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Seven Reasons for Returning to Film Photography.

Seven Reasons for Returning to Film Photography.

Jason Row
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union.
Jason Row

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By on in Photography and Camera Gear 44 Comments ]

 

A quick look on eBay will reveal thousands of low use, high quality film cameras for incredibly low prices. It is perhaps the best time ever to buy a film camera, but why would you want to go back to film when today’s digital cameras produce such stunning images. Well, here are some reasons.


Ferris wheels are not dramatic by kevin dooley, on Flickr

The Look of Film.

Many photographers today spend huge amounts of camera time and post processing time to try and recreate the film look. There is a definite and pleasing look to the quality of film, it’s impossible to describe with mere words and it’s not necessarily a better look than digital, its just different. So the easiest way to create the film look?  Use a film camera.

The Feel of Film

Maybe it sounds a little crazy, but those of us brought up in the days of Kodak, Fuji, Agfa and Ilford will tell you there is something very special about putting your hands into your pocket and pulling out a roll of film. Placing the leader of a roll of 35mm into a Nikon, unwrapping a roll of 120, whilst trying not to expose too much of the film to light, simple skills that marked you as a photographer.

The Cost

It might seem odd that I include the cost as a reason to return to film but bear with me on this one. Every time you put a roll of film in your camera, it has cost you money. That cost continues with the development and printing. Every time you take a poor picture, it has cost you, personally. But the counterpoint to that is that every time you a good picture, you will appreciate the value of your knowledge of photography. It’s too easy these days to rely on the camera to create the image. Delete the poor ones keep the good ones. When you have to pay for each image, you will learn to make each one count, and that will stand you in good stead when you return to your DSLR.


Caithness (jan 09) by Hermés, on Flickr

Learning to Understand Exposure.

The previous reason, leads us onto learning exposure. Although film is generally regarded to have a higher tonal range than digital, is has a lower tolerance to incorrect exposure, especially if you are using transparency. An underexposed image cannot be recovered by merely shifting the levels, it needs to be right when the shutter clicks and you need to understand what is happening when the exposure is made.

Understanding Color Temperature

Unlike a digital camera where you can set a color balance or let the camera do it automatically, you have to buy the right type of film for the right type of light. The first time you use a roll of daylight film under tungsten lighting, you will start to understand the importance of the color of light.

Pro Cameras at Low Prices

For many of us former film users, cameras like Nikon F5’s, Hasselblads, even Leica’s, were the stuff of dreams. They idea of one day owning one of these marvels of imaging fueled our passion for photography. Take a quick trawl through eBay today, and you will find mint quality samples of these cameras for less than the price of a base level DSLR.

Do it Yourself

For aficionados of the digital darkroom this may sound odd, but getting your hands dirty by developing and printing your own films is in my personal opinion, one of the great highlights of film photography. Its easy enough to make a temporary darkroom in not much more space than it you would need for a desktop computer and A3 printer. The sight of a large black and white print, slowly revealing itself under the gloom of a red safe light should thrill even the most hardened digital darkroom enthusiast.

So there you have it, if you have a hankering for trying out film, there are little or no obstacles. Trawl through eBay, or your local camera store, bag yourself a bargain. Most professional camera stores still sell film and will also know where you can get it developed and printed. If at the end of the day you still prefer digital, old film cameras make great ornaments for your home.

Jason Row is a British photographer based in Ukraine. Follow him on Facebook or see his work at The Odessa Files.

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44 Comments

  • Nicole:

    I have another reason! People won’t just expect you to hand over the negatives when it is film, and will be happy to pay for prints.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pmReply

  • Sharon Dietrich:

    Good points, but I have one big disadvantage to film–getting through airports!! They hand check every roll, unless you want to send it thru the scanner(not recommended for faster films). Painstaking, and time consuming.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pmReply

  • Eileen:

    I was glad to see this — I’ve been considering trying out film, if only to force myself to really learn photography, and stop relying on my digital camera as a crutch. Could anyone suggest a good camera model to prowl for on eBay?

    November 2, 2011 at 5:42 pmReply

  • Jason Row:

    Hi Eileen, have a look for a Nikon F100. It was perhaps the pinnacle of film camera technology, set just below the Nikon F5 professional camera. Think Nikon D700 to the Nikon D3. It has good autofocus, and auto exposure but also a full set of manual controls to help you expand your knowledge.

    You should get a decent model for $150-200

    November 3, 2011 at 12:11 amReply

  • Jason Shipp:

    Hey Jason, very good article and picks up on everything I tell people who come up to me asking for advice on taking up photography. I always tell them to pick up a 2nd/3rd hand film camera. Take out the battery and learn to shoot using your ‘eyes’ and not meters. The other advantage of film, is I set projects and that keeps my eye in as I spend the time composing the shot, as it needs to be right. Film thru customs not a problem as I do not use hi-speed film, but miss my dark-room at the moment. Working a dark-room is good fun and allows for just as much creativity.

    November 3, 2011 at 1:50 amReply

  • bycostello:

    the cost is the big one… and the need to learn camera craft so each press of the shutter counts

    November 3, 2011 at 2:55 amReply

  • Avatar of thepaparazzothepaparazzo:

    I love film. It makes me think so much more about what I’m actually shooting (which is now transferring to when I use my DSLR). And when you get it right it is so satisfying!
    Something else to add to the list… If you hate dust on you monitor, just wait ’til you start scanning and enlarging your own negatives. It’s a nightmare!

    5456720821_9660135b5f.jpg

    Bigger:
    http://flic.kr/p/9jc7Zt

    November 3, 2011 at 3:40 amReply

  • Charlie:

    Uncanny timing, this post. I’ve just returned from a trip to NYC. When I booked the flight a couple of months ago I also decided I was going to take my old Leica CL film camera (fully manual focus and exposure) and just a digi compact. I found film suppliers were easiest to find online (the high street shops didn’t have any in stock) and choice was limited compared to the ‘old’ days. Just got back, so the next step is processing and getting the negs printed and scanned (I don’t have a darkroom any more so a lab it has to be). Again, this is being done mail order and the final cost is going to be quite high with 13 rolls in need of attention (postage, processing, printing and scanning).

    The first day of using the camera felt odd – not being able to simply adjust the ISO when it got darker, no instant preview of the image, just three prime lenses and no zoom. But once old ways of shooting came back to me I remembered why I decided to bring the film camera – it slowed me down, made me think more about what I was shooting, made me think about how I was shooting the photos etc

    An enjoyable experience overall and I’m looking forward to seeing the photos. The cost of film and processing has mounted up though and I now can’t wait to see the pictures!!!

    November 3, 2011 at 4:16 amReply

  • lito villamarin:

    i am very happy to read an article like this one. i am a professional photographer loosing interest in photography because of digital.

    November 3, 2011 at 4:43 amReply

  • Jason Row:

    My wife, also a photographer, is amazed by the fact that I can tell her what the exposure should be just by knowing the ISO of her camera. No meters, just a mk1 (old model) eyeball. Thats the sort of experience that comes with using film

    November 3, 2011 at 5:46 amReply

  • Luke Stanton:

    I would love to return to using film as I find it way more rewarding, but it’s so hard to find the time!

    November 3, 2011 at 7:20 amReply

  • matabum:

    all the photographers should have some good old analog camera and go back to the roots from time to time…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/matabum/4468034412/

    November 3, 2011 at 10:18 amReply

  • John:

    I am a professional photographer and I cut my teeth on shooting film. But except for the discipline film imposes on you to keep shot quantity down, all the reasons you mention to shoot film are really reasons to avoid shooting film. With the instant feedback of digital, you can learn the principles of photography much more efectively.

    November 3, 2011 at 11:38 amReply

    • Tim Stubbings:

      Couldn’t agree more. I don’t miss dust, scratches and lab / post delays or late nights coming home smelling of chemicals. I’m glad I learned on film because it created discipline to value frame count, but the greatest liberator is being freed from carrying multiple rolls of different ISO films to different conditions.

      May 12, 2013 at 5:44 amReply

  • Lowell:

    I’ve given up on film. Anyone interested in some fine film cameras, send me a note. For example, I have a Nikon F4s in great shape and will sell it fi $225.

    Write to [email protected]

    November 3, 2011 at 4:20 pmReply

  • Jim Chandler:

    I remember the all nighters in b & w darkroom. Yes, an exciting experience but also a time consuming hassle. All the reasons this author has listed remind me of why I’m so happy to have digital. He forgot to mention the polaroid effect of instant review.

    November 3, 2011 at 5:26 pmReply

  • Fotografija.hr:

    [...] Link [...]

    November 3, 2011 at 10:41 pmReply

  • Avatar of annasoffiaannasoffia:

    I did love to spend time in the darkroom on bw processing, it was like meditation and occasionally I want back. And I have so many tenthousends of diases/slides on landscape
    But I realy startet to learn something when I finally got over to a good digital camera.

    November 3, 2011 at 11:08 pmReply

  • Bruce Robbins:

    I’ve just returned to film and believe it helps you to see more creatively. I’ve written about this on my blog, The Online Darkroom. The post is at:

    http://theonlinedarkroom.blogspot.com/2011/10/internal-v-external-visualisation.html

    I’d be really interested to know if other photographers have noticed this internal v external visualisation thing. If you have, please leave a comment after the post.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:44 pmReply

  • Tarek El Baradie:

    The amount of skills developped during film photography, the every-day excitement of waiting to see the results, as film rolls are being processed, the attention to detail while setting up a frame, hiding cables, the Polaroids, the meticulous use of the flash metre and above all, the work spent on lighting to capture that single shot, complete and ready to be scanned and used in a layout straight away, really puts digital photography in a different category with less excitment and results that could be digitally manipulated in post, but not for the professional eyes.

    November 9, 2011 at 9:23 pmReply

  • Raul:

    Another valid reason to shoot film is another way at looking at cost. Film offers a much higher dynamic range, that is the steps from the purest white to the darkest black defined by various zone systems.

    Film has been fine tuned over the years to yield 11 or more stops, while most digital cameras can only cover four.

    What does this have to do with cost ? Well in order to get a DSLR capable of the same quality you at least have to go full frame if not medium format at 10 to 35 thousand dollars. A lot more than the cost of a few rolls of film.

    So if you are ever wondering why some of the images you love so much have such rich colour and seem to jump right off of your computer screen, quite often it is because they are shot with equipment that can cover the range in camera. All of the Photoshop tricks and HDR technique in the world cannot take your raw capture to that level, but film can.

    November 10, 2011 at 3:59 pmReply

  • Theo:

    All great points that I preach often. Understanding lighting and exposure, appreciating each shot, acquiring the need to improve at each failed exposure, learning from your mistakes, etc. In my opinion, the real jewel is learning the components that make up a good shot. The individual aspects that are often overlooked, or easily corrected by DSLR’s.

    Great article. Now I just hope film won’t die out like Polaroid’s did :(
    Considering how vinyl records are making a comeback, we can only hope film decides to stick around as well.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:01 amReply

  • Juanjo:

    Every shot, every frame, every second of waiting is a good reason.

    November 18, 2011 at 7:03 amReply

  • KEN:

    I like to comment this. Every shot done is a very serious lesson to photographer. About 5 days ago, I used EB3 for a small test. Using F/4.5, 1/125 with 80-200 MM LENS.

    The result is very strange,Nearly Black due to forest’s effects. I shall use a slower shutter for the EB3 or using F/8 to test it out.

    This was very horrible since something is not expected like Colorplus (C-41 processed Film), Luckily the content is not so important and some of the result is good

    However, the low-cost age for the E-6 may be gone, Then You seldom know how to do good.

    For some reasons, I use a scanner to scan some of good results, and the remain is a lesson.

    November 30, 2011 at 7:30 amReply

  • Nozar:

    Film photography is cheaper not because of said above, but because the poor digital guys have to buy a brand new camera every other day (and still can never say they have had the best camera), while I already have the best film camera ever built in history of mankind: likes of Nikon F6, Leica MP, Hasselblad 501CM, etc.

    February 5, 2012 at 7:53 pmReply

  • James:

    I agree completely with all your points. People who aren’t willing to get their hands wet in the dark don’t really know photography.

    April 3, 2012 at 3:43 amReply

  • Digital and film photographyMárcio Faustino Photographer:

    [...] people think that film photography is dead, or that film photography is just for nostalgic hobbyists. But the truth is that Film [...]

    July 8, 2012 at 1:01 pmReply

  • Ami Siano:

    Started in Film, moved to video and digital, came back to Film for my own projects (non commercial) and loving it !

    Another thing to add:
    Film cameras can be collectors items,
    can you show me one person who would buy a Nikon coolpix because it’s a beautiful camera ?

    cheers

    September 1, 2012 at 8:08 amReply

  • Juliette:

    All I have to say is AMEN! Thanks for the post. I’m about 80% film now.

    November 17, 2012 at 9:37 pmReply

  • G Dan Mitchell:

    Shot film (and developed and printed it myself in many cases) for decades. Lovely work has been and continues to be created with film. I understand the retro appeal of old-school film and enjoy the tactile quality of the wonderful older cameras.

    That said, I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to return to using film.

    I have far greater technical and expressive control over my photography with digital media, and I can produce work that is at least as good and often better.

    June 8, 2013 at 7:05 amReply

  • Matt:

    An important point. Even at the lowly 35mm format, with pro low iso transparency film, and a state of the art wet scan (with a salty technician), you can achieve a 500 Meg+ scan at 48 bit color depth. If you want a better print at a huge size, you better have a pretty fancy digital back on a medium to large format, likely darn close to six figures or more.

    June 8, 2013 at 8:46 amReply

  • Barrie Marshall:

    Interesting article and replies, I am 73 so have done a lot of film work since about 1960, been digital for some time, several camera including the venerable but expensive M9, a few months ago I dug out my NIkon F80 and put a film in it(XP2) and took some pictures, I did not use again till last week and had forgotten what I photographed, exciting! I had the XP2 developed, I scanned the negatives and I am knocked out with the results, great dynamic range and the range of greys is stunning, it now has a roll of HP5 loaded, I sold all my darkroom equipment to a photography student but had the sense to keep my film developing tanks etc(stainless Steel)Off O go!

    March 14, 2014 at 7:44 amReply

  • Ted:

    It’s nearly 50 years since I started making photographs seriously as a kid in high school. After that, I used the medium of film for most of my career in magazine production and public relations. Back then it was transparencies and B&W prints destined for publication and agency representation when there was actually money in it — and a fairly high bar of excellence you had to reach before acceptance. But the writing was on the wall. I dropped film entirely 8 years ago for digital, and actually learned it rather well, continuing to publish stock images and use others in my work. Problem is that sales don’t amount to much anymore as so many “weekend warriors” burning 1000′s of shots for a few “keepers” are willing to sell them for a buck or two — or even give them away — just to see their byline and gain the dubious title of “semi-pro.” But last year, I had sort of an epiphany… realizing that with digital I was constantly chasing the next best camera and sensor, led by the nose by Nikon and the rest into a silly consumerism that did not exist so much with film. Pro DSLRs do amazing things, and usually as good or better than the best of the film cameras of only a decade ago. But with them the rhetoric of photography has transformed into continual bantering about silly “hipster” concerns like “bokeh” that is definitely not the key to excellent photography. Combine that with the barrage of chats about sensor and lens quality, chromatic abberations, raw vs. jpeg that are quite meaningless in terms of the art of photography, of the image as a whole and its emotional effect on the viewer. Given that, it still surprises me how many people today (the younger set, I believe) think that film images are crappy, manual focus lenses without the hyped up latest and greatest nano coatings are not sharp, and film is so hard to process and scan. Indeed, with a number of mail-order processors out there you don’t need a wet darkroom to enjoy film, though I recommend processing B&W materials yourself to save money, time and get much better results. So I bought a nice old Nikon F3 and had it reconditioned to mint by Nikon. And acquired a gaggle of Nikkor lenses from 24mm through 200mm. Some developing tanks and a scanner topped off the gear, with a stock of B&W film of different speeds and brands to get reacquainted. Off I went, to the bold old world of film. And guess what? I had more fun with photography than I had for at least the 8 years I fiddled with digital cameras. Lightweight, well-crafter cameras! Beautifully machined, reliable, “built like a tank,” smooth as silk manual focus that is right on the mark. And premium glass every bit as sharp and sharper than modern, complex, unreliable and expensive pro zoom lenses for a quarter of the cost! Best of all, no chimping…. no more continually checking your result. Instead, it was back to relying on my knowledge, skill and experience to conjure the best exposure and processing for particular light and contrast ranges. I truly enjoy photography again, and hardly think of picking up my digital equipment except for an occasional job where color and digital delivery is expected and therefore “necessary.” I am not disparaging digital. Far from it. Digital is the “Now” and even more so the “Future” as capture and delivery technologies expand beyond our imaginations in a very short time. But shooting film provides another experience in photography that cannot be matched by digital cameras. B&W only costs around15 cents per shot for film, processing and scanned to your computer screen. After you get the cost per shot nuisance out of your head, you realize that film shooting requires a different approach to the subject, that is not necessarily slower, but certainly includes more critical considerations of light and contrast that few digital photographers care about. Why? Because they know they will “enhance” their images later in Photoshop (read: overprocess, HDR to death, oversaturate). The only way to share the experience is to shoot film, learn film, love film. Love digital, too, but please don’t disparage film and call for its death.coal%20virginia%20clinchfield%20mcclure%201%20woman%20miner%202.jpg?pictureId=3309379&asThumbnail=true

    March 17, 2014 at 7:32 pmReply

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