Why I Shoot Film—Part Two (2014 Archived Post)
Part One talked about why I decided to start shooting film and the things I learned from that early on. Part Two talks about why I continue to shoot film and things I’ve learned over the years of doing so.
Digital files are just that: digital. Hard drives fail easily and I know plenty of people who’ve lost some or all of their files via a hard drive failure—or user errors like accidental deletion or formatting. Although I am very adamant about backing up my digital files, I know that coming across an old hard drive many years later would be a much different story than a sheet of negatives. Should the hard drive still work (and I’d still have the technology to access the hard drive), data could be corrupt or missing, and I’d have to hope that Lightroom would still load the catalogs otherwise I’d be browsing raw files through Lightroom’s ugly file structure for hours. With the negatives, all the photos are there in hand. I can see and touch the image, as well as make infinite scans and/or prints from it.
No need to worry about technicalities
For every new digital camera that comes out, there will be hundreds of reviews on the technical specs. You’ll hear that Camera 1 sucks in lowlight but has good dynamic range. Or Camera 2 has dozens of megapixels but the buffer and processor are terrible. Or Camera 3 has… The list goes on forever, and every new camera is an urge to consider upgrading for these better tech specs. When it comes to film, technical details like megapixels are irrelevant because films like Kodak Ektar “can record about 20% more information on a 35mm film than the highest resolution 35mm digital camera (Nikon D800) can capture.” (1). The use of film is a call to think more about the photograph and less about your gear. I’ve found that I, like many other film shooters, really enjoy shooting with only one body, one prime lens, and one film stock to think purely about making images.
Continually learning from mistakes
Unlike digital, you cannot erase a film exposure. It’s on the negative with the other photos for good. Those blurry, unsharp, or imperfect digital photos usually get deleted, but with film you learn to see it in a different way—maybe they’re interesting or good after all. On the other hand, if you make a technically imperfect photo on film you’ll figure out what you did wrong and it will sink in much more. You’re less likely to make the same mistake for things like forgetting to change the shutter speed for the motion you’re capturing, incorrectly exposing for a backlit subject, or not taking the lens cap off. Those quick deletions with a digital camera for those errors don’t teach you nearly as much as they would when you’re going through the negatives and seeing such errors.
With each different film stock, you get a different look to suit the job or project at hand, which coincides with “Editing” in the first part. This forces you to think about your vision for the project ahead of time—more than most people would with digital. Going for the full frame, medium format, and even large format looks are also much cheaper to do on film than with digital. Moreover, it is well known that film has more dynamic range than digital, so for tough lighting situations, like dappled light or high sun, it might be worth shooting film as to not lose detail in shadows and highlights. After time, knowing what certain films look like, it becomes futile to spend time tweaking digital files to look like film—so you might as well just be shooting film. You may get close, but the results will never quite match (dynamic range is one of the reasons why).
Like I said in Part One, not developing my film for months so that I can look at my photos objectively is a key reason as to why I continue to shoot film. When “developing day” comes, there is a huge excitement as I see the images that have been marinating for so long come to life. Darkroom printing is also magical. There is also the conversation that gets struck with people of any age who ask “are you shooting film?(!)”. Through this, I’ve made connections with people who would otherwise not say a thing as they think I’m some kid with dad’s expensive camera. And the best part, I’ve had some beautiful cameras sent my way that have gotten more use in the first month I’ve had them than since Reagan was in office.
A safe skateboarding workflow
In the age of the internet, some photos simply need immediacy. Most of my skateboarding (trick only) photos are digital because the skater or a company might have needed them yesterday. There is also less of a chance of user error, perhaps a late night film developing session would have me pouring in the fixer before the developer, a nightmare that would result in having no images on the film. Though I’d love to shoot purely film at some point for tricks, I’ve found this hybrid workflow of shooting the trick digitally and everything else on film to be what works best for me.
Overall, it’s important to remember that your vision and the image are all that matters, and whether you achieve it through film or digital is irrelevant. Film is not better than digital (and vice-versa), but you can definitely learn a lot from shooting film.