Why Film Photography Is Not Dead

If you use a film camera these days, you can hardly escape the questions about why you bother with it. While I enjoy the opportunity to tell people about the fun and nostalgia of the great film cameras of the last century, the real truth is that in many ways film is better. I first shot and developed film way back in the 1970s.

Back then I had an old Argus C3 that cost me $15.00 which was a huge sum for me at the time. I was in the Camera Club as Somerset High School and there I learned how to develop film and print pictures in a darkroom. We had no chemicals or equipment for color so everything was black & white. Kodak’s Tri-X 400 film was very popular and well suited to the slow lens of my old Argus. I still love the beautiful contrast and unique grain of pictures shot on Kodak Tri-X. Some old timers will tell you that Kodak changed the grain and look when they upgraded this film in 2007. There may be a difference but I would probably need a microscope see it, not a 4×5 or even an 8×10 print.

Back to the question of why I shoot film. The most fun and shocking answer to the question is that film is cheaper. OK, that sounds preposterous but stay with me a minute as I clarify. Any of the reputable 35mm SLR cameras of the 70s or 80s, with a good lens, can take pictures that rival very expensive modern digital cameras. I have quite a few modern digital cameras and have seen this first hand.

A 1980s Nikon SLR with a Nikon 50mm F1.8 can often be purchased on ebay for around $200 or less. Now an F3 or or one the other flagships will cost more, but I have seen fine examples of the Nikon FG sell for less. If you take a $200 dollar camera you have to shoot a lot of film to equal the cost of a modern DSLR and good lens. A midrange Canon 6D or Sony a7riii will run you at least $2500 for camera and lens. That extra $2300 will buy a lot film and developing.

Let’s say you only want to shoot color and ignore the saving of black & white film. Color film 36 exposures is about $5.00 and developing is about $15.00 That is $20.00 for 36 exposures. That is 180 pictures for every $100 you spend. 23 x 180=4,140 COLOR pictures you can take with the money saved on buying GREAT a film camera vs a good digital. Be honest how many regular ametuer photographers have shot 4,140 pictures on their digital camera? Most people won’t take anywhere near 4,000 pictures with their iphone and that is camera they have with them 24/7.

If we were to use the price of shooting black & white film and developing it ourselves, that cost per 36 exposures goes down drastically. I buy Tri-X 36 exposures for about $5.00 and using rodinal it might cost me 50 cents a roll to develop the negatives. I usually scan them instead of printing them so 36 shots for under $6.00.

There is another factor we cannot ignore. Many digital cameras are thought be outdated when the newer model comes out. I know that that is silly but it is a common belief. In any modern camera the two mechanical devices that limit the attainable quality of an image is the lens and the sensor. Each newer model of digital camera is sold on how much better its new sensor is. Well in a film camera, the film is the sensor. If you want a new sensor you buy different film, maybe slide film, or film you can push, possibly film with fine grain, the list goes on.

One of the most hot competitive areas of performance with modern digital cameras is dynamic range. Everyone wants to see detail in the shadows and at the same time preserve the highlights. Even most color film, except for slides, can easily tolerate 2 or 3 stops of over exposure and still NOT blow out the highlights in the sky or wrinkles in a white shirt or dress. With digital, 3 stops of over exposure is almost certainly an unusable image. With digital your best bet is trying to expose for the highlights, and hope you can pull up the shadow detail in post. With film you can shoot for the shadows and let the film hold the highlights. This involves more than just dynamic range, because exposure latitude is a factor as well, but film hold a real advantage here.

Let’s look at reliability. Most good film cameras made decades ago are still working and are built way better than most modern plastic digital cameras. The few modern exceptions to that statement are the professional models from Nikon and Canon, but you buy a ton film for what they cost.

Another factor worth considering is the permanence of film. If stored in a cool dry place film is expected to last for hundreds of years. I know digital can be backed up and stored in cloud or on multiple hard drives, but I would be shocked if any hard drive or SD card is still readable in a 100 years. I am sure some of today’s digital storage devices will be working in a 100 years, but I would not want to bet on wichones will be working and which ones will have died. If your pictures are on a hard drive, have at least two back ups and check them often. Make more copies than you think you will ever need. Memories and family photographs are priceless.

The last objection to shooting film that I hear is often, “how can I be sure the exposure is correct since I can’t review a shot on the back of the camera?” That is a good question. Most people that have grown up with digital cameras value act of playing back the image to double check everything. When shooting digital, I often do this myself. What I have noticed is this. The center weighted average metering of my old Nikons from the 1970s and 1980s, is equal to the metering my newer DSLRs. Part of that may be due to the above mentioned exposure latitude of film and its great tolerance for over exposure.  I often set my old Nikons to aperture priority and shoot in automatic mode with very good results. This allows me worry about composition and focus with only a quick glance to very my shutter is fast enough for handheld shooting. I often push Tri-X or Ilford Hp5 to 3200, use a 50mm F1.8 lens and with that I can shoot indoors handheld at night if the interior lights are on.

The picture below was taken with a Nikkormat EL from the early 1970s. I used a 28mm f2.8 lens and Ilford HP5 pushed to 1600. The film was developed in Rodinal using stand development. The negative was lit by an iPad and scanned with my iPhone 6. There is no photoshop, this is straight out of the iPhone that scanned it.

This is a picture of Bee Taylor and her band. This was taken at the Jarfly Brewery at night after they finished singing. The only light was the interior bulbs, the shot is handheld. I am not a pro and this picture is not technically perfect, but I think it captured the moment and did so with no digital ISO noise.

If you would like to visit Bee Taylor’s Youtube channel, here is the the link.

I am not trying to get you to prefer film over digital. I use both myself and sometimes one is far better suited than the other. I would like explain away some of the fears people have about trying film. The main thing is to capture the memories you are living so you can look back on them and share those memories with your kids and grandkids.


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