A friend of mine threw this question to me, and it made me ponder about it for awhile with no answer given to him. Let’s take a look at some of the common reasons why people shoot film and see if they are still relevant today.
Film cameras are cheap
This is the common answer when people explain why one should shoot film. This statement is both true and false, in some way. It’s true that film camera can be very cheap at 50-100 bucks, but the thing is, most people would end up buying a Leica that cost thousands over dollars!
How about a used digital full frame camera? Last check from some local forums, I can easily get a used Canon 5D MK II at less then a thousand dollar, same goes to Nikon D600, where both are pretty capable cameras. You can get a cheap 50mm f1.8 lens to start with and your whole setup will be much cheaper than, say buying a Leica M6 which haven’t include the lens.
Of course things will be a little different when we talk about medium format. Medium format film cameras are generally cheaper than that of digital. I bought my Fujifilm GW690 III at less than 500 bucks, which is very cheap as compared to say Hasselblad H4D which can command up to 5,000 bucks.
Next, you will need to factor in the cost of film, developing and scanning them. In long run, the cost will surely be higher than using a CF card or SD card. So shooting film is cheaper only under certain circumstances, and it’s not always true.
You can try out various film stock
Yes of course, there are many options from different price range for you to choose from. The cheaper options will be Kodak Gold or Ultramax, Fujifilm X-tra and Agfa Vista. Moving up you will get films like Kodak Portra, Ektar and Fujifilm Pro 400H, and last but not least, positive slides like Velvia and Provia.
We have only mentioned about colour films, what about black and white? Ilford Delta, HP5, FP4, Fujifilm Acros, Kodak Tri-X and T-Max are a few favourites, not to mentioned other brands such as Rollei, Kentmere, Seagull…
As you can see, the choices are really abundant. But if any of those naming are familiar to you, yes, they are all available in your Lightroom / Photoshop presets. You can mimic the film look in digital files, but the keyword here is “mimic”. There are those who still prefer the “real” film colours or tones, and for that reason alone they will continue to shoot film. But for hobbyist, the cost of buying a presets versus the cost of buying film is what you need to weight in.
It slows you down…
Another common remark that is associated with shooting film. Let’s think it through: What slows you down? The manual focusing camera? The shooting process? Being careful with composition and framing? Spending time to search for the light and colours?
Now let’s be frank, aren’t any of these achievable with digital camera? Again, it boils down to your discipline and your approach to photography, the same thing is possible to be done regardless of the medium.
You only limited to few shots per roll of film
Yes, shooting film limits you from machine-gunning. You won’t waste the shot as it’s not cheap to begin with. But the same can be done with digital too, use a slower and smaller capacity card, discipline yourself for not over-shooting, so it’s not something “film camera exclusive”.
It’s fun experimenting with development and darkroom techniques
I have yet to experience darkroom myself, but I would love to do so one day, and I can imagine there will be those who enjoy the smell of chemical, and the magic of seeing your creation come to life in your hands. Shooting digital on the other hand gives you the “Lightroom” experience, or maybe Photoshop. Equally fascinating, so it’s really depends on which would you prefer.
It last like forever
If negatives are taken care properly, it can last very long indeed. And you can print and reprint and reprint with it over and over again. Digital files are stored as data on your hard disk, some may argue that it’s “fragile” and it’s not “future proof” as one day your files format might obsolete and no longer be supported, and it’s easier to delete the picture and have data loss.
I kind of agree on the part where digital file may one day have compatibility issues, but to me, that’s the importance of printing out your work instead of just storing them in your computer. Negatives are equally fragile and subject to damage and scratches, hence I would say it doesn’t matter what medium you are working on, print your work and keep backup of them!
You don’t need electricity to get things done
I have to give this to the film camera, as technically this statement is true and this is something that is impossible to be achieved by using digital camera. But, unless you are travelling into rural area to photograph and you will have limited to no access of electricity, otherwise I don’t really think this argument is strong enough to sway one from using film instead of digital.
Colour rendition of film vs digital (mosaic and bayer filter)
From some online articles that I read, some claimed that the colour produced by film is the “real” colour with more tonal range, while digital image are made from interpolation of the bayer filter on the sensor, hence false colour may occur. I have seen some samples on this and I believe this is a legit point. However, how much does this bothers you is the question you need to answer. It certainly isn’t significant enough for general users, but to some it could be a deal breaker.
Go big with large format
Arguably, only film offers you the possibility to shoot in large formats such as 4×5. Digital sensor still stuck at the size of medium format. If this is something you pursue, then yes, you probably got no other choice but to shoot film.
Film has higher dynamic range
People always says “film is more forgiving”, and some even claimed that you can go as far as 6 stops of shadow recovery on film while still retaining details. Personally, I did not went into detail testing and comparing this myself. I do agree that film is a little “generous” when comes to shadow and highlight recovery, but at the end of the day, it really depends on the film you use and how you exposed it. Digital sensors nowadays are pretty capable too, and I don’t think it’s justifiable to conclude “film is better than digital” in this regards.
It’s the whole process that counts
After much comparison, is film or digital better? Well, does it matter? Back to the question, is there still a point to shoot film? My answer is still yes, at the end of the day, the whole process of shooting film is different from digital.
It’s not about “slow you down” or “make you see better”, but it’s just the organic process which gives you a different kind of satisfaction and accomplishment. It certainly isn’t more superior than digital or worse than it. To put it in a crude way, it’s just another choice of medium for you to work with, and that’s about it.
How long will film continue to survive in the photography world? I don’t know, but occasionally, I will still be in the mood of grabbing my film camera out for a walk and be happy with it. Till then, happy shooting.