Shooting 35mm film in a digital age is an expensive pain in the ass with a rabid following that includes yours truly. I will mull publicly over why this might be in good time, but first I want to mention some factors that don’t play in my attraction to film.
1. The Film Look
Well, yes, but no. I do like the film look, but that’s not reason enough to endure the trials of shooting film. Can you really tell the difference between a digitally captured image that’s been skillfully processed to look like a film scan and something that started on emulsion? I’m sure some folks out there can, just as I believe that some people can hear the difference between vinyl and CD audio. I’m generally fine with MP3s.
But the thing for me is I only like the film look if it’s arrived at through film. Otherwise I just feel silly. And here we get into authenticity: the uncut cocaine, the fresh-dug truffle, the 1980s American dollar in an imploding banana republic of our cultural moment.
So it seems what I’m really after is the authentic. Is the image seared into emulsion more authentic than the one that’s read off a sensor? What if you digitally scan that emulsion to see what’s on it? What if you slap some curves on the result to get the tonality you want? Just shut up and let me enjoy my film.
2. Film is Cool (or Hip, or Whatever)
I’ve never been cool and have no intention of changing that. I’m married and out of the mate selection game. There are relatively few people I care to impress, and none of those could be impressed by my taking pictures on film. Film may well be cool, but I don’t care.
3. Film is Forever
Some people worry about bit rot, orphaned media, electromagnetic pulses, abandoned file formats, lost-to-the-grave passwords and other technical problems that, they imagine, will prevent future generations from accessing their trove of would-be immortal images. A film negative is sometimes held up as the solution: a physical thing firmly attached to reality, supposedly safe from the ravages of time. I don’t know. Maybe. But you’d have to have some damn curious great-grand kids if you expect them to do anything with that binder of negs they find in the attic in 2100. It’s hard enough to read film now, when you can buy a film scanner new on the internet. Don’t even talk about enlargers and the associated papers and chemistry. Our great-grand children will, unfortunately, have a few more pressing issues to deal with than looking at our photographs. If you really care about sending photos into the future, shoot however you want and then print up a quality book on acid-free paper. Maybe include “DO NOT DISCARD” on the cover and spine. In a few different languages.
4. Film is Cheap
You may laugh, but I’ve seen the argument that film is cheap compared to digital. This involves building a straw man of fantastically expensive digital bodies and the assumption that you have to get a new camera every couple of years. With the right accounting gymnastics you can almost make this work, but for normal people using consumer-grade gear for a reasonable amount of time and taking a reasonable (by contemporary standards) number of pictures, shooting film is more expensive than shooting digital and that’s that. I include this not because it’s a widely held belief, but because it speaks for the attractions of film that people are willing to contort their thinking so creatively in an effort to justify something they want to do even when it doesn’t make sense.
5. This Film Kills Computers
People claim that shooting film frees them from their computers. No post-processing! This has not been my experience. I scan my film, like, I suspect, the great majority of my contemporaries. Then I almost always have to tweak the scans. Not too much (authenticity!) but a bit. On the other hand, I can select, edit, and tag a week’s worth of digital photos on my tablet, from the comfort of my couch, in a fraction of the time. Without the blood-pressure-spiking hassle of getting neg strips lined up in the carrier *.
6. Film Smells Good
I’ve seen this offered as a good reason to shoot film and… actually, yeah, it does. The smell of a freshly opened canister is a fine reason to shoot film, though this might only work for people old enough to have that chemical odor tied into the lizard-brain memories of their happy Kodak-tinted childhoods. Every time I pop the top, I awaken my 8-year-old self, tearing open the foil on a 110 cartridge.
* I mostly wrote this before I got a scanner that eats a whole roll of 35mm in one go, so now I find #5 to be mostly true. The reason I've hesitated to post the piece for a while is because I'm not totally sure about #1. How important is the look for me? Can I tell film film from from digital film? How long do I have to look in the mirror to satisfy your demands for self-knowledge? Leave me be.