Episode 15

15. Some thoughts on film photography

Like vinyl records, typewriters, fountain pens and mechanical watches, film photography seems to be back in vogue. For some of us, it never really left.

Show Notes

Transcript

Like vinyl records, typewriters, fountain pens and mechanical watches, film photography seems to be back in vogue. For some of us, it never really left.

Hello friends and welcome to Photo 365, my name is Andrew Haworth. This show will be a little different because I’m not pitching any questionable advice today. I’m just reminiscing about film photography, which I’m seeing more and more interest in these days, despite efforts of the industry to get rid of it altogether.

Nikon recently discontinued the only film camera they were still producing, the F6. Leica still makes a couple, and then there are specialty rigs, like field cameras, which are entirely unique. The folks who use those have earned the right to scoff at us digital shooters.

I was thinking about film as I was boxing up some gear to sell last week. I loaded up some Tmax into a battered Nikon body and shot a roll in a local pinball arcade. Then I pulled out some unused rolls of 120 film and considered going out on a shoot with my medium format rig.

I wasn’t particularly motivated, until a friend of mine from some years back reached out for advice on film stocks for an upcoming trip. Next thing you know, I’d pulled out boxes of negatives and prints and old cameras and I was reliving the good old days. I’d forgotten just how much film I’d burned through the years. Thinking about it almost felt like a dream.

Digital Love, Analog Photograph. Atlanta, 2018, Mamiya RB67 on Kodak Portra. (Andrew Haworth)

Fortunately film stocks are still being produced, but there was a dark period some years back when it looked like the industry had dried up and films were going to be left in the hands of small boutique companies. But the medium has survived, and there are scads of old film cameras available for dirt-cheap on the used market, from medium format bodies to vintage stuff, and what I think is an overlooked segment, the feature-packed autofocus film cameras that entered the market right before digital took over.

Can you believe you can get a near-mint Nikon F5 body for $350 bucks or so now? Those seemed like Unobtainium when they came out in the mid-90s.

I suppose if you didn’t grow up shooting film, the concept of it must be akin to writing on stone tablets with a hammer and chisel. Yes folks, before the days of digital photography there was a wonderful process that relied on photo-chemical reactions. And if you grew up using film, that was just what you were used to. There was no novelty in it.

If you wanted a different look for your images, you selected a different film. If you needed to change ISO, you used a different film. You may have carried multiple cameras, for different ISOs, or maybe for color and black and white. Color film was balanced for daylight temperatures, but there were even film stocks designed for tungsten lighting. There was infrared film, both color and black and white. There were films designed for copy work, and trippy orthochromatic black and white films that did strange things to skin tones and certain colors.

In the black and white world, we had a bewildering array of developer chemicals to bring out different tonalities, minimize or increase grain and contrast, and so on. If you wanted the finest grain and saturated colors, you shot chrome, also known as slide film. There were many choices in the paper we printed on, particularly in black and white.

If you’ve never reached into the fixer tray and pulled out a perfectly exposed 16x20 black and white print on warm-toned double-weight Agfa semi-gloss fiber paper, you don’t know what you’re missing. You could even cross-process film -- that is, develop slide film in negative film chemistry -- for wonderful, unpredictable results.

You didn’t need to be a darkroom technician or even know much of anything about photography to operate a film camera in those days. Regular folks just used a point and shoot camera they bought in the electronics section of a department store. They pressed the shutter, dropped off their film at a drugstore or dedicated photomat, and after a few days or even weeks, usable photos would show up in an envelope.

Yes, that must sound completely insane to Generation Z, but look back at your family photo albums. Film photography was extremely egalitarian.

One of the last images taken of my grandmother. Shot on Kodak Portra 160 with a Canon 1n in October 2014. (Andrew Haworth)

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother using a cheap 110 camera to photograph a wedding cake she’d baked. Then she handed me the camera and I imitated her, thus taking my first-ever photos. I may have been four years old. A few days later, I remember looking at the photos and they were sharp and colorful. Do you think either of us knew what we were doing? Yet, here were usable photos that ended up in an album, along with negatives that may survive hundreds of years if stored properly. In theory, those first photos of mine could be reproduced today. The camera that shot them still works, and resides in my collection.

Film photography started going out of vogue in the early 2000s, but the writing was on the wall in the years before that. In 1996 I remember seeing the Apple QuickTake camera for the first time while working on the student newspaper during my senior year of journalism school.

Yep, Apple once made a dedicated digital camera. It was this flat, gray rounded plastic UFO that didn’t resemble a traditional camera at all. It shot photos at a whopping resolution of 640x480 pixels. You could shoot 8 photos at that size, or more at an even lower resolution. The images were saved to an internal memory card and you didn’t know what you had until you downloaded them, because there was no preview screen.

I thought the images from that camera were pretty awful, and preferred scanning black and white film I’d shot on my Pentax SLR. A classmate of mine really took a shine to the Apple camera, and one of our professors dubbed her the “QuickTake Queen.” Her images looked pretty rough, but they were good enough for the purposes of the student newspaper. Also, she wasn’t staying late developing and scanning film. The convenience of digital was obvious.

I remember seeing the first digital SLR about a year later while on assignment for my hometown newspaper. A gentleman from the Augusta Chronicle was using one of the first mass-produced Kodak DSLRs based on a Nikon body, I believe the N90. You could tell it was a digital rig because of the oversized battery pack and grip, which presumably held the guts of the digital back. I asked him about it, and he gladly let me try it. Looking through the viewfinder, there was a small rectangular area marked in the center of the focusing screen. This was the active area for the digital sensor, which equated to a crop factor of 2.6x on the tiny 1.5 megapixel sensor. So to shoot a photo at a normal focal length required a massively wide lens. Nope, I’d gladly stick with my Canon 1n and film.

The irony is, as digital cameras first sprang into the hands of consumers, film cameras were better than ever. With a modern Canon or Nikon SLR, you could slap a roll of film into the camera, it would autoload, automatically set the ISO, (provided the film canister was coded), and in seconds you were ready to shoot. You didn’t have to manually wind the camera, you could shoot 3-5 frames a second or faster in some cases. Autofocus was pretty reliable too, even by today’s standards, especially with lenses using ultrasonic motors. You could easily place the camera in auto mode or program, and get perfectly exposed, sharp photos without any trouble.

Film was relatively cheap in the 1990s and you could get it developed in about an hour at most places. Photos from this era were no different than the photos we shoot today, less Photoshopped maybe, no HDR, or anything computational, but we photographed the same things: Sports action, portraits, weddings, concerts, products, conceptual art, and so on. I remember shooting five 36-exposure rolls of film for a co-worker’s wedding and that seemed like a lot of images. When I shot a wedding with my first digital camera, a Canon 10D, I drained all my batteries and switched to a film body to finish it off. No big deal.

Van Guy, Atlanta 2018. Shot on a Mamiya RB67 with Kodak Portra film. (Andrew Haworth)

That brings me to where we are today with film photography. And this is just an observation: A very large majority of film images I see today get posted simply because they are shot on film. They suffer from exposure and development issues, poor scanning, and so on. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the photographers. The last time I took a roll of film to a drug store, they returned my negatives nearly destroyed, folded back on themselves, scratched to death, stained with a sticky substance, with scotch tape on them.

Scanning roll film isn’t easy for a hobbyist, and even if you own a film scanner, there is a dark art to making a good scan. Then, the cameras themselves -- especially old ones fished out of a closet -- could have problems, light leaks, shutter issues, dodgy lens apertures, foggy, fungus-ridden optics and so on. As a result, many of these images would barely make the cut on a Facebook post. If your iPhone took photos like this, Tim Cook would be hauled out of Cuppertino by an angry mob.

Photos shot on film don’t seem to be held to the same standards modern digital photos are.

I’m speaking very generally here, but it seems like everytime I see someone showing off their film photography, it’s mostly because of the novelty of the process. So rather than share an image because it makes some sort of creative statement, they are shared because film was used, as if that process is so arcane, that the process itself somehow contributes to the value of the image.

It’s not, “Hey look at this amazing photo I took; it’s “Hey, I shot this on film, isn’t that great!” No one seems to care that it’s uninspired, maybe out of focus, poorly scanned or just downright bland. And again, I’m speaking very generally here. There are plenty of film shooters doing just fine. We need to reach out to these film newbies and help them.

I’m not trying to be a buzzkiller for this new breed of “analog” photographers, as some of them like to be known. I’m saying film doesn’t make an image special. Just because you managed to load a roll of film into a camera, rather than stick a memory card in a slot, doesn’t mean that image should be judged for anything other than its content.

If it’s your first roll, I can understand your excitement. But an image of a parking lot is still an image of a parking lot, whether you used film, a smartphone or a medium format digital camera. Use that as a learning tool. Get familiar with your camera, and then go take photos like you normally would.

Yes, there is a difficulty curve when it comes to film photography nowadays. Old guys like me take it for granted that once upon a time, you could walk into any gas station or discount store and find an array of film for purchase. It has to feel strange to someone who has never worked with film. Like loading paper into a typewriter, or having to pump your own water from a well.

The Film Photographer Starter Pack (Found on Reddit)

I’ve noticed a lot of new film shooters gravitate towards older cameras. The venerable Canon AE-1 is recommended so often, it’s practically become a starter pack meme. Then there are the Pentax K1000s, old rangefinders and the like. There seems to be a hipster hivemind that tells new film shooters they need a full manual camera to experience film. But don’t sleep on the final generations of film cameras from the late 90s and early 2000s. These function just like a modern DSLR. They have great autofocus and metering, and may work with lenses you already have. You can shoot film with confidence, and not worry about a light seal rotting away, inaccurate shutter speeds, grinding gears, and so on.

But I understand some folks want that full mechanical experience, and that’s a fun journey in and of itself.

Some folks like to say digital cameras don’t have a soul. OK sure. Well, my Leica was handmade in Germany, and my EOS 1n was made by a machine in Japan, so I guess it doesn’t have a soul? See how illogical that sounds? Let’s not get too carried away. These are tools, not sentient beings.

At the end of the day, film has some advantages: One, the negative itself. You have a permanent, physical representation of your images you can save for a lifetime or longer. Digital formats can change -- in fact, I’m worried the RAW files from my Sigma DP2 may not be readable at some point. That camera uses the Foveon chip, a wonderful oddity that when combined with the simplicity of the DP2, is closer to a filmic experience than most digital cameras can manage.

Two, film is forgiving. Get the exposure in the ballpark and you can pull out a usable image. Well, for negative film at least. Slide film requires more accurate exposure. I’m not even certain latitude is a good argument for film anymore since the newer breeds of digital cameras seem to have such a wide dynamic range. And last, you don’t have to jack around in Photoshop trying to create a look with film. The film look is built in, and that’s what draws so many of us back to it.

It’s not hard, or even expensive to set up a black and white darkroom at home, and I see some shooters are even doing color development at home now. Scanning film isn’t particularly fun, because most of the process is spent waiting on the scanner. Cleaning up dust and scratches is tedious. If you have a scanner that uses infrared light for dust and scratch removal, you’re in better shape, but this doesn’t work on traditional black and white, so you’ll need to make friends with the Healing Brush.

The Film Shooter, Atlanta, 2018. Mamiya RB67, Kodak Portra. (Andrew Haworth)

Nowadays, I generally only shoot medium format film, using a Mamiya RB67. Medium format has a unique look that digital hasn’t quite caught up with. But it’s pricey. I send mine off to The Darkroom, a lab in California that produces beautiful digital scans. They are fast and they treat my negatives with the utmost care. These services, while excellent, will burn a hole in your wallet.

For instance, Kodak Portra 120 film is hovering around $11 a roll right now, and shipping, processing and scanning fees are just north of $15 per roll. You only get 10 6x7cm shots per roll, so it works out to almost $3 per shot. You have to ask yourself if your subject is worth the expense, and you better make sure you’re confident operating your gear. If you nail the shot, you won’t remember the cost.

The last time I shot with this rig was in 2018. I decided to forgo my digital cameras for a backpack, the Mamiya, a light meter, and a small tripod. Shooting on the streets of Atlanta was a massive challenge and setting up a portrait always required the disclaimer, “this is going to take me a few minutes to setup.” But the shots were indeed worth it, and the conversations with my subjects and folks who saw this camera in use were always interesting. Something about shooting with film enables that dialog, and it’s a great ice breaker.

I’ve always hated the distinction between digital and analog photography. With film photography seemingly more popular than it’s been in years, it’s time to go back to thinking of it as simply “photography.” Let’s drop the pretense that film in and of itself can make a photo special. In the end, it’s still all about the image. For some of us, the extra work and expense is still worth it to see our images etched on celluloid.

Folks, thanks for listening to this episode of Photo 365.

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with friends, and if you’re shooting on film I’d love to see what you’re working on. You can contact me at the show website, photo365podcast.com.

Photo 365 is my hobby, but you can support the show by sliding some virtual coffees my way at buymeacoffee.com/photo365.

Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time!