Why Film Now?

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Why Film Now?

Somewhere around 2002 or 2003, I read a letter in Amateur Photographer about the shortcomings of digital photography. The writer was clearly one of that multitude of photographers in those days who were bewildered by the rapid advance of digital technology and frightened that they might be overtaken by it. What was one to do but take refuge in denial? Digital, asserted the letter writer, would never be able to equal the quality of film, no matter how many pixels the technicians ultimately managed to cram on to a sensor. Film would always be king. Not long before that, I had purchased an Olympus E-10, a fixed-lens digital SLR, boasting a four megabyte sensor. The four-times zoom lens was sharp and bright. I was managing with a four-colour inkjet printer to make quality A3s that I thought comparable to the cibachromes coming from my darkroom some years before. True, the contrast was lower and the colour saturation also, and in some cases the sharpness of detail was not quite equal to what I used to get on Kodachrome, but I was happy with my results. Was, and still am: I have several of these early efforts hanging on my walls and I still enjoy looking at them. What was more, they were produced with a fraction of the time and labour that went into making the cibachromes.

So I mentally consigned the letter writer to that inglorious category of doomsayers whose immediate reaction to any technical advance is to downgrade it and prophesy that it will lead nowhere. I was pretty confident that digital photography would keep on getting better, and the time would come when film would be unable to compete with digital in any of the ordinary parameters by which we judge technical photographic excellence. What then would happen to people like my letter writer? I suspect that long ago he, or she, recognised what was really happening, bought a digital camera and set about learning the basics of Photoshop. The only thing about the digital revolution in photography that took me, and probably many thousands of others, by surprise was the rapidity of its advance and the near totality of its victory.

Near, but not absolute. Film is certainly down, but it’s not entirely out. My local branch in Lancaster of a North-West England chain of photographic shops stocks 35mm film in monochrome and colour, but not 120 film. Two streets away, an independent photography shop stocks both 35mm and 120 film, but the latter only in monochrome and colour negative. They say there’s no demand for 120 colour transparency. They also say that film is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and they don’t know how much longer they can go on stocking it. But it’s easy to pick up on the internet. There are stores and labs in all parts of the UK who will not only supply it but develop it, print it, or scan it on to CDs, in a matter of days and at reasonable prices. Some of these say their business in film has slowly but steadily increased over the past two or three years and is continuing to do so. It is true that many well-known names in dealers of all kinds in film have fallen by the wayside since my AP letter writer proclaimed film’s invincibility, but there are survivors. They may be limping on, but at least they are still there, and there are grounds to think that many of them will continue to be still there, gaining in health, into the foreseeable future.

I know all this because I have myself recently returned to film. For a while I’ve had some serious doubts about the overwhelming ease of use of digital cameras. For more than a decade I’ve used nothing else, and have witnessed year-by-year their increasing technical sophistication; the rise in pixel count, greater speed and accuracy of autofocus, growing range of special effects (including the effects attributable to various kinds of film), improvement in low-light performance, more effective image stabilisation, face recognition, and so on. We are now at a point where the digital camera is capable of rendering technical photographic failure more or less impossible. In almost any lighting situation you can raise the camera to your eye, immediately take one, three, five frames and know, without bothering to think about it, that every one of them will be a technically usable image. So, what can be wrong with that? If you don’t need to think about the technicalities of what you’re doing doesn’t that help you to concentrate on what is really important: the image itself, the art, the message? Well, in my case I thought it was tending towards the exact opposite. When you can simply pick up the camera, point it at something, shoot, and take for granted that you’ll get a usable image, there’s a temptation to go on doing just that, without pausing to think about why you’re doing it. Without thinking, that is, about the only thing that matters, that alone justifies the entirety of your photographic effort: what is it that you want your image to say? All modern hand-held digital cameras, regardless of their degree of sophistication, are potentially point-and-shoot cameras, and it seems to me that this encourages point-and-shoot photographers. That was certainly the way I saw myself going, and though I tried hard to fight against it, I began to think I needed help beyond my mere intention.

I put my camera on ‘Manual’. It slowed me down momentarily, and at least made me attend to what the camera was offering by way of aperture and speed. But this was still too easy. I wanted something that would force me to think about what I was doing. There’s a simple device, absolutely guaranteed to do this, easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive - a tripod. Your camera on a tripod is to all intents and purposes stationary, fixed, immovable. So you need to fix it right. You have to think about point of view – here, or over there? – and height – eye level, or maybe waist level, or perhaps near ground level? Being fixed and immovable, the camera is no longer susceptible to camera shake, so you don’t need to worry about the length of your exposure. To the camera on a tripod, four seconds is the same as one-four-thousandth of a second. You can actually think about exposure, and therefore you can also think about aperture and depth of field, because aperture is part of exposure. So having your camera on a tripod both requires and permits you to take your time and think about what you’re doing. I already had a tripod, but I hadn’t used it for a long time. It was big and solid. I could put the camera on the tripod and hey presto, problem solved. I thought about it, but perceived a difficulty. The camera is a micro four thirds. I bought it precisely because it was small, and light, and highly portable. The camera and four lenses weigh little more than a kilogramme and I can get them all into a tiny bag, which I can carry all day without dislocating my shoulder. What was the point of putting this camera on my heavy tripod, and losing all the advantage I’d so deliberately chosen - and paid quite a lot of money for? I could buy a lighter tripod, but the objection remained. Back in film days I used a Canon 35mm on a tripod for a while, but there was always this background incongruity; a small camera, designed to be portable and infinitely flexible, anchored to the earth. Eventually I’d reasoned that if I was committed to a tripod I might as well have a larger negative out of it, with its higher quality. I replaced the Canon with a second-hand Hasselblad. A photographer I know shoots with a Leica M6 and always on a tripod. His results are brilliant. But each to his own. Putting my small camera on my large and heavy tripod would be rather like using a 38 tonne lorry for a family outing. Putting it on a lighter tripod would reduce the size of the lorry; but still it wasn’t for me.

I approached the problem from the other end and started with the tripod. The tripod was solid and heavy. I could put a bigger and heavier camera on it. I no longer had the Hasselblad, and medium format digital cameras are a fortune beyond my reach. But why not a medium format film camera? A Mamiya RB or RZ, perhaps? The Mamiya is a chunky camera, more of a handful than a Hasselblad, but I like chunky cameras and the Mamiya has bellows. I have a nostalgic thing about bellows. They remind me of my first experiences in photography with a folding 6x9 Kodak, and the pre-war 35mm Kodak Retina I regretted not buying in Wallace Heaton around 1960. A friend said ‘If you want bellows, have you thought about the Fuji GX680?’ And that’s how I came back into film.

The Fuji GX680 is a studio camera. A single lens reflex, with interchangeable lenses, it provides nine images, nominally 60x80 millimetres, on 120 film. It has bellows, and with extension rails fitted it will focus down to a few centimetres. It also has full lens movements: tilt, swing and shift. It’s not quite as versatile as a 5x4 view camera, but its running costs are a fraction of a view camera’s, and, coming from no-cost digital to big-cost film, for me that was crucial. It sits very well on my large and heavy tripod. Has it made a difference to my photography? Yes, because each exposure costs me about £1.45, so I think very carefully before I press the shutter. Yes, because for the same reason I spend a long time looking at the ground glass screen: it can take me ten minutes or more to set up a single exposure. Yes, because with this camera a whole range of subject matter is removed from my consideration – no street photography, no informal portraiture, no casual landscapes, no ‘interesting’ happenings, events or views – so I think more carefully about what I do want to photograph. These are: staged images – things made up or enacted for the camera; some carefully considered landscapes; interiors; certain manifestations of light or colour; pictures of everyday objects that would normally escape a person’s notice; still lives; flowers, often in vases and sometimes decaying: and similar things within my reach and under my control. I may not be a better photographer for this, but I feel a much happier one.

I don’t want to draw any general conclusions. I’m back with film for pragmatic, not ideological, reasons. But I do enjoy the physicality of film. A digital image has no reality until it’s embedded on paper. Until then, it’s merely potential instructions to a contingent electric current. But the silver image has a physical substrate that requires handling both before and after the image comes into existence. I enjoy the process of loading my film into the camera, stretching it over the rollers on the film carrier, hearing and feeling it being transported through the camera, and taking it out again at the end, knowing that my images are, literally, wrapped up in there awaiting their revelation. I have the negatives developed commercially and then scan them, which creates just another digital file. The films however go into a numbered and labelled envelope and are stored in a box, in which they sit on a shelf waiting to be handled again and given a new life at any time in the future. Meanwhile, the various sets of electronic potentiality that constitute my digital archive rely for their future on the hope of surviving as yet unimagined developments in storage and retrieval systems. Perhaps digital’s main achievement has been to separate photography from its technology.

Ian Maxwell