Film Use Days 2 and 3, or How To Make Them Understand

Day Three Hundred Thirteen:  Meet the Yashica-A

At the time that I write this (about two weeks ago), I have run three rolls of film through my Holga, my Yashica A has arrived (unfortunately, too late for the wedding), and I have taken my film to L’Imagerie in Bethesda, MD to be developed. I used the Holga, along with my DSLRs, at Ho and Lauren’s wedding and I took some photos on the Brighton Beach/Coney Island Boardwalk. I also took some outdoor candids of Danielle’s family. One question was asked constantly: why are you using film?

In my father-in-law’s case, “WHY?!? Why do you want to use that?” The fact is, you can’t really explain it to anyone who’s not into photography. They see the inexorable march of progress – they were told that digital is better and that’s why they forked over all the money for the cameras and got rid of their film cameras.
And, in most ways they are right. Digital is better in nearly every way. My largest memory card, small compared to the largest sizes on offer now, holds around 400 RAW (better than best JPEG quality) photos. 400 photos before I have to change the memory card! 120 film is 12 photos. With digital you can review your shots as they happen and reshoot anything that didn’t come out right. With digital it’s all upfront costs and then free forever. (Minus cost of charging batteries or buying new ones) With film, the cameras are orders of magnitude cheaper, but you’re paying for developing each roll. Even if you do your own darkroom, you still need to buy the chemicals. You can change the ISO at will instead of being trapped by whatever you loaded into your camera.

But there are some ways in which film is better. With film, once you buy a good camera, you are set for life. My Yahica is from the 1970s. Most pros who were shooting film for decades before digital came along were shooting with one of the first cameras they bought all those decades ago. With film, most of the technology is in the film itself. You get your body and you’re set. There may be some advances in lens technology, but you’re fine overall. With digital you have the inverse. There’s much less tech in the memory cards. With the only negative being the small size, I still use a memory card that I used in my first digital camera. But I’ve gone through four camera bodies chasing for the same quality as film and I’m still not there. I need to outlay $2500 for that privilege. And, of course, you can’t replicate the aesthetic of film capture on digital.

I’m not saying you can’t get quality on digital. I’ve gotten amazing quality shots with my digital camera and the pros – wow! But, it’s a fact of the way that digital works, that it is almost impossible to get the same look and feel as film. The analog to digital converter in the camera is taking samples of reality and then approximating colour as best as it can. But, in the same way that an MP3 is not as accurate as the original recording, a digital camera cannot capture a smooth gradation. It simply isn’t possible in the way digitization works.

There are film purists out there as well as digital purists. The former cling to the past without seeing the benefits of the future. The latter view the past with contempt. “We’ve progressed past that,” they say. “Would you use a typewriter to compose a book?” they ask. And yet, I have indeed heard of modern writers who type up their manuscripts on a typewriter and then have someone type that into a computer. There’s something visceral about the clacking of the keys and bringing the author’s ideas into the world with a violent slamming of a key against paper. The deep boom of the carriage return (the reason for the arrow symbol on your “enter” key).
I feel what we have now is the ability to choose different tools for different purposes. As I mentioned before, digital is great for event photography and vacations. I would hate to have to haul tons of film around the world to capture the amazing sites. I would hate to miss what’s going on because I had to load a new roll of film. But there might be certain subjects, certain events that call out for film. And that’s when I’ll use film.

I’ll close up with a contrast of two comments I heard this weekend. Someone seemed incredulous that, with today’s technology, we hadn’t yet reached the fidelity of film. But, as I had to explain, it’s not a matter of advancing technology — it’s a matter of physics. You cannot amplify what you did not capture. So with a tiny sensor (or at least a smaller sensor than film) you cannot capture as much detail as film — it’s just impossible. And larger sensors cost more money and most people don’t care about photography the way that we photography enthusiasts (and pros) care about it. The other comment was from another photographer at the wedding. He had noticed that I was shooting with a Holga and we got into a conversation about photography. He told me his friend had a medium format film camera and, “even when he takes photographs of the simplest things, it just has this amazing feeling to it.”