I am still very fond of shooting on film. Even with the dominance of digital imaging there are still some situations in which I chose to shoot on film. The ‘which is better’ argument essentially comes down to picking your favourite side of the coin and then getting on with your day.
To me, film photography is photography and digital photography is a modern facsimile that is now so indistinguishable from the original that it ceases to be anything different. My photography knowledge comes from my photography experience, and this has mostly been about film. Your mileage may vary.
If I had to pick the best thing about film I would say it is the physicality of it. Shooting film is a mechanical experience from start to end, with a dose of chemistry thrown in for good measure. A film camera is something you operate with levers and dials that shift sprockets and cams around inside the camera. The film camera is a very simple tool with essentially only three controls to set aperture size, shutter speed and focus distance.
Once you manipulate these controls to make an exposure and wind the film on you have made a physical indelible image within the chemical substrate of the film. It may not be visible just yet, but it exists in a very real way. There is a Schroedinger’s Cat analogy here, once captured your images exist as a probability wave, they could be The Greatest Image Ever Taken, or complete garbage, but until the film is processed all you have is a canister full of potential. I like potential.
There is something to be said for having to wait to know the results of your efforts. I mean really wait, to a point where you can’t simply try again if they don’t turn out. Nothing focusses the photographic mind like knowing you can only afford to take three shots of the amazing site that greets your eyes.
Film makes you stop. It makes you stop and ask ‘will this be a good image?’. It makes you stop and ask ‘will this be a good image? Or would it be better if I moved a bit to the left?’. Tripping the shutter involves commitment because you are making an indelible image that represents the specific investment of time and resource you expended to put that small rectangle of film on the opposite side of a lens from whatever subject you chose. One time. No do-overs. You have now created something and you will have to deal with the consequences.
Ok, maybe thats a bit serious. But thats what I like about it, the exhilaration from knowing that a particular shot is going to be awesome but not being able to see it just yet. I would say that skill is best measured by all the bad shots you don’t take, rather than the good shots you do, and only you can know how many times you thought ‘nah’ and put the lens cap back on.
Another big draw for me is the range and variety of film equipment within reach of us mere mortals now. Both 35mm and medium format gear is available in abundance and most of it was built to take a lifetime of abuse to which it has not yet been fully subjected. This means I can have Canon and Nikon, I can have wideangle and telephoto. And so on.
When you consider that with film your sensor and you camera are independent of each other then suddenly you realise you can pick a camera based on your mood that day and not compromise the final image in any way. I load my easy to carry Nikon FE up with Fuji Velvia to take on a walk and shoot gorgeous landscapes, or I lug my clunky Bronica ETRSi around the city on a Sunday morning to shoot gritty monochrome back streets. And vice versa. I prize some of my cameras purely because of the joy of operating them.
My final point relates to the chemistry bit. Processing your own film is Simply delightful. It generally involves about ten minutes in the bathroom with various chemicals and stopwatch, and results in the moment at which you unroll the processed film from the spiral tank and examine your images. The potential of what your images could be crystallises into what your images are. Every good shot feels like a magnificent triumph, every mediocre shot becomes a challenge to extract something good from, and hopefully any bad ones were stopped before they reached the film in the first place.
Digital imaging just doesn’t have the soul that film has. Without constraints, or limits, or risk you can capture images at will and hunt for the photographs within them later. Film encourages you to find the photograph first, pre-visualising the outcome and then working back to set your controls and then, and only then, tripping the shutter.
I find digital makes me lazy, despite my efforts to stay focussed. Film forces a focus and I think that makes me a better photographer. That being said, I have recently acquired a digital camera that may be the ultimate compromise, so i am keeping an open mind.