Old But Not Obsolete
The dawn of digital sensor also brought in the demise of film. In many ways it was the arrival of the ‘next best thing’ that ushered in the slow death of what was once the ‘best thing’ to have happened to photography since Nicéphore Niépce pointed his camera obscura out of a window of his estate home. A medium that was once loved and used by photographers for the better part of the 20th century finally gave way to a newer, more viable and shareable form of making photos – digital pixels. Megapixels are the new standard with rolls of film being shunted away or being stocked up by distressed connoisseurs as mementos of an era gone by.
The digital age had finally ushered in. And with it has come the age of instant sharing of images and the various platforms that promote that sort of urge for instant gratification; something that defines the modern way of life. But this is not some obituary about film. It is in fact about why some photographers still prefer to shoot in film. It is about the advantage of shooting film in the digital age.
Film hasn’t gone into retirement, as much as some digital hardliners would love to believe it. A few Hollywood film directors have pledged that they will ensure film never dies out. Some of the biggest blockbuster productions in recent years such as the Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Entourage: The Movie, among many others have been shot on film. There are many more which have a mix of film and digital, with cinematographer switching to digital for scenes that required more sensitive mediums to handle low light situations.
The thing is film isn’t dead. It is in a state that Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genisys) would define as, “Old, but not obsolete.” It continues to wow newbie photographers for a variety of reasons. Even at the risk of being labelled a retro, I stand by what I say, knowing full well that the modern generation of digital shooters think otherwise. These are my reasons, why I think that film can be a part of what we do, as much as it did a decade and a half ago.
Another reason that digital sensors have been very popular is because they produce images that can be instantly shared. Even lower resolution images look stunning when they are viewed in small 600 x 400 pixels or similar size. Try blowing up an image produced by a 24 megapixel image and it would get pixilated after a while. It does not suffer from the inherent limitations of pixels. But then how do we measure the resolution of film images? Angular resolution. I will refrain from going into the details of how that comes about but the resolution of film when compared with digital sensors show that 35mm format film has a resolution between 4 to 16 megapixels. That is significantly smaller than even an upper entry level camera like the D5300 and will not appear as an advantage of shooting film. Having said that, 35mm format is not the only format that uses film. There are other much larger formats. When you move into medium format territory resolution dramatically increases. How dramatically? We are talking not 50, not even 100, we are talking about 300 megapixels and above. Does that make you sit up and take notice?
I love the feel of printed photos in my hand
There is a certain inexpressible joy and satisfaction that comes from holding a printed photograph in our hands and looking at it. That’s a big advantage of shooting film. Ever since the art and science of photography has come about we have always held a photograph in our hands to admire the subject and the work of the photographer. It was never meant to be gazed upon on a computer screen of just pixel depth. There is no emotional attachment to it. I have been shooting with digital for a little more than a decade and before that I was an avid film photographer. Whenever, I spoke to someone from the 50’s or 60’s they always remembered how taking your portrait and then waiting for 24 hours before your prints came back was both unavoidable and enjoyable. For photographers who grew up shooting only digital, they could never realize the joy of sliding the prints out of an envelope and reviewing you work. Plus, those who developed their film the joy was multiplied watching something appearing out of nothing. Digital shooter with instant review of their captures can never realize this experience. Shooting in film could very well be a test of their patience.
Though, this argument could be refuted that digital files can be printed just as easily as film, the fact remains they are hardly ever printed. Can you remember when was the last time you printed your vacation photos? With film you print by default. Yes, we have film scanners but consumers who (still) shoot in film prefer to print if not both print and scan.
My memories on Film are tangible, digital pictures are not
Remember those childhood days when our grandma or grandpa would show us those old worn out family albums filled with those almost yellow prints from yesteryears? Great grandpa, great grandma, great maternal grandpa, going back to two even three generations? All priceless photos. Imagine how these ‘primitive technology’ managed to withstand the test of time? But that’s beside the point. What’s important is that these images could be seen whenever you wanted to. When an image is printed, it is no longer ‘lost’ inside a myriad of files or folders and backup drives. It is there in front of us, sitting in plain sight and at an arm’s length, waiting for our attention, ready to be seen and enjoyed at a moment’s notice.
The other day my wife told me something that made me sit up and think. She said, “I never get to see our vacation photos.” It’s not quite true. She does get to see them, at least when we come back from a vacation and I mirror my tab to the wide screen Tv, or when I am retouching my photos and she stands behind me watching how I go about it or when we are still travelling and at the end of the day I review the images shot during the day on my camera and download them to the portable hard drive I carry with me.
But that is about the only times she gets to see those images. Though I go back to those images from time to time, digging deep into my backup and checking images back from a decade, she almost never gets to see them. I know what you are thinking – that’s hypocrisy. That’s the nature of digital photographers. We are obsessed with storage and backup and those sort of things. We are paranoid at the prospect of losing our images. We treat our images as little children. In the middle of all that paranoia we lose out the best thing about image making – the inherent joy of being able to review those moments when we want to.
I have since made it a point to store our vacation photos in a portable hard drive and leave it on the entertainment unit so that my wife can enjoy the images and videos whenever she wants to. But still I would have preferred that I had an album of a majority of all the images that we ever took on our vacations. Well, if not all at least the best ones. That is my long term goal. With film this wouldn’t be a problem at all. Definitely, one of many advantage of shooting film.
Imagine what would happen if there was a nuclear war or may be a sudden EMP burst or a sudden solar flare that were to knock out all communications, all satellites, all servers and with it the entire ‘cloud’ and every digital device including storage devices around the world? Would you digital images survive such a trial? I know you must be thinking, would the human race survive? But imagine some of us do. Would you rather be with a fried hard drive that once housed all our memories? Or would you rather be with a few images that survived? This might be a hypothetical situation, far-fletched but in no way this is unimaginable.This is a major advantage of shooting film.
The ‘film look’
There is a certain irresistible charm about the ‘film look’. The film look here is referred to a slightly matt finish with a bit of grain that has assumed cult status. Even in the days of ISO invariant sensors, powerful post-processing software and advanced noise reduction techniques, it is still a sought after look. That raises the question, what is the point of shooting clean frames and then adding the grain back when you can achieve the same look in film? It is like buying a new Maserati and then driving it 3 blocks every day to pick up groceries. If you love the film grain and the film look go ahead and shoot in the original thing.