Film photography has been making a steady, slightly unexpected comeback for the past few years. In this article, I break down some of the reasons why that is happening, as well as say why it may be slightly dangerous for creatives.
Film photography is the classic way of creating images. At least that is what people shooting on film like to believe. Defining the classical way of taking images is like arguing that petrol cars are the classic way of getting around. Some like to go wet-plate, others cyanotypes, others digital, and some take photos on their Nokia in 2021.
The point I want to get across at the very start is that film isn't really a classical way of creating photographs, just like any establishment, it at some point disrupted the old one. Digital did that two decades ago, and god knows what will do it later this century.
Yet, it is interesting to see the comebacks and flashbacks to the “good old days” that people who sometimes, such as me, were too young to experience. I was born after the invention of the digital camera, in a way I am a child of the digital age. Many people like me take great pride in being able to take photos on film, others do it out of nostalgia I will analyze later on in this article.
My Journey With Film
I started off taking pictures at 15 on my dad’s EOS 300. Well, my first experience was breaking one when I put my finger into the shutter to see what happens. I was lucky to find a cheap replacement on the used market. The only reason I started with film was that I could not be patient enough to save up pocket money to get a half-decent digital Rebel. I had a blast with film, in fact, I still own the very camera.
At that point, film prices were not as ridiculously high, but digital had already passed film by a lot so times were pretty bad.
Fortunately, I had a camera that could expose not only correctly, but also consistently. While this meant my auto-exposed images were decent, manual exposure ones were sometimes a dog's dinner. Due to the high cost, however, I could quite literally not afford to miss another frame. Hence, the learning curve was steep, I managed to get the hang of settings in no time, and learn a few other things such as flash sync speed the hard way (by wasting rolls). The film was my way of taking pictures and I never really thought of taking up photography more seriously until I started getting offers to shoot things, and doing it on film was costly and time-consuming.
Overall, shooting on film was not really a conscious choice, rather a circumstance. I learned a great deal about image-making along the way. But I think film is making a comeback not only because it’s a great learning method.
Why Shoot Film and the Dangers of It
One of the events that changed my perception of modern photography was speaking to Rankin. His comment on people who shoot film intrigued me. He said that many photographers shoot film because it is a comfortable easy way to be in control of what happens after the image is taken.
I shoot film now and do it on assignment as well. Not nearly as much as I shoot tethered to two hard drives, but still. What I feel happens when I shoot film is that I become a much more closed photographer and images could possibly lack the creative input from the team. Bear in mind this applies to fashion mostly.
For me it’s hell, but for others it’s heaven. Depending on what your shooting style is, you may hate the fact that you have to (on most serious work) show the raw files right away. I know I hated it to the point of losing clients and being upset because I don’t want to send raws. Now that's changed. I can even throw in a good-looking raw file in my book and not be worried that someone will tear it apart. The film makes it very easy to only show the best of the best, even to the people that should see it all. At the same time, overcoming the fear of showing my work has actually helped me go further. The people on set are there to make the images better, their goal is also to get the best photo possible and have fun doing so.
Another reason people shoot film nowadays is that film is seen as a pure way of taking photos. After all, all big photographers have shot on film, heck, some still do. This makes sense because it takes decades of time and effort to get to the level of where those people are. Most have started at least all the way in the ’80s when film was the only option.
Now digital is king, therefore I am sure that if Albert Watson was to start now, he would be shooting digital. Rankin takes this further and suggests knowing all media, not only photography. Indeed, modern advertising is very far from film photos done in a Manhattan studio. Social, print, online, and so much more have taken over. Vogue covers automatically have a print and digital/moving still cover. While film is a viable solution to image-making, it is far from the only one that modern photographers should be familiar with.
Film is making comeback not only because of nostalgia and the authentic “look”. In professional photography, beyond a Gen Z kid snapping pics for Instagram, film offers a seemingly easy and classic way to create work. It is not inherently a bad way to work, however, there are dangers and pitfalls many creatives fall through when using film.
As a final thought, film is just an artistic medium, just like oil and canvas, marble, digital, and so on. What you choose to do with that medium is what makes the final difference. For that reason, in art school (which I am not a member of), students learn different mediums to then be able to pick what works for them. Film is fine if it works for you, but be aware of the dangers.
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A bit disappointed with this article.
Illya, no disrespect but your article is difficult to read. You're all over the place. The lead headline asks if film is making us lazy and halfway through you speak of the dangers in using film, yet you don't clarify either for the reader so they may form a conclusive thought.
I don't agree that film makes any photographer lazy, nor do I feel the dangers of its use. I also do not agree that you have better control with film as quoted by Rankin. Maybe black and white film in one's darkroom, but for color, that went to a lab for processing, though I'm certain there are fewer labs these days.
Without film there is no digital. When commercial photographers used film, tethering did not exist like it does today. We had black and white Polaroid backs to capture a test print for composition, light placement and brightness, then switched the cassette to color.
It's amazing that photographers were capturing weddings in the day with 4x6 film, now that was impressive.
Film actually requires a better understanding of your camera, its settings and the scene in front of you.
You are confused, but let's take a look. "He said that many photographers shoot film because it is a comfortable easy way to be in control of what happens after the image is taken" This, to me sounds like a reference to negative film and more specifically color negative film where exposure can be off and still provide. Black and white and color positive require a much more precise control, either you are exposing and processing by the manufacturer's guideline or expose for a push or pull with a specific intension or a style for your print. This was done from preparation and intentionally expose the film and anticipate the final result before even taking the camera out. There was absolutely nothing lazy about it. But even a properly exposed and properly processed color negative film would provide a much better start than "fixing" things on the enlarger. Shoot two E6 rolls with identical subjects, process one by hand from a kit and have one processed by a reputable lab with good chemical line records that does enough daily processing for a stable line they know how to control. Then check the difference from a quality drum scanner.
Nah - It's digital that makes me lazy !
Now is it way easier to shoot a bracket of exposures rather than take the time to measure the EV difference across the image and perhaps fit a grad' filter or a polariser - or even pull out the second camera body loaded with the extra slow emulsion film.
Worried about nailing focus? Just shoot a burst and turn the focus ring as you do it - one frame is bound to be a keeper.
Slow shutter to blur the waves on the sea? Time for the heavy tripod and the 10-stop ND filter - no chance' instead shoot a sequence handheld and align it in post.
Take 5 minutes to pose the group to get the perfect expression on all the faces? No way - shoot a sequence and fuse the content with "Photomerge Faces" and pick the best expression for each subject in the group.
Get the colour balance right - is it a 1A or a 1B I need just now - and what if I think about the shadows and remember that I am shooting Velvia (It makes those shadows deep blue) and so have to find the right strength of yellow filter to correct it. Nah - bang out a JPEG + RAW and fix it in post........
But the difference is that with digital I can shoot more great images in a day as the "lazy" digital process is so much faster (though to be fair you pay the price with those hours hunched over the monitor later!). Yes - I still get the 6x6 out for special images - (and to prove that I can still do it!) - but back to film for everyday? No-way !!!
Best wishes to you all - and special credit to those who are still keeping the film skills alive !!! Paul C
To me the argument is much the same as people who still get joy from driving a classic car. They aren't better than modern cars, and usually in many ways they are worse. They are in most cases, slower, less comfortable, less safe, etc. than their modern counterparts.
That being said there is a certain joy that comes from a perfect shift of a manual gearbox. I think those of us that have mechanical empathy, that truly enjoy analog experiences, will always find a home for SLR's and film.
Of course there is also the bonus that I can adapt all this great old glass to my mirrorless Sony and blend modern convenience with the fun of a manual lens
Well put Matt - that's why my film cameras haven't yet been sold and why they come out on those special days. ...And we can't be the only ones doing this given the rising prices that sellers are asking now on auction sites for camera bodies.
A few years ago it was just the film-era lenses that seemed to be in demand - and great film camera bodies were going round and round without bids at the price of a cup of coffee; but not so now as there are clearly a lot of people wanting to buy into the joys of "slow photography" too. All this suggests that film makers will have a loyal market for some years ahead (though how long will those fragile shutters and electronic circuits keep working?).
I learnt on film. It was not cheap and was hard slog. I had a day job and photography was just an artistic expression.
One roll could last one week or three months. Every press of the shutter cost me a dollar (film + processing). It took me five years to go digital and when I did I thought that I had photography pretty well mastered, judging from the number of keepers I had.
Wow... I learnt more about photography in the first month of digital shooting as I did in the prior five years of analogue (coincidentally having more shooting time helped). The ability to see the exact settings used really nailed the theory home.
For me, neither film nor digital allowed for "lazy" shooting. I never liked the idea of spending hours at the computer (scanning film or reviewing digital files) and positively hated the amount of storage consumed. I went digital in 2005 and storage was still expensive when you're shooting raw with a whole 8.2 megapixels! Especially if you can shoot at an amazing 4.3 frames per second!
I'd never shoot film again. Too frustrating a workflow and too many limitations. That's before you even consider resolution - What may have been fine for National Geographic in the 70s and 80s is not fine any more. Well, that's unless you're trying to create an authentic "retro" shoot.
In my opinion, film is making a comeback for any of several reasons. Retro, "proving that you have real skill", pretentiousness, point of difference... These are all reasons that I've personally witnessed from people I know.
With regard to the attempt to prove that you actually have photographic skill, that's a sad indictment on how devalued quality photography has become in the age of social media. It's led to people thinking that good photography must be easy, ergo is of little value.
why would anyone want to use film to create images that will spend their entire lives in an electronic universe?
Some people still print their work, whether film or digital
and - if you are getting ready for a Gallery show and want to sell large prints (hint; large prints should = larger profits) then a silver halide print at 20x30 may be a lot cheaper to produce than an injet image of the same size - and as a bonus for the buyer, silver lasts a long long time !!!
Seriously, who prints 20x30 using inkjet? That's what laser exposed true photosensitive paper is for.
Also, most folks will only experience your photography in the electronic universe. Few photographers will sell their work as physical prints even at the local Homegoods. Even fewer will ever have their work shown physically in galleries and museums.
There is an entire generation of youths who may never be able to get to a major art museum because they live in rural and low income urban communities with poor transportation access. But they will get to experience art anyway thanks to online galleries as well as Instagram.
Perhaps you should think beyond your bubble.
How can you tell if a photographer shoots film?
Don't worry, they will tell you.
Yes. Exactly the same way one knows if someone is a vegan.
or a Leica user, Tesla driver, keto dieter, from NY or LA lol
FWIW I live in LA and shoot film sometimes :)
I know you are joking, but since I've been shooting film it has also made me start looking for a used Fuji x100v to set to B&W JPG and put a yellow filter on to make a dedicated film style digital camera. I enjoy photography more than I enjoy editing photos after the fact, so I do like that with film it is a freeing experience.
He's not joking.
Listening to "input" from everyone on set, rather than developing your own creative vision and the hard-won experience and confidence to drive it, is what makes for a lazy photographer. Sometimes you have to that, but that doesn't make it right or in any way a good thing. But yes, it is prevalent, and maybe it's time for an "auteur theory" for still photography. Because, sadly, I do feel it's come to that.
Talk about being lazy, there’s an article on Emulsive from last month titled “Film makes me lazy. And smart. And harder working”
Worth a read.
Lee, I like your work.
When you stated 13-14 layers of adjustments to an images, I felt exhausted, lol.
My mind goes bananas when I start adjusting images, so the biggest thing for me was learning, when to say when.
Props to all the image makers that are able to toil in post bringing their visions to life.
My attention span is not up for the task.
I agree, anything beyond minor editing in LR or Photoshop drives me crazy and I get no joy from that experience. I much rather be out enjoying taking photos than hunched over the computer
Matt, your imagery is incredible. Several are very peaceful, that Buffalo though, crazy cool.
My images perhaps suffer (as some have stated) because of my lack of post work, or short attention span.
I joined Fstoppers attempting to understand about all those adjustment layers as Lee mentioned.
Lee's work is fantastic and we share similar type genres, so I appreciate his reply.
I process all my B&W, but I for one am super happy I now have the option of scanning the negs and messing about with them in my photo editing software. I used to hate hate hate darkroom work. Color film - when I do shoot it - is sent out for processing, then I scan it. I shoot about 70/30 film to digital and almost always prefer the look of the film images over the same image in digital
Post-processing is as much a part of photography as working in-camera. Ansel Adams would point that out. The idea that you shouldn't learn how to edit images after the fact is as ridiculous as the idea of only using natural light in portrait photography.
I don't care whether folks stick to digital or to film. But I do have a problem with the idea that photography is only about shooting the image and not the entire process that also includes post-processing.
Film photography definitely doesn't make you lazy. I'd say the opposite that digital makes you lazy. You can take as many photos as you like with digital, you don't necessarily have to know the exposure triangle, especially with EVF's and having RAW/jpeg files is definitely easier than having to develop negatives. I didn't buy the flimsy arguments in this article. I know plenty of photographers who never started on film who use the technology in digital cameras to cut corners to get the results they're after. Even before EVF's, people would use the exposure meter just to expose at 0, then adjust depending on how over/underexposed the image is until the exposure looks right. You can't do that with film. Also post processing is much easier with digital too, assuming people are going down the film purist route of developing their own photographs.
Sam, many photographers entering our current phase of digital technology are thinking film is easy, when it's quite the opposite.
Many also believe they can develop their own film, this may be true with black and white, but developing color negative film is an entirely different planet, best left for a professional lab.
We are extremely fortunate today to be working so instantly with digital cameras. Holy cow.