What I Miss About Film

I’m always fascinated when I meet a photographer who has never shot a roll of film. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean it in a critical way. I’ve fully embraced and invested in digital, just like you. Couldn’t do what I do without it. It’s just interesting to me, though, how so many photographers have never used one of the most basic elements in all of photography. I can’t (and don’t) blame them. It’s timing. The history of photography in general– and the digital age in particular– has come a very long way in a very short time. Cameras get smaller. Sensors get bigger. “iPhonography” is actually a thing. And don’t even get me started on some of the insanely impressive time-lapse photography going on out there. Exciting stuff.

And yet, I miss film.

1961 KOdak Retina Camera

As a child of the ’70s, it didn’t matter if I was running around the neighborhood with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic or learning how to shoot 35mm film on my Dad’s 1961 Kodak Retina. When I was done I was holding the results in my hands. From rewinding the film, to popping it out and taking it to the drug store…from impatiently waiting for the prints and ripping the envelope open, to going through them and picking which to put in the album. It was all a much more tactile experience. I like all of the ones and zeros dancing happily through my computer, but there’s still nothing quite like a print.

Kodak 220 Medium Format Film

I got to thinking about this the other day while shooting for one of my commercial clients. The publisher is based in Vegas. The art director is in Indiana. The editor (only one of many hats my wife wears around our house) is right here in Atlanta. Within 12 hours of the shoot, everyone had 65 fully edited images in their shared cloud storage. Without a single print anywhere in sight. Again– no complaints. The gear and the technology are awesome and have made so much of what we do so much easier.

But I still miss film.

When I was a kid, my dad had a fully equipped darkroom in our basement. Photography wasn’t his job. It was his hobby. And he was so damn good at it. He couldn’t chimp after every shot. He couldn’t take extra “test shots” until it looked right on the LCD screen. He couldn’t “fix it in Photoshop.” He knew what his Pentax and Leica could do and what they couldn’t. He cropped, dodged and burned with light instead of a mouse. When digital came along, he was so much better prepared to throw himself into it because of his many years with film. We spent hours and hours under the orange glow of darkroom lights, watching as blank sheets of paper were exposed to light and passed through trays of developer, fixer, and water until we were hanging prints to dry.

Dad in New Mexico with an 11x14 view camera

Film photography got more of the senses involved– especially if you were doing your own processing. There was a smell when you popped open a fresh canister of film. The darkroom chemicals had an aroma all their own. You knew that creativity and science were coming together to create something entirely unique. You saw your work come to life on paper. You touched it and held it in your hands when it dried.

It could also be frustrating as hell. Digital brought with it instant gratification. Shot looks bad? Delete it. Are the skin tones too dark or too light? You’ll know pretty much right away if you can save it in Photoshop. Film photography forced us to take our time. You couldn’t rush the process. Sometimes it took hours to find out if you got it right or had to start over.

For a guy in his forties, I know it sounds like I’m some old man drinking lemonade in a rocking chair on the front porch while waxing philosophically and pining away for a simpler time. I’m not. Actually, I just really miss my dad. Fathers and sons don’t always see eye-to-eye and my father and I were certainly no exception. But wherever things stood with us, we seemed to always have photography to help bring us together. Trouble talking about something? Head to the darkroom. After all– once that darkroom door was closed, we were stuck in there for a while. Might as well talk stuff out.

35mm film cannisters

I wrote an article a while back about an exercise I do every year with my kids photography class. For the “Shoot Like It’s Film” challenge, we put gaffer’s tape over all of the LCD’s. Each student then shoots 24 frames and takes their CF/SD card to the drug store for prints. The point of the exercise is to become more comfortable with manual camera settings. To rely more on what they know and less on what the screen says. More getting it right in the camera. Less spraying and praying.

I do think there are huge benefits to be had in digital photography by being proficient with film. I actually still shoot a good amount of film in my personal photography, although my current house can’t accommodate a darkroom. I guess it’s not so much that I miss film itself, but rather the experience that used to go along with shooting film.  Either way, you should get out and shoot a roll.  Or ten.

Now pass the lemonade.

 

  • Bert

    Nope. It’s time consuming, inconvenient and the whole process takes way more space than it should. As someone who had a development lab in my bathroom, I am glad these times are behind us.

  • Otara

    Not missing it at all either. Grew up with it as my dad was a photographer, until digital turned up it was more work than a joy.

  • DaemonPulsar

    100% (or more) agree with you. I have a Digital camera with enough lenses to make what I want in almost every situation, some flash, studio stuff, flashmeter … everything to be sure I won’t miss THAT important shot.
    but.
    but film is … stil magical for me. And, everywhere I go, I always have in my backpack my old Nikon FA, or my father’s Pentax MX, with a 35mm loaded. And when I use them, there is no more rules, no more perfection… there is instinct. And pleasure. Only.

  • Rick

    I picked up a little EOS film camera last year and have been averaging about a roll per month with it. It definitely makes me think about the craft differently, which in turns improves my digital shots. Good stuff.

  • los mignones

    all manual legacy lenses brought the magic back for me.

  • yaniv

    why miss it ? just use it .
    film photography is not about film. it’s about thinking.
    as Marshall McLuhan coined the medium is the message

    • http://www.diyphotography.net/ udi tirosh

      it is never too young to start :) she is gorgeous!

  • Andy

    As a photographer and son of a photographer, having a developing room (restroom) in the house most of my life….. I don’t miss film at all. I miss some of the old manual lenses and the smell of dektol, but that’s really the only thing i miss from the pre-digital age.

  • Joseph Aschiero

    Everyone should know the joy of film, and also give self developing a roll. I have moved totally back to film, and have only used digital to show off a new camera.

  • Frans Hendrik Fourie

    I still shoot 120 with my Yashica MAT as well as a Bronica and my better photos are from it. I love digital photography, but that’s no reason not to enjoy a good trip on a classic ‘sailboat’

  • Laurent

    Well, I do NOT miss film, as it was SO expensive !!! I always been shooting a lot since my father finaly (after I’ve been pressuring him for months !) teached me the basics, as I was 8 years old (back in 1968)… And man, hopefully, I never really minded about how much I have spent in film/process till then ! It would have been leading me becoming mad, or quitting photography, or both…
    Now I’m fully digital since 2003 (made the jump with an Olympus C-730 UltrZoom), and the happy user of a Nikon D5200…
    Laurent

    • Michael Turcotte

      Film was expensive? Where do you get your free computer, free camera, free lenses, free prints, and free cameras?

      • Wish these idiot would grow up

        sheesh again such idiotic talk , Try buying Bricks of color film and Go PAY to get them Developed. 1 yr of creative suite make it possible to shoot 10 times as much more then when using film. Guess what I dont have to keep worring about running out of film , or Chemicals (or disposing them) Photo Pare etc… I paid once for my COMPUTER I am Intelligent enough to FORCAST what I will NEED so I dont have to repeatedly BUY a New Laptop or COMPUTER the way I use to pay for film … $15 a roll(calumet prices) -$15 to process that roll color roll my previous film costs yearly were 5 times the amount of what Creative suite …. Yea even in Bulk …. what are you in fifth grade or something ,’ where did u get your free computer’ sheesh … we had ot pay for computers back in the day we had to pay for cameras but not EACH AND EVERY TIME I SHOOT the way we HAD to do with FILM .

        • $23041497

          Wasted paper was one of my biggest expenses in my darkroom.

          Every adjustment needed more paper. Think about that next time. imagine
          throwing a dime or a quarter in a jar every time you click your mouse to make an adjustment to an image.

          Then do the same each time the shutter on your camera fires.

          Digital is so much cheaper.

    • Greg Easton

      A year’s worth of film development was still cheaper than a single license of Creative Suite.

  • Greg Easton

    Film or digital, can we all agree that the LENSES back in the day were vastly superior?

    • Jon

      I can’t agree with you Greg. Today’s super-sophisticated computer designs and nano coatings can make for the best lenses ever created.

      PS, I don’t miss film primarily because of the expense.

      • $23041497

        I completely agree, Jon. I have some kit lenses that are far superior to the ‘pro’ lenses I owned a few years ago. And now there are the new Sigma lenses you can adjust yourself…. whoaa.

        Honestly, I don’t think equipment can be cited as a barrier to the industry any longer.

    • Andy

      The older lenses superior? No. I’ve had more than a few of the old ones mold on me because the tolerances were so low they had serious air gaps. The manufacturing process is much more precise & consistent than it ever has been.

      What I do miss from older lenses is the focus meter built into the top of EVERY lens. Night/Astro photography without a clearly marked infinity or hyperfocal point on the lens is annoying at best and infuriating at worst. Yes you can take a frame and compare focus between shots, but that’s hit or miss at best.

      Also, wtf happened to a manual aperture ring on every lens? I get that it’s controlled by the camera now, but I kinda do really miss it.

  • Alex Reilly

    To make me slow down a little whilst shooting I still use a handheld light meter. It means that although the technology and equipment has changed my approach remains the same. However as a portrait photographer I usually have the time for this and I know that’s not the case in all disciplines of photography.

  • $23041497

    Can’t say I actually miss film. I remember all the hassle that went along with it, just like everyone else apparently.

    But there are two aspects I do miss. 1) The material nature of it. Digital images just aren’t the same, so I try to print as much as possible. 2) The sense that darkroom work was a skill. So often now, I slave away on balancing color, tones, and contrasts on my images only to be asked by a member of the public,what ‘filter’ I used on it. That never happened in the film days.

    I also am so glad that I came up through the film era. I find that I have certain skills my younger co-workers don’t (although the opposite is also true).

  • mleonv

    Great article, thanks!
    Greetings from a film shooter in Costa Rica!

    • Joe

      Hi mleonv.
      I am in Costa Rica and am desperate to get hold of film for my camera, but am having difficulty finding some. Do you know a good place to buy film and a good photo lab to develop them?
      Thanks,
      Joe

  • Blahbby

    Many fashion photogs in Europe,especially Italy,shoot spreads on film and published heavily in Vogue. An aesthetic choice or being cool? Much cheaper than digital also. Mostly unretouched. Get the same effect with photoshop? Undeniably. There is an immediacy you get with shooting film because you’re limited to a fixed amount of exposures. Ah,that smell of motion picture film. Digital more convenient? Forget it. Slap a mag on a camera and go. 4K resolution. Film has always been HD. No sensor blur either. OK,you can get digital cameras to shoot in places impossible for a Panavision or Arri with ease. The switchover inevitable. Film camera production has stopped. Archiving film a no brainer. The same with digital? Good luck. Most DPs agree getting the look in camera is still the most important aspect of shooting wherther film or digital. Financial limitations not withstanding. Shoot then fix it in post?What happened to craft. Sad state of affairs corporate America chooses to pay someone with an iphone 500 bucks to shoot a major advertising campaign. That’s the effect digital has had on the industry. Love it or hate it,digital is here forever more. You know,the Hippies came up with idea and develpoment of the personal computer and internet. Stuff that in your shrooms….but ain’t modern technology more amazing than words could ever describe. What will your gear look like 10 years from now? So go and buy a top of the line Nikon or Canon 35mm body dirt cheap on ebay. You already have the lenses. Shoot a roll of chrome or B&W film along with digital on that next assignment just for sh#ts and giggles. See who likes what better without retouching….or not.

  • Jamila Johnson Mendez

    This is making me think a lot. And you’re right…there is something magical about film….having to really be in the moment and really think about what you want to capture. The deliberate feeling of it all. I think I need to invest in another film camera…sounds like fun!

  • Pascal

    I don’t miss film because i use it :)

  • Ran

    Thanks for this article, it’s talking about all what I feel about film too, although all of my work now is made with digital, and mostly manual settings, but that wasn’t before 5-6 years ago, it was all film and I do miss film, I’ve started photography since I was 11-12 years old, and it is my father that I took the passion of photography from, letting me training on his Kodak, Olympus, Minolta… and it was a father-daughter thing :)
    The idea of the exercise is brilliant, and all photographers should do it at least once a year, remembering to depend more on ourselves rather than the camera.