Why I shoot film…

FEBRUARY 23, 2012 by Steve Coleman

Source: LightInFrameBlog

Mamiya 7II / Steve Coleman

I shoot film for all my principal landscape photography. It is a personal choice. My reasons for choosing film over digital are part technical, part aesthetic and part emotional.

There is no doubt that digital capture is the best option for most kinds of photography today, including much landscape photography. So this is not a film versus digital debate. It is personal. One day I will shoot digital for everything I do, but right now film has some specific things I need.

I am very fortunate to be living in a world which still has plenty of film. Why?…  Because film is an incredible teacher of photography. My film cameras are really just dumb boxes, and film is very unforgiving when exposed to light. So when I shoot film, especially with a dumb camera, I have no choice but to learn to be a good technical photographer. If I don’t, anything creative I might try to do, probably won’t look very good.  It is my keeness to learn photography which drives me to film. Let me explain.

My Mamiya 7II film camera is just a black box with some unbelievably great lenses; No Picture Control System, No Scene Recognition Software, No Active D-Lighting, No P Mode, No Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors, No 19-point AF System with improved AI Servo II AF Subject Tracking, No Intelligent Viewfinder, No 63-Zone Dual-Layer Metering System, No Full HD video, No Megapixels, No CMOS Sensor and it’s Not Designed by Giugiaro!!  When I pick up this camera it is just me, some film and a handheld light meter. Film cuts my hi-tech umbilical cord. I don’t have a computer in my camera to save me, to lean on, or to make up for my lack of skills.  It’s just me.

With film I only have 6 to 10 frames in my camera. I can’t fire off lots of shots hoping that one will be great. That and cost of film is a ‘drag wheel’ which forces me to get good shots every few frames. The physicality of film, by its very nature, has limitations which compels me to get it right.

The result is that film slows me down. It requires me to think, plan, learn and to see. Every single aspect of what will make a great photograph needs to be thought through. My eyes need to be on alert and the technical and creative sides of my mind need to work quickly and in unison.

When I shoot film, I need to be able to see what my photograph will look like in my mind, because I can not see it on the back of a camera. And if I don’t like what I see in my mind I need to know how to change it. The only way to do this well, is for camera and mind to become one. I need to be so familiar with my camera’s settings and so experienced in making it capture an image, that working the camera becomes completely instinctive and transparent. Almost as if the camera ceases to exist as I shoot. Making a photograph in your mind and knowing how to quickly instruct your camera to make-it-so is very empowering to the creative process. Knowledge sets me free. Film puts me in this zone better than digital capture.

In essence, the use of film requires me to sharpen my skills and that makes me a better photographer!

Now, you might say that it’s really up to me and that digital capture is just as good a teacher if I were disciplined and got my act together. And yes, you are 100% right.  But “you‘re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” For as much as I do try, film makes me try that much harder.

Mamiya 7II / Steve Coleman

So, why else do I shoot film?

I think film still has some technical advantages, although many will disagree. For example, under very low light and for very long exposures, both of which I shoot often, I believe that film captures smoother and more delicate tonal detail than digital. (High end MFD is getting very good but I don’t think it is there yet. But I’m watching closely.) Digital can also be very ‘noisy’ under these conditions and the dithering pattern of noise in a photograph is something I do not like. It is not like film grain, it has a different texture.

Also a good scan off a great transparency will give you a lot of detail in a very large file. I have read different and conflicting thoughts on the megapixel equivalent of film with many people seeming to suggest that a good scan from a 6×7 film can give you a 100+MP image. I don’t know and to be honest I don’t care too much about the number. What I do know is that a good scan off my film gives me incredible detail and a very large useful file.

One particular film, Fuji’s Velvia 50,  brings its own characteristics into play in my decision to shoot film.  In days of old,  photographers would choose different films for different effects. Today you can paint those effects in via Photoshop or Nik Software.  However if you want the original,  many of these films are still available. I particularly like Velvia’s tendency to soak up colours and add a kick of contrast. I like how it captures those colours which are soft and delicate; soft colours around moving water on a long exposure are stunning on Velvia. The tonal detail is wonderful. With a long exposure before sun-up Velvia seams to intensify those colours much like a tapered red wine glass concentrates a wine’s flavour and aroma to emphasise varietal characteristics. ( ok, I know that’s a bit much ) For me, Velvia captures colour beautifully. Some don’t like the effect. I love it!!

Film also imbues a photograph with “film grain”. Film grain has a natural textural look which I think is beautiful. I find that the video signal of digital, produces a very flat almost sterile image; too clean and too cold in character at its best and too noisy at its worst. In comparison, I like the depth and texture that film brings to a photograph. This is why many software applications now offer an extensive array of film textures so that digital photographers can put back into an image some of the character which has been lost in moving from film.

There is also the emotional aspect of film. I do like the sense of ‘theatre’ and personal satisfaction which film gives me; the opening of a roll,  the loading of the camera, the winding of the shutter.  It is tangible. It just feels good. I don’t underestimate the emotion of film. Photography is after all a passion for me. It is not a job and anything which adds to the passion and enjoyment of the experience gets full marks from me. Film is fun.

One day film may be gone and I like the idea that I will have created  bodies of work using a medium that no longer exists and which cannot be recreated in the same way. On this point alone there is a wonderful conversation to be had when discussing a body of work that was captured on original film. It just feels more special.

I like what film can teach me, that it helps make me a better photographer. I like its ‘look’ and how it makes me feel.

It is that simple.

The Sydney Beaches Project

This photograph above is from The Sydney Beaches Project which you can find at http://www.lightinframe.com/

How to get great colours in landscape photography can be found here: http://www.lightinframeblog.com/how-to-get-great-colours-in-landscape-photography/

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