Why Shoot in Film?

Shooting film is exceptionally rewarding. Without the obvious ability to "review" what we’ve shot, we tend to put more thought and consideration into each and every image that we capture; not least because there’s a financial factor to be considered. If you find photography a mindful exercise, just try shooting in film, it’ll greatly intensify this most wonderful of aspects.

Additionally, though operating on exactly the same principals as digitals, film cameras are so much more straightforward. The camera is a light proof box which holds the film and contains a shutter mechanism. The lens holds the apertures and manually focuses the light onto the film plane. Simple. That’s all a camera has ever done, and shooting with film reminds us so.

Competing with digital

Despite the fact that with digital we can rattle off as many frames as we deem fit to capture the perfect shot (very useful within the commercial arena) we are now making fewer albums/prints than ever before. Instead, we’re posting online to the tune of around six billion images per month to Facebook alone. For this reason, it’s hard for your image to compete against these numbers. However, images taken with film certainly stand out against the digital onslaught. It doesn’t seem to matter how clever a post-production digital filter may be, none of these images actually compete with the characteristics of film. This is especially relevant as film images have undoubtedly been exposed through an optic from a bygone era, which in itself applies its own "filter style" to the final capture.

For some years now, digital images can be considered perfect 2D renditions of the given scene; colours and contrasts recorded without error, exactly as perceived by the human eye. Very clever indeed, but wholly clinical and without soul, perfect for the commercial world, but where’s the charm? It’s the errors which make the medium of film so beautiful, potentially rife with imperfections, particularly in the recording of colour and contrast. Something very interesting about "film" is that each brand (and sub-brand) deliberately captures colour and contrast differently, so your choice of finish would reflect this. There are many options out there, but essentially, the differences boil down to this degree of contrast and colour saturation. We choose our film stock based on the desired outcome. We’re not planning to manipulate our (scanned) analogue images in PhotoShop, as they’d be .jpg’s with limited adjustment possibilities. After all, if you wanted to change the image's flavour, you would have shot digital in the first place.

Each roll of film has a prescribed ISO rating, typically 100, 200 or 400; it’s possible to find faster films but they’re rarer these days (and expensive). The lower the number, as with digital, the cleaner the image. Film however displays "grain" (tiny, rather pleasing, sand-like specs) at faster ISO speeds. Digital displays "noise" (which, as we know, is simply "muddy" and unpleasant). It's worth noting though, that film will show its grain far sooner than digital will show its noise.


Black and white film, however, can usually be exposed at ISOs of up to around 6,400 (regardless of its actual rating), known as "pushing" the film; this is achieved during a longer processing exposure to the developing chemicals in the lab.

Film comes in two main categories; negatives or transparencies (or slide film which records the image as a positive). The main difference being their respective exposure latitudes. Negative film can be shot at up to 1 stop under or 2 stops over and still record a perfectly acceptable image. Transparency, on the other hand, has a narrower limit of -1 or +1/2 stops, so requires greater accuracy when metering. In a sense, this is closer to the digital image's tolerance, although when the latter is captured as a RAW file it has considerably more correctional scope within the digital darkroom. 

The time is right for film

I would say that now is the time to buy a film camera. Even though there seems to be a resurgence in shooting film, the train hasn’t quite left the station and second hand 35mm SLR prices are still very reasonable (or look in your parents'/grandparents' attic). Though as each generation falls in love with the medium, second hand stocks will become scarcer and subsequently more expensive. 

Interestingly, December 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the digital camera, which was rather ironically pioneered by Eastman Kodak in 1975 when some clever bods engineered a camera, (weighing in at around 4kgs), capable of capturing a 0.01mp black and white image and subsequently recorded onto a compact audio cassette. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that digital performance began challenging traditional film at a competitive price-point. 

Personally, at the time, I was sad about the demise of film. One of its absolute beauties for me was its tangibility; being able to hold the image in my hand, pass it round, hold it to the light; this was everything to me. However, I bit the bullet, bought my first digital camera and gradually learned to love the new medium.

Over the last few years though, I’ve been returning to film. This is not because it’s better, but simply because it's very different in terms of the finished results and also the methodology.

The above image was shot using a Fuji Sensia ISO 200 print film, with a Zorki 4 rangefinder camera sporting an Industar 50mm f3.5 lens. It was captured in winter in mid-afternoon light (so warm) coming in from the right. There’s a white wall acting as a reflector just out of frame to the left, which has helped even the exposure. It's worth noting both the grain and the subtle warm colour cast.

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Written by: Robert Irving

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