Why I shoot on film

Jul 9, 2016

Michael Turek

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Why I shoot on film

Jul 9, 2016

Michael Turek

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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“Film forces me to be more decisive”

After eight years of shooting exclusively [on] digital [cameras], working with film was a revelation. It made me fall in love with the process of making photos. Shooting film heightened the sensation of being focused in the moment, which is at the heart of what photography is about. I also noticed a difference in reactions from the people I was photographing. Subjects had become so used to seeing their photos on the back of my camera. When they were unable to see themselves right away, they seemed more interested and involved. They seemed to have more confidence in themselves as well as me, and I feel my portrait work became stronger.

The debate about which looks better, digital or film, is tired and pointless. For me, the reason to shoot film is simple: it is a lot less distracting than digital. I don’t shoot film just to be romantic and I’m not a Luddite. I feel that I can create a better product with film. Photography, in its essence, is about speed and reaction. And working with film actually enabled me to find creative solutions faster than digital. This sounds counterintuitive, but I realised I was spending too much time operating the camera, and then checking the shot on the LCD screen. My eyes were down, distracted, instead of looking at the world, my subjects. Click, review, repeat—that was the cycle I was stuck in. I rediscovered that film allowed me to concentrate on composition. Editing should be left until afterwards. Shoot now, edit later, is my mantra.

'This was from a story in the Virunga Mountains. A silverback mountain gorilla makes an upright, standing feign towards a tracker, who duly runs away. If I didn't have the photos, I don't think I would have remembered this, I had so much adrenaline surging in the moment.' Photo: Michael Turek
‘This was from a story in the Virunga Mountains. A silverback mountain gorilla makes an upright, standing feign towards a tracker, who duly runs away. If I didn’t have the photos, I don’t think I would have remembered this, I had so much adrenaline surging in the moment.’ Photo: Michael Turek

There are disadvantages to shooting with film. It is bulky to travel with, can be damaged by X-rays at security checks, and rolls are easy to lose. I’ve accidentally exposed a roll of film by opening the back of the camera when I thought the roll was already rewound! Film rolls run out of pictures far quicker than a memory card and they are not cheap to buy and to process either. It takes a few days for my lab to return the processed film, and sometimes clients need the images right away.

Yorkshire, England: 'From the area of England that my mother is from, and the site of my longest on-going personal project. I spent a lot of time here growing up, and I've always found it to be a very playful landscape. Some of my most important work has come from this place.' Photo: Michael Turek
Yorkshire, England: ‘From the area of England that my mother is from, and the site of my longest on-going personal project. I spent a lot of time here growing up, and I’ve always found it to be a very playful landscape. Some of my most important work has come from this place.’ Photo: Michael Turek

Conversely, digital has a different set of challenges. Digital storage devices are fragile and are subject to corruption. If a hard-drive or memory card is damaged, corrupted or lost, I can lose thousands of photos, rather than just 20 images on a roll of film. We do not have a long-term solution for storing and archiving digital data. Storage solutions are constantly changing, so there is no guarantee that digital images will be easily readable in 20 years, let alone 100! Analogue photography is a 175-year-old technology, and we know exactly how to store it so that it lasts thousands of years. Digital storage is expensive, and can actually cost the same or more than the processing and storage of film over time.

'Portrait of Fatima Bhutto through a car window after we had come to the end of an incredible journey through Punjab, from the Pakistani side starting in Lahore, and then finishing in Amritsar on the Indian side.' Photo: Michael Turek
‘Portrait of Fatima Bhutto through a car window after we had come to the end of an incredible journey through Punjab, from the Pakistani side starting in Lahore, and then finishing in Amritsar on the Indian side.’ Photo: Michael Turek

Film is not as capable in low-light situations and digital images do not handle highlights well. Film gives you more latitude with exposure while digital requires more attention to nail the exposure. Most importantly, digital requires access to electricity. Many of my jobs are in very remote places where there is no access to electricity for days. I often work alone, and I don’t have a crew to help carry a supply of batteries or a generator, so downloading memory cards to a computer and backing up to hard-drive becomes impossible in these situations, whereas shooting film eradicates this problem entirely.

'I was crossing the length of Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia, from the north shore and the Russian border, down towards the town of Murun, and experienced an almost complete white-out storm, which caught a few locals by surprise as well. Here two cart loads of people are being pulled by horses on the frozen lake, with a line of trees along the bank visible in the background. Some of the hardest conditions I've ever worked in.' Photo: Michael Turek
‘I was crossing the length of Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia, from the north shore and the Russian border, down towards the town of Murun, and experienced an almost complete white-out storm, which caught a few locals by surprise as well. Here two cart loads of people are being pulled by horses on the frozen lake, with a line of trees along the bank visible in the background. Some of the hardest conditions I’ve ever worked in.’ Photo: Michael Turek

At night, after very long days of shooting, I need to get to sleep as quickly as possible. If I’m shooting digital, I have to spend a good 30 minutes downloading and backing up. Shooting film gives me more rest time. Also, I find looking over the day’s images on the computer can be counter-productive. Not only does it keep me up longer, I also begin editing my work. The most effective editing occurs days, or even weeks after the images have been shot. It’s good to put time between making the images, and editing the images when I’m not as emotionally attached, and it’s easier to make decisive choices about what are really the strongest images. Simply, when I am on assignment, it is my job to make images, to be creative, to be present.

Manaus, Brazil: 'The "buracao" which translates to "big hole," is a football pitch where local players from the Noua Esperanca neighbourhood come to play at night. I was travelling across the Amazon region surrounding Manaus in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, reporting on the history or rubber production in the area.' Photo: Michael Turek
Manaus, Brazil: ‘The “buracao” which translates to “big hole,” is a football pitch where local players from the Noua Esperanca neighbourhood come to play at night. I was travelling across the Amazon region surrounding Manaus in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, reporting on the history or rubber production in the area.’ Photo: Michael Turek

Film forces me to be more decisive. I might take only a few shots of any one scenario, and then move on, working my way through the shot with more intent, more mindfulness, feeling far more reactive and open to my experience, and ultimately that’s my job as a storyteller.

'From a story about a group of amateur open-water swimmers who swam across the British Virgin Islands, from island to island, over the course of 8 days.' Photo: Michael Turek
‘From a story about a group of amateur open-water swimmers who swam across the British Virgin Islands, from island to island, over the course of 8 days.’ Photo: Michael Turek

About the Author

Michael Turek is New York-based travel photographer, who has shot across the world, including several assignments for Condé Nast Traveller India. He uses Kodak Portra film on assignments and for his personal work. The Turek Atlas is an online travel guide that features his images. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

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25 responses to “Why I shoot on film”

  1. Alexandre Pontes Avatar
    Alexandre Pontes

    After 20 Years photographing weddings with film, working with digital is a blessing. It made me fall in love with the process of selling more and have more profit.

    1. Najib Saer Avatar
      Najib Saer

      And it also brought along $500 per wedding ‘photographers who think they’re wedding photographers’

  2. Michael Carpenter Avatar
    Michael Carpenter

    I can sign under every word of the author. Use both film and digital however. They are very different indeed, and I feel like my creative palette will loose a lot without either. Any opposing views like film vs digital are simply nonsense. Photography is about images, not machines or processes. And one chooses the instrument that suits better their purpose, be that meditative creativity or earning for living.
    Cheers!

  3. 1o1 Avatar
    1o1

    yawn…. another story about vintage fans.

    “I might take only a few shots of any one scenario, and then move on, working my way through the shot with more intent, more mindfulness, feeling far more reactive and open to my experience, and ultimately that’s my job as a storyteller.”

    people with a stronger mindset can do that shooting digital…. :-)

    1. TheInconvenientRuth Avatar
      TheInconvenientRuth

      It’s as simple as turning “instant image review” off…

    2. ZM Avatar
      ZM

      Unfortunately most people who don’t have any film experence don’t do that. Film forces you to do that digital doesn’t!

      1. John Stiller Avatar
        John Stiller

        Only a weak minded, undisciplined person has to shoot film to be more considerate, deliberate and selective in what they decide to shoot.

        1. ZM Avatar
          ZM

          There is always the exception but unfortunately most people are weak minded and undisciplined. You can make amazing drawings with 3D modeling software if you study animation you still have to start with pencil and paper!

  4. catlett Avatar
    catlett

    Funny how many people feel compelled to explain why they shoot film but nobody seems to be compelled to opine about why they shoot digital.

    1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
      Kay O. Sweaver

      Rewind fifteen years and you’ll find plenty of people opining about why they shoot digital. If you’re doing something different from the majority of people at any given moment it makes sense to explain why. In fifteen years we may be seeing articles about why someone had decided to shoot in 2D as opposed to 3D.

      1. catlett Avatar
        catlett

        If you need attention from strangers I guess. Most people don’t really feel the need to explain why they do what they do to complete strangers.

    2. TheInconvenientRuth Avatar
      TheInconvenientRuth

      I shoot film sometimes because I love the cameras, not the process. If someone would ever actually build that mythical “35mm digital cartridge” that pops up every year or so and I could stick it in my F3, F4, M6, LX, I would be SO happy…

  5. Alexandre Grondin Avatar
    Alexandre Grondin

    Yup, I agree. That’s why I went from digital back to a full manual film camara.

  6. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    I started with film photography in 1980 and I still use my original camera, a Canon A-1. I bought a used Canon New F-1 in 2013 and added a Canon 5D Mk III in December 2013. With two film cameras, I have one loaded with B&W film and the other with color, so I don’t need to make a choice of what to load. I enjoy shooting both film and digital and will often shoot both film and digital on an outing. As long as film is still available and my film cameras are working, I’ll continue shooting film. It’s a simpler process; I have more controls and menu options on my 5D III than I have on my A-1 and F-1 combined.
    With my 5D, I have image review turned off since I haven’t chimped a photo after the first few initial photos. The white balance stays set mostly on daylight since I shoot primarily outdoors. If I’m in tricky lighting situations, then I’ll change the white balance to auto.

  7. Hector Macias Avatar
    Hector Macias

    Becuase digital is scary for older folks

    1. Michael Carpenter Avatar
      Michael Carpenter

      Or because young ones are not patient enough. Thanks, you gave me some hope. I use both, so I am only about 25 per cent old.?

  8. Ashraf Avatar
    Ashraf

    Very Informative & useful post. Thanks

  9. Taylor Manuian Avatar
    Taylor Manuian

    I started learning photography through digital but shooting with film gave me a chance to slow down and enjoy the photo I was taking because I couldn’t go back, delete it and start over. Every photo counts on film and watching your photo come to life when developing is such a cool experience!

    1. John Stiller Avatar
      John Stiller

      What is preventing you from slowing down with digital. Don’t you have any self-discipline?

  10. J.L. Williams Avatar
    J.L. Williams

    Really means: “I shoot film because crap, lots of people take really decent pictures nowadays… I have to make myself seem special somehow…”

  11. Denis Germain Avatar
    Denis Germain

    Nope, not going back – Since when, are you forced to “Spray and Pray” because you use digital?
    The end

  12. Vanitas Foto Avatar
    Vanitas Foto

    Nothing against film but: You can shoot digital like you shoot film: Get a 256mb card and don’t chimp. VOILA!!!

  13. cbenci Avatar
    cbenci

    I shot film back in the day and haven’t missed it for one second.

  14. John Stiller Avatar
    John Stiller

    It is typically the young hipsters who never got a chance to shoot film in the film only era that like to opine and wax on about film. Most of us old film veterans simply smile and shake our heads listening to them talk their nonsense. The same goes for when they start talking about buying and listening to records, what you young hipsters call vinyl. LOL. Both crap mediums replaced by something much better.

  15. filmisdead Avatar
    filmisdead

    How to know if someone shoots on film?
    Don’t worry mate. They will tell you.