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.