waist level viewfinder

“I used to think I needed you in my life. I used to think you were the only one who could make me happy, but I was wrong. I was so wrapped up in you that I almost forgot: I survived without you before, and I still can. It’s just a matter of getting used to the idea.”

Film

In the community of photographers online, it has become somewhat impossible to discuss film, or to identify images as having been shot on film, without it becoming something of a political statement.  The inexorable advance of digital technology and the ubiquity of digital images causes most photographers to wonder why anyone would still bother to shoot film, given the technical superiority of digital as a recording medium in almost all quantifiable qualities.  Those of us who shoot film do so with a nagging sense that we work in the twilight of the medium we love, as cherished cameras and film stocks and papers are discontinued to make room for the next generation of mirrorless imaging devices.  We post images to forums with an air of defiance and bravado, often referencing our rejection of digital cameras in language thick with our imagined moral superiority.  Meanwhile, those digital photographers who have inherited the insecurity that has always been a part of the photographic medium find any deviation from the digital norm as a rejection of their chosen mode of expression, undermining the validity of their own work.  Thus it is not enough for many digital photographers to forsake film: they must discredit film entirely as an antiquated and useless footnote in the history of image-making.

Of course, this all occurs in the context of online forums and social networks, and typically the most talented photographers simply march on with whatever their chosen medium, ignoring the tempest-in-a-teapot that is online argument.  It is unfortunate, though, that this insecurity and defensiveness I describe often infects otherwise useful and vibrant photographic communities.  

So with that preface, I thought I would offer my reasoning behind returning to film for much of my own image-making.  And for my part, I hope I do nothing to disrespect the tremendous work others produce with digital equipment.

A few months ago I returned from a trip to Arizona, and found myself profoundly dissatisfied with most of the images that I’d produced.  This dissatisfaction was not with the technical quality of my equipment: my Canon 5D Mark III and “L” lenses leave precious little to be desired in terms of ability to produce excellent images.  My dissatisfaction occurred because my work felt dull and lifeless, and I felt that any real perspective I might have developed was absent from the frames.  In comparison, I much preferred images I’d made a few years before using a technically “inferior” Leica rangefinder and black & white film.   And make no mistake: 35mm film lags behind digital in resolution, flexibility, low light performance, and every other category save a few esoteric and subjective qualities that the average person would be unable to notice.  Further, a compelling argument could be made that it is rather easy to simulate the look of film using the remarkable plasticity of digital images.

What film offers me is a different process.  I shoot differently when I’m working with a film camera.  First, there are a vast and diverse array of film cameras available, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.  Until recently, only DSLRs offered outstanding image quality and photographic options in the digital arena, while the world of film offered multiple formats from portable cameras making smaller negatives to giant sheet film cameras that are still unrivaled by anything in the digital world.  The world of film is a world of waist-level viewfinders, rangefinders, and view cameras in addition to straightforward pentaprism SLRs.  These cameras are often relics of a time when things were made of leather and metal, rather than plastic and vinyl: they possess a tactile presence and visceral feedback with solid “chunks” of mechanical parts rather than recorded shutter sounds with adjustable volume.  Of course, most of this has nothing to do with the actual image recorded, but it changes how I feel when I take a picture.  In the end, it is ME and not the equipment that is the limiting factor in the quality of my work, and thus equipment that I enjoy and makes me feel good is going to go much further in producing better images than the nth degree of technical quality.  

Film cameras force me to commit to an image.  The discipline of shooting film is knowing that I pay a price for every frame, and have only so many frames on a roll.  Perhaps some people have the iron discipline to shoot digital with the same focus and discernment as a film camera, but I know that is not me.  I shoot digital cameras the same way I play poker when no real money is on the table.  And when I shoot digital I find myself unable to resist the siren call of that LCD on back of the camera: the modern photographer’s security blanket.  I shoot a digital camera with one eye always looking backward at what I’ve just done, worrying at it and wondering if I can perfect it by shifting just a tiny bit.  With a film camera, what is done is done and I find myself propelled to the next frame, undistracted by my desperation to know if I “got it.”

When I consider my film images, I am struck by the physicality of film.  The negative that I exposed was physically present at the time of capture, and my film images are produced with the end-goal of prints.  A silver gelatin print is an artifact and a piece of craftsmanship.  It is hand-made in a manner that digital prints struggle to replicate.  A darkroom print may be manipulated or retouched, but only with great effort and skill… a darkroom print carries with it the promise that no short-cuts were taken.  A darkroom print feels “authentic” to me, and this matters to me for the same reasons that I prefer mechanical watches and antiques with real history behind them.  Perhaps I delude myself when I imagine that I can “feel” authenticity, but the illusion is convincing enough to enhance my enjoyment of the thing.

And finally, perhaps there is a romance in the Hemmingway-esque fight to keep a tradition and a craft and a medium alive.  While I hope and believe that film will always keep a small niche in the broader world of image-making, those of us who love film know we have given our heart to something that will never be as it once was, fragile, ephemeral, and fading.  Perhaps we hope that the star-crossed quality of our relationship with our medium will infuse our images with romance.  There are worse qualities for an artist than being a hopeless romantic.