Give film a shot!

Film's unique look

Film’s unique look

We are in the 21st century. The world has gone digital. It has changed the way we communicate, watch movies, listen to music and take photos. Nowadays you can take a photo on your mobile phone and it will already be on your home computer when you get home. Everything is synced in the cloud and computers are getting smaller and more portable. We used to talk about kilobytes and megabytes we now talk gigabytes and terabytes. Computing power keeps doubling every 18 months and the forward march of technology is seemingly unstoppable.

Who would dream of using a camera that doesn’t require batteries to operate?

The answer is: A surprising number of people.

The real question of course, is why? That’s what I will be discussing in this post.

[Initially I was going to name this post "Film vs Digital", but I decided that wasn't the route I wanted to take. It's also a purely subjective argument which some people have very strong feelings about. Digital is extremely versatile and the only real option for many professionals who require a fast turn around time. It's low light capabilities are far better than film and it's a no-brainer for sports photography too.]

 

Why Shoot 35mm Film?

 

It’s different! 
Everybody is going around with the latest DSLRs, mirrorless cameras and smartphones. Film is quite rare. Anyone below the age of 20 might just about remember using a film camera in their childhood, if at all.
When you carry a vintage film camera people want to try it and they will  ask you questions: it sets you apart, and so it’s always a conversation starter. It’s also nice to disconnect from the digital life once in a while. Using something which doesn’t have an LCD screen and batteries is quite refreshing!

I have also noticed that most people tend to be less camera shy if they know that the camera is not digital. I think the reason is that the picture is not available immediately to review and that they feel more reassured that it won’t end up online. I think that it has a lot to do with the personality of the photographer as well.



You take fewer photographs…

Some people see this as a negative (excuse the awful pun) point. As I am not a professional photographer I am not under any time pressure, and I don’t have to worry about the number of shots that I take. If I miss a shot because I was changing film or whatever else then...c’est la vie! There is always tomorrow! 

I prefer to take my time thinking about the composition, the light and the overall feel. These are the things that really matter in photography. If it’s a static scene such as an interesting piece of architecture, and it’s in my home town then I can always come back another day when I feel the light would be more suitable for the subject. You can be happy if you get one nice photo of a place you visit. Don’t look for the obvious angles where everybody has their cameras set up. Take a walk around the place and it’s usually in the harder to reach places where the best photos are to be found. That may mean walking around for 30 minutes or climbing seven flights of stairs, but the end result will be worth it.

To get this photo I even had to go into a restricted part of the complex, it was an incredibly hot day, and I was leaving the country in a couple of hours, yet I still decided to visit this grim place.

Genocide Museum

The view from one of the buildings of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The fact that each time I press the shutter it costs me money also helps. This creates a physical barrier which prevents mindless trigger-happy snapping…not to mention that I would be changing rolls of film every few minutes like that!

Film forces you to think about the photos you take. Without an LCD screen you will lose the habit of checking each photo immediately after you take it and learn to previsualise a scene. What’s more, if you wait a while before getting your photos developed and seeing them, it helps you to stay emotionally distant from the photos whilst editing. Thus you are more objective when you select the few photos to print or upload online. Everyone takes plenty of rubbish photos, the secret is only showing the good ones!


There is no way out with a fully manual film camera…you have to use your brain!



Get the “film look” 

Blossom in Palermo

The classic look of film. I calculated the exposure using the old Sunny 16 rule.

 

I guess this is quite an obvious one! If you do a quick google search you can find a ton of [expensive] software and plugins to emulate the so called “film look”. That, frankly, is ridiculous. Film has something special that can’t quite be described. It has great dynamic range and a huge margin of error for exposure. No need to bother with that terrible HDR technique and complex matrix light metering systems. The good old sunny 16 rule never fails once you have calibrated that incredible light measuring device that never gets fooled: your brain. You never have to worry about suddenly blowing out the highlights of your image. When film is really overexposed (by a ridiculous amount – it has a huge margin for overexposure, especially with colour negative and black and white film) the highlights will gradually fade to white, and you won’t just get a complete blob of white for a sky. By getting rid of all these silly distractions one can concentrate on actually taking great pictures instead of fiddling about with settings. Film has it’s own built in white balance and so there is never any auto white balance setting that can be fooled and give you horrendous results indoors or in difficult light.

Film has grain. Live with it, learn to love it. It’s not that nasty digital noise than you see in high ISO digital images. It’s beautiful, individual and non-intrusive grain. You can get ISO 50 or 100 film that is as clear and fine as anything that digital can throw at it and some black and white films go up as high as 3200 and have lovely and pleasant grain. Film grain feels like it’s an organic part of the photo you have taken.

The huge advantage of film is that you can swap out and try different sensors. Every film interprets a scene in a different way and it’s up to the photographer to learn to use them!

 

Vintage Cars

Film: Colours that really pop!

Tip: at first, stick to one film and get used to how it reacts with different colours and different types of light and then branch out and experiment. That is the really fun part of shooting film.  

The beautiful colours that come out when shooting film is something that just cannot be matched by digital. The skin tones look natural and the colours feel right. It’s almost as if you have created a fond memory of the actual scene.


Black & White

If you love black and white, you will love film. Nothing from digital (even the new and incredibly expensive Leica M Monochrome) can touch film when it comes to black and white. The tones, the grain…the feel. It will also teach you to look for interesting shapes and patterns. One could write an entire article (or even a blog!) on shooting black and white film. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

You can be lazy…

I enjoy the act of the taking photos and also enjoy doing some editing, but I have other interests too. I compose music, practice the piano, travel and cycle. So for my photography I want to travel along the path of least resistance when it comes to spending time organising photos and backing up files etc.
The great thing with film photography is that it keeps things simple but you have the option of a fully digital workflow if you require it. It also means you can spend more time with friends, girlfriends, pets and strangers instead of backing up hard drives and reformatting memory cards. It also means that during the day when you are out and about you are enjoying the day and living in the moment instead of constantly checking the screen on the camera.

 

Girl and Flowers

One possible workflow:

a) Take photographs

b) Take more photographs

c) Take even more photographs

d) When you have built up a number of rolls then drop them off to your local shop for development.

e) If you are just going to get prints then that is it! All done! Pick up your negatives and print and enjoy your masterpieces. You can also ask them to give you a set of scans so you have digital files to play around with at home. You can process these as you would with any digital files except that they will look far better :)

When I want to do some more serious editing and I want to have control then I just scan them into the computer with my Epson V700 film scanner and while I make a coffee the scanner gives me 36 stupidly high quality (and high resolution if you choose) RAW or JPEG pictures straight onto my desktop. I never have to fumble around with numerous memory cards and various hard disks for hundreds of crappy digital files. All these hard drives have to be backed up and then there is still the risk that they fail and you lose everything.

I then have a master copy in the form of the negative, a secondary copy as a print and also a digital file if I want it! It will be much easier 5 or 10 years from now to access you old photos as they actually exist instead of just being 0s and 1s in an old hard disk somewhere. Let’s not even talk about how one is going to open a proprietary RAW file ten or more years from now…

Film also let’s me be lazy with my cameras when I am out and about. No need to try and find my way through a huge amount of complex menu options and try and remember what all the various buttons do. I control shutter speed on the camera body and aperture and focus on the lens. It’s just so simple. I also don’t have to remember to charge my batteries the night before or worry about keeping my camera “on” (it’s always on and ready to shoot).

The great thing about film is that it gives you choice. You can shoot film and have a real hard backup and still enjoy all the benefits of digital such as sending pictures via email or uploading them to Facebook or Flickr.

Film Cameras are Amazing


They really don’t make them like they used to. This really applies to cameras these days. Most of them are made of plastic and are not mean to last much more than 5 years.
I own three film cameras:

  • Pentax K1000 – This is a tough-as-nails camera for everyday shooting. I took it to Cambodia with me and it was rained on, crushed, dropped and it just carried on working. Mine is 35 years old. Full manual controls but it does give you a needle based light sensor which takes one tiny easy to find battery that lasts for years. You do need to learn when to keep the needle in the middle and when to over/under expose. This camera uses the K mount and so you have a massive collection of superb Pentax lenses to choose from and they are all (mostly) quite cheap and easy to find.
  • Olympus Pen EES-2 – Truly a point and shoot. One of the few automatic cameras in the world that would still work after a nuclear holocaust. It doesn’t have any batteries whatsoever but still gives you a fully automatic shooting experience. How is that possible? Selenium-based light meter…basically it’s powered by the sun. The only thing you have to set is the focus distance. It has 4 icons. 1 Metre, 2 Metres, 5 Metres and Infinity. It couldn’t be simpler. It’s a great street photography camera as it’s always on and you can point and shoot with zero delay. Did I mention it also shoots half frame photos so you can get over 72 images on one roll of film?
  • Leica M3Arguably the best camera ever. The Leica that all other Leicas would like to be. Fully manual, no light meter and a massive viewfinder for really accurate focusing. It’s absolutely beautiful and a masterpiece of engineering. It was voted the top gadget of all time by experts at Ebay.co.uk and Stuff Magazine.

All three of these cameras work perfectly well and, with the occasional tuneup, will carry on working for decades. And they feel real in your hand.

Most interchangeable lens film cameras come with a prime lens, usually a 50mm. These fixed-focal length lenses are far superior in sharpness and optical quality than the cheap auto-focus zoom lens kits that come standard with DSLRs these days.

Banana Flower

The Pentax SMC K 50mm f1.2 @ f1.2

 

You can even splash out and get yourself a really fast 50mm lens like the Pentax SMC K 50mm f1.2 for way less than any mid range auto-focus lens. The shallow depth of field of a fast lens shot wide open, can be great for flattering portraits and also for isolating objects. They can also make the large viewfinders in Film SLR cameras even brighter.

Isn’t shooting film really expensive?

This is a question I get asked all the time. The answer is that it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be.
The “El-cheapo” method:
Get yourself a used Pentax K1000 (or MX/KM etc..) and a 50mm f2 or “nifty fifty” as it’s sometimes called. That will set you back roughly £50 or less. You now have a full frame SLR camera. Get yourself an “el-cheapo” film scanner. There are quite a few around for less than £100.
So far you have spent £150 and you have the equipment to shoot images that can rival full-frame digital cameras that cost £2000+ (no lens!)…
It will take you many, many years to shoot and develop £1850 worth of film. In the last year I’ve spent maybe £150 on buying and developing film and I have an entire folder full of negatives! This works for me :)

The “price is no concern” method:

 
Get yourself a Leica MP from an “à la carte” store for roughly £4500 depending on what options you choose. Then get yourself a 35mm 50mm and a 90mm or 135mm lens, all from Leica. Depending on exactly which lenses you get that will set you back at least £5000 but easily £15000+ if, for example, you choose Leica’s  50mm f0.95 which will set you back a cool £8000.
Then, you buy a drum scanner, which, apart from being incredibly difficult and time consuming to use, is also at least a £6000 investment, if not much more.
Of course, only shoot really expensive slide film and have it developed at a fancy store for £15 to £20 a film.
Each person will find the way that is more suitable for them :)
Well…

In conclusion, I think it’s important to do what you like. Film, digital, oil painting… It doesn’t really matter what you use as long as you concentrate on the important things such as light, timing and perspective. If you have never shot a roll of film in your life, go and get yourself an el-cheapo film camera and try it. Even if you find that you can’t stand shooting film you will have had a new experience and that is never a bad thing!

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Comments

  1. says

    really like that blog entry, Emanuele.I got a Hasselblad mid of this year … then a Pentax 645, an old 6×6 TLR and got my old 35mm out of the closet. It’s real fun …
    Thanks,
    Dirk

    • says

      Hasselblad! Nice ;) Which one?

      What 35mm camera do you use? I wrote this post on 35mm but almost all of it is applicable to the bigger formats.
      I really want to try medium format. I’ve heard great things about the Pentax.. it’s basically a large SLR right with a massive mirror slap right? :) The image quality jump must be pretty big with twice the sensor size…

      Thanks for reading :)

    • Anonymous says

      Great writing, great post – thank you very much!

      I am in the process of deciding to go film or stay with digital. Knowing me, doing both would leave me wondering what camera to take each day and missing shots because in the end I would take none with me…..

      I own a Fuji X100 and a Leica CL with 40, 50 and 90mm lenses (in need of a light internal cleaning) as well as a nice pair of Olympus Trip 35 cameras I adore!

      Digital is simply so convenient, although I try to shoot it like a film camera (no chimping, shooting slow and deliberately, not downloading the pics immediately… silly, I know). You have Auto ISO, Color and B&W, all in one camera and in one ‘roll of film’. But film gives me that unique special feeling…. and those unique pictures too.

      I’s been weeks I have been turning this decision in my mind, and you might just have given me the necessary insight…..

      I just hope I take the right decision!

  2. says

    I learned photography on black and white film in the darkroom and I think it was a really good thing. You think more about your shots and why things aren’t going to work You stop setting the camera on Auto and just shooting.

    I just think that you might have a little trouble finding where to print. My high school back home got rid of the film photography classes because of the rising cost in chemicals and it was difficult to find the paper. Just some things to keep in mind.

    • says

      I agree. Film definitely makes you think about each shot. Going out for a day and knowing you only have a couple of rolls on you makes you more careful. You don’t want to shoot all your exposures in the morning and then come across an amazing scene in the afternoon only to have no film left!

      I am lucky that I have a great photo lab near my house that develop and print from both colour (negatives and positives) and black and white.

      I think that in the future in most large cities you will have at least a couple of places were you can’t print film. Fingers crossed!

      Thanks for dropping by Ronit, I took a look at your blog…some really interesting articles. I am currently writing an article about the change of pace in modern society and how to switch to long-term thinking. Check back later this month!

    • says

      Thanks! Also, thanks for the Flickr add, I’m currently locked out of Flickr due to some log-in issues but it will be resolved in a couple of days. I like your Flickr slogan: “Shoot Film, not bullets”. :)

  3. says

    I recently got myself an Olympus Pen ee-3 half frame camera. I learned photography in black and white processing my own films and making prints of it myself inside a dark room. I started with a Yashieca fx-3 but spend most of my analog photography days with an Olympus OM-G slr so it’s quite natural for me to lean on Olympus cameras.

    I am now excited to use the half frame pen knowing that shooting in film requires a totally different discipline.

    Great post!

    I will subscribe to your website now :)

    remzamora

  4. MiniMoke says

    Great writing, great post – thank you very much!

    I am in the process of deciding to go film or stay with digital. Knowing me, doing both would leave me wondering what camera to take each day and missing shots because in the end I would take none with me…..

    I own a Fuji X100 and a Leica CL with 40, 50 and 90mm lenses (in need of a light internal cleaning) as well as a nice pair of Olympus Trip 35 cameras I adore!

    Digital is simply so convenient, although I try to shoot it like a film camera (no chimping, shooting slow and deliberately, not downloading the pics immediately… silly, I know). You have Auto ISO, Color and B&W, all in one camera and in one ‘roll of film’. But film gives me that unique special feeling…. and those unique pictures too.

    I’s been weeks I have been turning this decision in my mind, and you might just have given me the necessary insight…..

    I just hope I take the right decision!

    • says

      That’s a tough one but I think you already know what recommendation I am going to give you! :D

      Sell the X100, buy more film, and shoot with either the Leica or the Trip 35. If you can try to escape the results based mentality then I think you will find it easier. So don’t worry about getting your film developed in a rush. Build up several rolls and then get them developed and printed/scanned. [btw..Don't leave them too long before you get them developed!]

      I often do this and then I am so excited to see what’s on there as I have mostly forgotten by that time. For example, my last batch of 35mm I had shots from Milan, Palermo, Bergamo, Barcelona, and also a photoshoot I did in January. I poured myself a glass of red wine and spent the evening scanning :)

      Remember, in many years time you can look back on your film shots and be glad you chose that format.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Emanuele.

  5. George says

    Hello. Yes, film cameras require more involvement in the photography ‘process’. Further, if one does all of the film processing and printing themselves they become totally involved in the art and science of photography. It’s a very enjoyable hobby/career. Darkroom experience makes one more thoughtful about ‘taking’ photos. Wide latitude black and white films plus a large variety of printing papers, developing chemicals, etc permit one to think in terms of ‘painting’ pictures in black and white. What one sees in the view finder of the camera can become the starting point for many different final renditions of the scene. That opens up a world of possibilities.
    Regards, George

  6. says

    I just found your site, lots of great reading. I’ve been shooting the past year with a few old Soviet rangefinders, and really enjoying myself.
    Btw I think it’s “Film digs girls”

  7. says

    I recently was given a KS-2 Sears camera from my grandfather. I snapped a couple pictures while at their house, and sent in the film today. I was trained to use DSLRs (fully manual of course) in a digital photography class given at my high school. So far, film feels good; you get a nice hands-on feel while using it and from what you’ve said I hope the prints turn out great! I’m used to being able to take multiple pictures of the subject in case I screw up the exposure a little or correcting angles if I feel like they need to be adjusted.

    I’m definitely going to be learning the Sunny 16 Rule well, and I’ll send over any good shots I get from my first roll if you’d like!

    • says

      Hey Nikko,
      Yeah the hands-on feel is great, that’s what I love about film. I wouldn’t be too worried about screwing up the exposure. As long as you err on the side of over-exposure, film has a very forgiving latitude which should keep you out of trouble. Worst case, you learn a lesson!

      Sure, send over some shots when you’re ready, you can find the submission link on the photography page.

      • says

        Thanks for the reply! I ran into a problem the other day; I shot some long-exposure scenes of the night sky with 800 ISO film. The next day I went to grab my camera, and realized that 800 ISO probably isn’t really all that great for shooting sunny, snow-filled days (or maybe it’s fine?). What do you think the best compromise is for ISO, between getting quick action shots or bright daytime shots? I’m still learning, and haven’t really looked into this issue that much because of the ease of use of DSLRs.

  8. Dianne Bencito says

    Hello,

    I love reading your article, it was a great motivation for me to get exposed to film. Thank you for articulating on the K1000, the reason I stumbled upon your site.

    I’m a student and an old soul at heart, I’ve been full on digital since I started photography (been 3 years since I got the shutter bug), with an exception to disposable film cameras. Well, I’ve been itching to get my hands on a film camera for ages and on my birthday my boyfriend surprised me by getting me a Pentax-K1000, (new old stock with kit lens) and a box of film. We are both camera geeks so it was really amazing of him to get it for me to start me off. I have heard of it being the standard “Student Camera”, so i’m rather excited to finally test that theory.

    I would just like to ask, do you have any tips for someone taking there first swing with film? One of my main concerns would be where to get film, types, etc. and actually developing them in the long run. Also, any steps I should take to test the camera once I start?

    Thank you for the wonderful read!
    More power to film!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Shutter Speed, Aperture, and Iso. Those are the three things you need to control and that’s all you get with a Leica M rangefinder camera.  The Leica M Type 240 adds all kinds of extra that we don’t need but, of course, you should be shooting film! […]

  2. […] Systemic Obsolescence is when a new product comes out that is technologically more advanced. Often it also happens not to be backward compatible with previous models. This is why you might be tempted to buy Leica’s latest camera instead of the sixty year old Leica M3. It has a new digital sensor inside it instead of the using film which is older technology. We’ve seen before that there is actually nothing wrong with shooting film. […]

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