Goodbye (Mostly) to Film

Back to Film (by StarbuckGuy)

No stranger to film, I’ve continued to use film cameras alongside my digital cameras for several years. Since 2002, specifically, when I purchased a Canon G2 digicam — a purchase that changed my views of photography as profoundly as Galileo’s telescope altered mankind’s view of the heavens. There has never been as fundamental shift in the technology of photography since the invention of the craft. Even so, I didn’t entirely abandon the old ways.

Digital, for all its convenience and WOW! factor, has some drawbacks. Its ability to record images with a large dynamic range is limited compared to C-41 films, and not even close to the range B&W film can capture. Until very recently even DSLR’s suffered from excessive noise at higher ISO settings. This is still a serious problem for small-sensor digicams. Films have a grain structure that gets more pronounced in higher-ISO films, but grain is aesthetically prettier than digital noise.

These are known facts endlessly debated on Internet forums so I’ll not pursue them here except to say I love digital photography despite its costs and its problems. And I continued to love film, despite its inefficiencies, lack of convenience, and the often annoying physicalness of the medium. But my love of film has been waning.

The main factor pulling me back from film is my health. Cardiac problems have left me with less stamina and energy. This, in turn, limits the amount of time I have to devote to photography if I want to balance out photography with my other interests.

Less time to spend means more of that time gets spent on digital. There’s a big difference between going for a photo walk, coming home and transferring the results directly into my computer than in coming home and popping a roll or two of film into a drawer until I have time to develop it, scan it, or take it to a store to be developed and scanned, then getting it into my computer.

Another factor drawing me away from film is that since 2002 digital cameras have improved dramatically, with great improvements still to come. When faced with choosing a B&W or colour film for my Nikon F3HP, then deciding which ISO film is best for the day, or simply grabbing my Nikon D300 that can shoot colour and B&W, automatically set a good white balance and even automatically change ISO values based on ambient lighting, there’s not much incentive to take the F3HP.

When I do take the F3HP it’s simply because I enjoy using classic film camera bodies. I grew up with them, love their heft and feel, and enjoy their comfortable old-school aesthetic. The shots I get with B&W film can, at times, be better than the B&W’s I can get with digital. But not better 100% of the time and not better by a quantum leap. Increasingly B&W film is only marginally better than digital B&W and is often inferior.

Part of the reason for this is the improved sensor technology in today’s digital SLR’s. My D300 at ISO 1600 is smoother, with better resolution, than any ISO 1600 film I’ve tried. There is no 35mm ISO 400 film I’ve tried that produces images as clean as the ISO 400 images from my D300, and my D300 is not even state of the art when it comes to sensors.

Another key factor is that six years of Photoshop experience and learning have taught me how to make very good B&W images. Good enough to please me at least, and I’m the one paying my bills.

You can no doubt see where this is headed. The bottom line is that I’ve now shifted to digital for 90% or more of my picture taking. My film cameras have become little more than nostalgia toys to play with the odd time I want a change of pace from digital.

So with a considerable amount of psychic pain I’ve decided to sell most of my film gear, including my wonderful Bessa R3A rangefinder and lenses. As much as I admire them, they no longer serve a meaningful purpose in my work.

I won’t, however, sell all of it. I’ll probably keep my Nikon EM, Nikon FM2n, and a set of lightweight E series prime lenses. And a Minolta Autocord TLR. I started photography with a TLR and want to keep one around to use occasionally to revisit my roots. Hopefully the rest of my gear will go to younger, or at least fitter, photographers who will enjoy it as much as I once did.

Phew! I’m glad to have finally got that off my chest. Now I’ll grab one of my digital cameras and head out for a pleasant photo walk. See ya later!

15 thoughts on “Goodbye (Mostly) to Film

  1. Good piece, Gene. There is little to disagree with in what you have said. Digital is a time saver and there’s no question that the technology is rapidly catching film.
    I still enjoy B&W film, partly for those things it can do that digital can’t and partly for the process itself. I also enjoy the film cameras – there is a feel that’s not there in most digitals. And I can still lug an F4s around with a bag full of lenses. 😉
    However, what you say about time strikes a chord. Film has become primarily a weekend thing. That’s when I have the time to devote to playing with film and chemicals. During the week, it’s digital.

  2. Gene, you are absolutely right.
    For me photography was a way to express myself in a matter that words often failed. But like most folks I ended up with a shoe box full of undeveloped film. It was both a conveience and economic cause that I found myself pulling out my old Pentax K1000 and ME super less and less until one day I sold them.
    I would look at cameras fondly, plan on buying another but never would why because I would see that shoe box of flilm and realize that all it would lead to waould be two shoe boxes.
    Then my wife bought me a point & shoot Polaroid digital camera and it was like a light bulb came on a whole new world of photography open up to me. The digital world open up to me a whole new way of expressing myself that film stymied me from attempting due to both cost and physical restrictions.
    Don’t get me wrong I still fondly remember my old Pentax K1000 and ME Super. But then I remembered the photos lost because I was busy loading film or worst yet never got around to developing the film
    For me it is digital all the way.

  3. I totally agree on the convenience of digital compared to film. The reason I keep using film cameras alongside digital is that certain styles of photography, linked to specific types of camera, are simply not available or affordable in a digital equivalent.

    You mention your Bessa. I enjoy the experience of rangefinder photography, as it incites you to take a different kind of pictures than an SLR. However, the digital alternatives are the Espon R-D1 or the Leica M8. Compared to the price of a Bessa, even a second-hand Epson is more expensive than I like (or I’d have one by now). So I keep shooting film for that.

    Another type of experience I’d miss is the classic seventies manual metal SLR. The day Pentax gives me a digital equivalent of my faithful MX I’d have another reason to abandon film.

    And for when’s that digital TLR (or a folder for that matter)?

    As you see, it’s more a question of experience and style of picture taking than of quality of the results or convenience. So for me, all these types of cameras are part of my photographic experience. But of course that’s only me, and I’m the exception rather than the rule…

  4. Gene, I suspected this from a long way back. It’s no surprise. I won’t say you may regret this since I know you’ve thought long and hard based on this post. Still I think photography is 90 percent image. So how you get to that point is not terribly relevant either digital or film.

    We all have trade offs and this one gives you the most valuable commodity for photographers… “time”

    Use it well!

    cheers Jan

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I still think film is a neat medium and, as you can see, I left myself a small loophole. I still intend to use it from time to time, mainly, as Marc points out, to experience those wonderful film cameras.

  6. Hi Gene

    I am late as usual. I’m in a different boat at least regarding equipment, as all I have is a digital 6 MP glorified compact i.e. not SLR, and a bunch of cheap film cameras – cheap that is since I got them on eBay for next to nothing. Except for a Ricoh I bought 35 years or so ago and a Yashica SLR that was a present in the mid-80s. So I am low-tech compared to you.

    Health-wise there are similarities. I have chronic fatigue, and this is severely limiting what I can do, I can’t do long walks, I can’t tackle rough country, I can’t tackle more than an hour or so out there snapping.

    That said, I use both – the digital for its immediacy and convenience, but the film cameras since I love ’em. So I choose the camera to suit what I am doing. If I am starved of pics to work with, I’ll grab some with the digital. If I am doing a considered photo-exercise where I want the quality of the experience as much as the result, I go film. For me, the experience of the process is as important as the result (but I am talking about the shooting experience – I send my film to a lab). I don’t get the quality of the experience out of the digital.

    Best of luck with your choice, we all have to make choices sometime. And very best wishes to you, Gene – be well!

  7. hi Gene, as long as you continue to make wonderful photographs, the medium shouldn’t matter. 🙂

    I use film, simply because I like it, the anticipation of seeing what you visualized on film. And, the process of making a negative.

    As, for the lenses, ping me, and I might be interested in getting a RF lens. 🙂

  8. I was really quite suprised when I read this. Something strange has been happening, a few stores I but film from, no longer sell any. I see alot of people dumping the film bandwagon and going to the now much improved digital bodies that are out there. I know I’d really like to get the new 5D, it looks very impressive and even takes stunning video, but the price really turns me off. I don’t see myself shooting much 35mm either, except with one of my favorite cameras, and that for only night work. So perhaps 35mm days are quite numbered 😀

  9. Kathy: I think 35mm will be one of the last formats to go, along with sheet film (4×5 and larger). There are SO many 35mm cameras out there, and there will be a demand for film for decade. The fact that one or more of your regular shops no longer stocks film is simply related to sales volumes for those stores. Increasingly, film is being sold through online channels.

    Gene: While I’m not surprised at this, I’m glad that you are retaining some film gear, as I like what you do with it. And I’ll let the cat out of the bag … you’re keeping the Bessa and lenses rather than the SLR stuff and the TLR.

    That’s right folks, you heard it here! Gene has a more virulent RF infection than he thought. Yay! 😀

  10. Thanks again for all the comments.

    Earl, one correction. I’m keeping some of my Nikon SLRs. It’s the heavy ones (however beautiful) I’ll be trimming.

  11. Thanks for the clarification. So I assume you don’t want another F3 rig? 😉 A friend here in town has a setup for sale, including the 55 Micro Nikkor.

  12. I’ve had digital gear, yet I never enjoyed using digital cameras. For me, there is an initial excitement that doesn’t hold up like film does for me. Nothing makes me as happy as taking out the Autocord and then processing one roll of 120 and seeing how glorious–and often serendipitously so–the images turn out to be.

    Digital photography reminds me of the Tubes lyric from “TV is King”: “You make a hundred choices / But you’re always the same / You make me so excited / And you make me so lame.”

  13. Alan, nothing quite like walking around with an Autocord, then processing the film to see what came out. For sure digital removes this ‘discovery’ aspect.

    But, in the end, I think good photographers can take good pictures in any medium. Digital and film are just … different.

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