The Soul of Film Photography

What is soul and how does it apply to a photograph? Is it real or are film photographers just making it up? You know, when we talk about a film photograph having soul, unlike our digital photographs.

I know for me, I see it. Clearly. I’m also connected to the photograph and the subject—they’re friends—so maybe it’s impossible to be impartial. But is that all it is, my connection? Or do you also see it?

Leica M3, 50mm
Leica M3, 50mm

These two photos were made with friends a night when we were all meeting for a pizza and beer night at a local craft brewery. The wind was blowing and these two were laughing at the futile fight to keep their hair out of their faces. I love the look of them, the grain, the black and white, the spontaneous feeling of the photographs.

To me, it’s a look that is not possible to duplicate with digital sensors, the way you cannot get a watercolor feeling with a brush and oils.

A few years ago, there was an exhibit of Philipe Halsman’s photographs in Denver and his photographs of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren (who I also photographed once!) were lining one wall of the gallery. Beautifully grainy black and white photographs of the stars at home, on their balconies, in cars. They were soulful. Magnificent. Wonderful.

They were black and white art.

Audrey Hepburn Philippe Halsman Publication Photo
Philippe Halsman’s Photograph of Audrey Hepburn
(See more on ArtNet)

By contrast, across the gallery on the opposite wall were modern portraits of today’s stars—James Franco, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts—and they were beautifully lit and made, but they were digital, color and perfect. They paled in contrast though they ironically, they were much more contrasty and bursting with color, crazy sharp and dynamic, and they simply lacked the soul of the photos just 60 feet away on the opposite wall.

They were just color commercial photos.

To me, the soul of a photograph is real. I see it in film photographs. I often shoot Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X because I seek out these tones, to create photographs of friends like this.

Portraits that are soulful, that reveal a little about them through the grain and response of the film with light. Do you see it?

It’s night and day different from digital photography, even if you are using Silver FX Pro, and converting to black and white and adding artificial grain. It’s not the same. I don’t feel it like I do a real film photograph.

Hand print it on fiber-based photographic paper, and you have a truly one-of-a-kind photograph.

Do you see it? Do you feel the soul? Is it real? Do you seek it in your photography as well?

Find me with a new Video every Wednesday and Saturday on YouTube at and my Daily Photography Podcast at – Plus my RoyStryker documentary photo project that YOU can contribute to. Here’s to good light!

8 thoughts on “The Soul of Film Photography

Add yours

  1. I definitely feel more soul in my own analog images but I don’t feel the same with others work. Having said that I’m well aware if in 20 years I forgot what I shot that image on – you tell me it’s film – I’ll start seeing that soul again.

    So yeah, I agree, but I’m also quite comfortable with the fact it may be a load of nonsense.


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