Monday, March 26, 2012

Shooting Film, by Accident

I put myself through an interesting little photographic exercise last week. I call it “Forgetting your digital cameras and being forced to use film.” I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

Last week I planned to spend an hour at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.  I threw the photo gear in the trunk of my car and drove the ten miles or so out to the cemetery on a gorgeous Spring day. Well, when I arrived, I realized all I had in the trunk of the car were my Nikon F3 and a couple of Holgas – nothing digital! Not even a camera phone! How could I have done this? Well, when you have the attention span of a gnat, it’s rather easy (so many cemeteries, so little time!). I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen to me more often.

I had to decide whether to a make a go of it or come back another time. After a moment of reflection, I decided to accept my fate − I crossed the Rubicon. After all, prior to the digital revolution, I had lived for thirty years on the film side of the Rubicon! How difficult could it be?

If you are as skilled at shooting film as you are using digital, the only major annoyance is that you cannot immediately upload your image files to Facebook, email them to friends, or play with them in Photoshop. You need to get the film developed and scanned. This takes at least days, if not weeks! Luckily I have a wonderful photo processing lab within walking distance of where I work in center city Philadelphia – Philadelphia Photographics (and yes, they accept mail order). They do high quality work fast and cheap, so I got my scanned negatives back in a few days. The images from that day are sprinkled throughout this article (square ones are from 120mm film in the Holga, vertical images from the Nikon).

Film Can be Annoying!

There are a number of minor annoyances associated with film:
  • There is no instant feedback via an LCD display to show you how badly you messed up. 
  • Your ISO is limited to the film you just loaded in the camera. 
  • You have a finite number of images on a roll of film.  
  • It’s expensive to get film processed, printed, and/or scanned – not to mention time-consuming. 

Holga image, West River Drive
However, if you turn those annoyances around, they can easily be seen as advantages (I can rationalize just about anything). Not knowing what you’ve just shot (and whether anything will come out) can add an element of nervous excitement and surprise to your work (still, do yourself a favor and bracket your exposures!) Having to choose a film with appropriate speed for your lighting conditions makes you appreciate the flexibility of digital, where one image can be made at ISO 100 and the next at 1600. (I had to forgo some great mausoleum stained glass images as I had chosen to use 100 speed film.) Having a finite number of exposures (36 for my Nikon SLR and 12 in my Holga) forced me to pace myself and make each shot count.

I realized at the outset that I would have to concentrate on not wasting film − essentially by composing shots, focusing critically, and metering for proper exposure. These are things we tend not to bother with anymore – we just set the digital on auto and blast off a string of images.

What I Learned Using My Film Cameras

Having shot both film and digital for the past seven years, I have become quite reliant on digital for my documentary and snapshot images, using only the more expensive film gear for serious work. It is amazing that in 2012 you still need to spend thousands of dollars on digital equipment in order to replicate the image quality of a five-dollar disposable film camera with ISO 100 film! 

Film Cameras and Lenses

And speaking of image quality, my Holgas create fabulous lo-fi distortion that would cost hundreds of dollars in DSLR attachments to replicate. My Nikon F3 SLR has a lens assortment that is unparalleled in my digital world. I never purchased digital equivalents of my 28mm or 55mm Macro Nikkor lenses, as the cost would be astronomical. So it was with great pleasure that I got to use a true wide angle and a sharp macro that focuses down to an inch! The vertical image of the names on the Irish memorial was made with the 28mm lens – not something I could have done with my 28mm - 135mm digital lens (whose wide end has about a 38mm film lens equivalency). [That conversion business is rather complicated – I have a good explanation of it in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, available from]


The Nikon F3 has a fabulously big, bright viewfinder that makes manual focusing a joy. Digital doesn’t come close. Unless you’ve shot film extensively, you wouldn’t remember that old film lenses had nearly a full-barrel focus rotation (from close-up to infinity), meaning you have very critical control over the exact focus of your image. Digital lenses typically don’t allow that – in an effort to drain less battery power as a lens auto-focuses, lens manufacturers have minimized the barrel rotation distance from close-up to infinity. So if you’ve ever tried to manually focus a “digital” lens, you quickly realize it’s next to impossible – the range of barrel rotation from close-up to infinity is usually only a quarter of the full 360-degree rotation.  

Depth of Field

Shooting with my fast “film” lenses also gives me much better control over depth of field. That is, I can shoot at f2 and have certain objects in focus while making those in the background blurry. This is usually not possible with digital cameras, since the lenses aren’t as fast. For other optical reasons, point-and-shoot digitals are notorious for having an infinite depth of field (everything from 3 feet to Mars is sharply in focus), which you really don’t want all the time. (Manufacturers have begun making faster digital lenses; however, they are very expensive. An f2.8 28mm “digital” version of my Nikkor film lens costs $500!)

More about Film

Mausoleum at 28mm
There are mysteries and dangers involved in film use. The mystery is whether or not your film will come out the way you want it to. The danger, that you have far less control over salvaging a bad film image than you do a digital one (photo editing programs can manipulate the extensive digital information of a RAW or JPEG file much more effectively than they can the relatively limited digital information acquired from a scanned negative). Also, slide film (which I use) has far less exposure latitude (has higher contrast) than digital images so it’s way more difficult to tweak a scanned Ektachrome image if you need to make minor adjustments in a photo editing program. (The images you see here were made on Kodak Ektachrome color slide and Kodak T-Max 100 black and white films).

Changing film slows you down. Another way to look at this is it forces you not to burst off ten digital images of everything you see! Multiply this by different angles, different exposures, and choosing monochrome and color, and you can easily see how people can shoot twenty digital images of the same scene. Since a roll of film holds way fewer images than a memory card, film forces you to concentrate on the final image. So as an alternative to ripping off a burst of twenty digital snapshots, why not just concentrate on making one good photograph? (I write about this in the chapter, “Possibilities Beyond the Snapshot,” in Digital Photography for the Impatient.) There really is no need to fill up all those hard drives with bad photos, now is there?

One last thing about film: unless you’re using a full-frame DSLR (in the five thousand dollar range), the resolution of your digital images is far lower than what you get with film. When I shoot a roll of 120mm film in my twenty-five-dollar Holga, I get resolution comparable to that created by a $40,000 medium format digital camera. Film has INFINITE resolution. Forget that 2300 x 3400 pixel stuff – film grain is analog and infinite!

Epilogue (Rest in Peace?):  

"Kodak stops producing slide film due to lack of demand" (March 3, 2012)

Purchase Ed's book,  “Digital Photography for the Impatient,” from