First I’ll start by saying that I’ve been photographing since about 1978, which does means that I grew up shooting film — as if that wasn’t obvious enough. I studied at Ryerson Polytechnic (before it was a university) where I did film and photography. See where this is going? I was a professional photographer and did a pile of commercial and editorial photography in the late 80’s and early 90’s; still with me? Good. I’ve used 10×8, 5×4, 120, 35mm have owned and still own a pile of film gear and still have a deep and abiding fondness for film. Got it so far? Cool.
I love film. Film, depending on how you shoot, process and print it does have some distinct differences when compared to digital. One of the most notable is the latitude that film has and that digital is still lacking. That’s not to say companies like Canon, Leica and Nikon etc aren’t working hard to close the gap. The simple fact is that digital is inherently more contrasty and despite the tools like Lightroom and photoshop and the incredible amount of image data stored in a RAW or a DNG file, a digital image is just doesn’t have the tonal range of a well developed negative.
Notice I said “well developed”?
Film is also the new playground; not that it wasn’t prior to the advent of digital imaging. Film represents an analog path to creative exploration that is all too generic and predictable in digital. You can cross process, be the author (or more directly so) in that you are not reliant on a software engineer from Adobe or elsewhere to create a plug-in/filter for you to use. There’s a greater sense of ownership and authenticity; something that digital, in all its techno-glory is missing.
Back to the notion of “well developed”. Not all film needs to be well developed and the number of people using and enjoying the randomness of expired film is on the increase. I’ve also noticed a number of artists/photographers who coat their own film. Likewise I know of a growing number of artists/photographers dispensing with cameras altogether and using pinhole cameras. There are and always have been people doing gum, platinum, kallitype, cyanotype and a range of alternative and historical processes. Yes, analog imaging is love and well.
Film is a lovely thing. It’s a return to a more deliberate way to make images. One tends to be more discriminating when composing and watching a scene evolve. You just tend to wait and anticipate the moment in a more engaged way. Digital removed the consciousness about costs, rolls of film and processing/contact printing. The result? I think people are far, far less discriminating and less thoughtful about the images they make and we can see it in the flood of so called “street photography” as everyone with a camera tries to be Henri-Cartier Bresson, and fails miserably. (no surprise there).
Film is popular because it’s a backlash against the new mainstream of digital and the reality that film is under threat of vanishing altogether. We want that option, we need that option to explore the possibilities that an analog approach offers. That being said, there’s a lot to be said for digital and frankly, if people were to educate themselves a little they might realize that digital can be (and should be) treated with the same discerning approach as film and their results might just improve as a result.
I don’t miss carrying hundreds of rolls of film in the field. I don’t miss endless hours developing, drying and contract printing. I did countless time in the darkroom printing and developing. I still have all the equipment for platinum and gum printing. I don’t just kick at old school; I am old school. All that aside, I would suggest this: Use film and learn to see before you make images. Use digital, it’s the new reality and can be quite liberating. It’s sad that digital is what it is and we’re 100% dependent on technology for the processing and printing. But then again, we, as photographers have always been dependent on technologies for our work. We relied on someone else to make the film, to manufacture chemistry, to make papers. It is and always has been a collaborative effort, with the people behind the technology hidden from sight.
Where am I going with this? Here, use the tools that make you happy. Use film, digital, pinhole, etc. explore, experiment, bust loose and forget about the technology and concentrate on the story. In the end the equipment really shouldn’t ever matter. What should matter, the only thing that matters in photography is the narrative we tell, the connections we foster between the subjects and the audience. If you get caught up in the gear and the technology you become less of a photographer and more of a picture taker; you don’t seriously want to be one of them? Do you?