Why Shoot Film & the Value of Memories
Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Convincing someone that shooting film is worth it (I don't want to say better because digital mediums have their advantages) truly comes down to their personality and what you look to get out of a photograph. And it is a tough argument to push film when a photo taken on your iPhone costs you nothing. Nevertheless, I want to point out some advantages of film that cater to both the average picture-taker and to more serious photographers.
1 - Shoot with Intention
Film costs money. No surprise here. To acquire, to develop, to scan. Each shot comes with a price. You also have a limited number of shots. 36 frames for 35mm film and anywhere from 8 to 15 for 120mm film. The combination of cost and limitation results in a slowed-down process that forces one to think and choose carefully that which they wish to photograph. This puts a tremendous amount of focus back on the subject, composition, and meaning within the frame.
2 - Immediacy is the Enemy of Worth & Abundance is the Enemy of Significance
Doesn't the saying go "It's worth the wait"? I can't exactly generalize here, but when I take a picture on my iPhone, there is a good chance it gets lost. What I mean by that is that my photos app on my iPhone is full of screenshots, memes, random pictures, and then some meaningful pictures. But those meaningful pictures live and die on my iPhone. They rarely find their way to social media. Not to mention even a physical form such as a printed picture. In addition to having to put your attention on each photograph taken, you must wait to get your developed film and scans back. No looking at your iPhone scrolling through the 4 images you took of the same thing to see which one is best. This takes you out of the present. The immediacy detracts from the value of the moment. Waiting increases the determination to make every frame count and anticipation for when you get your physical scans back. Each and every frame that comes back has intention, meaning, significance, and a sense of worth.
3 - Aesthetic
Digital photography is made up of 1s and 0s. In a brilliant fashion no less. However, in film photography, the film is the sensor of the camera. A chemical reaction takes place when you snap the shutter, light enters the lens and hits the film. Each film has character and depth to it. On top of that, old cameras and lenses have their own character too. A lens might have a certain softness to it that gives the photo a warm, inviting quality. Paul Thomas Anderson, on his film Phantom Thread, chose to use a lens that did just this.
But the true aesthetic is film's ability to render colors. Film is known for its soft, pastel colors. It shows the world in a different light. Not to mention the lustful film grain that turns an image into a memory. But more on that later. Lovely colors, grain, and sometimes light leaks all make for happy coincidence. You snap that shutter and what you get is what you get. And there's a lot of peace in that.
The combination of the film stock attributes, the character from the lens, and the movement and slight blur from the sailboat from which this photo was taken created an almost painter-like image that instills this purgatory between reality and my memory of the place.
4 - See the world differently
After having shot on film for a few years now, I must say that I see the world a bit differently. When I go on a walk, I go for a walk. But if I go for a walk with my camera, I'm looking at the sky, lines, birds, oddities, etc. Any nuance that makes me slow down and appreciate that moment. Film is a slow and intimate process. It makes you appreciate the images and the world around you. Sentimental? Yes. But true.
5 - Film can take you places
Now, this isn't exclusive to film photography, but film photography has a way of searching for making a frame count. I referenced this in another article 10 Tips to Start in Film Photography. When you start seeing the world differently, you start exploring it in different ways. My camera has taken me on numerous adventures which become memories in themselves, whether I had taken a photograph or not.
This image was captured from the roof of the Torre Tavira. My brother and I had been in Cadiz for a day trip and enjoy many of the sights of the city. At the end of the day, we came across the landmark. And even though my brother decided against going up it, I decided to pay and see the city from the rooftops. I truly don't think I would have done so if it weren't for having my film camera that day.
6 - Higher Dynamic Range
In comparison to Digital Photography, film has a significantly higher dynamic range. This means that film can handle exposure for brights and darks much better than digital sensors can. This is definitely something to think about if you're a serious photographer.
This photo capturing this couple's lovely engagement was taken on the brightest of days. I was shooting on Portra 400 (known especially for being quite dynamic). It was able to capture the deep colors of the trees and hills as well as the intensely bright sky.
7 - Something Tangible
When I compare to digital, I often compare to that of phone cameras. Just because that is the most common form. I already talked about how iPhone pictures "live and die" on the phone. There never becomes a physical, tangible element which is why many images get lost. And even though you might never get prints of your film images. The negatives (or positives for positive film which is cool to look at) from the film are a tangible record of those moments. I keep all my negatives to look back through. You can even make contact sheets for a collective look.
Contact sheets are a single page of your film negatives. Scanned and printed so you as the photographer can see them in one succinct view and mark parallels or improvements across the set. They're a great way to improve your photography, but also a unique physical form that film photos can take.
8 - The value of memories
The most paramount component of film for me is film's ability to capture a memory. Film has a way of freezing the moment without taking you out of the moment. I know that when I take a picture via my iPhone, I take 3 or 4 and immediately go to look at them (or chimping in a more professional sense). This loss of connection with the moment might seem small, but there is a sense of peace, and almost a romanticism, about taking a film picture, not being able to see it right away, and then getting your film back weeks later and seeing them for the first time. There is a nostalgia about it. I also want to note that oftentimes there are minor imperfections about the photograph, perhaps some out-of-focus element or a lens flare or even just grain, that hint at an almost dream-like characteristic as dreams are often blurry at best. All these ingredients lend to the allure of a memory when you look at a film photograph.
Below are some of my most cherished photographs as they possess the value described above...
Choosing film is definitely a creative choice. I am not here to convince you analog is better than digital. They truly do both have their advantages. My argument lies with the fact that film holds true value and is worth trying and perhaps keeping around. Even major motion picture filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Quinton Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan choose to shoot their films on 35 or 70mm film despite large costs against digital in an ever digitalizing industry. Below I have put some additional references for pointed information on aspects of film. And if you still need convincing about film, just try it. Enjoy photography in a new way through an older medium.
Not one for reading assignments. But if you're interested, here are some videos from people much more versed in film than I am talking about elements of film photography and why they shoot on film.
- 10 Tips to Start in Film Photography - An article I wrote that has more insight into film and
- Why Shoot Film in 2021? by Grainydays (Jason Kummerfeldt) - Has good perspective on
film and brings up a good point for the cost of film.
- Hong Kong camera guardian David Chan spent 60 years collecting vintage gear by South China Morning Post - Such an intriguing look into old cameras and film photography.
- A Film With No Cinematographer: Phantom Thread by In Cine Depth - Ever wonder how a filmmaker chooses his medium?
- 3 Reasons to Shoot Film by Chris Chu - Just another take