I’ve finally gone full frame… but to FILM! Yes, I decided to reassess where my creativity is going and bring some film into the mix. To do this, I acquired an excellent Nikon F100 for a very reasonable price, which, being one of the most modern Nikon SLR’s available, will allow me to use my newer ‘G’ and ‘VR’ lenses just fine, as well as featuring an advanced (for it’s time) AF and exposure metre. It has a wonderful viewfinder, so can be used in MF modes as well and whilst not quite as good as that in the F6 or the newer FX DSLR’s, is a world apart from even the reasonable one in my D300 which, being crop-sensor, at the end of the day it just isn’t good enough for manual focusing by a mere human like myself.
Now you may be wondering why someone like me, full of praise for the quality and convenience of digital, even happily using filters and HDR processing, might want to ‘go back’ to film? Well, let’s put it simply, they are at the very heart different mediums and whilst there are things that digital does a whole lot better than film, especially I might add the relatively small 35mm variety that I’ll be using for now, there are other things that are much better on film. I’ll go into the positives for film for now.
One is smoothness and a sense of depth. Film conveys feeling a lot better. It’s rich, subtle and natural looking. Sure, it isn’t as sharp or contrastier, but if you are looking at conveying an impression, a feeling, a sense of atmosphere, that really isn’t the top priority. Digital is sharp and exact and whatever you do, somewhat harsh, some might even say unnaturally so. Neither is fully what we ‘see with our eyes’, nor need they be. They are very different.
Another thing is the smooth transitions of colour that film offers. Digital compresses colour and even as they expand this from 8 to 10, 12 and 14 bits… even if they expand it to 16 bit (as medium format backs have had for some time), you still have the obscene limitation of the Bayer filters that try to average out colour. Sure, there are the Fuji ones that aren’t much better, just trying to randomise this and the truly superior Sigma Foveon Merrill attempts, but the last is restricted to a small subset of very inconvenient cameras which also cost a lot despite only having APS-C cropped sensors. Colour like that in film is still the province of the elite in digital, whatever the vast industry will have you believe.
Then there is the feeling of capture… as you pay for each frame; you have to make it count. This is generally more negative than positive, in terms of cost at least, but it is a fine, artistic and meaningful discipline, that whilst you could follow it with digital it makes little point. Just as a sketch is less convenient than a photograph, so is film less ‘convenient’ than digital… by far. Yet is one really worse overall for this?
Then we come to the main advantage, for me at least the heart of the matter. Film is very highly developed, as are the film cameras to take advantage of it. Even recently, although it may be way less popular, newer developments have made higher film speeds more usable (just as happens to a much more dramatic extent with digital), yet this is just fine-tuning to a more or less fully evolved medium. A great film camera is the end of it’s line. Yet with digital this is far from the case! Next year, or to be fair in terms of full-frame cameras, in 2-4 more years, a radically better iteration will emerge, also unbelievably highly-priced and even if you are happy with what you have, the resale value will have plummeted by perhaps half. Digital cameras are a poor investment and are basically computers, yet unlike computers they are something you use with your hands almost as if they were an extension of your body (with computers you can always get a nicer keyboard or mouse if you really need to).
The ergonomics of digital cameras are only really good with the higher-end ones, like (in terms of state of the art models), the D800, EP-5, or NEX-7. When you go to more reasonably priced ones like the D600, EPL-5 or NEX-6, they collapse, partly to keep costs down, partly, I think, to upsell you to the top-of the range models. The kicker is, unlike a good film camera you could use for a decade, probably not really needing anything else, in fact can even use now, a digital camera is unattractive as the sensors and features are radically better. The high price of progress, lessened massively by having the use of something where progress is more or less complete.
A few specific things happened recently that made realise that it might be good to diversify and explore film again, despite the cost of developing (though I will use it very sparingly, as if it was large-format film, alongside a lot of digital). One was the problem of oil in D600’s, forming splodges on multiple sensors. This put me off buying one, as well as the poor ergonomics and mediocre AF unit it has. A D800 is a better bet, but out of my reach, plus that camera has a very slow 4fps frame-rate, slow at least compared to my aging D300, which can go up to 8 with a battery grip. No doubt a D800 successor will improve this and I’d rather at least wait for that.
Another thing is that these newer FX cameras are very demanding for lenses. I’d probably need to get some new ones, despite my collection of old film-based lenses that work great on film or the D700. So why not get a D700? Well that is indeed an option, but it doesn’t match the dynamic range of film as well as the newer bodies do and if I’m going to upgrade, I may as well go for something newer. Also, I have lots of good DX lenses, it may be better for me to get a D400 and stay in DX… except one as yet doesn’t exist! So, in short, I feel my upgrade paths are uncertain right now.
Another thing is looking back at my old photos, some of my best have been taken with film and this even with all the advances that digital has made in terms of sharpness and perhaps colour accuracy. Also, with all my own technical advances, which were probably accelerated by the instant feedback of digital, along with the passage of time. Yet digital has not made me a better photographer, just a clumsier one! A digital capture lacks feeling for me, it seems to be more a search for absolute perfection than capture of a moment, though I know this may be at least partly sentimental as there are many wonderful photos around taken with digital. Yet they all, even with the latest models, lack a certain richness and feeling that my old film juvenilia exhibits. In fact it even seems to be going backwards, with complex post-processing and editing overtaking and the sheer clarity of the older CCD sensors dying out to these very elastic CMOS ones, that lend themselves to changes after the event and an open-ended interpretation of what the photo actually is.
With film, it is very clear what the photo is- it’s what’s embedded on the negative (or positive). Still, with scanning I can use software to optimise it further, still having that richness and immediacy of a moment captured in time.
Now for all this, I’m not entirely going back to film and certainly not returning to any stage in digital’s long development (though there may be movements to return to CCD cameras, which offer sharper capture, or cameras with simpler features just to keep things uncluttered). I’m using film alongside digital, partly to keep costs down and convenience up. I do intend to scan the film, which is positively laborious, though I may find better ways even to do this. Digital also has certain clear advantages.
It’s sharper and contrastier. It has much, much more resolution in a smaller size. If you want to crop or print (both necessities for photographers), it gives you much greater ability to do so than 35mm film. Having a digital file (whether from film or sensor) lets you change things to your heart’s content, including altering white balance for fluorescent lights, enhancing sunsets or foliage, or even making more radical changes, such as black and white conversions or toy camera emulation a la Instagram. Of course, all this tends to go against the purist ‘the photo I took is the photo’ sense of film. In fact, so much so that a lot of photographers would rather be freed from it and see in the very simplicity of film liberation. Fair enough.
I personally like the freedom to experiment after the fact and would never develop (pardon the pun) the skills to do so with film, regarding all the equipment and chemicals needed for that, but I do also see the necessity for a pure point of capture to start from. Let’s not forget on this context the disdain that medium/large format photographers often had for the more convenient 35mm ‘toy format’. Populism may well be the enemy of artists seeking to express themselves uniquely, often with professional equipment that at least when new, is so much state of the art that consumer prices are out of the question. Certainly, a full-frame camera like the D800, whilst a lot cheaper than its forbears, is also out of most hobbyists’ reach for the moment.
The cost of digital, leaving aside the tendency to upgrade cameras, lenses and even computers to process them on (again, the D800 raises it’s head as a fine example of this, with it’s huge, 36mp raw files straining even the fastest home computers today) can be brought into check in a way film can’t. Endless photos on a ‘roll of film’ known as a memory card, rechargeable Li-Ion batteries that last for hundreds, or even thousands of shots. The rising costs of increasingly ‘niche’ films and their development make prolific film use even more expensive than before and then there is also the waiting time in a world of near-instant Wi-Fi uploads.
Yet for all this, film has its place. It has its magic and richness. It is full of life and in a digital world, which breathes a ray of hope into an increasingly commercialised pursuit. Let humans be humans and nature be natural. At least until digital is perfected and perhaps still even then, there is a need for the already near-perfection of film.