Film: It’s the Good Stuff

I love film for a lot of reasons.  For starters, relatively speaking, it’s cheap – especially these days.  Just some weeks ago, I was able to pick up my third Nikon F100 (the first two, I mostly regret selling now, but did so because I was short-sighted about digital … it ended up working out in my favor though, as I sold the first one for $700, which is roughly double what I paid for it, the second one for $250, which I sold to a friend for what I had into it, and now picked this one up for about $100 less than it’s current value since it has the vert grip for just $100).

With a $20 camera, an inexpensive lens – say a 50mm f/1.8 at $80-120 for an autofocus version, and a roll of professional b&w film or a roll of professional slide film, you could start creating better quality photographs than you could get from spending even up to several thousand dollars on a digital body.  I’ll qualify that though …

Digital does have some advantages over film.  There is film available at 6400 ISO, but until you get into infrared, you can’t do the ultra low light work without additional light or really long exposure times.  Handheld, flashless photography in a dark setting with regular color or b&w 35mm film just wouldn’t be possible and even 6400 ISO film is going to be pretty grainy – not something you’d likely want to print at 8×10 or larger.  The Nikon D4 (mind you, it costs about $6,000) shoots at up to 204,800 ISO or something crazy like that, which is a theoretical 5 stop gain over 6400.  I say theoretical because it’s not a true 200k+ rating, but you’d at least get 4-4.5 stops extra out of it I’d imagine.  Having said that, how often do you need to push your camera beyond even 1600 ISO?  Unless you have a digital camera costing $2,000+, the results are going to look pretty rough starting at 1600-3200.  I could get 5000 ISO out of the Nikon D700 and 4000 out of the Nikon D7000 before it gets too bad, but even then I know I’m going to have to apply noise reduction in Lightroom.  And, when it’s the difference between getting the shot and not, I’ve shot at 25k.  When you get above 6400 with digital, in my experience, you start to see weird color shifts and whatnot too.  And, typically, everything above 1600 or 3200 is going to have some pretty heavy noise reduction applied in camera which is going to rob your true sharpness, so it’s not even a cut and dry advantage.  Yes, it will do it, but you’re going to sacrifice quality.

Another advantage of digital is having your photos right away.  For applications where this makes a difference, it’s an advantage – say if you’re a photojournalist on a deadline.  For everyone else, why does it matter except to support our need for instant gratification?

You can make virtually limitless copies of your digital file that are going to be of identical quality as your original.  That’s good for everyone, really, but it’s also important to note that you can have a good lab do very high quality scans of your film the same time it’s developed and put you right there anyway.  Or, you can spend a chunk and buy a decent scanner – which doesn’t need to be replaced nearly so often as a DSLR.

When you’re experimenting with digital, you get instant feedback so you can make changes right away.  Even with the slow speed instant film for my medium and large format cameras, I have to wait a minimum of 90 seconds before I can see what I’ve got.  90 seconds isn’t bad, but it’s not as fast as turning the display on on the back of my DSLR.

That’s where the advantages stop.

Image detail and resolution, film wins.  This is a bit loaded, but basically true.  35mm is going to be equivalent, roughly, to shooting up to, say, 12+ megapixels in digital, but you don’t lose detail to noise reduction or to the filters they have to put over the sensors, so even though the actual resolution may be lower, you have greater detail in textures, etc., so you get higher quality.  Resolution isn’t entirely a fair basis for comparison.  When you start shooting medium format, the resolution of my 6x7cm film is going to be more along the lines of 40-80 megapixels.  4×5 is going to be something like 200-500.  I have about $500 into my Mamiya RB67 outfit.  The digital “equivalent” setup  would cost me well over $50,000 and they would share similar maximum ISOs.  Actually, most of the medium format digitals are going to top out around 800 or 16oo ISO and I can buy 3200 ISO b&w film for my Mamiya for about $5 for 10 exposures- 12 exposures at 6×6 (which is what my Holga shoots) and something like 16 I think for 6×4.5.

Digital artifacts don’t appear on film.  There is no fringing of highlights.  No weird shifts because of the white balance.  Most film is daylight balanced.  For anything else, you use flash or filters.  Flash is daylight balanced and can override available light.  For flashless work, you just grab a tungsten filter, an incandescent filter, or you just shoot black and white (which I find to be the best for 80-90% of my photography anyway).  Just a few months ago, I was noticing how bad the digital was making teeth look.  Like, seriously bad.  Everything else was OK, but the teeth … I wouldn’t have had that problem if I’d just shot film for that portrait session.

With film, a person tends to be much more cautious about the shots they take, since there is the ongoing cost factor to consider.  Though, most people don’t realize you can’t shoot indefinitely with a DSLR before having to replace it (mileage may vary, but my first DSLRs topped out at around 50,000 frames and my recent ones 150,000, but when you’re machine-gunning it … ).  I’ve worn out two bodies before upgrading them.  And, on that subject … I’ve spent something along the lines of $10,000 on digital cameras in the past 10 years.  Out of that, I’ve gotten about $5,000 back from selling them.  And, that’s not counting the accessories.  My first 256mb Compact Flash card cost me over $100.  I do have over 100,000 images in my digital catalog that would have cost a hellacious amount of money to shoot on film, but, had I been shooting film, I never would have shot that many and you can bet that me slowing down a bit would have produced consistently better results.  Whenever I set about to use my 4×5, for instance, I take such great care in the setup that nearly every sheet of film is exactly what it should be.  In fact, I should stop shooting most of my backup frames (I have the practice of shooting a duplicate frame of every shot with 4×5, just in case) for non-critical work.  There’s nothing spontaneous about my 4×5, but that’s where 35mm comes in.  Medium format is in the middle.  Except the Holga – that’s really small and light, so I can be pretty spontaneous with that too – provided the fixed shutter speed and aperture are appropriate.

With film, I don’t have to shoot for high dynamic range, HDR as it’s known, since a properly exposed (or close enough) negative or slide is going to give me that on modern film.  Old film, some people would shoot two frames and sandwich them in printing, but we don’t have to do that now.  With print film, there is an incredible amount of detail in the shadows and it’s virtually impossible to blow out the highlights if you’re in the very big ballpark.  With practice and skill in the darkroom, you can produce prints of staggering range of tone.  Slide film is a bit more fickle, but it’s possible to get even more range still.

On print film, you can overexpose by up to about 9 stops (which is huge) and underexpose by 1-2 stops and still correct it in the darkroom.  When I worked in a film lab back in the day, a lot of people brought in single use 35mm cameras that were consistently overexposed by 4-9 stops and it was correctable to the point you couldn’t tell the difference.  Slide film, you have to be much more precise.  You can maybe go over 1-2 stops and under maybe 2-3, so you just need to be more careful.  Digital, you’ve got, typically, two stops either way.  If you’re not in that window, it’s going to look horrid no matter what you software you have.

Digital can have the tendency to make a shooter lazy.  It’s too easy to just shoot.  I’ve, at times, just held my camera up without any cause or care, and fired off several hundred shots.  I was tired and uninspired photographically when I was in Israel in 2006, so I have 8,000 photos that are almost all shite.  I’d been on the road for about 3 1/2 months by then, driving from St. Joseph, Michigan to Kansas City to Denver, flying to South Bend, back to Denver, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to the Dakotas, to Montana, to Wyoming, to Utah, to Nevada, to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, to Wisconsin, and, finally, back to St. Joe.  I can’t even tell you how many miles I zig-zagged in that time.  Or, how many hotels I stayed in.  I was tired.  My photography in Israel was done from a place of exhaustion and apathy.  Had I been shooting film, I would have shot less, cared more, and wouldn’t have thousands of photos from the bus window.

In some ways, digital makes it more difficult to improve as an artist or craftsman.  Largely, because you simply don’t have to work as hard.  You see what you shot was horrible, you tweak your settings, and you shoot it again.  Buying a handheld light meter was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my photography.  Hands down.  I slow down, take careful light readings, and only then start shooting.  Even with that, though, sometimes, with digital, I’m still lazy and shoot a few or several test frames.  With film, I go to a fair bit of effort to know what I’m going to get before I press the shutter release.  I don’t guess, I know.  Every time I press the release on my 4×5, it costs me $2-10.  Every time.  But, I only have a handful of bad frames on 4×5.  With digital, since the D700 will shoot at 25,600 ISO (so will the D7000, incidentally), I didn’t have to concentrate on flash work as much, outside the studio or the occasional fill flash here and there.  I have 400 ISO b&w film loaded in my F100 right now with a sort of emergency roll of 3200 ISO ready to go.  If I’m going to shoot anything low light handheld or involving people, that means flash.  And, to get it looking good, that means I have to actually think about what the flash is going to do.  The more you think, the more you put the thoughts into action, the better your photography will become.

Moral of the story?  Shoot some film.  You don’t have to do it all the time, but I can all but guarantee you’ll love it.  Digital can’t replace the feeling of dropping off film at the lab or developing the rolls/sheets yourself.  It can’t beat the excitement or anticipation.  It can’t beat the organic look and feel.  More time shooting, less time screwing around with a computer.  Fewer shots, but more shots of value.

To quote Ken Rockwell, who’s got some good thoughts and some stuff I don’t agree with about photo, “It seems digital cameras are all about the freedom to make pictures that suck, at no cost.”  And, “Now that we all can get great scanned results fast and easily from film for art and serious photography, why bother with digital? Digital is for commerce, like news, catalogs and magazines where quality isn’t critical, but time and convenience is.”

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