Film: why do I bother?

by Todd on September 24, 2011

This is a digital photo.

I’m having a lot of fun with this film thing. It’s been really gratifying to go through the process of shooting, developing, and scanning, and end up with something that I made myself, without any intervention (of course, I didn’t create the film, or design the lenses or the cameras, but we have to draw the line somewhere, right?). I’ve got a handful of what I think are really good images on film, which I can call wholly my own from the starting point of having nothing but a camera and some blank film; ancient technology, relatively speaking. When I pulled my first developed roll off the reel and held it up to the light, I was hooked. Actual photographs. It seemed, in a way, almost miraculous…even moreso than digital, oddly. I guess it’s my long time familiarity with digital photography that allows me to so easily accept that it works, without considering how truly remarkable it is, or even wondering much about the physics and R & D that has gone into these devices I use daily. And it’s the fact that before February of this year I had never developed a roll of film, which allowed me to be so enchanted with the accomplishment of successfully (and repeatedly!) doing it.

So yes, playing with analog photography is very cool. But what happens when the novelty wears off? When I begin to accrue a few failures and frustrations? Will there be anything left, then, to keep me shooting film? Certainly not the ease and cleanliness of workflow! This is time-consuming, and a bit of a pain.

But I have seen some unique benefits to exploring film. First (and I am a tiny bit chagrined to say this), I have learned more about photography through my analog meddling over the last several months than I did in the 8+ years ahead of that, shooting only digital. I’ve been able to buy several old cameras very inexpensively, and adapting to the various features of these designs has forced me to figure out how some of this stuff works, and why it was designed to work this way; taking a few steps back in the evolution of the gear has caused me to become more informed about the current gear and enhanced my insight about how to use it. Second, shooting with film has slowed me down and made me think more about what I will be recording before I release the shutter. This is partially because the gear forces me to work more slowly–for example, manually advancing the film after each shot–but more than that it’s because I know I am limited in the number of shots I can take (36 or 24, or maybe only 12 shots before having to reload), and I also know that for every shot I take, there will be actual work involved before I can judge its success. Developing and scanning take time. Also, film and chemicals cost money. There is a much bigger investment in each frame I shoot, which leads to more care and consideration.

Thus, shooting film has had an up-side for me, and there are arguments for continuing to do it, when I have the time. But there is another more compelling reason: the files (yes, even scans…I haven’t ever considered doing my own enlarging and printing) simply look better.

They do?? Well, yes, in my estimation; and here I am finally approaching the point of this post. To me, film images have a very perceptible presence to them that I don’t see in digital files. It’s impossible to describe objectively, in measurable parameters…they just feel solid. Real. Dimensional. I’ve often come across heated discussions on web forums about this (and never paid much attention to them), with film shooters citing dynamic range, shades of gray and tonal gradation, etc. Digital shooters will say there is nothing film can do that can’t be reproduced in Photoshop, and I think I would have been largely in agreement with that until recently. Even still, speaking strictly in technical terms I’d have to allow that an edited digital image could, in principle, achieve the same look as a scanned negative; after all, once you have a jpg it’s just pixels with defined and reproducible color and luminance parameters, right?

However, I think the gap between what’s possible and what is practical and repeatable is insurmountable at this time, even with very capable and advanced editing software. There is a gestalt presence, in my view, available in film shots, which I have simply not seen yet in digital files. I’ve noted it for some time in the work of many of the active film shooters of a few decades ago, and I can now see it dependably in the film shots that I create.

Am I fooling myself in thinking this, merely to justify an entertaining diversion? Perhaps. But I think not. I’ve been wondering for a while now where exactly this comes from, and whether I might be able to reproduce it with Photoshop. One possible source of this gestalt bypasses the question of film altogether: a few decades ago, most published photographers were working professionals; people who were educated in photography, extensively trained, or otherwise generally more serious about developing their craft, than are the bulk of “photographers” today. That’s primarily because it took a larger investment of time and money. Photography wasn’t quite the retail consumer-fest it is today, and while I’m sure there was a certain amount of substandard gear available back then, I suspect most publishing shooters of the time were not only more talented and knowledgeable, on balance, but were also more likely to have great lenses attached to their cameras. Manufacturers created better lenses then, because there wasn’t an eager market for shitty, plastic, variable-aperture super-zooms. The bulk of the lens lineups from Nikon and Pentax (and God knows, maybe even Canon…hehe) were high-quality optics. And of course more people were shooting with Leica and Carl Zeiss. In the past couple of years, even before venturing into film, I have become familiar firsthand with the subtle but often critical (and absolutely objectively measurable, if one wants to get into it) improvements to my digital files that come with using excellent glass. So maybe a good bit of the old work that Impresses me was shot with better optics? This might explain the “presence” I am talking about.

I definitely think the above effect is important, and firmly believe that quality of the lens contributes significantly to the overall aesthetic of an image. But even beyond that, I believe film offers an underlying organic power which eludes the current capability of digital sensors. I am in retrospect a lot more sensitive to the claims of some people who still listen almost exclusively to music that requires the friction of a needle dragging over vinyl, all because they think there’s something special about it, even beyond the quaint ritual. Twenty-some odd years ago I was an early adopter of the Compact Disc format, and scoffed at those individuals. I’ll take it back now, should any of y’all be reading this. ;)

All of which explains why I decided recently to make my best effort at creating an image from a digital file which looked like film. Not just superficially, but in the deep, soulful sense I have been trying to relate. I simply wanted to see if it could be done, and whether it might fool anyone. My hope of course, in the interest of bolstering this newfound conviction that film is somehow special, was that at least some people would not be fooled. You can view my attempt at this at the top of the post. Click the image to see it much larger.

I started with a 12-megapixel image shot with my Nikon D3 and the Nikkor 70-200/2.8 VRI. It’s no Zeiss, but it’s a very high-quality optic. I ran it through my current plugin of choice for black and white conversions, Imagenomic’s RealGrain. This plugin offers a host of different film imitations as presets, and everything is quite adjustable. It’s the quickest path I’ve found to getting nice tonality from a B/W conversion without resorting to Channels adjustment layers, masking, etc. The results are great, though still pretty sterile in my opinion. Since I shoot mostly digital, and since my clients as well as many others are learning to expect the very clean images which digital sensors yield, my most-used preset is an alteration of the plugin’s Neopan Acros 100 setting; I’ve customized it by bumping the highlight contrast substantially, and the low- and mid-tone contrast a bit as well. I’ve also taken the added grain slider down to zero, so that no grain is added by the plugin. There was no removal of digital noise at all in my process; the image was shot in good light at base ISO on the D3, which means there wasn’t much noise to begin with.

You’re now wondering how I introduced the grain. I’ve had it in my head to try this for a while now, and last month, at the end of a roll of film, I shot one frame of a bare, smooth wall, out of focus, so any texture in this frame would have to come from the properties of the film itself, and its development. This was on a roll of the Acros 100, exposed at ISO 400 and pushed two stops in Rodinal. I scanned that frame and saved the file to use as a texture overlay. Now you see where I’m going with this! While I had put a fair amount of thinking into how best to achieve a film look, the actual process of applying the effect to the finished digital file took about 30 seconds. Once my normal processing was complete, I used my modified Acros preset on the RealGrain plugin, then I layered the blank wall shot over it, changed the blend mode, and did a quick Curves adjustment to that top layer. Done.

I posted the finished work to my Facebook page and asked: film or digital? It took a while for anyone to come along who thought it might be digital, but I think that’s mainly because people weren’t looking very closely. Many knew I had been shooting a lot of film lately, and superficially anyway, the adjusted shot looks a little like film (i.e., it’s black and white, and it’s grainy). But eventually people started suspecting digital, citing such things as splotchiness on the skin, the too-crisp eyes, and inconsistent/non-uniform grain. Some people believed the grain itself to have been digitally generated (it wasn’t, as we’ve seen), while others correctly felt the grain itself was legitimate. At this point I should specify that some of these issues were my own fault for not being as careful as I could have been: first, the subject of the photo has a fair amount of acne, which I retouched out before the “film” conversion. Imperfect execution of the retouching on my part may have led to a somewhat splotchy appearance. Second, the grain layer (the blank wall frame) had a ton of dust on the negative, and I was impatient to use it so didn’t take proper care in cloning out the dust like I normally do, but instead wound up grabbing larger and larger swaths of pixels with the Clone Stamp sampling tool, resulting in some noticable repetition of the grain pattern and slightly non-uniform tonality. Probably the relative sharpness of the eyes was the biggest real tell. While the grain isn’t really non-uniform around the eyes themselves, there are some pretty abrupt (and very digital) tonal transitions in that area, and that caused a sharp cutoff of the amount of grain bleeding through with the particular blend mode I chose. The fine detail of the eyes, and the lashes, I’m fairly certain, would be difficult if not impossible to achieve with any 35mm film and process. If my blending would have been more careful, it might have allowed a small film-like softening of this detail. Essentially, I think the Nikon D3, at a mere 12 megapixels, is out-resolving the film scan. And of course having a great lens allows all this to be apparent.

Still, no one was giving me exactly the answer I was hoping for. If I could obscure just the right amount of fine detail in the eyes, and avoid the splotchiness of retouching as well as the pattern repetition from doing hasty large-chunk cloning, would that have been enough? Would the image then have been able to fool everyone? I’m sticking with “no.” Finally someone–a non-photographer, as far as I know–came along and said almost exactly what I was hoping for (Thanks, Heather!):

“…it seems cold. I have always felt that film looks warm – like you can feel the life in it. I don’t get that feeling from digital.”

And so, I have now proven conclusively that film is superior to digital. Ha! Of course I haven’t. But I have found someone to back me up…so I can keep that close and continue to live my fantasy. ;) In all honesty, I don’t accept at all that it’s a fantasy. I truly believe that something inhabits the film image which is vacant from the digital image. I also believe it’s subtle, not obvious to everyone, and perhaps not even of great import, especially when we consider that the viewing of photographs has largely moved to the web, and happens most often in doses of 2500 square pixels or fewer, on uncalibrated monitors. But (in my opinion, yes, I know that, but many will agree) it’s real, and palpable, and some people out there can detect and appreciate it. And that’s all I need right now.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

aliasant April 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Nice!

I have been looking more and more at my old 35mm cameras I have bought ( just to get the lens that was attached to it) dreaming of using one of them to take “real” pictures.
Unfortunaly I havnt been able to gather enough courage just yet but I think Im getting closer.

Thanks for typing down this encouraging tale.
Keep shooting..

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Todd April 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Thanks for reading. Get out and do it! It’s a lot of fun, and very rewarding, and to be honest, I never required any courage. I rarely use film for my professional work, and even for personal stuff, in the beginning I always had a digital SLR with me, too. Confidence builds quickly with shooting, and these days I’m as likely as not to have a film SLR (or two!) with me, and nothing else. :)

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