Some photographers prefer film, like foodies prefer elaborate cooking and fancy dining experiences.
Wading through some of my photographs in DS archives, I found a few that have a (vaguely) film-like look and reignited my interest in this topic. None are really quite there, but they each tend to illustrate a specific aspect of what is so loved about film photography.
Because I think that, from an aesthetic point of view, what we call the look of film is actually a multi-layered construct that has far more complexity to it than what the film alone does to the image.
Add to this the workflow that film forces upon you, a divisive topic if ever there was one, and you get a whole package, hard to deconstruct and analyze, which proves seductive beyond words to some and repulsive beyond grimace to others.
A lot has been written about this, so let’s not waste your time with lengthy repetition. To summarize:
With shooting film comes the film camera, which evolved slowly and along many weird and wonderful avenues that produced a rich landscape of (mainly) durable and simple machines, that looked as similar to one another as dinosaurs in a Jurassic Park movie. Digital cameras, on the other hand, are largely all the same (with exceptions), overly complicated, and most certainly not built to last (again, with exceptions). You love one or the other, and there’s no point in trying to convince the other camp, as each proposition appeals to very different areas of our mind.
Then, you have the lenses of the film era. Typically simple designs, much, much simpler than today’s digital glass. That made them less resolved and more alive. More prone to flare and glare, odd bokeh, chromatic vaguery and other aberrations that delight some and repulse others. The picture above was made with a camera that looked so bad to me that it made my veins pop with fury, but with an old film-lens, it was quite nice. Still, at the time I remember thinking about my attempt at recreating the “medium format look” (film is always implied in that expression): close, but no cigar. Which is now obvious, because lenses are just one ingredient and the others were missing.
And then, of course, there is the film itself. And describing that, alone, could fill a heavy book. Keeping with analogy of recipes, film is both the flavouring and the conditions in which you eat (them bloody French, always on about food). Bear with me.
Film has softer (tone curve) shoulders, grain (as opposed to noise), more, or less, dynamic range than digital sensors, more, or less, resolution than digital camera, and a very different way of making detail disappear into texture rather than nothingness. Light also interacts with it in more or less predictable ways, creating diffusion, halations, and more artifacts that were a problem to scientific imagery and a godsend to creative minds.
Much like digital cameras mostly converging towards an idealized high-performance sameness, digital sensors too are all migrating to that Omega point of zero-defect, zero limit tech supremacy. In fact, much like lenses, they are actively criticized by the media and the community for any criminal deviation from that tech ideal. Compare this to the bewildering variety of the film x old lens x film camera artistic combinations (*) and you can easily understand why learning photography in the film days was largely a matter of experience rather than of reading a 700 page tech manual. No one could try all the combinations, so everyone tried their own, developing a personal style dictated by availability, taste, tutoring … (* each combination produced a different look because a same film looks different in 35mm, in 6×7, in 8×10 …, because the different enlargement factors at common prints sizes resulting in different grain presence, aberration feel, tonal smoothness …)
Today, we have presets to simulate this complex layering of imperfections, but it’s not quite the same. The photo above uses a preset I have created and looks good (to me), but not film-like. That’s because the lens looks anything but from the film-era 😉 It’s essentially perfect. Looking at its MTFs is the most boring and awe-inspiring thing. And, to some film-lovers, looking at this picture also could be boring to the extreme. In a way, it lacks the personality of the human who made the conscious decision of filmstock, aberrated lens and camera format (though, to be honest, I chose this camera and lens system for this exact look).
Back to food. Film photography is a recipe that uses a lot of ingredients. And I imagine that it appeals to some people for the same reason cooking appeals to others. The sense of achievement, and experience gained. Whereas digital photography increasingly has one flavour – neutral – one which you can slap a preset seasoning on.
Film photography aesthetics are like a complex dish. They result from a lot of different ingredients mixed together in a way that works only through luck or when you have acquired the experience to intuitively know what works when, and can improvise well enough to adapt to real-world circumstances. I guess, in a way, a chef in his restaurant is like a studio photographer, working on the best recipes for weeks. In that analogy, the amateur cook making fantastic meals from whatever is available in the shop and fridge is a talented street photographer adapting to the light and available sights. That is why film photographers often describe their craft as more authentic than digital photography. There is more personal intuition to build, and less relying on the machine.
Using digital is a “left brain” experience. You learn, you understand, you do. Using a filmstock requires experience. You need to shoot it, a lot, to gain an intuitive understanding of what it is going to look like in specific situations. You learn not just photography (composition, light …) but also your film. But even then, there is uncertainty. So, to those in the proper state of mind, it not only brings the joy of becoming proficient but also of still being surprised by the results.
When it the last time your digital camera surprised you with its style? 😉
It did happen to me with my current camera. Once. In my review of the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4 with that camera, I made the photograph above, in which the overexposed sun turned black, as in a famous photograph by Ansel Adams. I’ve no idea why or how (and hope I’m remembering this right and didn’t edit the black circle in, in post, but really don’t think so) and that was a surprise.
And then, on top of the complex multi-layered aesthetics, there’s the experience of film.
Youtuber Teo Crawford published the fantastic video essay “Why Film Photography is popular again.” a year ago, and I highly recommend you watch it. It is a heavily researched and fascinating watch and Teo is a good photographer to boot.
There’s little point in me paraphrasing him about his findings, but I’ll add two quick ideas before signing out.
An important part of the film experience, which we lose with digital, is choosing the filmstock we are going to use – before the shoot – and sticking with it for the 8, 10, 12, 16, 24 or 36 frames the roll is going to last (1 frame, for large format heroes 😉 but loading the film you are taking with you is still an act of selection, a commitment).
This commitment, coupled with the anticipatioin in the wait for results, participates in the fun and in the feedback loop that makes film photography more envolving than picking up our digital camera (and shooting as many frames as it takes). It’s a well established fact that constraints nurture creativity and unlimited possibility stifles it. In exchange for those losses, digital photography has drastically extended the shooting envelope, so it’s not all bad, is it? 🙂 So, if you are struggling with the idea of film vs digital, it probably pays to ask yourself whether you are a process photographer or an envelope photographer. Do you value results over experience, or vice-versa?
Let’s bring this back to food again. Last month, I was fortunate to eat in two Michelin-star-spangled restaurants. This dessert, below, may well be the best I’ve ever eaten. In both cases, the meals were 8 courses. The setting was luxurious and welcoming. It was the French doing what the French do best.
But I also remember climbing a cobbled street near Montalcino, sitting on wooden chairs in a small trattoria, eating a dish of pasta sitting in butter and covered with black truffle, with a glass of 2015 Grattamacco, and repeatedly thinking to myself that life doesn’t get better than that. To me, it doesn’t. Film photography is not just about the taste of the recipe, but about the experience, and the ceremony. Maybe digital photography would be more fulfilling if we made it a personal ceremony again?
Finally, the materiality aspect (holding a physical negative) goes a long way towards making the whole process grounded and fulfilling, as opposed to just sending data to a hard drive and antisocial media. I’ll deal with both those ideas in my next post, about printing, because I feel printing is the perfect antidote to both digital issues. See you then. And please let me know what you think 🙂
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