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News & Insight

Why Film Photography is Valuable Today, To The Pro & Amateur Alike

By Bing Putney on September 11th 2016

Format Magazine recently published an article by Benjamin Kanarek, a well established, Paris-based fashion photographer, entitled Why I Think Film Photography is Horrible. In the article, he makes a lot of great points in regard to the capabilities of modern digital camera systems and how they compare to the relative shortcomings and difficulties of shooting with film. In terms of shooting professional work for clients, I agree with his arguments, but I feel that analogue photography deserves a nod to its value in shooting personal work.

Film-Pentax-6

Fuji Superia

Training

Kanarek has been shooting professionally since the 80’s, and in his article he writes about his days of shooting film for major fashion magazines, and the struggles of nailing his exposure with such limited latitude, and without the ability to check the back of the camera. Although I don’t know Benjamin Kanarek, or his background or training in photography, I would argue that this experience solidified his technical abilities as a photographer. He had to know instinctively how each adjustment would impact his images, whether in his camera settings, or his lighting decisions.

He writes, “People who learned with analog photography can blink their eyes and feel the exposure. They can feel the light.” Though I think that a light meter might also come into play at some point, doesn’t it seem that this kind of skill that could translate to finding beautiful light for your digital work as well?

Film-Pentax-4

Ilford HP5

Of course, digital does provide much faster feedback, and I would never suggest that someone learning the basics of photography do so with a film camera. If you’re still at the point of mastering exposure and white balance settings, I would advise you to buy a digital SLR, set it to manual mode, and leave it there.

Checking the back of the camera and making those adjustments on the fly is the quickest way to understand the fundamentals. However, for more experienced shooters, I think that depriving yourself of that immediate feedback can help you to think more critically about the technical considerations of your images, and more deeply ingrain the photographic instincts that are so vital to experienced, professional photographers, like Benjamin Kanarek.

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Fuji Superia

Economy

Though it’s fairly easy to find inexpensive, used film SLR cameras and lenses these days, the costs of putting that equipment into use can add up quickly. After buying film, processing and scanning it, you become acutely aware of the cost associated with each click of the shutter. Though this could initially be seen as a negative (pun intended), I think that it actually encourages a more deliberate approach to shooting. When you know that you only have 24 or 36 frames to work with on a given day, and each of those frames comes with a calculable cost, you tend to become more discerning in the shots that you take, and when you’re not totally happy with what you see through the viewfinder, you’re more likely to find creative ways to improve that shot before just taking it and moving on.

[REWIND: Shoot Expired Color Negative Film With Confidence]

Kanarek concedes this point as well. Due to his background of shooting film, and being limited to a smaller number of shots per roll, when shooting digitall, he often uses 4gb cards to limit himself, and avoid overshooting.
When I shoot with my digital camera, I often find myself moving too quickly. I’ll find something visually interesting, quickly frame it up from where I happen to be standing, perhaps take few slightly different shots, and move on. The spray and pray mentality associated with digital photography can present a hidden pitfall; When you’ve taken 20, 40 or 80 pictures of the same thing, it’s easy to assume that one of those shots will work, and move on, without more carefully, creatively exploring the scene to find the one angle, or framing that actually works best. Of course, this more discerning approach can be applied to digital photography as well, but working with film is incredibly valuable for instilling this more disciplined mindset.

Film-Pentax-3

Ilford HP5

Nostalgia

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the romantic nostalgia associated with analogue photography. Just like listening to your favorite album on vinyl as opposed to an mp3, there’s a more personal, visceral relationship with a roll of 35mm or medium format film that you don’t get when handling a 32GB 1000x UHS-II SDXC memory card. Although the final “look” of film is relatively easy to achieve in digital post-processing, the process of getting to that look lacks the same intangible satisfaction of developing a roll of film, not knowing what exactly you’ve captured, and seeing a contact sheet or print for the first time.

Film-Pentax-1

Kodak Portra

I recognize that this nostalgia carries very little weight in the finished product, but photography is a craft, and an artform, and as artists our relationship to that craft is worth something. If you’ve found that photography has become more of a chore than a passion, picking up an old Pentax K-1000 and shooting a roll of Fuji Superia can be an incredibly refreshing experience. I know because a few years ago that’s exactly what I did. Having moved over to a completely digital workflow, like 99% of photographers these days, I went to a local photography show at an Elk’s club, and bought the very same model of 30 year-old Pentax camera that I used when I was first learning photography. Shooting with that camera, and seeing the resulting images reminded me why I got into photography in the first place.

In Conclusion

In his article, Benjamin Kanarek makes a great deal of legitimate points on the obsolescence of film as measured against the abilities of modern digital cameras and tools. I agree. I love my old Pentax, but when it comes to shooting professional work for paying clients, it stays at home, and I use my cutting edge Sony A7R ii, perhaps as far from an analogue camera as is currently available.

It’s clear that digital photography will continue to evolve, and will remain the industry standard. Its image quality, convenience and versatility will never again be rivaled by celluloid. Even so, I believe that film still has a valuable place in the world of photography, and offers a unique set of abilities, characteristics, and challenges that can continue to benefit photographers in years and decades to come.

Film-Pentax-2

Kodak Ektar

All photos copyright Bing Putney, 2016.

About

Bing is a professional portrait and on-set still photographer who lives in Los Angeles, and frequently travels the world to explore new and interesting cultures and pastries.

Website: bingputneyphotography.com
Instagram: @bingputney

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dan Platon

    Of course that digital will remain the standard of the industry.
    The final consumer will be not able to detect clearly the difference between  a digital image and a film one, and probable that does not  matter.
    But there are a small number of professional that shoot film, lets say David Burnet.
    Possible some Hollywood stars are not aware too of differences beteen digital and film, but the last film of Tarantino is on film, and not any kind of film.
    About checking that depends on photographer style I hear a great photographer that said he does not shoot histograms.
    The ”Decisive Moment” would not existed if HCB have checked the histogram.
    Now on costs.
    How many good pictures you do make by year?
    Put 3,600 pictures in a lifetime that means something to you, that is about 100 rolls of 35mm film. With processing maybe 3,000 $.
    It is expensive?
    What is the value of your memories?
    What is the value of your work?

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  2. Benjamin Kanarek

    Very interesting article. For clarification, I always used a Minolta Flash Meter to meter my light, especially in studio. As I have stated in my addendum of the article, I have around 100 rolls of Fuji Provia 100 iso slide film from the days of when I was sponsored by Fuji. I also have over 80 rolls of 35mm film. I have decided that during my up and coming shoots for the likes of ELLE, etc. I will shoot primarily with my Nikon D800’s, but once I know I have the shot, will shoot 1/3rd to a 1/2 a roll per clothing change of 35mm, ( as the mags will not pay and I have to ) and 1/2 a roll of 120 if that is the format I am shooting. I have a NIKON F100 for 35mm shooting and the Bronica ETRSi for medium format. As I also said, choosing film or digital is akin to acrylic or oil paints. Different tools with different problems and attributes.

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    • Bing Putney

      Thank you for taking the time to reply and clarify. Your perspective on film vs. digital is is so interesting to me, since you’ve had the experience of shooting both formats on major professional projects. I’m also very curious to hear your thoughts after shooting both digital and film in the upcoming shoots you mentioned. Let us know if you have any BTS footage or thoughts you’d like to share after you finish those assignments!

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    I think that shooting film is cheaper than digital when comparing the costs of film SLR to DSLR. Okay, I haven’t made any money in photography since I’m an enthusiast and not a professional; but I have realized the ROI (Return On Investment) from the Canon A-1 that I bought new in 1980.
    I still shoot with that A-1.
    I bought a used Canon New F-1 in July 2013 when I found a great deal on a package with the AE Finder FN, AE Motor Drive FN, and two metering screens.
    With two film cameras, one is loaded with B&W and the other with color.

    My wife had been wanting me to go digital since 2011. She found a great deal for a 5D III package in December 2013; I found a better package deal.

    With the 5D, I turned off image review since I haven’t depended upon it. I also set the white balance to what I would be shooting if I were shooting film.

    I shoot both film and digital. I enjoy photography.

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    • Bing Putney

      I think the economy of film depends on the volume that you’re shooting. It’s certainly true that the initial investment in gear is a lot less with used film equipment, but if you’re shooting several hundred frames per week, the processing costs can quickly get out of control.

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