The Film Photography Renaissance

The Film Photography Renaissance

 

Why is there a resurgence of film photography?[1] One could ask the same question as to why there is an interest in classic and vintage cars, vinyl records in audio, and why musicians still use ‘analogue’ instruments… when modern technology is often thought to have superseded what is now considered antiquated.  Well, it’s just not the same.

For some of us the journey making photos is more pleasurable and rewarding than reaching the destination… the printed image,[2] and taking the long hard road sometimes makes the destination more pleasurable to reach. For many film photographers the shoot is just the germination of the idea that grows (e.g. Michael Kenna). The negatives might not be seen for weeks or months, and getting into the darkroom to print may be months later again. This is precious gestation time, an extension of the journey. Compare this with my typical digital workflow… race back to the computer, download, select, process, produce… all within an hour or two. Oddly enough, many of my best digital images are those that I’ve rediscovered years later, unprocessed and overlooked.

This is not an argument for switching from digital to film, just as it is not an argument for those who have classic cars to switch to a new newer and faster car. Most have both, and their workhorse is the modern faster and easier technology. But there is nothing like parking up the modern machine for the weekend, and taking to the road with old.  Because the ‘old’ doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the new, including ‘safety’ features, one takes a little more care to get it right. When I know that I’ve only got 36 exposures on the film, I make my photos with more care. When I cannot see a preview of my photo on the camera’s LCD screen, I take more care with my exposures. I really have to think more before I shoot.

Some of the leading digital photography teachers advocate learning ‘to drive’ first with a film camera. David Duchemin begins his book The Visual Toolbox saying…

“If I were to begin a school of photography right now it would send the geeks screaming for the hills… or at least avoiding my school in droves. Every student would spend one year with one camera: a fully manual 35 mm [film] camera like the Pentax Spotmatic, or the Canon AE-1. It would have one prime lens and a light meter.”[3]

Automatic this and that has dumbed down many photographers or made them ignorant of the process which is common to both digital and analogue. Using a film camera is not a retrogression. There is nothing new ‘under the sun’ when it comes to making a photograph compared to making photos 100 years ago. Even though modern cameras are ‘light years’ ahead in their technology by comparison, the camera is essentially the same tool as it was 100 years ago, and the principles of making a photo are just the same!

So now I can say a few things about what I think about film photos themselves, rather than the process, and why I like them.

  1. Grain is not Noise. Grain on film is a lovely evenly spread texture of small particles of metallic silver. It is a whole lot different than the random blotches of ‘noise’ in digital photos (usually at a high ISO, and more in the shadow areas).
  2. The great film manufactures like Kodak, Agfa, Ilford, and Fuji, spent millions developing their different films which each produce a different effect. It is difficult and time consuming to emulate the same effect in post-processing digital, though it can be done. But for me, it is just easier to shoot film if I want the film effect. This is why some of the world’s leading cinematographers still use film, and not digital.

Have the best of both Worlds

I’m not a purist when it comes to analogue. Sometimes I’ll process the film myself with the chemicals, and sometimes I’ll send it off to a lab for processing. I scan the negatives and process the digital files on the computer. The scanned 35mm negative becomes a 24 megapixel image and a 16 bit TIFF file (45 megabytes).

One advantage of digitizing the image is being able to easily ‘spot’ remove dust particles that have dried on the negatives. There is very little other processing required on the computer. It’s great to be able to take a close look at the image without having to print it.

                                                               

The photos from my last two rolls of film processed can be viewed here. Ilford XP2 400 (B&W) and Kodak Ektacrhome 400, both films C-41 processed (Photo Warehouse, Wellington), scanned, and produced here without digital enhancements other than dust spot removals. The scanned negative becomes a 24 megapixel image, 16 bit TIFF file (45 megabytes). So no darkroom work involved.

 

Footnotes

[1] Olivier Laurent ‘This is Why Film Photography is Making a Comeback’ (Jan 2017) http://time.com/4649188/film-photography-industry-comeback/

[2] There is no better illustration of this than the photographer Vivian Maier. Most of her amazing 150,000 photos were never developed or printed in her lifetime. See the 2013 movie documentary Finding Vivian Maier.

[3] David Duchemin The Visual Toolbox: 50 Lessons for Stronger Photographs (Craft & Vision, 2013).

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