The Film Crusade Continues
My top 25 reasons for still shooting film in the age of digital cameras.
After nearly completing the process of bringing a single, medium-format film-shot image to life, I'm finding myself more passionate about film than ever. Before I continue, though, let me say this: I still love my digital cameras for many types of shooting, so regardless of your pre-established notion of the "film vs. digital" debate, this isn't intended to dis digital– but more support film for various types of shooting conditions.
Now that that's out of the way...
I've put a few graphics up on the zenfolio site I'll use to point some things out. I'd begun writing long, technical explanations in other venues and remembered I had a blog, and really this was the place to put such things, so here we are.
A few Fridays ago I went out to shoot again. Conditions were poor by most people's standards; snowy, overcast, cold, flat light, etc... perfect. I headed to what's turning into one of my favorite close-to-home destinations, the area of Colorado known as North Park. Up over Cameron Pass, about 100 miles from Fort Collins is a little town named Walden. Walden is, "the moose viewing capitol of Colorado," as you can see by the sign. I'd gotten an early start in hopes of catching a sunrise, but hopes were dashed atop Cameron Pass as my windshield wipers thumped and skidded against the glass and I struggled to stay on the icey road. No worries, I thought... I have a full day in front of me, a hot cup of french roast and I wasn't sitting in front of the computer. Whatever happens today it'll be a good day.
The first thing I shot was a dead badger on the road up to Delaney Butte. Something about his presence on the side of the road caught my eye as I drove past. I think it was his rather large and intact sharp, white teeth juxtaposed against the contrast of his otherwise gray and decaying carcas that made me stop, jam on the brakes, check my rear-view mirror and back up in the middle of the road as I've done a hundred times before. I had a fresh roll of HP5 (Ilford black & white film) loaded and ready to shoot and this would be a great shot for it: great tonal range in the dark gray road, the badger's fading stripe in his decaying fur, and all the grayness that surrounded it... I immediately envisioned the scene as the cover image for my book, a photo essay on north park.
North Park is what I've come to think of as "true grit" Colorado. Far from the posh & polish of the heavily traveled I-70 corridor's ski areas, convenience stores and outlet malls, North Park rest quietly between Colorado's I-40 on the south border and the Wyoming state line to the north. It's untamed west, full of horse ranches, working farms, hay and logging trucks and people who work hard outside in Carhart coveralls and field boots, returning at the end of the day to humble homes with muddy trucks in the driveway. Not everyone of course, but this is the flavor as you drive through the area. It's pure, unsullied and harsh but beautiful land.
People are tough and good folk. Holiday Inn, McDonalds, Starbucks and Wal-Mart have yet to dethrone The River Rock Café, the Village Market, and other small, local establishments run by friendly townies. Thank goodness for North Park. It's still and all, authentic Colorado.
As I pulled up along side the dead badger I glanced up to see a red tail hawk circling high above me. I had the feeling he'd just dropped the caracas there for me to shoot and I thanked him. A white, broken, half-rib cage emerged from the badger's deflated body cavity sticking upright into the air.
I needed to take the center column out of my Gitzo to get the camera low enough to the ground for the composition I was trying for. In an effort to keep my load light, I'd left my bean bag at home (that's the last time that'll happen). I grabbed a canvas tarp from the back of the Trib and layed it on the wet pavement before kneeling down. It was snowing and as I opened the pop-up hood on the RZ's waist-level finder flakes fell through and melted on the ground glass. I threw a shirt over the camera as I walked about getting things set up. Gray card, meter, cable release, check for cars... soon a fellow came down the road in an old, mud-red import pickup and asked if everything was OK. His grade-school daughter sat in the front seat next to him, her pink coat with the fur-lined hood nestled down behind her neck and I'd guess this friendly rancher was on his way to school. "Just taking a picture," I said, "but thanks very much for asking." "Of what?" he said. I pointed over toward the dead badger along the side of the road. He just kinda looked at me and smiled, "how come?" "Just not something you see every day," was all I could come up with. We both laughed and he wished me a good day as he pulled back on to the road.
For the next half hour I set things up, metered, watched the light as it peeked in and out of the heavy but active cloud cover, metered again, and just stood there looking out across the land with my hands buried in my pockets, my hat folded down over my ears and the neck of my jacket zipped high against the cold. No other cars came by and it was just the badger and I on the side of the road in North Park. Clouds wafted by at first hiding, then exposing the strong, filtered sun. I wondered how he'd died. Was he hit by a car? Was he killed elsewhere and his carcass dropped here as I'd earlier imagined? How long had he been dead? My goal was to not disturb him at all; to shoot him exactly where he lay, in exactly the same position I'd found him. For some reason it was extremely important that the shot be authentic, not staged-in keeping with the whole authenticity theme of North Park. I knew if I moved him, there'd be a lighter, drier spot beneath where he lay, and it would stick out in the final image like a sore thumb.
After the shot I packed up, double checking as I always do to make sure I didn't drop anything on the road as I pulled away. The weather was giving the day real promise.
So what does this have to do with shooting film instead of digital? Absolutely nothing. At all. I guess my point is, you can have a great time just being out-no matter what holds your film, or your SD/CF card. The results of your decisions, however, have a tremendous effect when you arrive home at the end of your outing.
When I get back and get this negative processed I'm going to have a big piece of film as a result of the shoot. I can take that big piece of film and have it scanned by any number of methods (with associated costs). I'll then have a big (300mb or 96+mp) digital file and a big piece of film. So what, you ask? Who needs film? Well, call me old-fashioned, call me paranoid, call me non-digital savvy (which is far from true but that's OK-I've got thick skin...), call me whatever you will-but, anyone who has worked on computers for any length of time has experienced loss of data.
And when it happens there's seldom any warning before your whole life just disappears before your eyes. Sure, you can back things up, but what happens if your backup archive fails? And how many CD's do you mound up with files, forgetting to mark which is which... and they lay buried in some drawer and you don't even know what's on them after a few years?
When that happens (not if it happens, because it definitely will happen), with those big pieces of film, I can now go back and re-scan, making large prints if the image warrants it. That is, if it's "good enough" to want to see big.
So, from a nuts and bolts practical point of view, as I see it, here are the reasons to shoot film instead of digital in certain situations:
1) The potential of a large image (beyond the 12 x 18 realm) is there.
2) At the end of the day you have something besides 1's and 0's to hold in your hand that, should all your computers crash and all your data be lost, you'll still have the original piece of film you began with.
3) You like the look of film, its grain structure, color saturation properties and the intangible that is subtle, but definitely there.
4) You enjoy the anticipation of viewing your images a day or so later, after you shot them (you can also get your film back very quickly, within an hour in most places, if you need it that fast).
5) You enjoy the process of shooting film because it slows you down and makes you think more about what you're seeing. It's not as much a discipline thing as it is an aid in weaning oneself from the hectic pace of our world.
6) You enjoy the discipline shooting film encourages.
7) You want to save an enormous amount of money by buying the film gear others are liquidating to buy the latest digital cameras.
8) You have a difficult time spending thousands of dollars on a digital camera that, in a comparatively short period of time will be pennies on the dollar because "the industry" has been forced to come up with a new digital camera with small improvements to keep the marketing machine chugging along and investors happy.
9) You want the links between your love of photography and the desktop computer to be as unnecessary as possible, freeing you to wander and shoot rather than catalog and sift through thousands of redundant images just to find one that's a little sharper than the other.
10) You don't want the inconvenience or cost of software/hardware updates tied to your photography.
11) You just plain like the idea of shooting film, just because.
12) The quality of today's film has never been better.
13) The chemicals used in producing silicon wafers and microprocessors for your digital cameras are just as bad-if not worse and many times more- as the chemicals used in developing film.
14) The imaging sensor on a film camera will never die, develop bad pixcles or malfunction because there isn't one.
15) Film is the real deal. Authentic. Old school. Tangible. Hard goods. It has a history of excellent images (because there was nothing else at the time-no alternative...) behind it.
16) You don't need to lug laptops and electronic gadgets around with your to back up your images in the field, or worry about AC adapters and extra batteries. Don't laugh at this: recently I was planning a trip and honestly, one of my concerns was being able to charge my batteries at night, driving me more toward a motel than camping. Pretty pathetic, I know.
17) You don't need to turn on anything requiring electricity to view your images.
18) A roll of film is inexpensive.
19) You get hard copies of your 35mm film shots in your hands the day you shoot them. How many of your digital pictures do you actually print?
20) You can get your pictures loaded onto a CD to e-mail to people if that's what you love to do.
21) You won't shoot as many useless photographs that create the archive/backup/re-sizing nightmares your thousands of digital pictures require.
22) the dynamic range of print film is greater than the dynamic range of an image sensor most normal folks can afford. If you don't know what dynamic range is, it's the ability of a piece of film to capture and hold detail in shadow areas and highlight areas. Most people take pictures on bright, sunny days, where the difference between the brightest spot in the picture and the darkest spot in the picture far exceeds a digital camera's ability to capture it. Print film does a better job here.
23) greater depth of field possibilities because of the larger image receptor size (especially on medium and large format) and the greater ability of the lenses to stop down another stop. So on most SLR/DSLR lenses stopping down all the way means shooting at ƒ22. On MF lenses, stopping down to ƒ32 and even 64 is a regular option. There are those who would argue that color fringing occurs at these small apertures, which is true. But it's correctible, and nowhere near as blur-causing as an image that is out of focus because you didn't have enough DOF.
24) You can spend all the money you're saving by not buying digital cameras on actually going on a trip and seeing an interesting place worth photographing, rather than walk around town with your expensive digital camera, trapped, because you shot your budget on it and now have to wait for a year before you can take any trips.
25) Images shot on film have a more accepted degree of authenticity. Being able to produce a piece of film that shows exactly what was captured at the time of the photograph ends most disputes whether an image is authentic, or has been tampered with somehow.
In conclusion: the existence of digital doesn't negate the worth of film. The worth of film stands on its own merits. Go get yourself a film camera and a few rolls of film for a few bucks. Shoot it up, take it to the 1-hour, go for a walk, get some exercise, then go get your pictures. Enjoy flipping through 24 (or 36) pieces of paper you don't have to turn on anything electric to view. If you like it, consider moving to a medium format film camera. It really is a huge jump in image quality over 35mm-there's just so much more information captured in that larger piece of film (see graphic).
Support the film industry. They're struggling right now because so many people have accepted it as normal to spend a few hundred dollars every few years replacing their digital cameras, only to shoot thousands and thousands of photos just because they can, that will wind up buried in hard disks destined to fail-losing the images forever. No digital camera is the best that it can be right now whereas film has never been better. And how many times can your bank account allow you to replace a 6-10mp digital camera that just doesn't cut it anymore because there's a better one out there, and afterall, these are your precious memories? I know the land fills can only take so many, too. Don't be fooled. Have fun taking pictures and not going broke doing it.
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