Film is not Dead !
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 ?, I ask myself, as if I was expecting some kind of baby.
Oh well yes, I dare the comparison, slides are like children: I conceived them, then I waited for them to see the light, and I have feelings for each of them.
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.
Film Cameras I Love Using
Nikon 28 Ti & 35 Ti
These two posh point and shoots look great, have stunning image quality and are the only ones in their league with matrix metering. I love the analog display on the top plate, which is actually very useful besides being fun to watch. Also, the exact shutter speed in the viewfinder is great compared to most other P&S cameras. The 35Ti has great bokeh ; the 28Ti is vignetting quite a bit, but has amazing sharpness and contrast that make it comparable to a Zeiss Biogon.
The main limitations of these cameras are a 1/250s top speed and of course a limited angle of view. What is also bugging me at times is the lens pop-out whizz noise at startup.
I regularly shoot with them, because they are so compact and also because I know I’m not wasting film - thanks to perfect metering.
When I want to travel light but without any sacrifice on image quality and possibilities, I pack the G2, which gives crispy, saturated images that will last a lifetime.
I use the G2 with three lenses : 21 Biogon, 45 Planar and 90mm Sonnar. This kit weighs about 1 kilogram and is just about what you need to take pictures : outstanding design, fast operation, great ergonomics, informative displays, best lenses around and good reliability. I took the G2 to Nepal, India, the Alps, South Africa… it performs well everywhere and usually gives me 30 keepers out of every 36 exp roll I shoot. I never need a tripod with my G2. You can get sharp shots as slow as 1/6 sec. My only complains about it are the noise when focusing, and the relatively dim viewfinder.
The Zeiss Biogon 21mm is a fantastic lens with no distortion and great sharpness. You need to attach a 21mm viewfinder which is very bright and comfy.
The Planar 45mm is a perfect choice for street photography, portraits and low light shots. It is widely seen as one of the best lenses in the world - even be beating Leica.
The Sonnar 90mm is a great portrait lens with great bokeh and gives you more reach with still a tiny lens.
Nikon F3 HP
On tough outings, like winter high altitude ski mountaineering, I love the Nikon F3 and its simple, sturdy design.
It has an A mode and a mechanical backup speed in case the battery dies (it happened to me on top of Kilimanjaro in 2006 !).
It also has a 100% viewfinder and a removable prism allowing to shoot from waist level.
The FM2, FE2 and FA are lighter than the F3 but I personally always preferred the F3 for its absolute pro quality and comfort of use.
When I can afford carrying a few more hectograms, I like to take out my F4, probably the most iconic Nikon camera, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro.
The F4 is a joy to use with its dedicated knobs and dials : program, metering, AF, drive, exposure compensation…
It has a lot of refinements, such as a tungsten shutter dampener and a mercury switch allowing the computer to adapt matrix metering to vertical or horizontal framing.
AF is primitive but fast. The F4 also recognizes any kind of Nikkor lenses, automatically switching back and forth A and P modes.
For outdoor shots in tough conditions, I may use this underwater camera.
It's built like a tank (actually it basically is a tank), waterproof and weatherproof (it was used both by Cousteau and Vietnam war photographers ...)
More unexpected, it has the brightest viewfinder around. Of course focusing is manual but easy to set and read - you just have to guess the distance.
Among the many lenses I own or have owned, here are my favorites :
20mm f/4 AI : a compact travel lens made in the 1970s, it’s as small as a 50mm. It is easy to prefocus, and uses 52mm filters. Very convenient, especially to reduce the weight of your backpack when using a heavy body such as a Nikon F4 or D700.
17-35mm f/2.8 AFS : an outstanding and tough-built wide angle zoom with low distortion. Build quality is the best you can dream of. AF is silent and fast.
50 mm f/1.8 : a sharp travel lens that every travel photographer should probably own. Nice sunstars thanks to its straight-bladed diaphragm.
50mm f/1.4 AFS : unbeatable for handheld night shots.
35-105mm AF : an oldie, but as earlier Nikon lenses it’s well built and very good value for the money. It has a convenient range for street and travel photography. Optically, it has good macro capability and a very nice bokeh.
180mm f/2.8 IF ED : an optical gem that I’ve been using intensively since 1998 on more than 10 different Nikon bodies ! Saturation, contrast and low distortion are its signature.
Other film cameras I have used so far (and ratings)
Contax T2 ***
Contax TVS II ***
Contax G1 ***
Minolta X700 ***
Ricoh GR1 ***
Nikon FM10 ***
Fuji DL Super Mini **
Nikon F70 **
Nikon F80 *
Nikon F100 **
Nikon FM2 **
Nikon FE2 **
Nikon FA **