Truth in Film?

December 14, 2011

We Don't Play

Today I noticed that another one of my Flickr contacts has put aside their digital Leica M9 in favor of a film Leica M7. I can quickly think of at least a dozen contacts, who either shoot both film and digital, or have totally given up digital and shoot film exclusively. Some use expensive cameras, some use inexpensive vintage rangefinder or SLR’s, and some even shoot medium format.

When I mention to local photo buddies or other acquaintances that film photography is in no danger of disappearing and tell them that there are huge numbers of film users at online photo sharing websites, I am usually met with open mouth and a stare of disbelief. Here in the outlands, people shoot digital, although Jamie at my local photo lab told me that the students from the School of the Arts are required to shoot film. While film photographs do have a distinctive look of their own, I think investing time into working with software plugins and presets could yield indistinguishable results using digital raw source files. Some of the comments I hear remind me of the arguments heard when audio CD’s first came on the market and threatened the dominance of vinyl LP’s. In a conversation, that “warmth” thing always came up. “Vinyl just has so much more warmth to the sound than the cold and literal digital media.” Of course, let it be known that records also had scratches and maybe it was those clicks and pops that were perceived as “warmth”. Negatives can also have scratches especially in the hands of newcomers to the media. One contact posted a few shots taken with a Rollei that were streaked with processor roller marks that he hadn’t noticed. Some of these new film devotees are taking their shots to the local CVS and getting a disk of low res scans. Not what I would be doing if I valued what I shot.

I suspect that more than any magic quality of a photograph taken on film, it is the way of working that holds an attraction. It is akin to fine art photographers picking up a plastic toy camera to create fine art with. Imposing limitations can force us to see more critically. Having only 36 shots (or 12!) on a roll rather than an unlimited number on a flash media card can makes us think twice before pressing the shutter (not to mention the cost). The real reason for these legions of new photographers picking up film photography is a search for truth. Those who have come to photography in this digital age want to know what they missed. They want to pay their respects, gain an understanding of what their elders knew. It’s like an Elvis fan making the pilgrimage to Graceland.

I have certainly closed some doors to old technology but film is not one of them. I still have two 35mm film systems and all of my darkroom equipment. But I shot film for forty years and for right now I have no plan to give up the convenience of digital imaging to go back to film. I won’t say never though!


TOP: We Don’t Play, West Palm Beach 1973. Leica IIIb w/28mm f3.5 Nikor, Tri-X at ASA 400

ABOVE: As romantic the notion of film may be, it has limitations. I could never have taken as clean a color image on film. Nikon D7000 w/24mm f2.8, ISO 3200; West Palm Beach 2011


5 Responses to “Truth in Film?”

  1. Great post, Greg. I really enjoy the versatility of shooting both digital & film. I find that I get very different results with each medium, partly because of the look of film, but just as much because of the more deliberate process of shooting within its limits.

  2. Avram Says:

    As one of those dozen or so contacts, let me offer you my perspective:

    I like shooting film because film forces me to stay serious – I do experiment and try different stuff while shooting of course, but I do not take random shots the way a monkey would throw darts and expect one to hit bulls eye. While people like you that have shot film for decades have this self discipline to stay serious, it is not easy for people like me who met photography in the digital age. The other thing I like is that once I make a shot, I forget about it and concentrate on the next photo. I don’t have the ability to review the shot right after so I simply have no chance but to stay focused on the scene and chase the next “decisive moment”.

    Another minor reason is I’d rather shoot then spend time doing hours of post-processing converting raw files, adjusting the exact tonality etc… Instead a decent film scan mostly gives me what I want – I apply some unsharp masking, some very minor curve adjustment (no more than a minute, seriously) and I’m done.

  3. graphicgreg Says:

    Good comments! Indeed film does impose its own discipline. I have a photo friend here who always shoots with a tripod (I never do) because of the process it imposes. It forces him to compose his frame, carefully deciding where it ends and where it begins. As you have pointed out ~ film makes you move on to the next shot rather than chimping the one you just took.

    I have mentally tried weighing the time I would have spent in the darkroon versus the time spent “tweaking” digital images and so far, they seem about the same. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Avram !!!

  4. Arthur Cumings Says:

    Stimulating post Greg,

    I just “refound” 30,000 lost negatives.
    I could never print them. But I will be able to scan some and get them on the web.

    As much as I loved my darkroom I don’t have to develop film and then make teststrips and then burn and dodge and spend over an hour on one print.
    Then there was the startup and cleanup and drying and mixing chemicals and sometimes leaving my light safe open(aargh).
    Digital gives me controls i never had and I never miss a shot changing film.
    And then there is the ASA factor (ISO to those new to the game).
    1600 to 6400 were unthinkable speeds but with digital easily attainable!

    I remember when I first started shooting the argument was “could 35mm ever look as good as 2 1/4 x 2 1/4, or would SLR’s ever replace rangefinders. Times have changed and I’m glad that I changed too!

    I still have a working Black Nikon F – Pentaprism and my favorite camera the Canon

    • graphicgreg Says:

      WoW! 30k negs…I don’t think I would want to stand in a darkroom printing them either! A wet darkroom in a hassle – especially if not a permanent setup. I used to tell people that if they had to set up a darkroom in a laundry room for each use – don’t bother buying the equipment because it gets old very quickly. While I feel that digital images can equal the look and feel of film, there IS something special about a silver gelatin print, not only appearance but permanence too. Although printer manufacturers cite longevity for their paper-ink combinations, we don’t really know how well the prints will last. They just havem’t been in the real world long enough.

      Thanks for your comen Art. One of these days I will get over your way and we’ll have a beer together!

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