I am proudly a film photographer. This is something that sometimes causes people confusion, but it’s something that I’m passionate about. Film photography has something special, in both materials and style, that I engage with, and with which I can make art. I also feel like the restrictions that film creates – limited number of exposures, increased time, a lack of an instant review – are restrictions that can create opportunities in creativity.
With the explosion of digital photography democratizing the art form, and enabling so many different approaches to photography, film photography has been repositioned as a traditional, and artisanal branch of the photographic arts. With suppliers dwindling, it is also more and more of a deliberate practice. While film isn’t dead by any means, it’s sometimes hard to find – which engenders even more creativity.
When I’m out hiking with my cameras, or reloading the film back on a sidewalk somewhere, I often get asked this question. Why shoot film? And: Can you still buy film? Or even: isn’t that kind of pointless now, with digital cameras?
I suppose it’s all a question of perspective. I have digital cameras, and I use them when the circumstances call for it – a need for instant image review, quick turnaround time, immediate editing capacity, etc. Film cannot do that and should not do that.
But I use film because of these kinds of restrictions. With my digital camera, I can get thousands of images on a memory card. With my Mamiya RB67 medium format film camera, I get ten images a roll. With my large format camera, I get exactly one image per film sheet. This makes me more contemplative about my photography. I visualize and revisualize the image I will make, again and again. I check the light quality, I make minute adjustments to focus and composition. I can’t simply shoot fifty images of this exact scene and hope that one will stand out; nor can I ignore the direction and quality of the light knowing I can fix it in post-production later.
This makes me think about the image I’m making more. It means that I engage with the subject. It also changes my approach – I want to spend time before pressing the shutter button to really know what’s happening in my image, to understand the impact of it, and to be conversant with it.
The restrictions of film are kind of liberating.
Film is also tactile and tangible. I can feel the rolls I put into the camera, and I can hold the negatives in my hand when they’re developed. Developing is an almost like alchemy, with a mix of chemicals and water to change silver salts into silver and then into something that’s visible and malleable. Working in such a physical way is engaging and exciting.
Simply put, no. You may not be able to buy film in every grocery store or corner store around you, but it’s far from dead. There are a number of film manufacturers still active – and the number is actually growing – and there are still quality camera stores that sell film all over the world.
That being said, film isn’t as widespread as it used to be. Maybe that’s part of the cachet to me – counterculture, perhaps? – but it’s more that it’s something that requires effort and time. This is also something I appreciate about film photography.
Film is something different. That it got that way after being the norm is an interesting fact, but now digital photography is the norm and film is abnormal. The abnormality of the medium creates restrictions, but those restrictions can be liberating.
Importantly to me, film photography is handmade, and artisanal. This is why I shoot film.