I recently watched a video podcast on YouTube where one of the panelists asked a question many have wondered but never voiced: Why do photographers bother with the idea of taking photos on film only to scan them and make them digital again?
I thought about it and came up with three potential reasons:
- You genuinely love film and the look it presents. You love it so much that you are willing to spend a lot of time, money, and energy to indulge in film. In other words, the film gives you “the feels.”
- You need to stand out in the ocean of images and tell a story about your photography. Film is an excellent way to differentiate yourself.
- Specifically, if you are a photo-oriented YouTuber, you need something that adds variety to your broadcast. After all, audiences can only put up with the sameness for so long.
One aspect of film that I have personally found appealing is the restrictions it imposes. Film photography is about constraints. It limits the frames at your disposal. It limits the capability of the sensor (aka the film.) And in most cases, it limits the choice of lens and equipment. Such constraints tend to ultimately free you from choices that come with digital photography.
On a digital camera, whether it is making long exposures, exposure bracketing, or simply focus stacking — these are as easy as flicking a switch. Not so much in a film camera. You have to think a lot, do manual calculations, and think about abstract subjects like “reciprocity.” You have to remember the details of the photos and time everything manually. In other words, film photography teaches you to slow down and use your mind, your eye, and some math to make the right photographic decisions. As a landscape photographer, these are crucial lessons, and they help you think before you press the shutter button.
In 2018, at the urging of a friend, I decided to go full film for a year. I used two cameras — Mamiya 6 (medium format) and Leica M-A. They both had f2/50mm (equivalent) lenses. I used Kodak Portra 400 for color and Kodak Tri-X 400 for b&w photography. I exposed the films at the equivalent of ISO 200. This was one of the most challenging years of my photographic life. In the early days, I miscalculated light and got my settings wrong. And then, eventually, I got to a point where things started to improve.
Towards the end of the year, I even started to like my photos. Most of them have not been shared online. A few have become small proof prints, and two actually hang on the walls of my apartment. This was a costly journey. The amount of money it took to buy film, have it professionally developed, scanned, and printed in a real lab would have been enough to buy me a digital medium format camera.
But money wasn’t the point. What did film photography teach me? It allowed me to find my own sweet spot on the histogram. It gave me the courage to veer away from traditional norms and make landscapes as I saw them. As I wrote last year, “The film also made me realize that my visual interpretations of a scene find a comfortable space between color and monochromatism. Film photography helped me realize my affection for brighter mid-tones and a softer palette.”
Even today, I use the same manual Leica Summicron f2/50mm lens. I use 16 GB cards and restrict myself to 100 frames or less when on a photo trip. I rarely try to do exposure bracketing. I do most of my long exposure calculations in my head. And I try to use my handheld light meter just to double-check the light conditions. I trust my camera — still Leica SL — but I still aim to slow down and do some math in my head. I hardly ever look at the screen to review my photos.
But it has been over a year since I touched my film cameras. I am exclusively digital. I don’t want to keep spending the money on the film and its workflow. I don’t get the film’s visceral joy, as do my good friends and film loyalists, Bijan Sabet or Dan Rubin. I am certainly no Ben Horne, who lugs around his large-format camera and makes beautiful landscapes. I don’t get into a tizzy about the grain. I am left scratching my head when I attempt to detect the organic film look everyone waxes so eloquently about. I am sure it is there, but my eyes are unable to discern the difference. No doubt some people view me much like I do my sister, who thinks Tim Horton makes good coffee even though I keep explaining the true meaning of good coffee.
Being a technology guy, I am appreciative of progress. If we kept looking back, we would still be using glass plates, and film wouldn’t have existed. Digital sensors and — yes — even camera phones are part of that continuum. However, that doesn’t detract from the value in learning from the past and embracing the techniques and tools fine-tuned over a century. At least in my case, doing so helped me figure out what matters most to me.
I am not sure I have the patience or desire to go through being exclusively on film again. It is not worth the time. At least, not for me. After all, I am not selling a story. I am not pushing content to my followers. I barely share photos. I make photos because they allow me to escape reality and enter into a dreamscape. In this place, for a few brief moments, ugliness stops. And magic unfolds.
November 4, 2020. San Francisco.
All images were made with Leica M-P and Kodak Portra 400. They were developed at Richard Photo Lab in Southern California. These are unedited except for minor contrast adjustments.