A place for film in a digital world

A place for film in a digital world

An article I wrote for the AZPPA on the value of film technology as an educational tool.


There was a time when the question was asked with regards to image capture, film or digital? Today digital photography is the default. Film has been relegated to a specialty medium. Initially, film had the qualitative edge over digital, but with the march of technology,  those advantages have been eroded. First, it was resolution, then dynamic range and color fidelity. Sensor size remaining equal, digital capture has the clear edge.

That said, film is far from dead, and there are a number of reasons for this. Among others:

The look: Film lovers swear by this, that in spite of a wealth of filters and software processing tools that promise to replicate the ‘looks’ of various types of film, there is nothing quite like the real thing.

Large format: There are currently no commercially available cameras with sensors as large as 4×5 or 8×10. If you want the specific look of either of those formats (razor thin depth of field, unique perspective etc), then you have no choice but to use film. Large format film cameras are about the only film cameras with image quality to rival today’s digital cameras.

“Because I can”: This was a response I got from a professional photographer a few years ago and I can sort of relate because not everyone can. It is a more deliberate process, and if you don’t at least have some idea of what you are doing you will most likely end up with nothing. It, therefore, helps to give a photographer the prestige of being more than a ‘digital kid’. Opinions will differ.

Educational value: This leads me to the reason that is the focus of this article, and that is, film as a teaching aid. The more manual, more intimate process of shooting film forces the photographer to become more involved in the process. The emphasis here will be on 35mm film.

Shooting 35mm film on a manual body forces you to slow down. Get your basic composition, set exposure by adjusting shutter speed and/or aperture (not ISO), wind film, finalize composition, focus and press shutter release – or however you prefer to do it. All that effort to make just one exposure combined with the fact that you have to take the film to be processed after just 24 or 36 exposures and then wait a further period of time to see the results amounts to quite an emotional investment. Who wants to go through all that just to see a bunch of worthless images? If you are going to work that hard for a few pictures, you might as well put in the effort to learn the correct methodology and get something worthwhile out of the effort. Let us not forget the financial investment of actually buying the film and paying for it to be processed.
Contrast that scenario with today’s world of digital in which you can click away with no consequences whatsoever and delete the resulting images just as easily.

Aperture, Shutter speed, Appreciation of ISO
The beauty of a manual film camera lies in its simplicity. It is not hard to teach the concept of aperture –  just hold down the depth-of-field preview button and turn the aperture ring and you can see the lens diaphragm opening and closing in response to your movements. Shutter operations and shutter speed are also easy to demonstrate by opening the back of the camera (not an option on digital cameras) and operating the camera. Wind the film advance lever and press the shutter release while varying the shutter speed and you can see a clear demonstration of shutter speed and of first and second curtain concepts. You can easily explain the concepts of flash sync speed in a visual, practical way.

Reducing levers of control
Using a film camera, you have just shutter speed and aperture with which to control exposure – there is no possibility to vary the ISO from one exposure to the next. You are stuck with one ISO for as long as the roll of film lasts. This makes it easier to demonstrate that getting the right exposure is a dance between these two values.

Slowing down
The entire process then is a much more deliberate, more time-consuming process. It forces one to slow down and give some thought to the process of what you are doing. You also have fewer opportunities to make mistakes and a financial consequence for each mistake you make.

Challenges of film
Using film these days does present some challenges:
Cost: Exposures are not free (they are not really free with digital either, but that is another discussion), you have to pay for each roll of 24 or 36 exposures and you can burn through those really quickly. It adds up.
Processing: It is becoming more and more difficult to get your film processed. A number of major drug store chains have stopped processing film in-house. They send it off to a collection center and get back digital files which they put on a disc and print for you – you get a disc and prints – no negatives. Your wait time also goes up.
Storage and management of negatives/slides: Managing physical objects (that have no metadata) in a way that they can be easily referenced and protected from damage is a challenge.
Scanning and Sharing: We have become so used to using online media to share our images that it has become a given. There is no comparable way to get such wide reach with our work. With film, there is the extra bother of scanning to get the digital file.

Where digital takes over as an educational tool
After acquiring good habits and discipline from film, it is time them to graduate to digital for the next phase of one’s photographic education.

Despite the usefulness of a manual film camera as an educational tool, I feel it is complemented in this purpose by the digital camera. The instant feedback obtained from the LCD monitor is invaluable in understanding the effects of various settings and configuration changes. You have a lot more opportunities to make mistakes with no financial consequences for doing so. The likelihood is that you will shoot a whole lot more and therefore learn faster. Digital, therefore, opens up a world of creative exploration which would not be as readily accessible with film.

In conclusion, nothing stops you from learning and developing the virtues obtained from this process on your own by whatever means you choose, but using film (in combination with digital) is certainly an effective path to that goal.


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