Photography is one of my (numerous and disparate) hobbies, and you may be perplexed to learn that I shoot quite a lot of 35mm film. Can you even do that any more? Isn’t that really inconvenient? As it turns out, yes on both counts, but I quite enjoy it!
I have always been interested in documenting the world around me, and I was given a Nikon F-301 (35mm film SLR) camera as a teenager to learn with. Almost from the start, I was what might be termed an “aspiring” photographer – more serious than your average “holiday snapper”, and not a professional, but always wanting to improve my skills and images. I was rarely happy with taking the odd snapshot here and there and was always looking out for opportunities to record how I saw the world.
The Learning Process
I am not a naturally talented photographer. I often found myself with underexposed, badly composed and/or cluttered images. As I’d term them now, I was creating “Where’s Wally” images. On a trip to Cornwall one year I took a fair few images like this.
Like, what is that even of? Clearly, there’s stuff going on, but there is no obvious subject.
During the same holiday, however, I took a few images that were less flawed.
At least, here, my composition is significantly better. I’m not sure if I was particularly aware of the “rule of thirds” at the time, but this doesn’t quite follow it (and the horizon is wonky, and … and … and….).
All of this learning was done on film. Often, I’d bump into limitations of the medium. I’d often like to photograph “my” band at gigs – and that’s how I learnt about film speeds, something that is still relevant today (although not for the same reasons). Trying to use ISO 200 film in low light conditions, is not so great! ISO 800 on the other hand – worked a treat, but the grain was a lot more noticeable.
In the later 2000’s I gained access to digital cameras which weren’t terrible. Digital is a lot less forgiving than film (particularly in terms of exposure latitude), but also less punishing. You could delete a bad shot almost immediately – whereas I’d have to wait days and spend money to find a film shot was god awful, or that the flash fired at the wrong time and all of the photos from your friends “prom” party were underexposed garbage (true story).
Digital cameras continued to improve, and I was able to afford my own equipment as I progressed in life. I could continue to learn about composition, saturation, lighting and other things without churning out hundreds of expensive failures. Things were good.
Sometime later, during a house move, I unearthed my Nikon F-301 and lenses. I had a look through the viewfinder of my F-301 with my (rather lovely) 105mm Nikkor lens. I had forgotten how awesome that lens is, having mostly been restricted to the kit 18-55mm lens that came with my DSLR. I also had a nice 22mm wide and (classic) 35mm prime lens too. I really wanted to use them again. I could have got an adapter for my DSLR, but I wouldn’t have got the full frame experience that I was used to. It wouldn’t be the same.
To my delight, after doing some research it turned out you can still get 35mm film. And there are even people shooting it!
The F-301 body was broken. At some point in the last decade, it had been dropped – the mirror flap mechanism had been dislodged. I took it to Sendean cameras in Clerkenwell to get a quote to repair it. £100, at least.
SLR bodies are not generally particularly expensive – at least not compared to the lenses. The F-301 was a pretty common “enthusiast grade” body in the late 1990’s and, as it turns, out there’s plenty of them floating around in good working order. I quickly found one on eBay and won the auction for £35. To save on shipping costs, I met up with the seller at Marylebone station and performed what would have looked like some kind of Soviet-era clandestine exchange of photographic equipment and cash, beneath the departure boards.
I now had a working camera and selection of lenses. I also discovered a very expired roll of Fuji Superia (my previous day-to-day film of choice) nestling in my kit bag. Unfortunately, over the years, dirt had become lodged into the light seal and when it was developed it left an enormous scratch down the entire length of the negative.
Becoming the Modern Film Shooter
Having exhausted my stock of scratchy Fuju Superia, I managed to source some new film from Silverprint. I attempted to get some Agfa vista plus from Poundland, but whilst their website said my local store had some in stock, trying to explain to the people working there what I was looking for turned out to be challenging. (“What do you mean, film? We’ve got DVDs over here… No? Do you mean Kitchen film? Why would you want 35mm of cling film? What do you want, you weirdo!”).
There are a few labs available that can process film, mostly mail order. Most can do black and white and the C-41 process. After testing a few labs, my favourite turned out to be UK Film Lab (now Canadian Film Lab) that not only allow you to push/pull process but also scan to your specifications and give a commentary on every film they develop. Top class service. Since then, other services have popped up, and I’ve used filmdev a fair bit, but Canadian Film Lab remain my firm favourite so far.
The process of getting film developed has changed significantly since I shot film for the first time. Getting a roll developed used to be a matter of taking your film to a high-street store, waiting for a period of time, then going to pick up some prints and maybe (if you paid extra!) a CD containing scans of your photographs. Now we have the Internet – and high-quality digital printing at home (which is usually what the low-cost labs did anyway). It’s now just a matter of sending your film to the lab, waiting for them to process it, paying your invoice and moments later you’re given a link to download your scans – so satisfying! A little later, your negatives are returned to you for archiving.
Although that’s not the only way to process your film. Developing your own film is actually surprisingly easy, particularly for black and white – you don’t need a dark room, just a light-proof changing bag, the ability to make up solutions of three chemicals (below) and a daylight film processing tank (above).
Scanning is a bit more tricky (and expensive), but if you have a bit of cash you can get yourself a pretty good negative scanner – or if you don’t you could get a fairly rubbish film scanner (sorry, Lomography!) … or you could go to a photography workshop like Photofusion in South London and hire a scanning suite, if one is available near you.
You’ll notice I’ve yet to say anything about prints. That’s an interesting part – often the outlet for your images will be online, so prints are not a requirement. It’s entirely possible to go from exposed film to Instagram post in an hour or two, without ever printing the image to paper. This ‘digilogue’ workflow is pretty common for modern film shooters. Although, there is something incredibly satisfying about making a really good darkroom print – which is something I’m only getting into now.
Having figured out that it’s possible, why did I bother to continue?
Isn’t it really expensive?
Well, yes and no. The raw cost per image is much higher than digital. However, extremely good quality film kit is much cheaper than the modern (digital) equivalent. Good optics are good optics, and even old lenses still produce excellent images (providing they’ve been looked after well).
Also, your shooting ratio tends to be much higher than it would be with digital (partly since every shot has a monetary value, you are incentivised to make every shot count).
So whilst yes, buying film, processing it, scanning it, all have an ongoing cost associated with them, the images you produce tend to be of higher quality – partly for the kit you’re using, partly because you’re thinking a lot more about the shots you take.
But isn’t digital better quality?
Controversial! Ken Rockwell goes into a lot more depth about this, but the main takeaway (for me, at least) is that you can’t really directly compare the two mediums. It’d be like saying that an inkjet printer is better quality than an oil painting.
Digital sensors are a grid of pixels, each of which only records one colour at a time. Film has a continuum of light-sensitive emulsion and is limited by chemistry and optics. In terms of resolution, Ken comes up with 35mm film being the equivalent of an 87 Megapixel sensor. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford one of those …
Many extra large projection installations use film for their source material – it enlarges much better than digital, and you don’t get the screen door effect.
Fine, but what about grain? I quite like the look of film grain, actually. It’s certainly better than multicoloured digital noise. Putting my software engineering hat on, maybe film grain is more of a feature than a bug? I mean, it is literally a feature in Photoshop. People pay for the kind of effects you get with film with software like Silver Efex Pro.
Isn’t it inconvenient?
Yes. In the same way, building your own furniture is inconvenient. You really do have to enjoy the process for it to be worth it. But achieving an excellent result is really very rewarding!
If you just want pictures, film photography is probably not for you, but if you want to be physically connected to the images you produce – then maybe it is. With digital, the process ends when you press the shutter. With film, that’s just the beginning.
Many people are scared of not being able to instantly see their pictures. To begin with, so was I. What if I was wasting film? What if they don’t turn out right? Actually, shooting film is an excellent way to un-learn your excessive chimping habit – and focus on what you’re actually trying to do. Rather than fiddling with settings randomly until you get the right exposure, you can stop and think about what you’re trying to do – then compose the shot – then shoot. It’s a lot slower, but sometimes it’s good to slow down a bit and really focus. The first few times I shot a film camera I found myself staring at the (blank) back of my camera after taking the picture.
OMG film is amazing, let’s shoot everything with film!
Err, well, actually…maybe not.
I’m not exclusively shooting film. There are some things that don’t benefit from it. Particularly, I like to do product photography occasionally (like the pictures of the daylight tank and chemicals above). Unless you want your product photos to look like a 70’s magazine advert, using the medium of film doesn’t really do much here. And using flash is a lot more tricky for film (getting it right for anything more than a basic single flash setup involves doing maths). At least with digital, you can kind of wing it and chimp until you get the lighting correct.
Also, my phone camera is surprisingly good (providing you wipe the lens before taking photos – protip), and is more than sufficient for most note taking needs.
It’s pretty cool though …
The number of people shooting film is surprising. There are entire YouTube channels dedicated to people shooting film. Film cameras that used to cost £10k can now be purchased for a fraction of the price. Medium format, in particular, used to be out of the reach of most enthusiasts, is now a feasible investment (although not one I’ve made as of yet).
There is a range of film stocks available, including re-reeled Kodak Vision cinema stock – which is the most advanced film technology out there (and still being used in cinema!). There are even people shooting in large format.