Dances with Dinosaurs: Why I Still Shoot Film

Florence_1 I am still in possession of every film negative I have ever shot – well, excepting a couple of rolls I shot of a girlfriend in a motel room in Nashville which I destroyed because I’m a good guy – but excepting those two rolls of slide film, I have them all. Yes, it takes some plastic tubs and shelves to store them all, but I have never thrown away a negative. I would no sooner pitch a negative than hurl a Morgan silver dollar into the alley. We all have our principles, and that’s one of mine. Think of what a rich vein of personal history that is: me and my sister at the San Antonio zoo in 1961, old shots from high school, my loves and friends, hiking trips through the mountains, the birth of the first-born, my “arty” experiments, every place I have ever been – you get the idea. I could probably spend the rest of my life just going through my old negatives and making prints, but sometimes dealing with the past can take too much energy, and I prefer to be working in the present. Yet, still I know I have my archive of forgotten treasures that carry all of those parts of my life into the future.

Quite a few of those negatives are really terrible. They are bad shots of people with eyes half closed or with dumb expressions in their faces. Some are just flat-out mistakes, a twitch of the finger that fired a photograph at nothing all, but I have them. I have every single one of them. But, that is also truth. We have those times when we wear dumb expressions on our faces, and times when the finger twitches and fires a picture at nothing at all. There are those times when it would have been a good picture, but we had something set wrong on the camera and it came out dark or blurry. Those moments are also truth. Those are all there too, in the boxes and binders.

Contrast this with the digital camera that you take to a party. You may shoot 3-4 dozen shots and then look at them in the view screen of the camera, “That sucks… delete, that sucks… delete, that really sucks… delete…” Maybe a handful of these photos survive, and maybe they’ll get uploaded to the computer, and maybe they’ll survive a while, at least until the next hard drive crash, when everything you’ve done for the past couple of years suddenly vanishes into the cruel and indifferent clutches of cyberspace.

Marian-with-Yashica-635 I have been working with personal computers since their beginning, and if I have learned nothing else, I have learned to never trust them. They die; they fry; they crash; they burn. And they only work when the power is on. My negatives don’t need electricity to remain in existence or even to be viewed, and, were I to get really hard-core about it, I could devise a way to print them without electricity. Fortunately, I’m not quite that compulsive, but it could be done. My negatives are among the most persistent elements of my “memory.”

I transitioned to digital photography for professional work in 2004. The case for digital is compelling: faster, more economical, greater capacity, instant availability of the images, and, on average, the onboard computers of digital cameras do assist us in getting more usable pictures more often. At this point, I have shot oodles of digital images, have stacks of boxes full of CD’s storing terabytes of digital photography. A lot of it has been very successful; in a number of situations digital has been an absolute life-saver. This is not another “digital versus film” screed. I love my digital cameras. What I have found, however, is that I also love my film cameras, and I do not want to be forced to abandon film photography.

I am finding that film and digital are different channels for me, as different as oil painting is from magnetic tape recording. I don’t try to do everything with film as I once did. I don’t have to. If I need a picture of a bottle for a brochure, I grab the digital, fire off a few frames and dump it to the computer. Life is good – no waiting for the lab to process the stuff. The job gets done and I’m off to the next thing. When I get a feeling in my mind that I want to express visually, I am still inclined to pick up a film camera and load it with a favorite film that I know will support the mood I want to capture. I’m talking about me here, not everyone in the world. I have years of experience with film. Like a painter who knows intuitively that cadmium yellow will produce a different feeling than yellow ocher, I know that particular films and developers will produce particular effects and moods in a photo. It’s not rocket science; it just comes from fooling around with them a lot. Most new photographers just coming to the art will never have the opportunity to explore film. They may create great pictures, but there is a sensibility that film imparts to photography that they will miss unless they make the effort to experience it. For most, that won’t be practical, and that’s fine – no judgment intended. I’m just glad that I spent enough time in the darkroom that film is hardwired into my psyche.

If I have a gripe with digital, it is with its perfection, a perfection that verges upon sterility. Assuming that you have adequate light, a digital camera will kick out a correct image every time. Film isn’t like that. Film is full of chaos and unpredictability. If you shoot film on a manual camera, and especially if you develop that film yourself, every roll is an adventure. There are surprises. You can get the “how did that happen?” moment in film. And yes, there are times that the camera can make you look better than you are.

Film carries the truth of the moment: This is what I saw and what I did in that particular moment. There is no little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” I won’t bullshit you: there are plenty of times that I want that little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” But, that’s not my truth. That’s the truth of me and the engineers at Nikon. I love them. They are a talented group, but there are some parties I don’t want to invite them to. Sometimes, I want it to be just me and the light.

Most people who might read this will not only have no nostalgia for film photography, they will joyously cheer its passing. To be freed of the expense, uncertainty, effort and processing delays of film is a godsend… for most people. I don’t condemn that point of view because I understand it completely, but you won’t find me in the cheering section. I am discovering that for me, film is an important color on my palette, one whose value is not negated by the development of newer imaging technologies. It is something I like to do which even now still engages my imagination.

To make such claims, I suppose I should get down to specifics and try to illustrate what I’m saying. I’m not going to stumble down that old “x is better than x” road, because it’s pointless and subjective, and in many aspects, film certainly does not win that debate. Contemporary digital cameras have achieved true excellence in image quality and function. Instead, I want to explore what it is about film that continues to fascinate me.

Mindset – The preparation for a shoot with film involves decisions. Film comes in color, black & white, and transparency (slides). It has speeds (ASA). Once the film is loaded in the camera, you are committed. You can’t just dial in a different speed in a menu. There is a huge trade-off between speed and grain (image quality) with film, which is far more pronounced than with digital. The difference is that with film, the grain can often produce a pleasing graphic effect, whereas it almost never does with digital imaging. Further, films have different characteristics in tone and color, and to a discerning eye, each formula is different. To me, Tmax 100 from Kodak looks different than Ilford Delta 100, even though they are both 100 ASA black and white films. So, when you’re preparing a shoot with film, you sift through your memories of the different films, matching those to the feelings you have about the images you want to produce. The film is already informing the final image you produce. Choose a Polaroid, or a 35mm SLR loaded with Fuji Velvia, or a medium format TLR loaded with Tmax, and the final product will be significantly shaped and formed by the choice of film you make. The film participates in the creation of the image. A good digital camera goes the other way and it’s a tremendous strength of the digital: it gets out of the way and gives you what you are seeing, quickly and efficiently.

The photographer’s mindset when shooting film is inherently more conservative about exposures. Film costs money and exhausted cameras have to be reloaded. I shoot fewer exposures when I’m using film, but I really look carefully at the picture I’m about to take. If it will be one of twelve rather than one of 175, it had better be right, or at least as close to right as I can get it. This is a slower method of doing photography, but it demands that you slow down, look around and get really present in the location where you are shooting.

Allan's-Wheelchair Visualization – There is no view screen on the back of a film camera. You will not see how an exposure comes out until the film is developed. You can’t really shoot “test shots” to see if the camera is getting what you want. You have to “know” or be able to imagine what the camera will do with this film in this light on this subject. In a secondary way, you have to know what you can do with a particular exposure when you print it. You can shoot a basically “correct” negative, but know that to really get the punch out of the negative, you will need to increase the contrast and push the exposure some to get that dark, moody feeling you want in the final print. All of this exercises the muscles of imagination. Film “kicks away the crutches” in photography by strengthening the capacity to visualize images. When you know you can take a film camera to a shoot and get the picture you want, you achieve confidence. When you see the image in your imagination, making the machinery capture the picture is easy.

I love cameras – I have always loved cameras – big, small, old, new, fabulously expensive, and el cheapo. Cameras are just cool. There has always been a bit of magic about cameras to me. There are some cameras that are such wonderful instruments in themselves that I want to load and shoot them, just to be using the instrument. The Nikon F3 is such a camera for me. It has an almost hypnotic pull on my psyche.

Tactile – There is something very neat about souping your own negatives. Your hands get wet; you smell the chemistry and hear the timers going off. Development is a multi-channel sensory experience that results in a set of negatives that are truly yours. There is a tremendous sense of ownership that comes with successfully developing a good picture. It’s different from five mouse clicks in Photoshop.

Texture – Film has texture. At its most basic, the texture of film comes from the tiny silver halide crystals embedded in the emulsion. When light hits them, they change chemically and this produces the image on the film when acted upon by the developer. You can see this texture in what we call “grain” in the film. In the right amounts, grain produces a visually pleasing organic effect. With too little grain, objects can begin to look plastic and two-dimensional.

Marian---California-Dreaming-4 Chaos – That bit of uncertainty which clings to every roll of film excites me. Going back to my “almost sterile” observation, a good digital camera becomes highly predictable once you get familiar with it. This is a good thing. On a lot of shoots, I want the confidence and predictability that my digital gives me. On the other hand, a bit of uncertainty and not knowing how a shot will turn out creates excitement and a sense of anticipation. I get more of the uncertainty with film. I enter “the cloud of unknowing” easily. Call me a romantic if you want to, but I like to play with the chaos in the universe.

Individuality – The choice of camera, film and lens creates a distinct and individual look in an image. Probably the best known illustration of this is the work of Ansel Adams. When you see an Ansel Adams print, you seldom need to be told that Adams produced it. It is obvious in the deep, rich grays and resolution of the photo. The great Edward Steichen is another example of a photographer whose technique produced a distinct and individual look. Our choices of films, developers and printing methods give us another way to achieve a distinctive look.

Permanence – As I said at the outset, my negatives stay with me. Nothing digital has lasted as long as my negatives. Someday in the future that may change, but it will be a long time from now.

Hopefully, this outline has given you a sense of why I continue to use film for photography. Maybe I have even encouraged you to dust off Dad’s old film camera and run a few rolls. That would be great. One of my agendas is to keep Kodak, Fuji and Ilford in business. Even as carefully as I have written this, I know that it ultimately fails to capture the magic of film. Perhaps, you just have to see that for yourself.

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5 Responses to Dances with Dinosaurs: Why I Still Shoot Film

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  • Andrew Boyd says:

    Gee, Syd.
    You raise so many good points about the pitfalls of digital…I’ve lost images to hard drive crashes and even still I know my backup ‘routine’ for digital is way too haphazard.
    I, too, have boxes and boxes of negatives, contact sheets, etc. 25 to 30 years with yellow-stained fingernails….the truth is though, that even though I have those negatives, I never get them out. I don’t scan them or print them. They just sit in the box, waiting for the day I finally decide I have ‘time’ to deal with them….which will probably be never.
    I think this is the truth for most of us who shot all of that film, no?
    Digital has changed so much about photography (the learning curve for new shooters being the biggest thing, I believe), and I think almost all of it for the better. I really, really like how much $$$ it’s saving me!

    Andrew
    The Discerning Photographer

  • Syd says:

    Andrew,

    Thanks for the comment. Today, I went and shot a civil war reenactment. Shot the digital Nikon and the Yashica 635. Guess which pics got posted first? Yesterday, I went to the store and bought four rolls of b&w 120 and two rolls of Fuji slide film. Tab: $44. You are completely right. Digital is here to stay, and I love it. My problem is that I still love film and my film cameras. I know this is “fighting a rear guard action” and the day will surely come when no film will be available, but until then, I guess I’ll keep on keeping on, at least for the arty stuff. In the words of Patton, “God help me. I love it so.”

    Syd

  • Long time reader, first time commenter. Just wanted to say how I really enjoy reading your blog. Thank you!

  • sergey says:

    I also love film as you know. I think once a photographer has an understanding of how to operate a camera (ISO, shutter speed and aperture) film could be an amazing medium for expression and all the things you mention above.

    Cheers,
    Sergey

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