The envelope please. And the winner is – Not this batch of underexposed film images!
It had been almost 20 years since I took a shot with my last film camera, a Pentax ME Super. It has sat on a shelf with some other relic cameras, decorations and dust-collectors as much as anything. But when Russ Butler, a camera club buddy, recently handed me a 36-roll of Fujicolor 200 I thought, “why not,” let’s give it a go.
Do a search for “Back to Film Photography” and you will get many articles with titles like “10 Reasons I’ve Gone Back to Film Photography” or similar. Well, I may as well confess up front, I’m considering my 36-exposure adventure a “Fail” and a reminder of how digital photography reinvigorated my interest in photography from the moment I first tried it.
I shot the occasional roll of film in a Kodak Brownie as a young kid in the early 60’s. I later moved up to a Kodak Instamatic 104 which used drop-in 126 cartridges and flash cubes. Like most amateur photographers of the era, I’d shoot an occasional few photos of special family events, while on vacation, or if something special caught my eye. The drugstore or 1-Hour Photo processed my film and made my prints. These cameras had no controls, it was purely point-and-shoot.
Then in high school in the early 70’s, I took a photography class and bought my first 35mm camera, a Hanimex Praktica Nova 1B. It was purely manual and even the meter was a simple Selenium averaging device that sat behind the nameplate, no through-the-lens meter here.
I typically shot Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X black-and-white film and learned to process that in film tanks. I also used the school darkroom to make black-and-white prints. By now, the photo bug had bitten and I constructed a darkroom in the corner of the garage at home, bought an enlarger and all the trays, chemicals, and assorted stuff to do monochrome photography. (I Love the Smell of D-76 and Dektol in the morning! – Not!) I continued my interest when I went to college, learned to shoot with the school’s 4×5 view cameras, processed that sheet film and made prints. I also shot for the college newspaper. Occasionally I’d buy a roll of Kodacolor II and shoot that in the Praktica, but had the drugstore process that as I had no access to a color lab and hadn’t learned those processing and printing techniques.
After college, I didn’t shoot as often but occasionally would make slides with Kodachrome. I gave Ektachrome a try, but didn’t care for what I felt were colder blue tones and stuck with Kodachrome. (Paul Simon was right). In the late 80’s I bought the Pentax ME Super which I still have as mentioned. Fujifilm was coming on in the 80’s and so when I wanted to shoot for prints I’d use FujiColor, occasionally trying Fuji Velvia for my slides. I still was only an occasional photographer and relied on others for processing and printing.
The Dawn of Digital Photography
I feel fortunate to have experienced what I’d consider the “dawn of digital photography.” Part of my work as a Public Information Officer for a state agency included some photography and I took great interest when the first digital cameras began to appear. I convinced my agency to purchase a Sony DXC-ID1, a strange “still video” digital camera with an electronic viewfinder and a flat, binocular-like design. It first appeared in 1996 and we probably purchased it about a year or two after that. It shot images with a 768 x 576 resolution and stored then on a large PCMCIA card. A dinosaur by today’s standard, it sure was cool back then! Instant results, no need to buy film or process it! I could take images and include them in written reports and Powerpoint presentations. It made for a great office tool!
As the years passed, my agency was good to allow me to buy newer technology as it came out. Among the digital cameras we had were the:
1998 – Sony Digital Mavica – Stored images on 3.5” floppy discs – 640×480. A disk would hold about 20 images.
1999 – Canon Powershot Pro 70 – an oddly designed camera with a fixed lens and a swing-out LCD screen – 1536 x 1024
2000 – Canon D30 – This was a breakthrough – Our first digital DSLR! (Note the D30 is not to be confused with the 30D, which was several generations beyond that). – 2160 x 1440
As the years passed, we continued to purchase newer cameras in the Canon DSLR series along with various Canon lenses. We had the 10D, 20D, 30D, and when I retired in 2009 I was shooting with a Canon 50D.
My Personal Digital Cameras
When digital cameras first appeared, I was fortunate to have someone else paying the bill for gear, but in short order, I wanted my own personal digital camera. In the spring of 2000, the Nikon Coolpix 950 was all the rage and I had to have one. Powered by 4 AA batteries and storing 1600 x 1200 images to a CF Card, I went nuts over the little camera! I’m sure I shot more photos in the first year with the Coolpix than I’d shot in all my years of film photography. I still have images taken back then that remain among my favorites today. After that camera, I progressed through Canon DSLRs and have owned a D30, 10D, 30D, 50D and now shoot with a 6D.
So, if you’re still with me, let’s talk about the recent “film flashback experiment.” I dusted off the Pentax which had the stock Pentax M 50mm f/2 lens. I also found my old Vivitar 28-105 f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens. Of course both are purely manual focus and have the aperture ring on the barrel. I was taken at how small the ME Super seemed in comparison to my Canon 6D, (which is a fairly small digital DSLR). I knew new batteries were going to be needed, so I installed those, checked to see if the metering lights lit up, put in the 36-roll of Fujifilm, set the ISO to 200 to match the film, and was set.
I took the Pentax as well as my 6D and my LG V30 cellphone out one evening to make a few shots. I decided to put the Pentax in Auto mode, which on this aperture-preferred camera has you set the aperture on the lens ring and it will determine the shutter speed. Not having used the camera for almost 20 years, I figured this was not the time to get creative, I’d trust that it could calculate exposure. It did seem the exposure settings were quite different than what my 6D or even my cellphone were showing, but again, I trusted the camera. With no ability to “chimp” shots on a film camera, what else was I to do? I shot about a third of the roll. For each shot, I wrote down my settings. Digital does that for you, film… nope.
In another session, I made some shots of flowers in the yard. This time, the exposure settings seemed a little closer and I hoped a less contrasty subject might help. After that, I read up on the Pentax ME Super and learned some found that if the camera had sat unused for a time, (like 18 years??!!), the contacts on some of the dials could become corroded. I worked the dials a bit and finished off the roll. The settings seemed a bit more normal, but I had an uneasy feeling when I dropped off the film. They were to develop it, make a print of each shot, and scan the negatives to a CD. I’d been given the film, (which would have cost about $3.99) and paid about $15.00 for the developing, prints and scanning, so just under $20.00 for the works.
Opening the package took me back to the times in years past when I’d dropped off film and then waited for the result. No instant feedback like digital. Would they look good? This time – No… not even close. With the exception of one shot, all were quite underexposed and the first few almost black. &^%@!!! Things had improved slightly as I’d made the adjustments further into the roll and the one shot that was fair was one where I’d copied the exposure settings from my 6D. So… What were the lessons learned?
Basic Lessons Learned
With digital, we can make a shot, check and evaluate it, make any necessary adjustments, and shoot again. With film, it’s purely learning what settings are apt to be appropriate for a given lighting situation. Check the meter in the camera, see if those settings look about right, and learn to trust your camera — and your gut. You won’t have a chance to see if the settings were right until later. Sometimes much later, and then it will be too late. Before digital, that was just how it was and I’m sure photographers developed much greater instincts. For that matter, before cameras had light meters at all, knowledge, familiarity with their camera and film, and much practice is what they relied on to get consistent results.
You read that I did have quite a bit of film experience in the past. But since 2000 or so, all my experience has been with digital. I’ll readily admit – The ability to shoot, chimp, adjust and re-shoot if necessary has no doubt wiped away some of those “instincts.” Then there’s the sheer volume of shots made with digital. I’m sure I’ve clicked the shutter of a digital camera dozens, (maybe hundreds, thousands?) of times more than I ever did shooting film. I have a part-time job shooting web photos for a car dealership and routinely shoot over 250 photos every day! While I have great admiration for film photographers, (and can’t even fathom shooting a wedding with an early film camera!), I have no desire to go back. Unlike the writers of some of those other articles, I don’t have Ten, or even One Reason, to want to go back to film. I do have Ten Reasons however I love and will continue with Digital Photography. These should be read as rebuttals to some of the reasons the film fanciers list for wanting to switch back to film photography.
- Film will Slow you Down – The argument here is that you will be forced to slow down, study your shot, and be more purposeful. Yes, I agree the mechanics of film cameras will slow you down. You will likely need to manually focus. Unless you have a motor drive you will need to advance the film after each shot. You will simply need to make more time making a photo. That can be good if as a digital photographer you’ve adopted a “run-and-gun” style and don’t take time to study your composition or think about your shots. But that’s you, not the camera. There’s no reason you can’t be just as thoughtful and purposeful with your digital camera. You just won’t be forced to. And when shooting a fast-paced sporting event, that will be a good thing.
Film will Cause you to be more Selective in Shooting – Well, sure. If you only have 36 shots on a roll, (and that’s if you spring for the larger roll, not a 24 exposure), you will probably not blast away. You also won’t be as experimental and try new things. It costs money each time you click the shutter on a film camera. Should you make that shot of a dewdrop on a leaf that caught your eye? How about making a dozen to get it “just right? Heck, that’s a third of the roll! No, I can still be selective if I like with digital, but if I just want to play with new things or keep shooting and tweaking to make it “just right” there’s no penalty, no additional cost, and no disappointment later when I get back to find I paid for a bunch of throwaways.
- Shooting with Film will Require Less Gear – Yes, maybe less gear. No battery chargers perhaps. But what else would be different? Oh yeah, the film itself. If I put a 32GB card in my Canon 6D I can shoot over 1,100 Raw images. I can likely go days with that, even on a photo trip. I can probably shoot an entire wedding with room to spare. (How did wedding film photographers do it when they were at the end of a roll just before the “Kiss?”) Of course, I could carry 30 rolls of 36-exposure film, (and a cooler to keep it in). Less gear?
- With Film You will Learn from Your Mistakes More Efficiently – Oh yes, and you will be more apt to remember them too when there’s the painful reality of no do-overs and you won’t know you messed up for several days at best. But then, what was it I did several days ago? There’s no exposure information recorded unless you wrote it down. Where're my notes? How much did I pay to process those mistakes? How do I explain to the bride that the shots didn’t “turn out?” No, maybe the thing I most like about digital is the instant feedback. I can make a shot, study the histogram, determine what I might do better and do it… right then. I can see the cause and effect of various settings. Heck, with Live View or a new mirrorless camera with an Electronic Viewfinder I can see the effects of settings live and have them change as I change the settings!
- You will Learn to Focus your Camera when you must do it Manually – Yes, and you will learn to drive a manual transmission when you have no automatic transmission too. A good skill perhaps and there are many times even with autofocus camera you –should- go manual. Just don’t ask me to do it when I’m shooting wildlife and trying to keep that flying bird in focus or a charging rhino. Before autofocus, many of us got quite good with manually focusing a camera. Just not that good.
- With film, you won’t have to worry about Drive Failures and losing your Images – One word – Backups. A fact of life with digital. But who makes backups of their negatives? How about the bane of a film photographer’s existence, dust and scratches? What about finding that image you’re looking for? I guess you could have some elaborate keyword and numbering system for your negatives. Or you could just shoot digital and use Lightroom.
There’s also the issue of storage. How much room does a 4-terabyte drive take up and how many images could it store? How much room would it take to store all those negatives and the prints too? If you need to have a physical copy of an image that will exist after new technology has made your hard drive obsolete… make prints! You should be doing that anyway. Read my article – “Preserving your Photo Legacy.”
- You can shoot film and scan your negatives to take advantage of digital processing software – Yes, and add another step in the process. When I shot my failed roll they did scan the negatives. In fact, the scans give me some possibility of “rescuing” the underexposed images. The rub is, the scans they did are low res – just 1940 x 1287. I’d have to pay extra for higher res scans. The prints they made? Pretty much a waste of photo paper in this case. Shoot film, have it scanned and pay the extra for that process, (or buy a film scanner and do it yourself). Or, since your scanned negatives will be “digital” files after that, perhaps you ought to just shoot digital to start with?
I like that “Film Look” – Yes, film does give a different look. Some like it better, some not as much. I usually prefer tack-sharp, high contrast, snappy images and can easily get that with digital. With film, that look is not as easy. However, if I want my digital image to look like film, there are many, many techniques, filters, and tools to get the “film look.“ I can’t see putting up with the hassles, expense, and limitations of film to get that “look” when it’s so easily simulated with digital.
- When you Shoot Film, you will –Really- learn the basics of Photography – I actually agree with this one, to a point. Yes, I pretty much realized with my “One Roll Failed Film Flashback Experience” that I’ve been relying on the camera to do much of the “thinking” for me. I can’t just look at a scene and tell you what the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed should be, I let the camera figure that out for the most part. It works however, and… it gets that stuff out of the way. I want to spend my time thinking about what I want to photograph and how I want to do so creatively and less about the mechanics of making the exposure. I’m sure that if I bought more film and repeated the process again and again I’d get better. But how quickly and at what expense? People I’ve taught to be digital photographers can go from newbies to pretty decent photographers in a year or two. How long would that take if they were shooting film, shooting less, and not getting the instant feedback? Some would simply give up in frustration.
- Digital Images are just “Too Perfect” – Some argue that the beauty of film photography is that the images are not perfect, maybe slightly softer with more tonality and less vibrant colors. Of course, some also like light leaks, plastic toy cameras, a Lomography-type look. These may be the same people that argue vinyl recordings sound so much better than those on CD. (I was blown away the first time I heard a CD when there were NO scratches or other sounds whatsoever during silent parts of the music). Again, that’s a preference in taste, but I still argue that while I can add imperfections and that “look” to a digital image, I can’t take it away from a film photo should I want to.
Now, if you are a fan of film you may be screaming by now – “He just doesn’t Get It!” No, I think I do. Film does have its place and there are looks you can still get that can’t be had with digital. The limitations of a film camera and fewer exposures to work with will slow you down, make you more deliberate in your work and force you to find quality rather than quantity. You will also learn to better study light, understand what your camera can do and how to achieve it. Digital can make you lazy. Maybe it’s “too easy?” But then, does it have to be? Can you not use your digital camera for what it does best but shoot it with a “film-style-approach?”
I tried this experiment once just to see how it felt. Using my Canon 6D I mounted my 50mm prime so as not to have any zoom capability. I left the shooting mode in Raw, but set the Picture Style to Monochrome so that it would still make color images but show monochrome playback on the LCD. But then I taped over the LCD so I couldn’t “chimp” my shots. Then, I told myself I’d shoot no more than 36 images. What I was trying to do is emulate those old days with my Praktica loaded with a roll of Plus-X. It was fun, and I got some great shots! It did bring back memories. The best part was it worked… there was no finding out days later that the experiment had failed and I’d wasted the shooting time and the cost of film and processing for my trouble.
When photography first came along, I have to think there were painters that frowned on the new “technology” and scoffed. I can hear them cry – Photography is not Art! Are they right? Are digital images not “Photography?” My thought is that no more than I think painters should be relegated to the ash heap of history do I think film photographers belong there either. There’s room for all. I’m just personally happy to live in an era where digital photography is available and I’m able to grow that much faster as a photographer. Bring on mirrorless! Bring on the future! And yes, park that new self-driving car in my driveway one day too.