Film is Dead ~ Long Live Film

I wrote this article a few months ago.  Well, maybe it was more than a few months ago, time flies.  Given where I am now in my photographic journey, I think it’s appropriate to re-share it here now.  The guys at The Leica Meet asked me to contribute to their blog outlining the reasons why I moved to and shoot film.  I had just moved over to film after shooting with a Leica M9-P.  A few were asking questions about my choice to move to analog, especially how I could ditch a superb camera like the M9. 

This website represents a hard reset for me.  My previous website represented years of images with a very wide mix of shooting styles.  My early years of photography were spent shooting sports, usually lacrosse on Nikon cameras, my D300 and D700.  I used the trifecta set of Nikon lenses, the 12-24, 24-70 and 70-200.  All were the best of Nikon glass and gave me extraordinary results. 

Then I moved on to a digital Leica and my Fuji X100 and later the X100s.  Finally,  my tepid venture into film using my Leica MP, M6, my Olympus XA and the adoption of medium format with the Rolleiflex 2.8f.    The images from this progression of gear represents years of learning and experience.  Learning what the cameras were capable of allowing me to do and also learning to work with the cameras to take advantage of their capabilities brought years of personal growth in my personal photography.

I look back on all that now, all those years, as my personal sandbox, I got to play.  My old site represented that sandbox, lots of content but very hard for anyone to recognize what I am about as a photographer. Hence, I felt a need to focus not in a photographic sense but rather to narrow my path and become more serious in this film genre.  My website obviously has to represent my thinking.  It’s an outsider’s view into what I have to offer, not in the sense of wanting to make money from my photography, but rather to share my vision of what it I see as relevant and meaningful.  This move still represents significant challenges for the future, but those challenges will be met head on with film.  I will still play with digital, just not here.

Here’s my article submitted and published originally on The Leica Meet blog.  I think it’s a fitting introduction on this, my new website dedicated to film photography.

Film is Dead ~ Long Live Film

Why would anyone move from digital back to film?  We’ve all heard it, “film is dead, nobody shoots analog anymore.”  The world has moved to digital.  I was listening to a very popular podcast today in which the host jokingly said that there are probably a thousand or so film shooters left.  It was a joke but it hit a nerve because I’m now a committed film photographer and I know there are many, many thousands of us who love to shoot it.  I recognize that film will never take the prominent place it once had, but there is a movement, however small, going back to film.

Interestingly, the podcast panel members also discussed the damage they believe digital technology has done to the professional photography community.   These photographers  now have to fight much harder to differentiate themselves from the masses.  Almost anyone can pick up a digital camera and make it work.  Levels of automation and the immediate feedback from an LCD screen are great learning tools for new and aspiring photographers.  There’s no wait for the film to come back from processing and the exif data is immediately available to adjust any shot to make it better.  Not so with film.

I have to say that shooting film is a personal choice.  I turned into a contrarion.  Part of it was to find my personal style.  I found there was a challenge with film with enough variables that opened new opportunities to find the look I’m after.  Let me say right away, there is no best way to photograph.  Film and digital have different looks, I happen to prefer the character of film.

I’m admittedly unsettled when it comes to my photography. I ’m genuinely hard to satisfy in many ways, always after something that takes me to another level.  Getting to another level means I have to break through some personal barriers, chief among them is an innate fear of taking photographs of other people. It’s a shame really because my favorite shots are those with people in them. They give an essence to the images I like creating a texture to my photographs that are lacking otherwise. More importantly it’s also about capturing emotion and stories in the images I capture.

But that’s not the reason I need to vent a bit. The reason for this post is that I’m finding digital photography to be increasingly irrelevant personally and distracting in my photography journey. Digital is becoming a crutch for me. Capturing digital images is causing me to focus more on the technical aspects of photography rather than the essence of the images I’m trying to get.

Two years ago I sold all my DSLR gear including my top of the line Nikon camera, lenses and accessories. My family thought I had lost my mind after working so hard to move up to the best gear I could get my hands on. Another early lesson now learned; gear doesn’t make you a better photographer. I guess I was one of the early movers to small cameras that more and more photographers are moving towards these days with all the new micro four thirds cameras coming to market. My move didn’t seem that radical, I moved to a rangefinder with a full frame sensor. I needed the money from the sale of my DSLR kit to make the transition. For the most part it was a straightforward transition although I did take a hit with selling fees through eBay. To offset those selling costs I bought a used Leica M9-P and a few quality lenses, all fixed primes of course. I’ve really enjoyed the M9 and haven’t ever regretted moving to a Leica but I continued to search for my photographic space and place. Being the unsettled person I am, I’m now really leaning towards selling my M9-P and going full time to film. Another radical phase is underway I think. Did I mention that I’ve gone through times like this in the past?

About six months ago, I bought a Leica M6, a film camera build in 1987. Why not I thought. I can use the same lenses bought for my M9. I honestly didn’t think the transition would be as enveloping as it has been. The all mechanical M6 has captured my heart. I love everything about it. Most importantly, I love the insecurity of it. It has stretched my photography beyond what I found using digital. I’m now even processing my own black and white film. You’re likely asking why go through all the limitations that film brings and abandon digital.

I love using my film camera for all the opposite reasons most love using digital. Not being able to chimp on a film camera, i.e., seeing the image just captured via the LCD on the back of the camera creates a real sense of insecurity. Did I get the image I wanted on that frame of film? Was it exposed correctly, framed and composed in the strongest way? The truth won’t be known till I can process the negatives which may be as early as that night or it may be a few weeks from now. There’s no immediate tendency or incentive to repeat the shot using film because there are only 35 or so opportunities on that roll in the camera. Moreover the settings are already the best I could think of to get the best image unless I realize right away that I screwed up. If I know I really made a mistake it’ll only be because the exposure or focus weren’t what I should have used. But that’s all in my head, not feedback through a digital file immediately displayed on the back of the camera.

Just to be clear. My many years using digital has ingrained the fundamentals of what’s required to capture a technically correct image. I don’t think I’d be nearly as comfortable making a complete move to film photography without the learning gained using digital cameras. Digital leverages a steep learning curve. Moving from digital to film is a somewhat backward evolution isn’t it? It is, but you know what, it was the best road for me. I processed the fundamentals and technical know to understand the basics of photography through digital. It allowed me to make mistakes at little expense. More importantly it gave me immediate feedback to correct the errors I made. It just so happens that most experienced photographers have transitioned from film to digital. I’m going the opposite way and that may be the route for those of us who really cut their teeth by learning how to shoot with digital. I’ll say it, there’s a renaissance back towards film photography. Yes, I’m a bit unsettled, but I want to be a part of it.

With film I’m now working on the non-technical qualities of photography. Those qualities are best exercised by slowing down the process of taking photographs and thinking about the composition of the image to be captured in the frame. I like the slower pace, it requires that I think less about the technical aspects of photography and more about the essence of what it is I’m trying to capture in my images.

This transition isn’t really about the gear. I think I’m past that stage. My M6 in form and function is not that much different than my M9-P. Yes they employ different medium, one is a frame of film, the other uses a sensor to capture an image. But side by side they bear a family resemblance. I’m still taking a photograph. I’m actually not much tempted to buy a new digital camera. This is a move to embrace a new process and workflow in my photography. It’s a slower approach to photography hopefully to help me grow creating stronger images. Film has a definite quality that can be emulated digitally but not completely. The process results in images with more than the grain as a differentiator. It’s more than the medium.

You know the famous saying by Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Photography for me is a journey. My gut is telling me to take this subtle fork in the road. My turn signal is flashing. My intent is to make the turn. Will I really do it?  I’ll let you know how I fare.

Thanks for reading!

4 comments On Film is Dead ~ Long Live Film

  • Interesting read Bill and what a journey. I see myself going down the same path, but I’m not quite there yet :). Learning every day and film is much more exciting than I ever had imagined. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Thanks Atle, not sure I’m completely there yet either. But starting with a clean slate here helps me focus. Looking forward to the journey.

  • Well put Bill, I seem to be on a parallel path. As I journey and journal my experience I love reading about others.

    • I think we both have the same idea Cody. Let’s see if we can keep each other inspired to get to the next level.

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