Welcome to Film

Once upon a time, when the world was young, the vast majority of photographers shot only black and white and colour was a novelty, so there were numerous books and magazine articles on how to make the transition to the new medium. Later, when colour was fully established and digital imaging was a novelty, there came a spate of books and articles about how to adapt to digital photography; a flood that has not yet abated. But we are hearing from more and more photographers who have acquired an interest in photography via digital imaging, and are wondering why so many people still use film. In short, for many, traditional film has become the novelty.

There are no books and precious few articles for those who want to go from digital to film: surprisingly few editors are far-sighted enough to publish them. Well, we still use film, and here is why, garnered from our own experience and that of others who have never stopped; or have gone back to film after trying digital; or who, after growing up on digital, have decided to use film either alongside or instead of digital.

The last point is important. We use both digital and silver halide. We also ride motorcycles as well as driving cars, and eat vegetables as well as meat. You don't necessarily need to abjure the one in order to enjoy the other -- unless, we have to say, you want the best possible results on the lowest possible budget, in which case silver is a clear winner in most cases. Increasingly, too, people take a hybrid silver/digital route, scanning and printing from film. In colour, this is the way we do it, though in black and white we still print the vast majority of our pictures in a traditional 'wet' darkroom.

 

Somewhere to hang your hat

We were on a motorcycle tour in 1994 when Roger shot this in an old coaching inn in Burgundy. He used a then-new Sigma 70-210 f/2.8 zoom lens on a Nikon F that was already more than a quarter of a century old. The ability to mix and match past and present is, for us, one of the numerous attractions of using film cameras. The film was Roger's favourite of all time, tragically discontinued shortly before the picture was taken: Fuji RF/RFP ISO 50. As soon as we realized it had been discontinued we bought 50 rolls and stuck them in the freezer; they finally ran out (eked out with other films) about 3 years after the official discontinuation.

The analogy with motorcycles and cars is, for us, exact. A car is often more convenient, warmer, drier, more comfortable and less demanding than a motorcycle, but even a very modest motorcycle such as the 350cc Enfield Bullet can deliver more fun and pleasure than a powerful motor-car costing many times as much to buy and run, and far more fun and pleasure than the generic motor cars that most people rely upon for their daily transport. Stand the majority of film cameras alongside the majority of digital cameras and we'd say that the parallel is unmistakable.

A lot of this module will seem either self-evident (if you're naturally a 'film person') or completely alien (if you're naturally a 'digital person'), and that's fine. Our aim is not to be totally evangelical, though we would be dishonest to deny a high degree of pro-film evangelism, but to help you think about whether film is really for you.

The Look

Film has a different look from digital, and some people prefer it. Devotees of digital counter this in two ways. Some say that digital is better (by which they mean that their preference goes the other way), while others argue that with sufficient skill in Adobe Photoshop or the like, you can make a digital image indistinguishable from a film one.

We can't argue with the first, except to say that not everyone feels the same way. As for the second, we are not at all sure that it is true: quite apart from image processing algorithms for fine detail, there are questions of tonality and colour. Even if it is true, we have to ask why anyone would spend long periods turning one thing into another. It's a bit like cooking beef to taste like chicken, or chicken to taste like beef. It's disputable how well you can do either, and in any case, why bother?

This is most important in black and white. The best black and white digital prints we have seen are superb, every bit as good in their way as the best silver halide prints. But they don't look the same. It's more like comparing water-colours with oils; the similarities aren't even as great as they are between oils and acrylics.

 

Greenhouse window

For many photographers, black and white is the purest and most attractive of the effects attainable with traditional black and white film -- and as Geoffrey Crawley said, you can often create a picture in black and white where none would exist in colour. Frances loaded her Voigtlander Bessa R3 with Kodak Tri-X for this shot, with a 50/2.5 Color-Skopar lens on the front. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone; the border was achieved with a filed-out negative carrier.

Just as silver halide and digital are different, so do different films each have a different look. Sure, some are pretty similar, and commercial colour printing often masks the differences between different kinds of colour negative film; but if you take a close look at the work of any photographer whose film-based work you admire, you are likely to find that they are quite partisan about the materials they use and will often insist that this particular film (or developer, or paper, or all three) forms an integral part of the look of their work. There is a paid module on film choice.

There are also countless specialist effects that are achieved with different formats, printing processes, and degrees of afterwork. All have a degree of craft to them which is hard to re-create by pressing a series of buttons on a keyboard or moving a mouse about. This leads us to:

Tradition and durability

Photographers have been shooting silver halide from the dawn of modern photography: indeed, the dawn of modern photography is generally regarded as being synonymous with the invention of silver halide photography. As a result, there are countless old cameras still in circulation, the vast majority of which remain usable. Or if you buy a new film camera, you are buying the culmination of the experience that the manufacturers have gained to date. The basic design of the Leica MP goes back to the original M3 more than 50 years ago, but it's a brand-new camera built to the highest standards. For that matter, our oldest usable camera, a Gandolfi 12x15 inch, is probably close to a century old. This is a major difference from digital, where a 5-year-old camera is usually regarded as junk.

In other words, when you start using a film camera, you are tapping into a tradition that goes back as far as photography itself. If you admire the work of a particular photographer, you can often find a camera that is identical to (or at least very similar to) the one/s he or she uses or used. As we said at the beginning of this module, considerations such as this will either fire your imagination or leave you completely puzzled as to what we are talking about.

Tree, vineyards, chateau

When was this picture taken? Last week? Last year? The 21st, 20th or 19th century? Actually 2003; Frances used a Voigtlander Bessa-T and 28/1.9 Ultron, shooting on Ilford XP2 (the filed-out border is a bit of a giveaway). The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, sepia-toned, but similar effects could be obtained with a scanner and duotone ink-jet printing.

Archival permanence

As with cameras, so with images. You can come across an ancient negative; hold it up to the light; and (if it interests you) either scan it or print it in the traditional manner. Now imagine the same scenario with an old electronic file. First of all you have to find some way of reading it. CDs are OK at the moment but suppose it was on a Syquest? And how will CDs fare in 50 years? Even if CD readers are still available, there are plenty of people who reckon that the CDs themselves will have deteriorated to unreadability in a few years. Digital fans counter that as long as you back up your images every few years, they will last longer than film. Yeah, sure, we're going to back up scores of CDs every few years...

The archival permanence of negatives, and the way you can just hold them up to the light, is to us as strong an argument as the proven archival permanence of well-processed monochrome silver halide prints. After all, as long as you have the film original, you can make new prints with whatever media and techniques are available to you. But equally, if the film originals are lost, as is by no means unlikely over the years, decades and centuries, silver halide prints are still very long-lived.

 

Nos petits enfants, 1920s

This picture was made from a glass plate negative taken in the 1920s; you can see how the emulsion is beginning to lift from the plate. Yet Frances was able to print it with a modern enlarger and give the owner a print. The owner was fascinated: she had never seen prints from these negatives, only the negatives themselves, which her grandfather had taken in the 20s and 30s. Roger also scanned some of the negatives and made prints that way.

Camera cost

This is of enormous importance, all across the cost spectrum. At the cheap end, you need to be pretty poor not to be able to afford a second-hand film camera to play with: a fixed-lens rangefinder, an old manual SLR. At the expensive end, the price of a new Alpa or Gandolfi or Leica may make you wince, but barring mishap, you should be able to use the camera for the rest of your life unless you are very young and use it very hard -- and even then, it's cheaper than a high-end digital camera which may last a decade if you're lucky.

In between, there is an enormous choice, including many extraordinarily affordable classics such as the original Nikon F (1959-1973): a good, usable camera, complete with a 50mm lens, should cost no more than a modest digital compact. Go for its 'younger brother', the Nikkormat, and you might just find a first-class camera and lens at the price of a good (but not exceptionally expensive) dinner for two. Or you can buy a new Chinese-made manual SLR for the same sort of money.

Kodak Retina IIa

This lovely little coupled-rangefinder camera dates from the early 1950s and sports a 50/2 Rodenstock Heligon lens which delivers excellent results. Roger paid 15 euros (just over a tenner, or under 20 bucks) for it in 2003, in a camera shop in Luxembourg. It's probably worth three or four times that, but even 60 euros wouldn't break the bank.

Because users of 'consumer' SLRs have been among the most enthusiastic adopters of digital imaging, the market is saturated with good-quality, late-model film cameras with all the features you expect in digital: auto-exposure, autofocus, multimode. If you want the easiest possible transition from digital to film, these can be a good buy.

For a first film camera we'd recommend 35mm over roll-film (medium format) or large format, unless you have a real burning desire to learn on the bigger formats. They are harder work; film choice is smaller; processing (whether you do it yourself or pay to have it done) is significantly more difficult and expensive; and as a result of all this, you end up taking fewer pictures, which is never a good idea because the only way to get better is to take more pictures.

We'd recommend that you don't stretch yourself financially until you are absolutely sure that you want a film camera, but equally we'd say that you are unlikely to get the same pleasure of use or quality of results from an old Eastern European camera that you would from a good German or Japanese camera from the same period. Buy the best you can comfortably afford, and remember that a lot of sellers won't really know what they've got. This can translate into bargains, but it can also translate into useless junk, especially if you buy sight unseen from e-bay or the like.

 

Does it work?

There's always a temptation to see if an old camera works or can be made to work. With film, the answer is usually in the affirmative. In strictly rational terms, trying to get a picture out of (say) a 1930s roll-film folder or a 1950s Exakta may be more trouble than it is worth; it may make you grateful for modern cameras; the results may be less than stellar; but none of these necessarily detracts from the fun of trying. And it's hardly an expensive hobby.

Goerz Minicord

The Minicord is a gorgeous fine-mechanical gadget, a wonderful piece of 1950s technology. It's a twin-lens reflex taking square images on 16mm film in unique Goerz cassettes. The lens is an impressive f/2 and the whole thing is guaranteed to excite lust in the heart of a camera collector.

Unfortunately it suffers from all the drawbacks mentioned above. First you need to find some 16mm film, or slit down 35mm. Then you have to load it into the cassettes. Then you've got to get it processed. And when you do, you find that the results are extremely variable because the film pressure plate doesn't always locate the film in the right place. That's not just the camera's age: they were always like that, because the Agfa Rapid-style loading wouldn't have worked with a stronger spring in the pressure plate.

But isn't it pretty?

Simplicity

There are two ways of looking at simplicity, and each has its mirror image in complexity. One approach defines simplicity in terms of use, an auto-everything camera where you just point and shoot; the complication comes from the amount of electronics and technology built into the camera. The other defines simplicity in terms of design, stripping a camera to its bare essentials; the complication comes in learning to use it.

Our own view is that the latter is vastly preferable. How much do you have to learn, after all? Focusing is hardly demanding, whether you do it with a reflex; or via a coupled rangefinder; or even by estimating the distance and scale focusing. Setting a shutter is not difficult either: shorter times 'freeze' movement (of the subject and of the camera) and longer ones allow more light onto the film. Apertures are initially a little confusing because the numbers go 'backwards' and a small number means more light-gathering power than a big one, but as soon as you work out why, this isn't hard either: check the glossary for more information.

In fact the only remotely difficult bit is exposure, and depending on the camera you use, you may have a built-in meter; or you can add an accessory-shoe meter; or you can use a separate hand-held meter. For that matter, you can base your exposures on the 'crib sheets' that come with some films, or (with a bare minimum of experience) just guess.

Look at it this way. Until the 1960s, there was little or no automation on the vast majority of cameras (auto-exposure first appeared in the very late 50s, and was not widely adopted for the best part of a decade). Do you really think that you are too stupid to master something that countless photographers have mastered before you, during the first century-and-a-bit of photography?

Or look at it another way. Disposable (single-use) cameras work. They have fixed focus, a fixed aperture and a fixed shutter speed, but they still take entirely satisfactory pictures under a surprisingly wide range of conditions. You can take one of the best cameras in the world -- a Leica, say -- and use it the same way. Load it with ISO 400 colour print film and set the focus using the depth-of-field markings for f/8, the aperture to f/8 and the shutter speed to 1/60. Don't touch these settings again -- until you need to or want to, as you learn more.

 

Water tower, Mazeuil

Frances shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford Perceptol, which gives a particularly fine tonality -- though she is at least as fond of Ilford XP2 which can be developed at any reasonably competent mini-lab. A strong red filter darkened the blue sky and made the clouds stand out dramatically. The camera was a Voigtländer Bessa-R3A with a 21/4 Colour-Skopar.

Control and craft

This flows directly from the above. When you are in control of a fully manual camera, you can make it do things that an automatic camera either cannot do, or where they require you to choose between so many programs that you might as well use a manual camera anyway. You want to freeze action? Use a high shutter speed. You want blurred 'cotton candy' water? Use a long shutter speed. You want to isolate your subject against an out-of-focus background? Use a wide aperture. You want everything sharp from front to back? Use a small aperture.

At this point you start to appreciate photography as a craft. It sounds a bit mystical, but we (and many others) firmly believe that the less you delegate to your camera, the more of yourself you put into an image. It's like the difference between a mass-produced print and an oil painting, or at least, it can be. Sure, it takes time. But if that time is enjoyable, who cares?

Speed of response

The best modern digital cameras are roughly similar to modern autofocus film cameras when it comes to the delay between pressing the shutter and taking the picture. Very roughly, the delay on a good digital camera is around 1/15 second; a bad one can be 1/8 second or more (sometimes much more). But many manual cameras respond in around 1/30 second. Of course there are many applications where even a second's delay is neither here nor there -- but if you are dealing with fleeting expressions or fast-moving action, small fractions of a second can make a significant difference.

Girl on a bicycle, Kezmarok, Slovakia

A fast-responding Leica MP meant that Roger needed a minimum of anticipation to frame this girl with the shadow and the doorway.

Image Quality

The image quality obtainable from a 6-megapixel camera at its best is roughly similar to the image quality attainable from a half-decent film camera at its worst, with an indifferent lens, grainy, low-sharpness film and a small amount of camera shake. Depending on whom you believe, the maximum quality attainable from a 35mm transparency would require something between 12 and 35 megapixels. This enormous variation is because so much depends on the subject, the film and the focus. A software engineer of our acquaintance reckoned that for a super-sharp portrait of Art Garfunkel, on ultra-fine-grain film, with every hair sharp, you might well reach 35 megapixels. With the camera on a tripod, for an ordinary landscape or portrait, 18 to 20 megapixels is a widely accepted figure. No-one seriously suggests that you can get 35mm quality (except in the circumstances outlined above) with anything less than 12 megapixels, though 10 megapixels is reckoned to be what you need for an A4 (210x297mm, 8-1/4 x 11-3/4 inch) whole-page image in a magazine.

Exposure Latitude

Digital cameras are unbelievably critical when it comes to exposure, and they also have a very limited dynamic range: either 'blown' (featureless white) highlights and 'blocked' (solid black) shadows, or both, are inevitable when photographing a subject with a long brightness range (free module). The only kind of film that even begins to approach digital in this respect is slide (transparency) film, and even that has more flexibility and can capture a greater brightness range. Shoot negative film -- black and white or colour -- and expose generously and you can capture tremendous brightness ranges easily. Negative films have relatively little latitude for under-exposure, but a stop or two of over-exposure will do very little harm, especially with colour negative or chromogenic black and white films. With either of these, over-exposure actually means finer grain, but reduced sharpness. With conventional black and white films, you get reduced sharpness and coarser grain as well.

 

Frances at Igal spa, Hungary

All right, it's only a happy-snap, but at least there's enough detail in Frances's face to see who it is, and even though there is no detail in the specular highlights of the sun reflected upon the water, there's enough 'sparkle' to create a real impression of what it was like. What is more, this was shot on the most demanding film medium of all, colour slide(actually Kodak Elite Chrome 100, EBX)

Convenience

Shoot your roll of film; drop it off an a one-hour lab; pick the pictures up later. Or if you aren't in a hurry, use a 24-hour or even 3-day lab, or a postal lab for that matter. No matter which option you choose, it is likely to take up less of your time than making a single print at home on an ink-jet printer; certainly, less than making half a dozen prints.

A similar argument apparently applies in the wedding market. A major film supplier has told us that several wedding photographers have gone back to film after finding just how much time they were wasting on the computer, without any additional sales or profit: in other words, their hourly rate plummeted when they 'went digital'. Back to a film camera and a good pro lab package and the profits again remained unchanged but they weren't spending half the week on the computer.

Something that many people do not realize is that chromogenic black and white films such as Ilford XP2 extend this same convenience to those who want to try the purists' medium. The reference prints you get will sometimes exhibit funny colours: Kodak's films are better than XP2 for this, but they are not as sharp as XP2 and we much prefer the tonality of the Ilford product. But if you then want to scan the negatives yourself, or print them (or have them printed) conventionally, your can make 'real' black and whites, which always look tonally very different from conversions from colour.

 

Centre post for haystack, Romania

Traditional Transylvanian haystacks are built around a young tree-trunk with some branches left on; you can see both the haystacks and the centre pole here. The 'model fee' on this occasion was Roger's helping the old woman to embed the tree in the ground. When we came back from our 2005 Eastern European trip we had nearly 80 rolls of film, over half of them slides. It is a LOT quicker to have 40+ rolls of slides processed commercially, and then go through them, than to go through endless memory cards on the computer -- and once the slides are filed, they are easier to find, too. Much the same could be said about the traditional 'shoe box' method of filing commercially made prints, and besides, there is something inherently more enjoyable about rummaging around in a stack (or drawer full) of old pictures instead of entering key-words on a computer.

The Disadvantages

It would be dishonest to pretend there aren't any disadvantages to film. First of all, of course, there is the cost of film, though quite honestly, develop-and-print packages for colour print films are often so much cheaper than digital printing packages that this is hardly worth worrying about.

Second, your negative or slide is an irreplaceable camera original: any duplication will result in a loss of quality, unlike a digital image that can be replicated perfectly and indefinitely. Then again, scan your original and you will have a higher quality electronic file than most digicams can give you, plus the archival original.

Third, there's dirt and scratches: a digital file is inherently clean. You can do two things here: work as cleanly as possible (or use a clean, trustworthy lab) or, if you scan your images, use Digital ICE to clean them up. There is a slight theoretical loss of sharpness but in our experience, comparing ICEd and non-ICEd scans, it is not perceptible.

Fourth, if you only want a couple of shots, digital is a lot quicker: you don't have to shoot (or waste) a whole roll, get it processed, etc. This is a compelling enough argument that we would use digital alongside film for this reason alone. But as soon as you have a lot of shots -- more than a couple of dozen, for example when you are travelling -- the balance of speed shifts back to film, as noted above under 'convenience'. P>

Fifth, you don't have 'automatic white balance', so if you shoot under yellow tungsten light you will get yellow pictures unless you use a blue filter or hard-to-find tungsten-balance film. Even so, it is arguable that a more consistent approach to colour rendition is at least as much good as the weird and random colours often selected by AWB programs, leading to pictures which have to be cleaned up in Photoshop afterwards anyway. Often, too, yellowish effects under artificial light look quite good.

Photo exhibition

Yellow tungsten lighting; centuries-old yellow stone; daylight balance film; a yellow picture. But doesn't it have a certain charm despite the 'defects'? Roger used an M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux, shooting on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

Sixth, you don't have instant confirmation that you've got the picture, or that the exposure is correct. The former is an indisputable and major advantage of digicams, though the latitude of film (as noted above) means that exposure is nothing like as critical so the latter is of less importance than it might seem.

The seventh and greatest disadvantage is also the greatest advantage. You may get hooked. You'll be so intrigued by the pictures that you'll buy a good quality scanner, or maybe even set up a darkroom -- which is easier than you might think, as evidenced in the free module on our darkrooms. Then you'll want another camera, and some more lenses... Nah, stick to digital. You don't want to enjoy yourself that much.

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks