During my Christmas break in Portugal, I had the opportunity to go through thousands of photos taken 20+ years ago during my student years. All were taken in film, both with the Canon AE-1 my father bought for himself in the 70s and, later on, a Canon EOS 500N he bought me in the late 90s as I complained about the former camera’s weight and lack of a zoom lens.
As an Architecture student, photography was an important tool for my projects and field trips. So in lieu of the solid, all-metal built Canon AE-1 and a pair of fast 28mm and 50mm prime lenses, I preferred to use a plastic Canon 500N and a 28-80mm kit-lens with a moderate aperture. It was a light setup and the zoom, with auto focus, gave me the practicality I needed.
Revisiting all those photo prints, I started wondering about our current obsession with film. Ever since digital photography became popular, every now and then we read comments from people praying a digital camera’s image quality because, among others, the output looks like film. Then, of course, there is Fuji with its well regarded film simulations, taking us directly to the romantic world of film negatives.
Why are we so obsessed with film?
No doubt film colour prints have a distinctive look. Flicking through my photos I could easily identify some attributes, such as a visible lower dynamic range resulting in higher contrast images, as well as colours that are either punchier and saturated under strong sunlight, or muted and pastel-looking in less favourable lighting conditions.
Then, of course, and related to this, the very fact that most film negatives were calibrated for daylight at 5000 Kelvin. Back in the days, seasoned professionals would control the white balance using specific coloured filters.
Most indoor shots under tungsten light would result in those all too familiar orange tinted photos. Talking of which, I recall buying some specific tungsten balanced film negatives, intended for indoors shooting under artificial light. These often came with a “T” in their names, like the Ektachrome 160T. Funny how this sounds so yesteryear now.
Everything in life happens on a certain time, under certain circumstances. And the technology available at this certain scenario plays a fundamental role defining its final shape and outcome.
The distinctive look of film photography is hence the result of technology at that time in life – camera, lens, film, printing, all combined. As so, I can’t see a digital camera with an output that looks like film as a quality per se. Likewise, I see no reason why we should replicate the so-called film look while shooting digital because, as said, it’s a replication. It’s fake.
Just as I’m against designing and building faux roman arches at the 21st century, a time in humanity when concrete and steel structures are available for structural spans and spatial planning – and far superior.
If we accept film has a distinctive look, then the same applies to digital. In fact, I still recall analysing the digital look of the first digital photo files I was exposed to in the early 2000s.
I recall observing the colder colour tones, a different sharpness level and how everything looked different from film. It was new to me and I was enjoying it. This digital look is, again, the result of no other than the available technology.
However, everything in life is relative and nothing needs to be absolutely black or white, based exclusively on objective criteria. Emotion plays a part and in the case of photography I see nothing wrong if a bit of film nostalgia is thrown in.
Photography being an art form, if one gets inspiration shooting film, then be it. By the same token, if you want a film look, then just shoot film – why shoot digital and then twist the output to look like film?..
I understand some younger photographers got engaged in this hobby when digital was already available and mature, so they had never experienced life with film – and thus tend to grab the romantic side of things.
For me though, I fail to get any special emotion shooting film in the digital age. Been there, done that.
I accept it can be nostalgic every now and then if you do it for the sake of it. But, frankly, I don’t miss the nuisance of depending on a lab: dropping my film rolls, wait, then return to collect the negative and prints. And the seldom frustration of being told that the goods are not ready yet: please come back tomorrow.
I like the immediacy and convenience digital offers. And, as a matter of fact, I can firmly say that digital had made me a better photographer.
I still have a couple of Fujifilm rolls at home, but I’ve never felt the motivation to load any of my film cameras and have a go.
Perhaps one day I will, but certainly not because I’m craving for any visual effect I can get with film, but more a case of putting back to life the gems left to me by my late father. I’m still keeping his Canon AE-1 which was my companion for so many years, and with which I learned the basics of photography.
I also have a vintage Olympus Trip 35, a camera he bought in the 60s when he, himself, left hometown Macau to get his Medical degree in Portugal. As far as I know, the first ever photo I took was with this camera.
I’m saving this story for another post.