Film photography in 2020
Nikon 35mm film camera with 35mm color film
The renaissance of film photography
Film photography has been going through a renaissance lately. And there is a definitely some hype. But I view this relatively recent trend as very positive. The resulting market demand from the growing global film community ensures that film and related products (e.g. developers) continue to be available and manufactured.
While most manufacturers have discontinued manufacturing of film cameras with very few but notable exceptions (e.g. Nikon, Leica). Film manufacturers have discontinued a broad range of film stocks with the rise of digital photography, but in 2020 we see a solid offering of black and white and color film.
The film renaissance is spurring innovation in new film photography products, ranging from scanning tools, light meters, 3D printed analog cameras to digital camera backs for film cameras. And some entrepreneurs are even tackling creating new film emulsions, with Lomography, Cinestill and others leading the way.
The mystique of film in the digital area
The mystique around film in our current digital era may seem bizarre to some. In particular to photographers who “grew up” with film. It is fair to say that the majority of professional or enthusiast photographers who used to shoot film have fully embraced digital and many never looked back. I know a few of them myself, including many professional photographers.
However, an ever increasing number of hobbyists, hipsters and even pros (in particular fine art, wedding and street photographers) are getting back into film photography. (And yes, some may have never “switched” to digital, although I think those are in the minority). As divergent as the reasons / motives for the choice of this imperfect medium might be, these market trends are keeping film alive.
Tools in photography
Film as a photography tool
Before discussing why I chose film as my main medium, let me preamble this with a few words about tools (or gear) in photography. Film camera systems (e.g. camera, lenses, film stock, prints) and digital camera systems (e.g. cameras, lenses, camera sensors, computer screens) are tools for photographers like paint brushes, paints and a canvases are tools for painters.
Film or digital camera systems are the essential tools to capture the image. Aside from lens and camera format (e.g. 35mm, 120 medium format), film stock/negative, or digital sensor have a huge influence on image look. So does darkroom processing/printing or digital processing as well as final print format (e.g. paper print, magazine print, etc) or digital output (e.g. computer screen, mobile phone screen) influence the final look. If a film photographer wants to have more creative control, she can modify the process by modulating camera, negative and print techniques.
A hybrid film (film negatives scanned to digital) or pure digital photographer can utilize powerful software tools such as Lightroom or Photoshop or filters and/or software on their mobile phone to create the final image. The tool the photographer chooses will influence her creative output, so it does make a difference whether she chooses film or digital. This in spite of the fact that digital images can be modified to look like film photographs.
Why the what is more important than the how (in art)
The artistic expression or the story of the image is ultimately way more important than any tool. A photographer with a good eye for composition, lighting, and a knack for visual storytelling and solid technical aptitude can consistently create good images with any tool. The artistic audience generally does not care HOW the artist does it as long as it’s authentic and as long as they can relate to the story of the image. So the WHAT is way more important than the HOW.
However, this is not to say that tools do NOT matter. Gear choices affects technical image capture (camera & lens), image rendering (film negative or digital camera sensor) and ultimately final output (darkroom print, or digital output with subsequent print). But once the artist made the gear selection, gear is really only a tool that should not no longer be the focus of image creation. In fact, the tool should not get in the way of image creation at that point. Now it is only about execution (previsualization, subject, composition, lighting, story, mood/emotion, overall look/feel etc.). And execution depends very much on who is behind the camera.
Does the viewer really care how this image was created? Or do they care about the story?
The purpose of photography tools
A photography tool has to serve two main purposes (in my opinion):
- the tool is easy to use, and does not get in the way of letting me capture my images reliably (high usability)
- the tool helps me realize my artistic vision
Entire articles and books have been written about what tools are best for what scenario, and how to best use such tools. Ansel Adams trilogy on cameras, negatives, and prints is highly recommended. In this trilogy, Ansel Adams, one of the most famous photographers of all time, shares his vast knowledge and expertise, and goes incredibly deep into the nuances of (film) photography.
Ansel Adams trilogy
Much of this content in this photography trilogy is still relevant today, also has many applications for digital photographers! Ansel was highly technical, very scientific and deliberate in his approach. He never just “took” an image, he “made” it. His approach is very purposeful, planned, and methodical: from the moment he picks up a camera/lens system, his planning of photographic subject matters, picking a film stock, his actions in the field, and the subsequent negative processing and darkroom printing. And in spite of this he still made mistakes that he discusses openly in his books. But he also created some of the most stunning landscape photographs ever taken.
A great perspective on film photography
For a more in depth and more qualified perspective on film photography as it relates to our current times (2020), I highly recommend the following video by Daniel Milnor. Milnor’s thoughts and tips are primarily for aspiring film photographers or those very new to film. And even if you are already an experienced film photographer, this is a useful and informative video to watch.
Milnor is a former documentary photographer and long-time professional film (and digital) photographer. His film photography tips are nuanced, qualified, and refreshing; his thoughts contrast starkly with the hipster novice youtube film photographers that may have big followings, but in most cases significantly less experience. Milnor is a no-non-sense guy and shares some tough love, but he does have decades of relevant industry knowledge and clearly knows what he is talking about.
Summary Daniel Milnor’s tips for beginning film photographers:
- Stick to one film stock only (one B&W, one color)
- You don’t need a light meter, just learn your film (“like a language”)
- Don’t rate the film of what’s on the box (he recommends for example rating TriX 400 at 320 and develop with Rodinal, Portra 400 at 100 and push processing, Tmax 3200 at 1250 in Xtol)
- Film labs color tones vary according to geography: California warm tones, NY cold
- Strip films out of box before traveling (for airport security)
- Pushing/pulling film: if you don’t know what this is, learn it
- Learn to develop and print your own B&W
- Bring or send film to professional lab for developing / scanning (yes, expensive, but your time is valuable as well)
This is part 1 of a two part series. To read part two, click here.
Daniel is a Minneapolis Saint Paul based photographer, originally from Basel, Switzerland. Daniel loves the creative process, and recently started a photography podcast focusing on the art of photography.