Why Film, Really, Why Kenneth?

I always carry a Nikon DSLR and a 28mm f1.8 lens with me in case I come across a story for my Roy Stryker photo project. And I have a few lenses in in my car, the most useful is a 70-300mm f4-5.6 Nikkor Zoom that is slow, cheap ($75) and small, yet sharp as a tack and fits in my car’s cup holder.

I also always carry a film camera with me, often a Leica M3 with a collapsible 50mm Elmar or an M2 with a collapsible 35mm lens, each loaded with Ilford HP5+ film. With these small lenses, these fit nicely in a jacket pocket.

Leica M3 with 50mm Elmar

Lately, when I know I’m going out with friends or somewhere that won’t lend itself to Roy Stryker project photos, I only bring the film camera. Why, you ask?

Because I know if I use digital, I’ll shoot a lot of photos. And for what? How many do I need? And if I were to make one or two film photographs, wouldn’t that suffice? One or two that I care about, that I want. That I’ll print. That’s where I’m at. So, I thought about why I feel this way about film over digital.

Digital photography has only two things going for it. One, share-ability–with a digital file I can send a photograph immediately. I liken it to a cell phone. With one, people expect us to always be available, to always get their note, to respond instantly. We’re all connected at all times. Same with digital photography, it’s for instant sending photos before we even forgot the moment. Sometimes, before we even left the event.

I use film for photographs because I’m not in that great of a hurry.

Photos that are sent a little while after the event, after the film is developed and printed, are much more appreciated because it allows the viewer to revisit moments. Not to see how they are depicted in real time, moments later compared to what they just experienced. I like to wait a bit. And deliver the photograph a short while after the fact.

For news events, where time is of the essence since we’ve gone to a 24-hour news cycle–another bane on our existence–digital photography is king. Of course. Yes, digital wins. Also for all my commercial work. Certainly.

Secondly, for low light situations, digital does a much better job of making a picture than film. Film likes light, and without it, it’s easy to miss the photo. It takes skill and control over the camera and light. Digital works in virtually no light, and is certainly the way to go if you have no control over the light on your subject.

With control, like studio light or speedlight flash, film is just as capable as a digital sensor.

So, to recap, what’s the light, and how quickly do you need the photos? And how many? Low light, need lots, and now? In that case, shoot digital. Commercial and editorial use, shoot digital.

But when I want to make negatives I can print in my darkroom, when I want to gift prints to friends and families and people I meet, film is king. Film is the medium that I use to make the photographs I care about, that I want to keep. Digital photos serve an immediate purpose, but film is for the photos that matter to me the most that I am making for longer term than immediate use only.

A portrait of friends, the kind of photograph that matters to me, made on Ilford HP5 120 film in a Voigtlander Perkeo I rangefinder camera.

I also find film photographers more often than digital shooters make pictures with purpose. With technique. They’re artisans working with the goal of getting it correct now. In camera. They set out to make strong quality negatives. Not just lay on the shutter button and ‘spray and pray’, hoping they’ll find the winner in the edit, and if it’s not right, “Well, that’s why they made Photoshop! Fix it in post!” I watched a photographer from the local newspaper taking a photo of a detail for a story–it was a book on a shelf–one that did not move as books tend not to do, and he pressed the shutter and made 40 frames of that book. Without looking in the viewfinder. Just waved the camera in the general vicinity and fired away. That’s the mentality when you can shoot as many as you want.

I‘ll keep this photograph forever. (And the girl!)

Lastly, the fact that film is archival physically, it represents something real, that happened, and it wasn’t created in a computer, and there’s a negative to prove it hasn’t been doctored, film is the only way we can photograph for the ages. For history. For future generations to trust that what they’re looking at is who we were, not who we wanted to look like and wanted to be.

It’s why the U.S. Government Department of the Interior in 2015, seeking a photographer to re-photograph the National Parks in the footsteps of Ansel Adams who photographed the same project in 1941, required that the new hire make the photographs on 4×5 film. Not digital. The U.S. Government knew they can archive a physical negative in a climate-controlled filing system, whereas digital would require constant updates and redundant backups to multiple hard drives, with no guaranteed that the images would be preserved for hundreds of years.

Digital is for commercial and editorial photographs, photographs to share, pictures for the internet needed now, to be consumed now, and to be forgotten soon afterwards due to the obsolescence of technology and the sheer quantity of images being made. When you have a billion photographs being uploaded a day, some are going to become difficult to locate.

Film is for the things that matter. For prints that will last in historical archives and family homes, and negatives that will exist for hundreds of years.

It’s why I use film.

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