With the ease, affordability, and ever-increasing clarity made possible by the development of digital photography, many people believe that film, in all its formats, has gone the way of the dodo. If you look closely, though, you’ll see that it’s gone more the way of the vinyl record – not as cheap, not as easy, and not made on a computer, but having a lasting, eternal quality that enthusiasts will forever appreciate. In this video, old-fashioned photographer Ryan Tatar discusses why he still shoots film, and how it’s not as complicated as everyone thinks:
In essence, film photography works the same way as digital; the same principles of light, composition, and exposure apply. Film cameras have a wider variety of designs though, from the SLR style that we’re so familiar with, to the twin-lens reflex (TLR), the rangefinder, and the iconic view camera. There are newer film cameras which have computers built into them, enabling automatic exposure and focus, along with a variety of convenient functions that we’re used to in digital photography; however, film photographers rarely become excited about these models, seeing the legwork of fully-manual cameras as integral to the experience of shooting film.
If you’re already familiar with the principles of exposure – namely, how to set up your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to achieve a proper balance of light and shadow – then you already know how to use a film camera. The only real difference is that you have to shoot a full roll at a single ISO, and can’t change back and forth (though you can change what ISO you want to shoot any given roll at, in a process known as pushing and pulling the film). Many photographers still learn first on film, as the simpler cameras allow them to focus on the really important aspects of photography, without being diluted by all the bells and whistles of modern cameras. Because an image cannot be viewed right away, and because a roll only contains so many pictures, the experience forces the photographer to think more deeply about the picture they’re creating. Many photographers find this thoughtful and straightforward approach to be relaxing and even meditative.
Some digital-only photographers are intimidated by film, seeing it as complicated and costly, but neither could be further from the truth. As Tatar touches on in the video, high-end film cameras can now be bought for next to nothing, since everyone is abandoning ship. You can easily find a professional-quality camera for under $200, leaving you a whole ~$800 to buy and develop film before you even begin to touch on the price of a decent digital kit. You may not be able to snap off a thousand photos in an afternoon, but who really wants to do that, anyway? With film, you’ll take one photo for every ten on digital, and it will probably be more unique and beautiful than all those ten put together.
The stark, saturated look of Tatar’s images, as he mentions, comes from a technique known as cross-processing. There are many types of film (there used to be more) – black and white, color negative, and color reversal, or slide film, are among the main types. Each of these is created with a different composition, requiring different chemicals to develop properly. However, they all undergo similar enough reactions that when one type of film is processed in the wrong type of chemical, you come out with completely bizarre and unique results. This is the second most attractive and exciting aspect of film photography – unpredictability. When shooting digital, we always know what the picture will look like. Good digital photographs are, for the most part, crisp, saturated, and excessively clean; sharpness is the eternal prize of the digital photographer. While this may resemble immediate reality more closely, it does not necessarily reflect reality as seen through the eye of an artist, or as seen in a memory. The beauty of film is that it is fickle. Sometimes there are light leaks, or blurry spots, or grain, but sometimes that’s the point. Sometimes the accidents are the most perfect part of an image.
There are a million things to say about film, and this article can’t last forever, but it goes to show that film is still very much alive. It is the history of our craft, and it holds a concrete quality, a feeling of substantiveness and of slight risk, that makes the medium endure as a part of the photographic world, as well as a world all of its own, created by the unique combination of chemistry, camera, and a creative eye.
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