Some thoughts (and questions) about using film

Every now and again people post links to articles about how film is the new cool.  How young people enjoy it’s “I don’t know what I’m going to get” factor, shooting expired colour film or overpriced lomo film in their lomo cameras, or spending (equally) too much money on the Impossible Project’s Polaroid film (a worthy cause to be sure)*.  

And every time I read something like this I think:

1. Why does everyone assume film is imperfect (ie. crap), and that’s what makes it cool?

2.  Why does everyone assume that all the photos that were taken over the past 170 years, on film or other mediums, were crap before digital came along?  It’s like nothing existed for us until the megapixel arrived.

And other things that annoy me, because they still pop up from time to time:

3.  Why do people constantly compare film to buggy whips?  The two have no correlation whatsoever.  Shooting film, photography in general, is an artistic pursuit.  Buggy whips are an accessory to aid (an albeit obsolete) mode of transportation.  Why is it okay for people to enjoy cooking from scratch (and not mixes, not in the microwave), or play real instruments, or work on old cars, but it’s not okay to shoot film?

4. Why do some photographers go on and on about how toxic darkroom chemicals are, how smelly they are, and isn’t it great that we don’t have to deal with that anymore?  First of all, how many people did their own developing to begin with? (If you were a professional or worked in a lab you have a right to complain, otherwise, what the hell are you talking about?)  Second, if you’ve done any developing, film or paper, you know that the smells are no worse than your average household chemicals (and, with few exceptions, no more environmentally damaging either).  Most developers have a very weak (non-toxic) smell, stop is basically vinegar, and fix is basically (weak) ammonia.  As many a darkroom worker has said, “I love the smell of fixer in the morning”.

5. Why do many people assume that people who shoot film are anti-digital?  I mean yes, some are, but those people annoy me too.  While I don’t have a digital camera (other than my iPhone), I have nothing against them.  I just like old film cameras.  I like shooting film.  I’m confident enough in my photography skills that I don’t need to constantly look at the LCD to wonder if I got the shot or not. Yes, sometimes shit happens, but it’s rare, and while most people are wasting time looking at photos they just took, I can stay focused (literally) on the photo opportunities at hand.  That’s not to say that digital photogs don’t do that as well, but in my experience, the vast (non-serious amateur/hobbiest/pro) majority don’t.  I don’t think I’m better than anyone else (I’m definitely not!) but I guess for me I enjoy the act of photography as much as the final result.  I also like working in the darkroom.  And I know that there are many film-based photographers out there who, while they have no problem with digital photography either, don’t want to do it in their free time (or any time) because so much of their lives takes place in front of a computer already.  Film is a craft-based experience akin to cooking from scratch, rebuilding old cars, scrapbooking, woodworking, etc. Sometimes it just nice to use real things with your hands and not have to rely on a computer to do everything for you.

6. Why do digital photographers blast film, yet use film-based filters (grain, colour, etc) to make their digital photos look like film?  (Instagram I’m looking at you!) If you like the look so much, why not just shoot film?  I mean, I get it, it’s easier to share things in the digital netherworld, but why not use digital for what digital is good at?  Or go beyond what film could ever do?  Why continue with the “always already” there concept?

Okay.  That’s enough ranting for today.

*Note: since originally writing this post, I have since bought a Polaroid camera and Impossible film.  What can I say?  The appeal of using these old cameras is strong, even though I’m still not sure what I want to do with the (expensive) film.  I have a few project ideas in mind, but nothing strong enough to warrant a portfolio of work yet.  I am still experimenting.

  One thought on “Some thoughts (and questions) about using film

  1. August 10, 2015 at 2:58 am

    Some responses to each:

    1) In principle, there’s no such thing as perfection. But when some folks talk about digital being ‘sterile’, I think I can understand that. I suppose ‘perfect’ could be a term used for digital and by contrast film is ‘imperfect’. I don’t think that means it’s crap. It’s just different.

    2) I think we should spend more time looking at photos from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of those negatives were BIG and therefore the resolution and rendering beautiful.

    3) I’ve never heard of the comparison. Where are you hearing this?

    4) I’ve only ever heard of real dark room junkies complaining. Some of the junkies remained just that… junkies. Others saw it as an inconvenience. I’m really interested in the phenomenon of highly specialized knowledge losing its market value. A lot of folks who were junkies and made a living from it, got totally burned when digital took over. So I would imagine there’s a lot of bad blood there.

    5) Yea, I’m not really anti-digital, even though I won’t shoot digital (I used to of course and it’s how I got started). But one thing I do like about the digital revolution… because the demand for film cameras is so low, we can buy professional level cameras for very little (Hassies, Rollies, Fujis, Mamiya-ies, Nikon-ies, Leica-ies, etc…). And while this killed certain professions and it hurt some folks big time, for me it’s a boon.

    6) Unsure what the ‘always already’ concept is. But film isn’t just a ‘look’. It takes a lot more than just shooting it. You’ve got to buy it. Have a camera that shoots it. Shoot it. Develop it. And then scan it. I can understand why some shoot digital and go for a film look. But they’ll never get to it.

    Just saw your site from JCH. Enjoying the site 🙂


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