Film: Why I Love It

Introduction

I’ve always been more fond of film than digital. My collection reflects this: more than three quarters are film cameras, and (to the consternation of my bank balance) that number seems to quietly grow every couple of years.

The Maniototo. Leica R4 with Leica Summicron 50 mm f/2 on Agfa CT Precisa 100.
Autumn in the Maniototo. Leica R4 with Leica Summicron-R 50 mm f/2 on Agfa CT Precisa 100.

There’s something endearing in the look of the shots, the feel of it in the camera, and the eager anticipation of seeing whether or not a photo turned out the way I intended it to. Additionally, it forces you to concentrate on technique, and allows you the pleasure of slowing down and enjoying what you’re doing.

Here, I present an unbalanced view of why I love film.

The Look

Digital, to my eyes, has never truly been able to mimic the colour and tonal rendition of film. I have tried it, several times, but the files always tend to look wrong. Sure, they may still be good photos, but there’s always something missing, that seems to be present on film.

A ship passing the railway bridge by the Forsyth Barr Stadium. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
A ship passing the railway bridge by the Forsyth Barr Stadium. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

It may be argued that digital gives you more options for the way a photo looks. I completely agree: it does. However, at what cost?

If I want saturated colours, I can load a roll of Velvia. If I want contrasty black and white, I can push Tri-X two stops and peg the exposure back a little. If I want softer colours in lower light, I can load a roll of Portra 400. If I want all that on digital, I have to dive into a menu, read a list of options, and click a few buttons. At worst, if I want to shoot infrared, rather than loading a roll of film, I most likely have to get the camera modified…

Blackhead Beach. Topcon-Horseman Press with Topcon P.W. 65 mm f/3.5 on Kodak Ektar 100.
Blackhead Beach. Topcon-Horseman Press Camera with Topcon P.W 6.5 cm f/3.5 on Kodak Ektar 100.

Film, in my hands, takes about as long to load as it does to pore over menus on a digital camera. Choosing and loading film is also a lot more interesting than pushing buttons and reading menus.

The Feel

You can feel film: it’s tactile; it curls and bends and tears and folds (not that you should be doing either of those last two). That feel can be helpful in finding a fault (and salvaging the photos) before it’s too late; I’ve lost photos to the dreaded “Card Error” message that pops up after the fact.

A solitary snowman in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
A solitary snowman in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

You can hold a roll of film, you can place it in the camera, you can draw it across the focal plane and into the take-up spool. After each shot, you can feel the next frame rolling into position as the winding gear moves. At the end of each roll, you can feel the tension building inside the roll, only to dramatically ease up as the end of the film is relinquished by the spool at the other end.

Butchers Dam, near Alexandra, Central Otago. Leica R4 with Leica Elmarit-R 135 mm f/2.8 on Agfa CT Precisa 100.
Butchers Dam, near Alexandra, Central Otago. Leica R4 with Leica Elmarit-R 135 mm f/2.8 on Agfa CT Precisa 100.

While motor drives remove some of the tactility from the process, they still possess a bit of feel. Digital capture, by comparison, is rather anodyne: you put a memory card in the slot, turn the camera on, and push the button.

The Range

Format-wise, digital has (so far) covered compact through to medium format. Film, on the other hand, has covered everything from miniature through to large format.

Across all of those formats, there are different kinds of film for every conceivable application, from infrared, to medium-speed low saturation colour, through to high speed black and white.

AN island off the coast near Taieri Mouth. Topcon-Horseman Press Camera with Topcon P.T. 180 mm on Kodak Ektar 100.
An island off the coast near Taieri Mouth. Topcon-Horseman Press Camera with Topcon P.T 18 cm f/5.6 on Kodak Ektar 100.

 

Digital offers this, even more so with the stratospheric ISO ranges now available. That being said, though, digital has yet to offer large format, medium format beyond 6×4.5 equivalent, or a panorama that doesn’t require stitching (see Horseman 617 or Hasselblad XPan).

The corner opposite the Dunedin Botanical Gardens, a bit of light rain just after dusk. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
The corner opposite the Dunedin Botanical Gardens, with a bit of light rain just after dusk. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

When compared with film, the range of equipment available (and the prices at which it is available) are sorely limited. This is mostly down to the fact that film has been around longer, but also due to the nature of technology. As every year passes, new cameras are launched, devaluing their predecessors. Further, if a digital sensor is damaged, you are often left with replacing the camera outright, or shelling out for a pricey repair. If a roll of film is below par, you can swap it for another.

The Workflow

Digital is faster, and that’s something I will never dispute. A by product of that haste, though, is the propensity for errors (like missed focus or poor framing) to creep into the workflow. Yes, some can be corrected post-capture; but doesn’t that slow down the process?

Taieri Mouth. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
Taieri Mouth; the sand spit off the picnic area. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

Film is slower: you have to process it, which takes time. In the knowledge that you’re going to have to commit some time to processing it (or waiting for someone else to process it), you’re inherently more careful: you want to get it right first time, so there’s no wasted time at any stage of the process.

In that sense, it’s much like microbiology: you can work faster and increase the likelihood of contamination (meaning a total repeat of the experiment); or you can slow down, do things carefully, and get clean, reliable results (meaning progress to subsequent experiments).

A small beach southeast of Brighton, south coast of Dunedin. Scroggs Hill is visible in the distance. Topcon-Horseman press Camera with Topcon P.S 10.5 cm f/3.5 on Kodak Ektar 100.
Overlooking a small beach southeast of Brighton, south coast of Dunedin. Scroggs Hill is visible in the distance. Topcon-Horseman Press Camera with Topcon P.S 10.5 cm f/3.5 on Kodak Ektar 100.

After capture, both film and digital photos can be run through a computer. In fact, a number of newer film emulsions are optimised for analog capture and digital processing. While a digital file is transferred directly, film has to be scanned. I don’t see any real burden in this, especially as you can check the film during the process. As an added bonus, I find film files are easier to handle, thanks to the dynamic range advantage film still seems to hold over digital.

Looking through the remnants of the fireplace of an old sod cottage in the Maniototo. Leica R4 with Leica Elmarit-R 135 mm f/2.8 on Agfa CT Precisa 100.
Looking through the remnants of the fireplace of an old sod cottage in the Maniototo. Leica R4 with Leica Elmarit-R 135 mm f/2.8 on Agfa CT Precisa 100.

Storage wise, film takes up more space than digital files. Practically, though, this is offset by reliability. Computers, hard drives and cloud servers take time to access, and are prone to failure. Albums, conversely, take little time to access, and based on some of the museum archives in existence, are more robust.

Conclusion

It should be quite clear from this that I love using film. There’s a look and feel with film capture that I’ve found somewhat absent from digital, and still more to choose from in terms of film options (between formats and film types). Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy shooting digital, and find some digital cameras a joy to use; but, ultimately, I will always prefer film.