Film Photography

When I started in photography over 50 years ago there was only film. Black and White reined supreme particularly for those who wanted full control and do their own processing, whereas Kodachrome dominated the 35mm colour transparency market and processing was included in the price of the film. Over time colour negative dominated the amateur market with the films being processed and printed by the local laboratory or high street store. ‘Serious’ photographers, both amateur and professional, tended to use colour transparency films such as Fujichrome or Ektachrome, particularly if they photographed landscape where Fuji Velvia was the emulsion of choice.

Around 2001 I was thinking of returning to professional photography. At that time digital cameras were starting to appear which were aimed at the general photographer using 35mm type equipment. Digital, up till then, had been mostly digital backs on roll film cameras, as such being very specialist applications, and costs were way beyond even the wealthiest photographers. Even those cameras that became available were extremely expensive and cost more than double the cost of the high end film camera equivalent. I invested in a Kodak DCS Pro14 which was a full frame camera with a 14MP sensor which also had the benefit of using Nikon lenses. The sensor size did at least enable me to do A3 prints without interpolation, but I still preferred to use roll film cameras where the situation allowed.

In 2005 I went on a trip to Iceland and I took only film cameras. The main camera was my ageing Mamiya C330f plus a Nikon 35mm SLR. The principle reason I did not take a digital camera was that battery power expired very quickly and I was unsure about regular charging facilities for the batteries whilst in fairly remote places. I was delighted that I made this choice as this kit was relatively light (it all went as hand luggage) but was also very flexible. The lenses on the Mamiya are very sharp and being totally mechanical I had no concerns as to batteries or other electronics giving out. A number of the images in the galleries were taken using this camera.

This trip was almost my last major use of film cameras. Since then I have been almost exclusively digital. I am very fortunate that over the years I have owned and used some excellent cameras, and still own the Mamiya C330, a Mamiya RZ67 and a Toyo 5”x4” large format field camera, but with the move to digital they have remained gathering dust in a cupboard except for an occasional, very rare, excursion. All these cameras are beautifully engineered and a joy to use, but digital, particularly now with high resolution sensors, sophisticated exposure metering and fast autofocus, makes life so easy. A problem with digital is that change has been so rapid that when you buy a new camera they then bring out an upgrade 6-12 months later so you think you need the latest kit and pay some more. Fortunately this upgrade issue has slowed so now even quite old cameras can provide satisfactory results and you do not necessarily need the latest version to get the best results.

So why am I moving back to film for at least some of my work?

Early in 2017 I was lucky enough to meet up briefly with Joe Cornish again, and I asked him about the possibility of fitting a digital back to my large format camera. I had been considering selling it as it was rarely used, and I had wondered whether I would use it more if I converted it to digital. We discussed the idea briefly but Joe suggested not to go that route and use colour negative film instead. This was an epiphany moment for me as until now I had always used Fuji Velvia for my colour landscapes and never really considered negative. Joe said the tonal range was much greater using negative which would overcome one of the main problems using Velvia.

Since then I have been re-visiting all my old film images, both colour and black and white, and refining my scanning workflow. I am delighted with the quality I can achieve from all types of film stock. As can be seen I like black and white images. Using colour negative as the capture medium but scanning and digital processing, means I can have a colour or monochrome image, whichever suits the subject more. I am perfectly happy to use black and white film stock (I still love Tri-X!) and process it myself, but using something like Kodak Ektar and having it commercially processed gives me the best of both worlds without the hassle.

But probably the main reason I am moving back to film is that my main subjects are landscape and portraiture. With landscape particularly these film cameras slow me down and makes me search for the correct image. Digital is too easy and makes me lazy. You know it doesn’t cost anything to take the picture so you are quite happy to click away without unduly thinking about whether thats the best viewpoint. Using cameras such as the RZ67 and the Toyo mean you must use a tripod. This is always considered best practice but many, including me, often don’t bother if using digital. These film cameras are totally mechanical (the RX67 does have a battery in it but can still be used if it fails). You need an external meter. You have to manually focus. I only have prime lenses for all the cameras so if I want a different perspective, or a bigger subject in the viewfinder, I have to physically move, not just zoom in. They all have big viewing screens which makes it far easier to see and compose the final image. Both Mamiyas have waist level screens which provide a different, lower view, and this is also useful in portraiture as you can make eye contact with the subject far more easily than you can with a large camera in front of your eye.

Cost is obviously another issue. Although good roll film cameras can be purchased relatively cheaply from specialist dealers or eBay, you have to pay for film and processing. Costs of film these days is horrendous, about £30 for a box of 5 120 films with large format way ahead of that. Processing can nearly double this. Therefore if you take 12 exposures on a roll it is going towards £1 every time you press the shutter release. This makes me try harder and ‘every shot count’. My success rate using film is far higher than with digital. My hard drive is crammed with digital images which I took thinking that was a good idea but which will never see the light of day and stay cluttering up my computer.

Sensor resolution is always the big thing with digital. The latest DSLRs now have sensors which can create big prints without interpolation and are excellent for most people’s needs, but I can get an equivalent file size by scanning a 35mm negative, and with those from a 6x6 or 6x9 negative being considerably larger. I can easily produce a 30”x30” or bigger print from roll film should I wish to do so. When scanning a 5”x4” negative I inadvertently created a file over 1GB and wondered why my system had slowed down trying to process it! Achieving large, high quality images from film is still my preferred route.

I continue to use digital for a lot of my work. When I’m on holiday or travelling overseas I won’t use film primarily because of weight restrictions and ease and speed of use. If you are with with others it can be a bit anti-social if they are not quite so interested in taking a considerable period of time trying to find just the right location, or waiting for the light. I will always use digital for my motor sport and aviation photography. You can immediately check to see if you have the image, and its so fast to use it allows you to forget about the camera and concentrate on the action.

I am now back enjoying my old, slow, cumbersome but beautifully engineered, totally manual film cameras. We take pictures for many reasons but using film and my old cameras again has brought much of the joy of photography back again, and surely isn’t that what it is all about?