Why I think film photography is horrible

Sep 6, 2016

Benjamin Kanarek

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Why I think film photography is horrible

Sep 6, 2016

Benjamin Kanarek

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I remember the first time I picked up a digital camera. It was 2003 and I got this little Canon G5, a good point-and-shoot, and it was 5MP.

Before that, I used film. It had to be scanned into a computer, then manipulated digitally. That was alright—but when I picked up this Canon, I thought it was amazing. It’s instant feedback. You see exactly what you’re going to get. You adjust your lighting as you go, you’re thinking on your feet.

What you can learn on digital in one year is probably five to ten times what you can learn on film in the same time. Film is a very slow feedback loop.

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When I was shooting for publications like Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel, I was using slide film. It has zero latitude. You might have half a stop on either side, and if you’re over that, it’s too underexposed and you don’t have anything usable. People who shoot negative film maybe have two stops above and one and a half stops below, so you can fix it in the lab. I used slide film because the rendition is beautiful and I knew my exposures well.

For film shoots, I’d have a messenger service literally waiting there for the first shot of the day. He’d get on his scooter, ride to the lab, and do a clip test. They would pull out three or four shots from the roll of film and test it.

If my lab guy was good, he’s call me and say, “Kanarek, you’re under by a third.” Then I’d shoot Polaroids for interpretation. They don’t look anything like slide film, but they can tell you if you’re above or below. People who learned with analog photography can blink their eyes and feel the exposure. They can feel the light.

The trend of young photographers going back to film is confusing to me. They know the new technology. They were born into it. What they don’t know is the older technology that used to be my only option.

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I mean, I can replicate the look of film in post-production. If people really think they have an edge by using film, well, okay. If the client has the budget to pay for film and the whole process, which is incredibly expensive today, fine. But it’s really counterproductive. Film for me is horrible. It’s slow, it’s cumbersome.

I understand that people think digital looks flat, but it doesn’t look flat anymore. I use a Nikon 36MP—just amazing rendition. You bring the digital image into Photoshop, play with your curves, contrast, luminosity and add grain if you want to. Art directors ask me, “Are you still shooting film?” but it’s not, it’s digital.

One of the arguments against digital is that you can shoot and shoot and shoot like crazy without being discerning. I agree with that—it is a problem. Do you know what I do to overcome that? I only use 4GB memory cards, because I don’t want to edit. Listen, editing is a pain in the ass. You don’t want to edit 3,000 images. On a 4GB card, you’ll get about 100 shots, which is the equivalent of three rolls of film. That’s a great way to make you more discerning.

Instead of going backwards, I want to use new technology that makes photography. Those Lytro Illum cameras? You can change your focus in post-production. It will literally bring your background into focus after the photo’s been taken. If I could get a camera like that, but with a 300mm f/2.8 lens, that would be so sweet.

I started doing fashion photography in the 1980’s using every analog medium out there. I evolved into digital reluctantly. It’s just another tool of expression—like the difference between oil and acrylic paint. An artist is an artist regardless of their medium. For now, I will stay with digital until they install a holographic projector into my frontal lobe.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Kanarek is a fashion photographer splitting his time between Paris and North America. He has worked for magazines the likes of Harper’s BAZAAR, VOGUE, GLAMOUR, ELLE, etc… He has consulted as a Creative Director for world-wide agencies and clients. You can see more of his work on his website and say hi on instagram. This article was originally published on Format Magazine, and shared with permission. Format offers a portfolio website with a free 14-day trialAll images by Benjamin Kanarek/Header via Unsplash

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31 responses to “Why I think film photography is horrible”

  1. Rob Avatar
    Rob

    Benjamin,

    Thank you for a thought provoking article. I want to respond to the following:

    “The trend of young photographers going back to film is confusing to me.”

    I think you provide a multitude of reasons in your article.

    In the sentence just before your confusion: “People who learned with analog photography can blink their eyes and feel the exposure. They can feel the light.”

    Good photography (and by that I mean photography which is the result of deliberate actions by a person who understands how to control and achieve the look they want) takes time to learn. That really means slowing down to think, understand, and execute. Then time to examine results and think some more. One can do that with digital, but film has a way of forcing a slower pace and contemplation. When you spend time (and money!) on each shot, you learn faster, even though the process is slower.

    Earlier still you wrote: “I used slide film because the rendition is beautiful and I knew my exposures well.”

    I’d wager that you knew slide film well because there really was no “fix it later” with slides. Shooting slides certainly forced me to learn exposure inside and out.

    You also discussed wanting more technology not less: “Those Lytro Illum cameras? You can change your focus in post-production. It will literally bring your background into focus after the photo’s been taken.”

    Fantastic technology. But image if that was your first camera….. How quickly would you have learned about aperture and focal length, not to mention when a shallow or deep focus might be more suitable for a particular subject, scene, or message? While new technology opens up new possibilities for visual expression, it can also get in the way of attaining a foundational understanding on which to build.

    Finally, I’ll end with something you wrote near the start of your piece and offer a different take:

    “What you can learn on digital in one year is probably five to ten times what you can learn on film in the same time. Film is a very slow feedback loop.”

    I believe the following would be a more accurate observation and also offer one reason younger people are trying out film:

    What you can DO on digital in one year is probably five to ten times what you can DO on film in the same time. BUT YOU CAN LEARN FIVE TO TEN TIMES MORE WITH FILM BECAUSE Film is a very slow feedback loop.

    Thoughts?

    1. TheInconvenientRuth Avatar
      TheInconvenientRuth

      “…BUT YOU CAN LEARN FIVE TO TEN
      TIMES MORE WITH FILM BECAUSE Film is a very slow feedback loop.”

      How exactly does that work? Student photographers generally don’t have bike couriers at the ready, rushing clip tests. They generally don’t have the budget/equipment to shoot polaroids. So it will take at least an hour or so from the end of the shoot (if there’s a minilab nearby and you shoot C41..). Shoot E6 and you may have to wait 1-2 days nowadays.. By the time you get your work back and see what you did wrong, it becomes hard to think back to what exactly it was you did wrong on your shoot. Sure, you can see you’re a stop off, but do you still remember your reasoning as to why you thought this was the right exposure? Can you really recall WHY you made that mistake? And it’s demotivating because now you have a handful of unusable images.

      Digital gives you instant feedback and a chance to correct your mistake. It immediately shows you the result of your thought process. If you are in class and you give the wrong answer, does a teacher wait one day to tell you you’re wrong?

      Try learning how to use multiple off-camera flashes by only shooting film. I did that and it is exhausting, exasperating. Without polaroids. Even when using a light meter and measuring/calculating every unit. There is nothing that has improved my skill faster than the instant feedback digital cameras give. I really don’t understand your reasoning behind this sentence, care to explain?

      1. nickg Avatar
        nickg

        I’d say, unless the article has been edited since you posted your comment, the simple explanation is that you’ve misquoted the OP, then ranted on your own misquote. Read it again: “What you can learn on digital in one year is probably five to ten times what you can learn on film in the same time. Film is a very slow feedback loop.”

  2. Håkan Nyman Avatar
    Håkan Nyman

    Well, shooting film is not about the final result, it is about your state of mind when shooting :-)

  3. Håkan Nyman Avatar
    Håkan Nyman

    Well, for me, shooting film is not about the final result, it is about your state of mind when shooting :-)

  4. Eleonora Gambola Avatar
    Eleonora Gambola

    No you don’t see exactly what you get, come on.

  5. christopherjacques Avatar
    christopherjacques

    I have this same argument too often, and say almost the same things as you. Digital is better period.

    But I do understand why the young ones want to learn film. They don’t know it. They didn’t live through the hurdles and the heartaches. They’ve only known “click, oh wait try again, click, ok that’s good”.

    So let the kiddies play with their toys. As for them thinking it’s better, well, no, they need to be educated on that point.

    Same as the current vinyl nonsense. You can love it and collect it and have fun with it, but it’s junk compared to current digital options.

    1. Minh Tang Avatar
      Minh Tang

      I think film camera is a gimmick. It’s useless for my work.

      1. Pherja Avatar
        Pherja

        It was the only way to do things before digital sensors were invented. It’s not a gimmick, simply an old way of doing things. I thinks it fun to play with especially in large formats, but for actual daily life and work, digital is much better.

    2. Jasper Caelan Avatar
      Jasper Caelan

      Funny because Vinyl is actually much higher quality than digital. That’s a fact not an opinion.

      1. Pherja Avatar
        Pherja

        Funny because it’s not. Facts are facts. Your opinions are not.

        1. Jasper Caelan Avatar
          Jasper Caelan

          And yet you supply no evidence.

  6. David Magee Avatar
    David Magee

    Buzzfeed level over 9000.

  7. Larry Carr Avatar
    Larry Carr

    Sure you can make a digital image look like a film image in post, you can also make a monkey look like Brad Pitt in post. If you want your final image to look like Pitt then shoot Pitt, if you want your final image to look like film then shoot film.

  8. Danny Sutter Avatar
    Danny Sutter

    I shoot film just for the check of it. I like the feel of the old gear, and I like the surprises that come months later when I develop the film.

  9. Вергунов Сергей Avatar
    Вергунов Сергей

    I think film photography is awesome! :)

  10. Jakub Jastrzębski Avatar
    Jakub Jastrzębski

    I feel some butt pain. Camera is JUST A TOOL. You use what’s better for you, better for the task. By the way – 36 bilion pixel Nikon is just expencive. Much too much i for my time to time using. Even if it ain’t flat, what for add grain to digital pic whan you gen get grain on negative? ;) I use 100$ soviet medium format and shoot vintage styled pics. And I’m HAPPY with it. And you can’t change that.

  11. Stephen C Miller Avatar
    Stephen C Miller

    Just sounds like Someone who’s lazy whining about too much time. It’s all about the end results

  12. Laurent Roy Avatar
    Laurent Roy

    I’d say that, even if I’m now shooting digital for some years already, I started with film (no choice at that time back in ’68 ;-) ) and still think it’s a good school, just because of these restrictions: number of shots, price, delays… ;-)

  13. dimitrisservis Avatar
    dimitrisservis

    For the process and the joy. Just like some people prefer sailing to speedboats.

  14. Andi Cilia Avatar
    Andi Cilia

    film is not horrible, maybe your photos are just useless. Try something else! Painting, bakery, butchery, taxi driver… for example!

    1. Minh Tang Avatar
      Minh Tang

      The author has a lot of credentials though.

  15. spock500 Avatar
    spock500

    This article is a pile of garbage. What was the point ? Why don’t you bother to explain why your digital images here look artificial, lifeless, sterile, and uninspiring??

    1. Minh Tang Avatar
      Minh Tang

      I think the author has a lot of credentials, namely his work. People don’t hire him if his work sucks. That’s the big difference between who shoots for fun or professionally.

      1. Jasper Caelan Avatar
        Jasper Caelan

        Being “professional” doesn’t automatically mean you are good at something, it just means are making money with it. There are plenty of people who make money in all sorts of professions who are completely useless but know how to sell and market themselves.

    2. Gunther Berlin Avatar
      Gunther Berlin

      Yet the author is a well published and incredibly well commissioned professional fashion photographer? If you want to see lifeless, look at all the shit film photographers posting pictures of LA street signs on YouTube or bog standard portraits they insist are so wild and groovy because they shot them on portra 400.
      I loved shooting film up until recently when all the pretentious hipster types who weren’t even born in the film era as I and others were started jumping on the bandwagon and driving the secondhand price of film cameras to stupid prices – yet the wally brains are still willing to pay it. NOw I can’t stand the medium or the community that uses it. And the pretentious shit they come out with? Don’t get me started.

  16. luftwaffe kriegsmarine Avatar
    luftwaffe kriegsmarine

    You make a living with it right? thats why digital is better because time is money. But for us who likes real photograhy, film is best.

    1. Gunther Avatar
      Gunther

      I’m sick of hearing that “film is ‘real’ photography” bollocks. Such pretentious crap. The photographer and his or her brain, their eye and sense of what makes a great image are ALL that matters. I’m sick of hearing such utter rubbish as;

      “film is alive, you know, like, digital is just too sharp, film is alive it has a soul”

      Fuck off with that shit. I shoot a 50/50 film/digital workflow, I’m a professional documentary photographer, I’ve worked all over the world and had exhibitions and photobooks sold on a likewise global manner, and it is NOT the gear, Film doesn’t have some magic to it. I wish people would stop trying to make out like it’s some magical thing. It’s just a TOOL.

  17. anonim Avatar
    anonim

    If somebody confused your fake photos for film doesn’t mean they look alike. You can pick your subject so that digital looks normal, but for landscapes for example it just looks horrible. You can shoot some nice square buildings though, have fun!

    1. Gunther Berlin Avatar
      Gunther Berlin

      And yet the best landscape photographers, the most widely shown and exhibited today, are on digital. It’s the photographer not the medium you shoot it on you dolt. Like all the film photographer youtubers who shoot shit downtown LA street signs or images of people crossing the street in new york, or their girlfriend sitting on a bench but it must be amazing because hey, it was shot on Portra 400 yo, it has soul, it’s alive (pretentious crap). Load of old pretentious and basic looking crap. It’s this kind of nonsense that is putting me off film fast. The fact that the majority of film photographers on the online youtube and insta community are snobs who think that, by shooting film, they’re trailblazing pioneers. Newsflash: Most of us have been shooting it since the 80s but have moved on.

  18. Victor Reynolds Avatar
    Victor Reynolds

    “Clip tests?” Oh no Benjamin! You’re taking me back to 1980s assistant days in Manhattan! LOL! Don’t get me started about buying rolls of film with the same stock numbers to ensure development consistency!

    I’ve shot film since the 80s and still do to a point. However, I also live in the 21st Century and shoot digital as well. Each is a medium that serves an end: the finished image. I’ve been fortunate to exhibit my work in both mediums as well. So please understand, film has no warm fuzzy magic for me. Whereas digital has opened up options for my photography that film cannot compete with.

    Film has had its day, that’s why I shoot with it only to a point. Let the Luddite hipsters rant about its “soul” and other warm fuzzies. Let the posters that criticize your work rant. They would pass out if they had to do your type of photography-especially if they used film.

    That’s my two cents. All the best.