If you’re primarily a digital shooter, never have shot film, or switched to digital for convenience, then you may be wondering why we’re so ga-ga about film. Well the fact of the matter is that film has a unique look that simply cannot be matched by digital. You might be thinking that you can just process digital files to look like film, but that simply isn’t the case. Here is a short rambling on why we prefer film for personal work. Digital certainly has its place in the commercial arena, but for personal projects, nothing beats the beauty of film.
Each and every time the newest digital camera is released, manufacturers are clamoring about how this iteration has the best dynamic range yet. It’s true that digital cameras are improving dramatically here with every release, but they’re still worlds away from film. Now, I’m not talking about “HDR” or other oddball gimmicks, but true dynamic range.
Shoot a roll of medium format Kodak Portra, and you will find so many colors and subtle in-between colors that you never knew existed. This yields beautifully rendered skin tones, with a soft gradient of colors; rather than colors blotting out to the nearest tone that will do the trick.
Not to mention, film’s most endearing quality, detail is held in the highlights. This means you’ll get a much more natural look in the highlights areas of an image, and much more natural looking light. Where digital hits 255/255/255 and goes stark white, film handles this with much more grace and gradually fades out. If you’ve ever shot digital, you’ve probably experienced this first hand when shooting a high contrast daytime scene and ending up with a completely white sky.
With digital capture, you basically have the latitude of E-6 slide film. If your exposure is a stop over, it’s blatantly obvious. As mentioned before, highlights wash out instantly to white and shadows get muddy (and noisy). This means that in order to keep your skies away from washed out white, you pretty much have to expose for the highlights.
With digital, your meter is incredibly important, because the exposure must be dead on. Yet, with film, it’s easy to shoot without a meter and learn to guess exposure, because you can hold so much more detail in the highlights. Since negative film has loads of latitude, you don’t have to be constantly adjusting your exposure for minor changes in the light. Which brings us to the next point…
Of course, the majority of people shooting digital are relying on Program or Aperture Priority and letting their meters drive the exposure completely. That’s all fine and dandy, and works well for fast, professional “grip & grin” work. But for your personal images, don’t you want to be the one responsible for creating an image that follows your vision? You wouldn’t let your camera tell you where to point it, so why should it tell you what ISO, shutter speed, aperture and spot to focus?
Pretty much every digital camera will let you use it manually, but how many people do this when they have the choice to just flip it over to auto. Also, these cameras really aren’t designed to be operated manually, and controlling them this way feels like an afterthought. As good as manual focus can feel on an autofocus lens, it will never match the smooth precision of an AI Nikkor lens, a Hasselblad 80mm 2.8, or a 1950’s Leica lens that was only made to be focused by hand. Many low end DSLR’s won’t even give you control over the aperture and shutter speed at the same time, and require “Twister” like contortions just to adjust how much light is reaching your sensor.
All of the previous points might be seen as attempts to “prove” why film is ideal, but really it all comes down to the look that you want. If you shoot digital and that fulfills your artistic vision, then stick with that. But, for our personal work, film is king. Nothing matches the look and feel of the images from Kodak Tri-X or Ektar. And unlike shooting digital, with film you aren’t doing a ton of post-processing. You choose a specific film based on a look that you want to achieve. Once it’s developed and scanned, the processing is done. No twiddling in Photoshop (unless you want to adjust minor contrast or sharpness), just enjoy your photos and use the extra time to go shoot more often.
Choosing a Film
There is a ton of debate over which film to use, but in reality, choosing a film is totally personal preference. The first major decision that you need to make is whether you want to shoot color or black and white.
Black and white is simple. There is only one process, just the developing time varies for every developer and film combination. You can easily get the developing times for specific films from the manufacturer. The main difference in black and white films are the changes in tonality, texture / grain, and sharpness. We prefer Kodak Tri-X for its wide range of greys, great sharpness, reasonable grain, and moderately fast speed. Once of the benefits of this film is the exceptional exposure latitude. It’s definitely a great choice for a lot of different lighting scenarios and can even be pushed to 1600 in the developing process. Other films that are popular are Ilford HP5+ and Kodak Tmax. You really can’t go wrong with most of the B&W film options out there.
Color comes in two flavors, C41 and E6. C41 is color negative film, while E6 is color reversal film, or slide film. Color negative film has a standardized developing process and takes the same amount of time to process regardless of the film stock used. This film is often criticized as being “amateur” while E6 is viewed as professional grade. Yet, C41 gives much more accurate skin tones, has a wide latitude for exposure, and has several varieties for color palette choice. If you frequently shoot portraits, or want to get into color street photography, this is your film or choice. Try out Kodak Portra for people photos in either 160 or 400, or Ektar for photos of things. Ektar is unique in the way that it provides a nearly E-6 rendering for skys and reds, yet it is a negative film. Ektar also has incredible sharpness that rivals many BW films and the lowest grain of any film that we’ve tried.
E6 color is touted as being the professional color film, and it is truly amazing. It’s worth trying at least once if you enjoy film. It does come with a few downsides, which include low exposure latitude, difficult developing, and red skin tones. The main problem with the developing is that the chemicals needed to process E6 have a 2 week shelf life, where BW processing has a shelf life of 6 months to a year. If you try E6, you’ll be rewarded with the most interesting blue skys, greenest greens, and overall awesome landscape tones. If you shoot landscapes and things more often than people, this is a great choice. Give Velvia 50 a try. Kodak no longer produces E6 films, but Kodachrome used to cover nearly every page of National Geographic.
Film comes in many sizes and formats. Most people who shoot film are using 35mm, which is small, portable, and offers the most choices for film stocks. This format is readily available and there are a ton of cameras that take 35mm film. Compared to the other formats, 35mm has much lower resolution, sharpness, and more limited tonality.
Medium Format is a great middle group and comes in a multitude of sizes. Cameras such as the Rolleiflex and Hasselblad use the 6×6 format, while other cameras like the Mamiya RB67 use 6×7 and the larger Fuji rangefinders use 6×9. All of the cameras use 120 or 220 film, just they create larger or smaller exposures on a given roll. The difference between 6×6 and 6×9 is fairly large, but no where near the jump from 35mm to 6×6. Medium format has very readily available film stocks, but for processing you either need a pro lab, or you’ll have to do it on your own.
Large format offers the ultimate in quality with sizes from 4×5 to 8×10 and beyond. Large format has a quality that is unmatched by any other photographic media. The cameras that use large format film are usually fairly unwieldy and require a tripod or a lot of patience, but the results are phenomenal. Perfect for landscape photography, but not ideal for the street.
Find your look and stick with it
By all means, try every film out there to see what you like, that’s what we’ve been doing. But once you find a film that will work for your needs, stick with it. This way you know how it will react in certain situations (overexposed, underexposed, backlit, people tones, etc.) and you can really hone in on your artistic vision.