Why I Still Shoot Film
August 2016, Sao Paulo airport. I packed for a 10-day trip to Peru, a place I have never been. As usual, I took several lenses of various focal lengths, and two bodies for redundancy. But my most advanced camera, my most recent acquisition - a lightweight, professional Nikon Df - stayed home. Instead, I loaded my backpack with a 25-year old Nikon F4, and its younger brother F90. They don't eat CF or SD cards, but rolls of film. They don't run on lithium battery packs, but on these old AA batteries.
Why did I choose to limit myself to 504 exposures, instead of unlimited bursts of pixels ?
Why am I ready to pay for processing film and wait for several days, or weeks, before seeing my pictures ?
Why am I even bothering to write down data about exposure in a notebook, and individually label hundreds of slides, instead of using the EXIF Data ?
1. Because Film and Digital are two different media.
Like vinyl and CD, film and digital are two totally different means of transcription of what our senses tell to our brain.
Film captures light through a chemical reaction. In a film camera, light is not coded into 0's and 1's, it arrives onto a real substance, a real material, and in a fraction of second it changes it forever. The positive film that will be cut into slides retains the very moment when it was hit by the light, like a definitive retinian persistence. The silver particles have been patiently waiting for this instant, and their metamorphosis is frozen in time, for many years.
I have been traveling to many places carrying both film and digital cameras. Still, when I want to browse through my pictures, I always check the film but rarely the digital - regardless of the superior technical quality of the latter. I feel like the slides "belong to me" more than the digital shots. I love them, their imperfections, the memories they convey, whereas the digital shots sound like they were created by the camera, not by me.
2. Because the making of a photograph is an emotional and creative process.
When I shoot film on travel, every tap on the shutter irreversibly decreases my remaining stock of final images. Like a butterfly, the film photographer lives only once. I can't afford to waste film, so I have to make the effort to carefully check all aspects : metering, focusing, shutter speed... but most of all, before doing so, I evaluate whether it is even worth taking that picture. Then, right after shooting, whereas in digital mode I would be checking my screen and browsing through the pictures, with film I am still available for the real life, the moment, focused on the action and the atmosphere.
Later, after a day with my camera, the editing is not isolating me from my environment, it will all take place once home, actually a few days or weeks after I even arrived home. Even better, the mystery of not knowing whether the images are up to my expectations forces me to never get satisfied of my work and, day after day, keeps me inspired. I have to think ahead, to build the storyboard of my photo journey. Finally, at home, the waiting time until the day I receive the processed film, is a delightful period where imagination and memories merge in a strange feeling ... What will they be like ?
3. Because the Right Camera Matters.
On photo trips, my camera is my permanent travel companion. I spend a lot of time choosing it based on the kind of voyage, and once such choice is made, I know that I will be influenced by the camera. The weight it will have on my shoulders, the way it will feel in my hands or look at me while it sits on my table next to my morning coffee, the form and size of its eye opened on the world, all of these interactions create a particular tone and mood. This can happen with modern cameras but not to the same extent as with older ones. Real car enthusiasts love driving old cars, because it provides different emotions and puts them in a different mindset. Same for old cameras. They send you back in times where talent was more in the driver than in the car, when the travel was maybe unpredictable but never tasteless, and where engineering ruled over marketing.
Some film cameras have features that just don't exist anymore. Which digital SLR can run on standard AA batteries, or take every new exposure on a new sensor, avoiding dust issues ? Which digital SLR was designed by Giorgietto Giugiaro ? (for those wondering, the Nikon F4 was). Who has recently seen full titanium bodies or real rubber covering ? And, like cars, there is the soundtrack. The delicate whizz of the F4's tungsten shutter. The snappy click of the F3's mechanical release. The precise noise of a Contax G2. It brings soul and signification to the act of taking a picture.
4. Because the result Looks Different.
The days are gone when a good scanner, associated witha 50 ISO slide, coukd achieve more resolution than the best digital caneras. Now, some professionals in the stock photography business refuse film because it has not enough definition, or because it "looks old"
Film photography has a distinct signature indeed, but this is precisely what I love about it. It doesn't pretend to render more details than the human eye can even distinguish. No, it renders colors, it renders light. Due to its chemical nature, there is an infinite tone of colors, and no artificial edges or contrasts.
It is also reproductible and reliable - it reacts always in the same way to a certain light, it was calibrated in a lab.
Do I see more details on a slide from my F4 than on a file shot with a Df, with same lens attached in front ? Certainly not. But do I care ? No. What matters to me, is that the image I am looking at has a story, is the result of my thinking, and reflects a moment where I was making a picture, not taking it.
Used since : 2018
Type : manual rangefinder
Lens : 38mm
Weight : 305 gr
Pros : compact, all manual, great lens
Cons : finicky film loading, not as nice titanium as later Contaxes
Great for : travel, street photography, mountaineering
Used since : 2005
Type : autofocus rangefinder
Lenses : 21, 45, 90 mm
Weight : 560 gr
Pros : fantastic Zeiss lenses, luxury finish, fast operation
Cons : noisy AF, dim viewfinder
Great for : travel, street photography, portrait
Used since : 2006
Type : manual focus reflex camera
Lenses : 16, 20, 50, 135, 180mm
Weight : 750 gr
Pros : tough, great finder, can operate without power at 1/90s
Cons : heavier than similar bodies
Great for : landscape, expeditions
Used since : 2008
Type : autofocus reflex camera
Lenses : 20, 50, 135, 180 mm
Weight : 1280 gr
Pros : best ergonomics, runs on AAA batteries, accepts all Nikon lenses
Cons : heavy
Great for : landscape, street photography, rugged environments
Used since : 2014
Type : compact digital camera
Sensor : APS-C, CMOS
Weight : 280 gr
Lens : 28mm (21mm with adapter)
Pros : small, well engineered, image sharpness
Cons : cold image rendition, limited to wide angle
Great for : street photography, reportage, mountaineering
Used since : 2021
Type : compact digital camera
Sensor : Foveon X3
Weight : 350 gr
Lens : 45mm
Pros : exceptional image quality, nice design, versatile focal length
Cons : slow operation, poor battery life, bad at high ISOs
Great for : portrait, landscape