 film rolls of 36 equivalent exposures ©️ Chen Guttman 2019

The bottom line is that for me, digital is the way to go and I find it still surprising that people spend so much time, energy and money on the film experience, be it the feeling of cocking-in a fresh frame or pushing a 400 ISO film. Unless they just dig the whole film experience (or use to it).

The recent renaissance of film has further put forward the debate “what’s better”, Film or Digital. Truth be told, the medium won’t make the photograph any better so use what ever format suits you. If, however film makes you slow down and improve your taking picture experience, making you more satisfied with the results with less exposures “spent”, then film is for you. Only you can answer this question.

So, let’s take a dive into the two media while I will share some of my own photography journey.

FILM

Process

The  film experience is regarded as “simple”, straightforward and technically unforgiving.

  • The photographer commit to or choose a single color/B&W film with a certain sensitivity and align the exposure to the film sensitivity via ISO/ASA knob.
  • The camera is a fully manual or fully automatic tool (and everything in between), enabling choice of aperture and shutter speed.
  • The photographer has limited number of frames per film roll and can’t see the outcome of every exposure until the film is developed.
  • The lack of feedback means that a large chunk of frames or rolls can potentially be incorrectly exposed or not exposed at all if the film was loaded incorrectly into the camera. Also it means there is a steep learning curve to learn photography with film.
  • Except for mid 90’s to early 2000’s film camera, exposure metering is limited to center weighted or in some cases lack any metering at all, requiring the photographer to constantly monitor changes in scene lighting conditions.
  • Once the film reached its end, the photographer needs to rewind the film (manually or automatically), remove the film canister and replace it with a fresh new film, enabling the photographer to switch to different media (color/B&W) or to change the film sensitivity (assuming he/she has brought additional films). While this process takes place, the photographer is occupied with replacing the film and cant take any photographs if something of interest takes place in the vicinity (unless he/she has a second body loaded with film).
  • With the exposed film, the photographer either develops the film via a developing lab, in home dark room or using film developing kit, expenses varies among the three.
  • The developed strips of film can be further reviewed (contact sheet review) and later developed or more commonly scanned (digitized) either in house or in the same developing lab. Expense and digital file quality varies tremendously.
  • Photographer archives the Film and digital files, expenses varies among selection of methods.

My film experience

When I was just starting taking my first photographs, I received my dad’s old 35 mm rangefinder Konica (see in my About page). Later, after seeing me taking pictures of my Army experience, my parents bought me an EOS 500 N SLR which I loaded mostly with Kodak 200 Gold (and sometimes 400 and Fuji Provia 50F).  When completing one roll I will print it whole and select a few to be included in a custom-made simple album. These were my early days of learning photography through trial-and-error. Up until the end of 2004, my photography was mostly of documenting my trips with family and friends, and it was done based on gut feeling rather than any aesthetics/art guideline or rules.

The turn in my photography hobby happened when I was visiting a colleague of mine in his Tel-Aviv rented apartment back at the start of 2005. While strolling through his small 2-room apartment, I saw his book case and found a text book about Photography, published at the early 80’s. Leafing through it and grasping the width and depths of topics covered, I asked my colleague to loan it until I get myself a copy. I was lucky enough to contact the publisher, a photographer that gives courses and has his own studio at south of Tel Aviv. I drove there and purchased the book at $20 of value, worth much-much more for me. This was my real first education experience.

Three months later I took a break in the form of a backpack trip in South America. Back then my 500 N SLR was in the trash after falling straight into the waters of a small lagoon up in the Golan heights. shortly after, a good friend gave me his father’s Pentax SuperME with a 50 mm lens which was nice but not a good choice for a trip such as I planned. I was debating whether to shell $1200 on a DSLR (EOS 300D at that time) or to go for the mid-level SLR, EOS 33 (costing $300). I chose to go for the film SLR as I feared the camera will be stolen or damaged in the rough trip I was planning.

Since I was shooting film, I counted on purchasing the film in local shops and shipping them home for development and scanning (assuming they will be safe at home rather than in my backpack that can be damaged, stolen or lost). After shooting my first 7 rolls, I packed and shipped regular mail (!!). Couple of weeks later and my brother emails me that out of 7 rolls, two were completely crushed and just one film could be saved. I was devastated for couple of days, and eventually was grateful that at least my Salar de Uyuni trip was mostly saved with light streaks and some lost exposure latitude.

After that event, I have decided to stick to a different strategy – developing and scanning the rolls, shipping the CD’s and developed strips home. That strategy was also found to be far from perfect, as many local labs had old and unmaintained developer machines that scratched the hell out of my rolls, making me curse and heal these in photoshop.

Thus, I ended up carrying ~50 undeveloped rolls throughout the rest of my trip, probably the most precious thing I had carrying (maybe my passport was equally important). I was lucky, I guess, that all these rolls came back safely with me and were properly developed and scanned in a good lab. All and all, I exposed 92 rolls, 3325 images, all of these are securely saved to the cloud and also in couple of external hard drives.

DIGITAL

Coming back from the trip, I knew that I will use whatever little funds I had left to purchase a digital SLR, and I knew which one – the Canon 20D, which was highly praised and its price was very comfortable comparable to the expensive 5D, the first full frame digital camera. I still took pictures with my film cameras, many times due to the need to get an ultrawide angle that wasn’t available for me with the full frame lenses stretching up to 17 mm (~28 mm on crop sensor). Once I bought my 6D, basically all the film cameras were left in the closet and never used to take one more exposures (and both are loaded with film…).

One important to note that differentiating film to digital photography is substance. שׁ film negative/transparency is a physical item that can’t be reproduced/copied in the same analogue format but rather only as a print or digitization. This is a critical distinction since digital exposure is a computerized matter at its root inception on the sensor and can be copied at any phase of the exposure development, from RAW format to JPEG/TIFF that can be shared or used to generate prints. More on this distinction and the use of proper integrity in Photography from World Press Photo Academy in their article.

Process

Here, the process of digital capture can potentially be complex yet with more freedom and latitude to fix mistakes or generating creative images post production:

  • The photographer loads a battery and a memory card, the bigger the card the more frames are available. If the memory card is mostly full and some pictures were yet to be transferred to a computer, there is a need to lock the new ones before deleting the rest.
  • The photographer chooses the file size and format (JPEG or RAW), the former saves the exposure to an 8-bit file at a modest file size but with very little latitude to modify the picture without generating visible color and pixel aberrations. The latter enables much flexibility in terms of exposure and color control but at the cost of several folds of file size (also affected by ISO rating). Most photographers setup the file size only once.
  • Setting the ISO rating (or sensitivity) of the sensor much like choosing a film speed, just this can be changed from one exposure to the next.
  • Advanced users will tweak the auto ISO function (minimal shutter speed or aperture opening to use with combination of the higher ISO the photographer chooses)
  • The photographer chooses the drive mode (single, continuous) and exposure mode (multi-segment averaged, center weighted, average etc).
  • The photographer sets the White Balance (mostly Auto)

The photographer can choose to change the settings of all the above settings and this is before raising the camera to frame the shot.

  • The photographer can choose between P mode (full Auto), AV, TV (semi auto) or M (full manual). Those that choose AV or TV needs to decide on the setting prior to taking the picture.
  • Once the photo was taken, the preview screen lights up with the freshly taken image
  • The photographer can review
    • The image at fully zoomed out to several fold zoom in, to see if the picture is focused and sharp or fuzzy.
    • The histogram for pixel distribution from fully dark to fully bright
    • The exposure settings: Aperture, Shutter speed, ISO settings, exposure compensation, image number.
  • At this point the photographer can decide to change any of the above exposure settings, raise the camera and expose again (if the subject is there at all).
  • This process can be repeated until either  1) the photographer is drained 2)the camera battery is drained or 3) the memory card is full.
  • The photographer can switch either battery or memory card with fresh ones and continue taking pictures.
  • Compared to film, digital photographers will take along couple of hours of shooting anywhere from twice to ten fold more photos depending on drive setting, photography style or any true intention of taking advantage of every scene from every angle possible and orientation. The sky (or memory card or photographer vigilance) are the limit here.
  • After ending the day, the photographer comes back home, fireup his/her computer and review the photos, select the best and edit some of them (or all of them), depending on available time and file type used (JPEG vs. RAW). With roughly 72-360 images, the selection phase can be tiring and also emotionally attached to the environment, atmosphere and any other non-photographic aspect that are not always conveyed in the photo yet the photographer fresh with the memory imagine it is present in the photo.
  • The photographer finishes up by archiving the select (or all the day’s) photos, with today’s sensors can easily reach couple of Gigs of bytes (RAW format).

FITTING YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY MEDIA TO YOUR STYLE

There are many photographers out there that shoot both film and digital, some like the different experience with the media , some like the film rendering in term of tones, contrast and grain and some like the romance or experience of using film and the post photography activity (such as Mavis CW). Comparing the two different processes above clarifies that the state of mind is expected to be different (and from my own experience it was different).

I prefer to use digital format and must say I can’t find even one reason to expose a film frame in the future. It feels for me a bit odd that some youtubers/photographers praise the benefits of film when you can do almost all of film with digital camera (except for developing and handling the negatives/transparencies). Maybe the mere feeling of the substance of the films in hand make for the major feeling of the film experience. Anyway, here are some of the suggested benefits of film over digital:

  • It’s more challenging to take a street photo with a film camera compared to digital camera and thus the gratitude of a good street photo will be higher with film camera.
    • I must say that street photography is such a challenge for me, and I think to many other street photographers, that I can’t see how someone can say “na, street photography is boring and not so hard, let’s make life more challenging with a fully manual exposure focus camera.”
  • Digital camera has so many settings and configurations that it can be overwhelming while an old basic manual film camera requires to set aperture, shutter and focus distance (assuming you are zone focusing). That way you can focus (literally) on the subject and not on the settings.
    • Technically, you can “down grade” most digital cameras to “old basic manual cameras”. You just switch to “M” program mode, flip the focus switch on the lens to “MF” and decide on one ISO you want to use for the whole shoot. And you’re good to go, Full time manual.
    • Going manual has its drawbacks:
      • To take full advantage of zone focusing, you need to stop down to f8 or higher, depending on your distance from your subject. This can be practically difficult to stop motion (yours and the subject you photograph) when you move from light to shade.
      • Manual focusing even with the old cameras can still take time and you may miss the shot
      • Light condition may vary easily, especially in boulevard or markets where patches of shade/sun can lead to under/over exposure.
    • The bottom line of the above, is that even pro’s need to be aware of the “technical” aspects of the light/shade conditions when using manual mode which means that part of their attention is not just on the scene development but part of it is on the lighting condition. You may perfect your technique, yet some of your brain will have to take this into consideration.
  • Film has a special look due to the chemistry technology and imperfection that makes the photos much more stylish or unique compared to the flawless digital image.
    • Today there are so many filters (and instructions how to prepare custom ones) that the “film style” can be imitated quite easily and later applied to single or multiple images with a flick of a button. These can even be further tweaked to generate a unique look for every image.
  • Its a great experience to develop your film (or get it developed from the lab) after some anticipation and to see the images in the roll strip come to life.
    • This is truly the place where substance may conjure more attraction than just seeing your images flash on the screen, especially if you already know what you have gotten as you previewed the images on the back screen of the camera.
      • Here I’ve decided that I will forgo the use of the preview function and not look at my images for around a month or so (I will import the images and leave the computer until the images were imported into lightroom, and then I will close the software). And the curiosity and excitement of seeing the images after one month is indeed a fun part, even for digital photos.
  • If you’re feeling uninspired, instead of buying a new camera/lens, you may want to shoot a different roll of a film and experiment with it.
    • This is a true way to handle this. Another way that digital photographers can do is to
      • Read books of other photographers
      • If you have a zoom lens, select a focal length and stick to it for a day or a week.
      • Meet other photographers in your neighbourhood and talk photography.
      • See other photographers on Youtube 😉
  •  Digital cameras rely heavily on battery for the their operation and can drain their battery quickly can be battery draining requiring the need to carry several packs of battery.
    • This is indeed a drawback for digital and even modern SLRs, which rely solely on batteries, you won’t need to replace the batteries as frequent as digital. On the other hand, if we take the above image as an example, holding 35 rolls of film in your bag would surely account for space and weight. Furthermore, film can expire over time (not necessarily bad, depending on the style of tones/defects the photographer tries to create).

I feel that at the end of the day the choice of shooting film may be worth the investment if the photographer don’t see it as an investment  in the first place (time, energy and money). If the whole process is a joy and integral part of what is photography for the photographer, then it makes sense to shoot film. However, if the photographer aims to:

  • Generate a certain style
  • Join the trend of analogue photography
  • Make the photographs or him/her photography any better

then I suggest to rethink digital photography as it is possible to simulate film in many ways, at nil costs and almost the same time-wise.

Think differently? cool, put your comment and let’s have a conversation!

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