While the market would have you believe that you need to upgrade your digital camera every few years, there has been a not-so-quiet resurgence in film photography. This analog revolution against pixel pushing has yielded many young artists who are discovering the texture and capabilities of film, while companies such as Kodak are re-issuing films long thought dead.
Ask these new film photographers what they like most about the medium, and they will tell you that it’s the return to something real, something tactile, like vinyl records over MP3s. They will tell you that when you take an image on film, it actually exists. It takes a chemical process to reveal it.
As a professional photographer, I shoot high-res digital images for my clients. This is often done with a DSLR, but has also included medium-format cameras with digital backs costing in the tens of thousands. (Thankfully, I can rent those.) Why use 36 megapixels when you can get 90 and above?
But my love for film goes back to the beginning. When I was seven years old, my grandparents gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera. It was a small, thin rectangle of a camera, which took flashbulbs and let you add your own sticker to personalize it. I was instantly hooked.
A couple of years later, I received a Polaroid OneStep camera for Christmas. I would create elaborate scenarios with my toys and photograph them: G.I. Joe on a mission; The Six Million Dollar Man walking on a snow planet; R2D2 and C3PO posing for no reason.
When I was 17, my father gave me a very old, all-manual 35mm camera and said, “Go make a lot of mistakes”. I worked at learning to use it and got work as a freelance photographer for the local newspaper along with being a reporter. The world opened up to me. I became an apprentice to a local photographer who taught me even more.
But why film, when digital is instantaneous? There’s a place for both. My clients want great images on the spot; they can see the images when I shoot tethered to a computer, and we can adjust lighting, poses, etc. as we go along. It makes it easy. But it still has to be right “in camera”; there’s no “we’ll fix it in Photoshop” when a client is watching the monitor and needs to leave with the hard drive. On other shoots, sure; I can make adjustments in color, contrast, and sharpness.
It was my training in film photography that gave me that mindset, to get it right from the start. Imagine the photographers who shoot for The New York Times; they are not allowed to make any adjustments, as it is considered capturing the news, and images cannot be altered. Now imagine those photographers before digital.
Film offers a depth and texture which digital cannot. Sure, digital gives you instant gratification and incredible detail. But I challenge you to look at an image taken with a 4x5 view camera and tell me that the detail is not breathtaking. You want instant? Develop your own film and see why there is a magic that comes from the very origins of photography.
While the best camera is the one you have with you -- and that’s usually our mobile devices -- carrying a film camera makes you think about each shot. With 35mm, you only have 24 or 36 chances to make an image. With medium format, you have 12 shots. With a large format 4x5 camera, it’s one or two. You think more and shoot less. You enjoy the taking of the image, rather than being a “spray and pray” shooter. You become more of a thoughtful observer, rather than a frantic documentarian, trying to capture everything all the time..
A camera is a time machine, and film creates a permanent record of life, of art, of the way you see the world. It is based in reality, captures light for posterity, and eschews the ephemeral. Film is real.
Don Lupo is a professional photographer. His work can be found at www.lupofoto.com. Read about his love of film at Emulsive.org.