Film is Dead…Long Live Film!

Why would any sane person move from digital photography back to film?  We’ve all heard it, “film is dead, nobody shoots analog anymore…the whole world has moved to digital!”

I was listening to a very popular photography podcast this past weekend in which the host jokingly said that there are probably only a thousand or so film shooters left on the planet.  It was a joke but it hit a nerve because I’m a committed film photographer and I know there are many, many thousands of us who love to shoot with film.  Granted, film will never be the dominant medium it once was but its going to be around for a long time. I’m glad to be part of the (Leica) film community.

Allow me to lay out some of the very personal reasons I moved to film from digital.  The reasons laid out here are mine of course.  They may or may not be right or relevant for you.  Let me also say that I have nothing against shooting with a digital camera. There is no intent to flame anyone not shooting with film.  I also shoot with digital cameras, I have a Nikon DSLR, a Fuji X100s and my iPhone.  I use them all occasionally.  Here are a few reasons why I now shoot predominantly with a film camera.

I am afraid of technology.  Just kidding, not totally afraid.  I actually embrace good technology but I was leery of having such a large monetary investment in a digital Leica.  I recently sold my Leica M9-P to buy a new Leica MP.  My M9-P was a wonderful camera, I loved the images it produced.  I did a lot of soulful thinking before selling it.  I was primarily afraid of its long term viability.  I had nagging doubts about how long the electronics and sensor would last?  Unfounded? Perhaps.  But the feeling was real for me.  Also, when would I feel the inevitable pull to upgrade to the next generation camera?

Like many photographers I have a problem with gear acquisition syndrome (GAS).  I put a brake on the GAS by selling my M9-P and buying a new Leica MP, a completely mechanical camera built like a tank to last a lifetime.  The MP stands for “mechanical perfection.”  Could I break it?  Maybe I could, but in normal, everyday use, its much less likely to fail than a digital camera.  Its probably the last film camera Leica will ever make.  It’s the result of over 50 years of experience.  I’m committed to it as my “go to” camera for as long as I continue to photograph.

On a related point, I’m going to get to know my MP more than any other camera I will ever own.  It’s going to be with me for a long time and by using it every day, I’m going to come to understand this camera in a deeper way than I might ever know a digital camera that I have for a few years before upgrading to the next generation technology.  My theory is that such familiarity with my tools should help make me a better photographer and at the very least not hold me back.

I’m not in a hurry.  There are enough stresses in life, I don’t need to add any to my photography, my escape from the daily routine.  I don’t feel a need to mass produce images nor do I feel a pressing need to post to social media or my blog every day.

Film slows me down.  Many film shooters say this but my experience confirms it. Film helps me focus, excuse the pun!  With film I’m now working on the non-technical qualities of photography. Those qualities are best exercised by slowing down the process of taking photographs and thinking about the composition of the image to be captured in the frame. I like the slower pace, it requires that I think less about the technical aspects of photography and more about the essence of what it is I’m trying to capture in my images.

During my transition to film, I’ve felt the pull to slow down. I really do think more about the images I’m taking. For me using film equates to more deliberate and purposeful photography. Now I think more about the image I’m most likely to capture in camera as I take a shot. More than once I’ve pulled the camera to my eye to take a shot only to change my mind when I questioned the reason for capturing a particular scene through the viewfinder. With digital I most likely would have taken the shot anyway since it’s no big deal to just press the shutter. It would be easy to press the shutter on my film camera too but I find that I take more time to frame and consider the composition using film; I’m more patient with the old medium.   I believe that its the physical nature of film itself.  Light is making a chemical/physical change on the film.  It’s not an image represented by ones and zeroes on a memory card that can hold thousands of photographs .  The physicality of film and the work to make it come to life make it more real and valuable for me.

I have to consider the limitations on the roll of film in the camera. Twenty four or thirty six frames at set iso. There is a real restriction on what’s available so making sure every frame is used to its full potential is important.  That makes me think more about what I’m shooting.

A downside for many, film takes more time, no doubt about it.  I primarily shoot black and white film and so can process my own negatives.  I usually wait till I have a few rolls of exposed film to process.  It usually takes me an hour to develop my negatives.  I hang them to dry overnight and then scan them to my computer when I get home after work.  Scanning a 36 exposure roll will usually take less than an hour including keywording and importing to Lightroom.  My workflow for film isn’t nearly as quick as it is for my digital process.  But honestly, and I say this in all sincerity, I love everything about processing film. The physicality of it all.  The anticipation of seeing a processed negative for the first time and the satisfaction of seeing a successful image as its scanned into my computer.

I love the look of film.  Film has an amazing dynamic range and is much more forgiving exposure wise.  It’s very hard to blow highlights with film. Film has rich tonal gradation that you can’t match with pixels.  Digital images can look clinical, not so with film.  The textures provided by the grain in a film image can’t be replicated even with capable film emulation software.

I’m pursuing the mystery of film.  Did I get the image I wanted on that frame of film? Was it exposed correctly, framed and composed in the strongest way? The truth won’t be fully known till I can process the negatives which may be as early as that night or it may be a few weeks from now. There’s no immediate tendency or incentive to repeat the shot using film because there are only 35 or so opportunities on the roll in the camera. Moreover the settings should already be the best I could think of to get the image unless I realize right away that I screwed up. If I know I really made a mistake it’ll only be because the exposure or focus weren’t what I should have used. But that’s all in my head, not feedback through exif data fed through the camera.

So, this film workflow takes much, much longer than I’d spend shooting and off-loading digital images from a card. But for me that’s okay. Being more purposeful and deliberate as I shoot generally equates to more keepers and shots that resonate. I have thousands of digital images with tenuous emotional connections on my hard drive. I keep almost all of them but they are just there in my library. It’s my hope, and so far it has proven true, that my film images will result in more keepers.  Over time my goal is to have an increasingly higher number of film images to add to my portfolio.

I’m an unapologetic film shooter, a Leica film shooter at that. I am not going to look back with any regret. I made my move and I’m confident I’m going to have fun with it over the long term. Photography for me is all about the personal enjoyment and satisfaction. Film has accentuated the fun of shooting. I made a conscious decision considering and knowing the busier workflows I’d be adopting. My approach certainly isn’t for everyone and I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it feels right for me.

I’m encouraged and inspired to shoot film. I love the results. I relish learning to use my camera and relating to the idiosyncrasies of the Leica MP, to the lens, the settings and film I’m using. The variables in my photography and workflows are certainly still present but there are fewer of them and they seem manageable.

The technicalities of my equipment and the medium of film when learned free me to explore my creative side which is where I need the most help and inspiration. The challenge is to understand, interpret and anticipate the results I want in the image I envision. That’s the new and exciting personal challenge, learning the nuanced relationships between my skills, gear, creativity and the medium to get the images I’m looking for.

I can’t wait to see where I can go with it.

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Published by Bill McCarroll

Leica film photographer living in Poway, California.

19 Comments

  1. 100% with you Bill. Film gives you back part of the process that digital took away. It completes the circle.

    Reply

  2. great article!!!
    I’m thinking to back (or better to start with) film in the near future…
    but before let me enjoy my Monochrom 🙂 I need to improve my technique and my b&w before to go the big step

    Reply

  3. A good analog picture gives me more satisfaction then a good digital one. When pressing the shutter with analog one has only to think about 3 settings; shutter speed, aperture and distance. When pressing the shutter with digital one has to think about much more like white balance, ISO, …
    I love and use both, digital and analog.

    Reply

  4. Nail on the head here, Bill. I’ve very recently returned to film and find my three film bodies are getting much more attention now than my digital M-E. I love the process of slowing things down through film. People argue you can do that with digital, but for me, it took film to truly slow me down.

    Reply

  5. Film is a Work of Art, Thank you Bill.

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  6. Excellent article, Bill. Started the transition from film (Contax G2) to digital in 2000, was fully digitised (!) by 2005. However, the lure of film resurfaced five years later and nowadays at least 50% of my photography is film (Leica M & LTM, plus a Rolleicord Vb – 6x6cm negs are irresistible!)

    Reply

  7. Great article Bill and I couldn’t agree more. I grew up using film and to me it’s much more of an artform than digital. Especially if you develop the film yourself as you do. I’ve been toying with the idea of selling my M8 and getting an M6 for a while now. You may just have helped me reach that decision!

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  8. Just LOVE this post, and your images!
    Film is all about the feeling! I love the process, I’m also back to film from digital, and for me, digital was just too boring.
    Film today is an active choice, and I’m so happy and grateful it is still very much alive.
    Keep it up, and let’s yell together, so film never dies! 🙂

    Reply

  9. Thank you & its inspiring!
    I wish to start film having tried M9-P & MM. But I do not know how to get started as it seems so cumbersome and required much time & knowledge.
    Michael.

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  10. This kind of philosophy around film is exaggerated and made up for me.

    I encountered film since more than 30 years ago, watched my uncle developed and printed his images. Now I still used film but I give up 135 format since it was dead and surpassed by nikon D800, Sony A7r and others to come. These cameras can capture more dynamic range than any available 135 film. 120 and Large Format are the only usable format in my opinion.

    Film does not slows you down. The process of thinking, visualizing, composing, light analysis are the same basic required in both media. The difference is in digital you don’t need to have a skill to have an image. The same routine if adapted in digital can deliver superb pictures, with well tought composition, lighting, directions. At the time people bought digital camera many don’t posses the skill of photography. At the time the switch to film, suddenly all knowledge and skillset are becoming an essential factor in photography.

    In my personal view digital requires more experience to create perfect pictures, film is more tolerant and for many a fun activity. Film also nowadays give an inconventional look that made people stop and see the images.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love film as you do but the rationale for me doesn’t seems right.

    Reply

    1. I don’t think Bill was making a comparison to any digital camera’s quality capability and hence your comparison to a D800 and A7r are not really appropriate.
      Film does slow you down. The A7r can shoot multiple frames in seconds. You cannot do that with film, so film does slow you down.
      I do however agree that film images make people pay more attention.

      Reply

    2. A D800 or Sony A7R is far from the financial capacity of most people. With less than $ 100 I can buy a 35mm “full frame” machine and have a similar quality to D800.
      Anyway, photography is not just about “costs” and pixel peeping

      Reply

  11. Ah, there’s nothing quite like the fragrance of D76, Microdol-X, Dektol and Kodak Rapid Fixer. I love the feel of loading film onto a real, getting my Jobo tanks ready etc. etc. etc. Yes, I do shoot a lot of digital [M9], but for me, using film transcends all this is photography for me.

    Reply

  12. I’m one of camera freaks in Japan, who started the photo shooting with digital camera in 2003. Now I enjoy both alalogue and digital. Even I created darkroom at my home to enjoy complete traditional wet process with Valoy II and Fuji B690. I don’t know the situation in your country. But I still find out many photo workshops for wet processing in Tokyo, Osaka, etc in spite of the fact that Japan is leading country of digital Camera Technology. I believe that analogue freak still stay there even if digital world grow more.

    Reply

  13. Harvey Creswell January 27, 2014 at 7:06 am

    You don’t need to fork out thousands for a ‘film’ look. Sometimes I like to use one of those single-use disposable film cameras and then take a photo of the print with my M9-P. Love the results.

    Reply

  14. […] As one of the minority but growing community of Leica film shooters I was asked to write a contributing blog post.  You can read my thoughts on why I moved back from digital to film in a post titled Film is Dead…Long Live Film […]

    Reply

  15. Reblogged this on My Photographic World and commented:
    It’s very rare that I Re-Blog others work and thoughts . However I read this today I thought I’d share this with you dear followers. Now I haven’t personally sold a very expensive Leica and purchased an MP. I just never got that far. However I do own a Nikon DSLR. But it’s my analoug kit That works for me. Lets hear you thoughts.
    Have a great Sunday
    David.

    Reply

  16. We learned with film. Film forces us to memorize situations, settings, feeling. It’s the only true way to improve our art.

    Reply

  17. Yes, the aspect of using film is inspiring and requires a slight different approach than shooting digital. I also like the fact, that doing photography with film slows me down. And even after 20 years, I still like the special moment, when I open the development tank looking for the results…

    Reply

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