No other art form has been resuscitated quite like film photography. Rolls of Portra are making their way back into camera bags, film labs are popping up on shopping strips and the film aesthetic is enticing creators in every corner of the internet. Here are some thoughts on why film photography is trending amongst 21st century photographers, and whether it will stick around.
Words and Photography by Dominic Gould
Since the very first photo was ever taken on a metal plate in the early 1800s, a lot has changed. Through social media and phone cameras, everyone can be a photographer these days, documenting their daily life and storing their camera in their pocket. The widespread nature of photography has also spurred a much larger interest in stepping your photos to the next level with professional DSLR cameras. So why are people reaching for older, slower cameras when they have faster, smarter and largely more accessible options available?
In the early 2000s film cameras could be picked up for spare change in op shops and charity stores, but now certain models are selling for the price of a car. Even so, many people are curious about this art form which is more time consuming and more costly than digital photography. But why? Is it all to jump on the Instagram aesthetic bandwagon of faded, grainy photos or does the medium have something deeper to offer us?
“I’m not going to tell you that your film photos are going to be better than your digital ones.”
I picked up my first film camera in late 2016 after I got gumtree scammed into sending my digital camera off without getting paid… (dumb I know). I couldn’t afford a new DSLR at the time but managed to pick up a Konica SLR at a market for $30. Since picking up that camera I’ve owned close to 20 different film cameras and shot over 200 rolls of film. Ranging from point and shoots I’ve found in op shops that I used at parties, to medium format cameras I’ve used on photoshoots with brands and bands, to rangefinders and SLR’s that I’ve brought overseas. The medium has changed my life through changing my process of photography and how I see the world.
I’m not going to tell you that your film photos are going to be better than your digital ones because that’s not true. And I’m not going to tell you that film photos are better because they look vintage. The reason I incorporate film photography in my work is because it slows me down, makes me consider each composition, brings me back to basics, and I personally prefer the photos I produce with film – they have that certain je ne sais quoi, and I think that’s the main reason why others love film photography too. Here are some more reasons:
Film Cameras are Teachers
The limitations of film force photographers to think creatively and learn to understand light and exposure better than if they were all in on digital. By slowing you down it will force you to contemplate your composition more and lead you to reflect on what photos are worth taking for what you are trying to convey with the images. You wouldn’t blast through 1000 photos on film in half an hour because that would cost over $600 (if you’re sending your film to a lab). You consciously choose your frames and decide what compositions are worth capturing. This will be hugely beneficial for your photography, especially if you’re learning.
“The medium has changed my life through changing my process.”
The Sustainability Argument
One of the reasons people think that film is dead in the water is because the chemicals used in developing film aren’t sustainable and moving into a greener future (which we hopefully are), film manufacturers will be forced into finding eco-friendlier options which may not be possible. The backside of that argument though, is that the production of a digital camera sensor is leaps and bounds more harmful for the environment than the chemicals used over the course of a photographer’s career. More on that here.
Another key reason photographers are picking up the “outdated” format is for the image quality. Not all film photos are grainy and have scratches on them. Medium format film cameras, which take 120 film (like the Mamiya RZ67 or Hasselblad 500 series), once scanned can provide ridiculously detailed images. A 6×7 negative can be scanned on a flatbed scanner at well over 50 megapixels. You can pick up 6×6 or 6×7 cameras for less than $1000, which is a super cheap way to get extremely high-quality images if that’s what you’re after. Not to mention large format film which produces even larger files and more detail.
Ultimately, film isn’t going anywhere, not for a while at least. With the natural limitations that force you to shoot differently, the lessons it teaches you about light and composition and the cheaper alternative for super high-res files – it’s clear film is no worse than digital photography, nor is it better. It’s just different, and that’s why it’ll stick around.