Why film photography?

I love digital photography. If it weren’t for it, I probably wouldn’t have started to work seriously in photography at all – I’d fear the blank roll of film and the possibility to waste it 🙂 Also, it’s proven that instant feedback is a very effective tool in any learning and exploration process, and you get that only through digital technology. Plus, it’s convenient, cheaper, reliable, extremely versatile and leaner to carry around. And then if you really care about that certain “feel” of film, you can get software, like Silver Effex, to imitate any film brand or classic photographic process in your digital photo.

But ironically, film is still around – and its proponents are even more passionate about it. And isn’t it even more ironic that Francis Fukuyama, the philosopher who pronounced and celebrated the imminent triumph of economic liberalism throughout the world, now laments the loss of quality in photography and music due to the dominance of cheaper digital technology replacing the better analogue one. It is not very frequently that Francis Fukuyama and I see eye to eye 🙂  , pun intended.

There are many, many other ways & reasons why analogue film is able to produce better pictures than digital. Its richness of tonality is simply unsurpassed – see the sky on the picture above. It has higher resolution with no noise, often better sharpness. When you look at it as a process, it has still other advantages: more forgiving with exposure mistakes that can be corrected,  no shutter lag, and the format and technological life of negatives is practically eternal. But on the other hand, these advantages are the counterpart of the specific advantages digital technology has that analogue doesn’t. So it is difficult to argue for one or the other on the basis of advantages, since each has its own and they are simply different.

However, there is a more important reason to the vitality of film photography that’s not technical but artistic. That photographer’s block I mentioned at the beginning can actually be a gift. The anxiety that film can give you is the flip side of a process that makes you slow down, think before you shoot and look for a direction of your creative action. Since more clicks don’t cost anything with digital, often photographers just go into a “spray and pray” mode with little thought and then, a few thousands images per session later, just wade into the muddle they’ve accumulated to pick the ones they like.  It becomes more a matter of quantity and chance and the ability to find something in the bunch rather than creating with intention. So I really would recommend film as a creative exercise for anybody, just as keeping a notebook on beautiful paper can do miracles for writers in the age of word processing software.

Yet the greatest beauty of film photography for me is its tangibility. It truly and literally is something you create with your hands as well as your imagination, more than just an idea or vision. With the daily deluge of digital images that perpetuate the virtual world we live in, we’ve been gradually losing our connection with the real, the material and the touchable and rarely participate in the transformation of matter from one form into another. It’s just another symptom of our disconnect from the earthly things that somehow magically give us food, shelter & clothing but we’ve forgotten how this happens. We are immersed in a world of ideas and designs, but the things we now know how to make with our own hands are diminishing. So film photography for me is the unique chance to develop an intimate relationship with my photographs when I can touch them, caress them and literally make them rather than take them. The joy of seeing an image gradually appear on the paper, out of nothing in the darkness of the wet lab is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced in my life.

The person who gave words to my longing for handwork is Matthew Crawford, a Ph.D. in Political Science who abandoned his job at a Washington think-tank to open a motorcycle repair shop because he missed doing things with his hands and the inspiration thereof. In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft he questions the societal pressures for churning out “knowledge workers” without the connection to the material world they design. He now finds that repairing motorcycles has given him more time to really think than when he worked at the think-tank. More than that, it gives him the happiness to participate in creating the material reality around him and connecting to it and to the people who live in it. Not that knowledge worker is a bad thing – I love being that, personally – but when you also know how to do things with your hands, your insight is immensely enriched.

Being something “real”, I appreciate film’s format honesty and stability. Old film cameras can still work today with he same beautiful results while digital cameras are either broken or obsolete after 5 years of life. Negatives from a hundred years ago can still be used to make amazing prints, but I am not sure my computer will be able to read my image files in 2020.

Every time a new and cheaper, presumably better medium is invented, older media not only survive but improve, too. The more digital photography spreads, the more film resists, even though with less choices in film, paper and other materials. As an ironic example, consider that there are more large-format film cameras in use today, in absolute terms, than in the day when it was the only kind of camera available. In the same way, radio didn’t disappear when television came around and I suspect there are more radio stations today then before TV.

Digital and film are different media that shouldn’t hate each other 🙂


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