ESR Portraits : Analog Photography

Why Film?

One of the more common questions people ask when they learn that I shoot with film is, "Is it better somehow?". This is a surprising reaction to me, because it seems obvious that using film is about the process. And doesn't it stand to reason that a different process will result in a different result?

When digital cameras first replaced personal and professional photography they were dreadful, and one could simply say "yes". Now that digital cameras are good the answer to the question of "why" pulls in a larger story.

Better for Who?

Among some notable photographers the answer is something like this: film is just a tool, and this is the medium that I am an expert in. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation, but it's private and doesn't have any import for the rest of us.

Imagine what reaction you might have if you heard someone was planning on shooting a movie on 35mm. I don't think this will ever happen, but not because it's expensive or difficult. This is not a realistic choice because digital and film movie cameras are used in the same way: to capture raw data. This image data is spliced and fed through a series of editing pipelines.

Some photographers, such as myself, seem to think that they're up to a different kind of project when using film.

Expense

Let's put one thing on the table: picking up a film camera is not economical. Of course if you're clever there are many was saving money on film and development itself, but all of this is in addition. You almost certainly need a digital camera as well.

The second reason film probably costs more is precisely because it requires you to buy more digital gear! You need a way to digitize most if not all of your work, and that means some means accessories for your digital camera or a dedicated scanner.

Limitations

For the most part, film cameras are missing features that make digital cameras so versatile: image stabilization, accurate auto-focus, and high sensitivity. In broad daylight you don't need any of these, but on a dark day or indoors these features make composition much easier.

If an individual or a business is paying you to produce results, it stands to reason that you have developed skills and methods that will deliver consistently. If you pick a method that is less versatile or less reliable then it makes sense that people would ask if the final product is better.

John Free has observed that a monkey could take shots at random, but as people we want to be more. Technologies such as eye-tracking, electronic shutter, and large burst buffer seems allow one to hold a button down and get a "good" image. All one has to is scroll through the thumbnails and pick the winning moment. Some photographers work in exactly this way.

The most immediate advantage to film then is not technical superiority: it is a discipline. A medium format camera gives you 8 to 15 frames—the sheer limitation of the device requires imaginative engagement.

Trust

For all of the challenges to film, it is able to reward because a material imprinted with light connects with a sense that is deeply intuitive. This landscape of pigments or silver halides provides the basis of authenticity. At it's best, a photograph matches the way we really see a person or a place that we love.

Is film better somehow? As a means of creating a personable, believable photograph, it is. The photographer using a digital camera can accomplish this as well, but it will require a different kind of hard work.

Last updated on May 06, 2019