My Name is Steve…and I shoot film

For the February 2022 Monthly Selected Photos I am doing something a little different. I am featuring images shot with film, and adding a new gallery to the website featuring only film images. While most are recently developed, not all of these images are new. I’ve selected them to illustrate different film styles.

I started shooting film more actively in 2014 and thoroughly enjoy the exercise. As much as I like shooting film, it will not replace my digital photography. Neither can replace the other, but digital and film complement each other in many ways.

“But I thought film was dead and film cameras are no longer made,” you are probably saying to yourself. Actually film began making a comeback more than ten years ago, and each year more people are getting back into shooting film. Interestingly, it is younger people in their twenties and thirties that are driving the growth of film. While it is true that very few companies are making new film cameras (a few still do), this has increased the market ($$$) for used cameras. Used cameras and lenses that you could not give away just a few years ago now command a high price at used camera stores and eBay.

There are not as many film stocks today as there were in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but a good selection still exists. I have experimented with many but I find myself now settling in to a few good film stocks that consistently give good results that I like. For black and white I still prefer Kodak Tri-X or Kodak T-Max. For color landscapes, my go to film is Kodak Ektar, a very saturated film with vibrant colors. For general color photography including architecture, portraits, street scenes and occasional landscapes, I really like Kodak Portra. Portra gives more muted, more realistic colors. You may notice all my favorite films are Kodak films, but other manufacturers make some really fine films too. I’ve found that it is best to find what works for you, and then stick with it. By sticking with a smaller selection, you learn how to use that particular film and know what it can do.

Is film expensive? Yes, it is. As of February 2022 my favorite Kodak films average about $10-15 a roll with discounts for multiple rolls purchased. That price just gets you a blank roll to load into the camera. Developing costs aren’t cheap. I use a large developing company in California that has good quality development and scans, and pretty good turnaround times. For about $15 a roll, I get negatives, scans and the ability to download the images while the negatives are in the mail back to me. Simple math shows that buying and having film developed and associated shipping costs can reach over $30 a roll. For a 36 exposure roll that means you are paying almost $1 per image. And not every image is a keeper…

To keep some sanity in this pricing, I usually develop my own 35mm black and white films, and then scan them myself. That cuts the expense in half. Black and white film is pretty easy to develop, but color film is not. I don’t have the equipment, darkroom, or patience to develop color film so I always send color film out for development.

With film, you learn patience. I recently sent four rolls off for development not knowing what was on them nor when and where the photos were taken. Getting the images back from the developer is a lot like Christmas for a four-year-old.

Photographing with film is expensive, inconvenient, requires patience and incurs risk when a roll is accidentally exposed to light. So why bother with film when digital cameras are soooo gooood. It is not easy to explain. There is something satisfying about the process. There is a unique character to film photos – at least I think there is. With film, you have to WORK to make that image, and you don’t always succeed. When you realize that it costs you $1 every time you press the shutter button, you give more thought to the photo. You look for the right composition. You wait for the right moment. In this age of fast digital cameras and mobile phones it is the standard to take a snapshot and five seconds later move on. Film slows you down and that is a good thing. It makes you think and observe rather than just react. You have to anticipate – be in the right place at the right time and recognize a composition or watch facial expressions. Watch interesting people and see what they do.

Most of my photographs today are made with a digital camera, but I frequently apply principles I adopt using film. Slow down. Look for that decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson would say, or spend time developing a composition in a landscape shot just as Ansel Adams did. Find an interesting architectural feature and think about how to frame it. I frequently spend a lot of time on landscape composition to get a shot just right with my digital camera because I approach making the photo as I would with film. And when I’m using film, I won’t know if the shot was successful until much later. No way to take a quick glance at screen to see if it is a keeper when using film. This has trained me not to “chimp” the rear screen on a digital camera. (Auto-review is turn OFF on my digital cameras.) I usually won’t know if I had a good picture until I’ve transferred the images to the computer.

Of course today most film photos are scanned into digital files for post-processing, printing and distribution. Instead of creating a final version to print using the dodging, burning and cropping in the dark room of years past, we now do the same thing in Photoshop and Lightroom. I find it very interesting, and very ironic, that Photoshop presets are sold to make digital photos look like film photos. You can apply a preset to make a digital file look like Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP-5, Kodak Ektar, Portra and many other existing or discontinued films. I don’t think the presets can ever really give the digital file the true character of the film, but maybe I just don’t see what others see. For me, I’d rather use the real thing.