Imaging Today and in the Film Era

This 2001 Ilford FP-4 Plus film image of a mesa in northwestern New Mexico is an excellent example of the kind of tonal quality film can produce.
This 2001 Ilford FP-4 Plus film image of a mesa in northwestern New Mexico is an excellent example of the kind of tonal quality film can produce.

Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.

So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?

  • It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
  • Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
  • I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.

I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.

Before there was Lightroom, there was the light table, which allowed us to look at our film and edit it.
Before there was Lightroom, there was the light table, which allowed us to look at our film and edit it.

I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…

This is a film scan from December 1999. At that time in our newspaper's history, we were able to use color photos a couple of times a week, and they required a little bit of planning, so I at a basketball game I might shoot one roll of color film alongside eight rolls of black-and-white.
This is a film scan from December 1999. At that time in our newspaper’s history, we were able to use color photos a couple of times a week, and they required a little bit of planning, so I at a basketball game I might shoot one roll of color film alongside eight rolls of black-and-white.

There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…

  • If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
  • Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
  • When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
  • Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
I made this black-and-white film image at Palo Duro Canyon in May 2002. It was one of the last times I shot film on a hiking trip.
I made this black-and-white film image at Palo Duro Canyon in May 2002. It was one of the last times I shot film on a hiking trip.

It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.

I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?

If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.

I bought a cheap knockoff of a "Lensball" last year, hoping it would bring something new to my imaging options. At $17, there's really no down side to it.
I bought a cheap knockoff of a “Lensball” last year, hoping it would bring something new to my imaging options. At $17, there’s really no down side to it.

Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.