By Peter Stewart | 15 Oct 2013
Like most people of my generation with an interest in photography, I started on digital.
Before I even had an interest in photography, before smartphones, the age of instagram and photo documenting each and every minute of day to day life (save for a few disposables for holidays) I started with a little 4MP Sony Cybershot hand me down compact camera.
I never had an interest in photography growing up. It wasn't until my early twenties that I decided to drop a fair amount of cash on a Canon 1000D DSLR with a kit lens. From there on I was hooked.
Digital gave me the freedom to shoot whatever, whenever, wherever. Shooting thousands of frames in one day on any subject I felt like. I was/am/will be always a digital photographer.
Naturally as an interest in photography grows, besides growing your skill set, sooner or later you start lusting over more and better gear. Soon you discover names such as Leica and Zeiss and start wondering if your bank manager is going to show up at your door and shoot you.
Street portrait of local man in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. (Nikon F3HP, Kodak 200).
For me however, I started looking backwards into time. I would look over images in National Geographic and wonder why they just looked the way that they did. Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl", arguably one of the most iconic images of our time. Shot on a Nikon FM2 and a little piece of magic called "Kodachrome".
Ansel Adam's epic B&W landscapes, shot on huge large format plates. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most celebrated street photographers of all time, and his marriage to Leica rangefinders.
Film to many people is eternal. An image recorded on a piece of celluloid that is forever. The argument today is that film is dead and digital has far surpassed in terms of overall quality.
Whilst I won't get into that argument, all I can say is that film has a quality and a magic to it that cannot and will never be replicated with any digital device.
For me, film is the magic of photography.
When I first started showing a mild interest in the format, I remember I was in Hong Kong and passed the lomography store. I had heard of the lomography following before but it had never really interested me. It was the hundreds of little prints hanging in the window of the shop that grabbed me. Looking like badly shot polaroid prints with cross processing, negative damage, light leaks and fuzzy focus, they have a certain charm to them which i'm sure is that attracted the hipster generation. I went inside, and $80 later I had in my hands a Holga 120CFN and a roll of film. My first ever film camera.
My trusty Holga. Not!
The first results weren't so good. I think I loaded the film backwards or left the lens cap on the entire time as my entire roll came back pretty much as black negatives. After getting laughed at by the lab, I loaded up another roll, this time Velvia 100 and took to the streets. Second roll turned out just as bad as the first. Except making mistakes with Velvia is costly. This stuff is VERY expensive. I ended up opening up the back in broad daylight to find I had in fact not finished the roll, and again all my film was blown save for 1 or 2 frames.
My trusty Holga broke after about 5 rolls and I never really peaked an interest in using it again. Whilst it's ok to shoot film as a novelty, I wanted to actually take good quality images. Especially on something as awesome as 120 medium format film. For me, a Russian toy camera with a plastic lens wasn't gonna cut it.
I gave up on film for a few years after that. It was only last year that I got a hand me down Ricoh XR-10 35mm SLR with a Pentax 50mm f1.7 lens and I started showing an interest again. As a first foray into 35mm I was hooked. I shot a few rolls through that camera before it too bit the dust.
Again like with the Holga, mistakes were made. Opening the film back to find I haven't rewound the roll fully. Shooting with the lens cap on. Forgetting to set exposures correctly. For me it was all part of the fun, but slowly I realised this was teaching me more about photography than I was learning from shooting digital.
Bible preacher in Mongkok, Hong Kong (Nikon F3HP, Kodak 200)
Unlike Digital, film has a set amount of exposure. For 35mm it's either 24 or 36 shots. With 120 film (medium format) depending on the aspect ratio your camera shoots in it can be anywhere from 4 to 16 shots per roll of film. This immediately puts you into the mindset of not wanting to waste any shots.
You want to make every click count.
A lot of film cameras are all fully mechanical machines, devoid of features. Although most cameras from the 70's onwards have built in metering, thats about all you get in terms of advanced features. Everything is manual. Apertures needs to be manually selected on the lens, the correct shutter speed has to be input on the top dial and focusing also needs to be done manually.
My current film SLR, the Nikon F3HP & Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
You might think these things a hindrance, but what they do is force you to slow down and think about each and every shot. Taking the automation out of things and stripping things back to basics. It's awesome fun!
Shooting film really is all about the enjoyment that comes from a hobby such as photography. Not knowing what your shots look like till they get developed. The surprises that come from viewing the final result and seeing if you screwed up that prize winning shot or not.
It's a more rewarding experience, and rather than just uploading that last batch of 500 shots of your lunch to a folder where they will never be seen again. With film, you have that physical negative. You can have instant prints, or even better if you are shooting slide film; you have a positive colour image that can be projected.
Now getting into this whole analogue revolution isn't difficult. Second hand 35mm SLR's can be had pretty cheaply nowadays, and even better are the prices of the lenses. It's even better if you shoot Nikon as old Nikkor glass will happily mount on any Nikon DSLR. To be honest any branded lens can easily be modified with an add on adapter to mount to Canon/Nikon/Sony DSLR's.
The best thing about buying these old cameras is that they seem to hold their current value, so if for whatever reason you do get bored of shooting film or Kodak really really does go under then you can sell it on probably for what you paid for it.
And on that point about Kodak, now really is the time to have a go at shooting film. All around the world labs are disappearing and unfortunitly the cost of buying and developing film is going up. The manufacturers are also rapidly discontinuing production.
The main brands still in the film business are Kodak, Fuji and Ilford. Kodak has been in major financial trouble and as a result has sold off it's film production business to a group of (no joke) pensioners in the UK. The past few years have been very unkind to Kodak with the discontinuation of classic emultions such as Kodachrome and Ektachrome. There are now only a handful of film stocks left from these pioneers of photography.
Fuji in Japan have also cut a few of their cherished professional films. As a result they only have a handful of slide films left to choose from. For the time being however, Velvia is still safe.
Film isn't giving up yet. Whilst it certainly is a dying art form, there are still many people out there keeping the form factor alive.
Shoot film, not megapixels.