The Mystique of Film

A number of my friends seem to be flirting with film, and many forums have posts discussing the advantages of wet photography. I understand some of the reasons for this fling.

In the case of some, it’s not a fling at all. Older photographers who grew up with film have years of hard won experience with the medium. Knowing how it works is instinctive for these folks. Van, a photographer I first met forty years ago, was using a wooden view camera for black and white portraiture when I met him. The shutter on that lens was controlled by an air bulb—no mechanical timer here, and he could consistently get good exposures by operating it manually. Of course, he’d had sixty years of experience.

There are some who like the “look” of film. It’s very true that Panatomic-X looked far different from Plux-X Pan, and color transparency film certainly has a look all its own. Fuji Velvia, for example, has a very narrow dynamic range, dropping to a velvet black with just a bit of underexposure. Kodachrome’s reds were legendary.

It is possible to mimic a particular film’s tonality and grain as part of a digital processing workflow, although some aficionados cry foul. “It’s not the same,” they shout. I wouldn’t know; I am not that tuned in to the “look.” Of course, if you’re a Kodachrome fan, good luck in trying to get it processed even if you have a hundred unexposed rolls sitting in your freezer. The last K-14 processing machine was shut down in December, 2010. Mama took your Kodachrome away.

The interest of some of the recent converts or the lapsed returning to the film fold might be a matter of the gear, both embracing and escaping technology.

Older film cameras, of a better quality than the Brownie/Instamatic varieties, have a solidity and elegance that isn’t often found in today’s digital wonders. Take hold of a Leica or MamiyaFlex and you immediately sense precision. Hearing the mechanical shutter operate with an authoritative snap is a delight. Older lenses for 35mm cameras have a focusing ring that feels damped, tight, and responsive compared to today’s offerings, although the new lenses have, for the most part, far better optics.

The wonderful movements of a view camera both intimidate and delight modern photographers, but that flexibility is a draw. Most “enthusiasts” of forty years ago were also intimidated by a Linhof, although like many current photographers looking at the latest expensive and exotic gear, those enthusiasts were always going to get one, even if they didn’t know how it worked. They never did get a view camera…much like many current photographers praising but not getting some new wonder touted on DPReview.com.

While for some it might be an attempt to embrace a “purer” and simpler photographic experience, I think for others this “back to basics” movement is also an escape from the overwhelming gearaholic attitude that pervades web sites devoted to photography.

Being a gear head on the internet is easy. You don’t even have to take photographs of anything other than test charts. Plus, everyone gets to be an expert, spouting off nonsense, with the same exposure (pun intended) and authority as someone who truly knows and understands the subject.

Is it any wonder that a serious photographer, more interested in communicating his emotional experience while viewing a subject than in worrying about Airy diffraction formulas, would like to escape the miasma of the internet? Talking about the craft of photography is a fine diversion, but it isn’t photography. Moving back to film is a way for some to enjoy the art while avoiding the endless discussions about chromatic aberration and shutter shock.

I have to be honest: we had the gear-obsessed back in the film-only days, but there were two differences. First, compared to using computer programs it was damned hard to make measurements. Densitometers were rare, and making an H-D graph was an involved undertaking, well beyond most. Measuring lens/film resolution was almost impossible for the average hobbyist, although it was much discussed.

Second, it was hard to disseminate your “findings.” There were conversations about the latest miracle developer which offered astounding acutance, and God knows that the Zone System was discussed with religious fervor. Folks did talk big at the local camera store, but the audience was limited and far more able to ignore the conversation. Besides, we knew the speaker and whether to trust anything they said. Mostly, we didn’t.

Personally, I don’t miss film. I like digital for many reasons.

Yes, the cameras are far more expensive, but Oh! how cheap it is to shoot! I may take a thousand shots at a rodeo, and I don’t have to worry about the cost each time I press the shutter.

Not having to wait for the film to be developed is another advantage. Black and white was easy to process at home, but developing color film at home was both expensive and extremely involved. Even when a photographer did home processing, it was several hours between pressing the shutter and seeing an image. With digital, I can press a button on the back of the camera and immediately get a fair idea of what I have on the memory card.

Sorry, film snobs, but the resolution, dynamic range, and tonality offered by today’s digital cameras far surpass anything that film could offer. No, it doesn’t look the same; it looks better.

I will never miss the days when ASA 400 Tri-X was considered fast, with the option of push processing to ASA 1600. Those were the days when it was easier to measure number of inches per grain than count grains per inch. A few nights ago I was using ISO 12800 and getting very acceptable images.

I don’t even miss ASA, let alone DIN. Sure, I have to stop myself from saying “ASA” instead of “ISO,” but I’ve been known to say “cycle” instead of “Hertz.” That’s just because I’m old.

There are disadvantages to digital photography. Perhaps the worst is the reliance upon digital delivery. For me, a print is the only way to really appreciate an image; a web site view is a poor substitute for the physicality and tonality of a print. Looking at a computer screen—or worse, a smartphone screen—isn’t the same as looking at a print, nor does it invite the careful consideration that a photograph and photographer deserve.

The low price of creating an exposure might encourage a certain sloppiness. It’s too easy to “fix it in post.” I’m not saying that photographers have become less contemplative; after all, landscape photographers take time to consider composition. However, I think that even landscape photographers take many digital shots in the hope of getting a keeper, editing at their computer instead of in the field before they press the shutter. I think it’s also true that too many action photographers rely on high burst rates to capture the moment instead of judging the action quickly and accurately.

Ultimately it’s the photographer’s decision: film, digital, or some combination. The only caution I’d offer is that choosing film over digital won’t make you a better photographer. Learning your tools, the compromises inherent in them, and how to speak in your images despite those limitations—that is what leads to mastery. Obviously I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Oh…about the photograph heading this post? It’s from a slide, taken with my grandfather’s Minolta 7s, an inexpensive 35mm rangefinder. I took it in 1971 or 1972 in Walsenburg, Colorado. The film is probably Ektachrome, and the slide carrier says “Montgomery Wards,” showing that in small towns you got your processing done where you could. It’s not Art; it’s a snapshot. And it helped to remind me of all of the limitations we used to suffer. I love you, Digital Goddess. You’ve won my allegiance.

This entry was posted in Opinion.

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2 Comments

  1. Dwight Taylor July 1, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

    I enjoy reading your posts, Tom. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Jerry Stachowski July 2, 2016 at 8:52 am #

    Film has a predictable non linearity in it’s response to light, which some folks like. Myself I agree with Tom, I like digital. While I have a few programs that try to mimic the film response, usually I’m happy with what my Nikon produces.

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