By Yvan Cohen
Is film better than digital? No sooner are the words uttered than I can hear the groans at the mere mention of such a cliché debate. Whatever your views are about film photography, we all know that digital photography rules the roost.
Digital technology has transformed picture taking devices into pocketable gadgets that are almost always in hand and it has made photography a universal form of communication. Digital cameras have given us the ability to endlessly photograph everything we see.
So, let’s forget the debates for a moment. Let’s not compare or argue over whether film or digital is better. Instead, let’s rather look at film photography based on its own merits. Here are five reasons to love film photography:
1. Film is forever – a legacy for history
Ok, it’s not quite as ‘forever’ as diamonds, but film (celluloid) has proven itself to be a very resilient medium. How many treasure troves of images have been discovered in attics, or squirreled away in old suitcases, after years of neglect?
Fast forward fifty, or even a hundred years, will those forgotten hard drives loaded with images even be readable? Will the data have survived intact? I doubt it.
2. Film photography forces us to slow down
Digital photography is great because it’s so easy and almost endless. Sure, you will eventually fill up a 128GB memory card but not before you’ve shot thousands of pictures. In most contexts, that gives you nearly unlimited picture taking capacity.
Compare this with a typical roll of 35mm film. It will have 36 exposures (sometimes a bit more and sometimes less) and can be shot at only one ISO/ASA setting.
While this might sound limiting, instead consider it as an opportunity to slow down your photography. Knowing you have just 36 exposures in your camera will force you to invest more thought into each shot, seeking out that ‘decisive moment’ with more precision.
If you decide to go ultra analogue, you could even shoot with a large format view camera using plate film, where you may just get two exposures per plate (front and back). This is about as slow as it gets. Each shot needs to be meticulously thought out and composed. Knowing how expensive your film is, and how easy it is to get things wrong, you’ll become laser focused on your composition, focus and lighting skills.
3. Film forces you to master the basics
The beauty of digital is that it is so easy. But with so much automation in the digital picture taking process, it’s easy to forget the basics. Focus is automatic, exposure can be programmed, and your digital file has so much latitude that you can correct most errors in post-production.
Now, I know film cameras have auto focus too, and they have auto exposure calculations, but the inflexibility of film means you really have to hone your craft if you’re to get good results.
If you’re shooting with film and investing your time in a more traditional process, then going all the way and shooting manually lets you better calculate the correct relationship between shutter speed and aperture.
A good understanding of the mechanics of a technically competent image is a skill that will open up creative possibilities when you go back to shooting digital.
4. Film cameras side-step obsolescence
We’ve all been caught up in the technological race. Every few years, digital technology makes such significant progress, we feel impelled to upgrade our cameras. The physical appearance of cameras changes relatively little but the capacity of their sensors and the amount of picture data they can record, is frequently transformed. As photographers, our bank balances become regular victims to the perceived need for an upgrade.
Film cameras by contrast, as mere instruments for exposing film to light, side-step the vicious circle of upgrades.
You can still buy a Nikon FM2, or a vintage Rolleiflex that may be decades old, yet works as efficiently as a picture taking device just as it did when it was first released. Older mechanical film cameras are not only more robust than their digital counterparts but are much easier (and generally much cheaper) to buy and repair.
5. You get results that look like film
This may sound like a bit of fudge, but think about it for a moment. How many digital photographers apply filters to their files, just so they can look like film? With film, obviously, you don’t need to do that.
The alchemy of film, means that different brands deliver different looks, different grains, different tones. For the connoisseur, picking a film stock to shoot with, is a bit like picking a fine wine – it should be just right for the task at hand.
For me, the jury is still out on whether there is a qualitative difference between an image created digitally and one shot on film. It’s partly a matter of taste.
The purists will argue that film developed and printed using traditional process has that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, which digital can’t deliver. A warmth and mood that only film is capable of.
Whatever you decide, it can be fun to try out shooting film. After all, film represents the origins of the photographic art. Indeed, one may argue that the advent of digital photography has changed the way we see and value photographs. Film can be expensive to purchase and develop, but the cameras are relatively cheap. If you’re serious about your photography, it’s a great way to broaden your skills and understanding.
Written by Yvan Cohen | Yvan’s been shooting documentary photography for over 30 years. He’s a co-founder of LightRocket and continues to shoot photo projects around South East Asia.
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