Why I’m going back to film

I love digital photography. I love being able to process a file in software to develop a photo. I love not getting my clothes stained from developing chemicals. I love how little it costs, after purchasing the gear of course. I love not being limited to 24 or 36 frames. I love being able to choose to have a photo in colour or black and white or both. I love not being limited to a single ISO. I love auto focus.

What’s not to love about digital photography? A few things actually which is why I am going back to film photography.

I’m not trying to argue that film is better than digital, that shooting film makes you a better photographer, or any other reason. Everyone has their own reasons for choosing film over digital or choosing digital over film. Film isn’t better than digital and digital isn’t better than film. There are plenty of reasons and arguments to be made for shooting film, these are my personal reasons for switching from digital to film.

I learned photography using a film // When I was in high school I was lucky enough to attend a school that offered photography as a class. This was back in the days of film photography before digital became so pervasive. I learned film photography using a Ilford HP5+ film with a Minolta SRT 303 35mm SLR that my father was kind enough to hand down to me. Going back to film isn’t going to be as hard as it would for someone who has never shot film before. I just need the gear and chemicals to do it.

Feature creep // Film cameras are wonderfully simple compared to their digital counterparts. Digital cameras suffer from feature creep which can make them more complicated than they need to be.

Feature creep can make digital cameras frustrating to use, my Fujifilm X-T1 is a perfect case in point. The X-T1 has a list of ‘features’ longer than my arm, I use only a small handful of these ‘features’. However the most frustrating thing about these ‘features’ is that there are dedicated buttons on the camera to toggle certain ‘features’. There is a button on the front of the camera that toggles the aspect ratio of a photo. I have lost count of how many times I have accidentally pressed that button without realising then gone to change another setting like the focus point using the direction buttons and the OK button and ruined a shot because I didn’t realise that I had instead changed the aspect ratio by accident. I hate that ‘feature’. If I wanted to change the aspect ratio of a photo then I’d shoot a different format.

They don’t make ’em like they used to // New digital cameras aren’t built as tough as older film cameras. This isn’t surprising given that modern equipment isn’t built to last thanks to the practice of planned obsolescence, i.e. designing and building a product with an artificial life span. One way that manufacturers design and build cameras with a limited life span is to use cheaper materials like using plastic instead of metal. They only support their products and produce replacement parts for a limited amount of time, then when cameras do break as inevitably they do and will it can sometimes be cheaper to buy a new camera than it is to fix a broken camera. Another way that camera makers try to artificially limit the life of a product is via marketing by trying to convince people to upgrade their current equipment to whatever the newest, latest, and greatest product is (which may or may not be the greatest) that said camera maker has released.

Real progress is slow and camera companies often release ‘new’ models that are a little more than a nip and tuck job of an existing camera, an old model made just a little bit better but not much. The Nikon D600 and the D610 is a perfect example.

How many people do you know or have heard of shooting film cameras that are 20 or more years old? How many people have you heard of shooting a digital camera that is 20 or more years old? Zero that’s how many. Nobody shoots a 20 year old digital camera just because they like the camera or they like the image that it produces. I doubt many, if any, digital cameras would even survive 20 or more years of use like a film camera can.

If I am going to pay thousands of dollars for a camera I want one that I can take to my grave.

Technological limitations // Besides feature creep, build quality and planned obsolescence issues I’m also frustrated by general technological limitations of digital cameras.

My X-T1 is another excellent example of this. It eats batteries like a fat person eats cake, i.e. like it’s their last day on earth. I have three spare batteries for my X-T1, I’ll be lucky if I can get a full days shooting, eight hours, out of all four batteries. One of the main reasons it chews through batteries so fast is because it uses an electronic view finder which is a technological limitation of mirrorless cameras. It’s just the way mirrorless cameras work.

Another frustrating thing about the X-T1 is the EVF, it washes out in bright light and I can’t see what I’m shooting. Again this is another technological limitation. While it’s frustrating it is what it is. Hopefully EVF technology improves but I’m not about to buy another mirrorless camera any time soon to find out.

My Nikon D600 has an optical view finder and the battery life is better by a large margin (I can shoot for a few days with just one spare battery) simply because of the way DSLRs work, optical view finders use mirrors and pentaprisms that don’t require any power. However the D600 is too large for me to shoot with in the streets unnoticed which is one reason I switched to the X-T1, that and the D600 shutter is LOUD! A full frame digital SLR camera is probably never going to be as small as a film SLR because of technological limitations, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Another technological limitation that can sometimes be frustrating is auto focus. Sure AF systems in modern digital cameras are nice and fast but in certain situations they can get confused easily. Try taking a photo of water droplets on the window of a moving train using AF, this is a situation where manual focus is going to be better than any AF system. With enough practice you can shoot a manual focus camera just as fast if not faster than you can shoot a camera with auto focus.

The look // I love the look of film photography. I love the character and soul that grain lends a photograph.
Digital photos are too clean, too sharp to the point of almost looking unrealistic. Digital photos look sterile and have no character. I don’t just get the obsession with clean, sharp, noise free images.

Sure you can make digital photos look like a film photo (yes I am guilty of this photographic faux pas but I have since amended my ways) but why would you? Why wouldn’t you just shoot film if you want to make your photos look like a film photo?

Shooting film feels good // I don’t know what it is but shooting film feels good, it feels different, maybe it’s the loading of the film or advancing the film after you make a frame. Shooting film just feels right. I can’t quantify this reason but anyone that has shot both film and digital will most likely know what I am talking about.

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Ultimately a camera is just a tool just like a computer, a paintbrush, a pen or pencil and paper, is a tool. Like any tool you have to know how to use it proficiently. Your tool has to become an extension of you.

Everyone has a favourite tool, a carpenter has a favourite hammer, an artist has a favourite brush, an Illustrator has a favourite pencil, an author has a favourite pen or writing application, and a photographer has a favourite camera. I’m still looking for my favourite camera and in my search for my favourite camera I’m switching back to film photography.

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