Film diaries: thoughts on the viability of film in the digital age

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Closet abstractions. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Pan F

I’ve had several experiences with film. In what I consider to be my pre-photographic days, we’d shoot it on occasions for documentary purposes or while on family holidays; I took it a bit more seriously (i.e. shot a bit more) when I purchased my own camera – small was good, so I went for APS – and then discovered how horrendously expensive processing was. During my first trip to Japan in 2001, I shot eight or nine rolls of 40 – which was a huge number of images. I still remember being asked by my family – ‘why are there so many photos without people in them?’ To be honest, the processing cost turned me off just as much as the annoyingly large gap between what I saw in the scene and what came out in the prints – of course at that point I had no idea that the type of film mattered just as much as the chemistry and the printing process.

Skip to 2004, shortly after my first DSLR, I purchased a Nikon FM3A – which I couldn’t really get the hang of, and subsequently traded it in for a 12-24/4 (oh, the regret). 2005 saw another dalliance with an F2A and slide film, whose colours and visual punch I enjoyed, but whose costs I didn’t – I think at one point I was spending nearly $1,000 a month on film and processing. I did learn a lot about nailing exposure, though. Later followed an M6TTL in 2009, which I embarrassingly mis-loaded on the second roll and didn’t produce any images; I cleared the balance of film in my fridge and then gave up shortly thereafter. Here we are now in early 2013, and I’m now regularly shooting most of my personal work in black and white with a Hasselblad 501C, Nikon F2 Titan and Ricoh GR1V.

There are a few things to think about before considering film as a medium: firstly, availability of media and processing; secondly, your output medium; thirdly, your workflow; finally, limitations. I’ll cover these one by one.

Availability of media and processing

Film is very much not dead. Whilst Kodak seems to be disintegrating and continually pruning its offerings, at least its popular Portra and T-MAX are still available in various flavours. Fuji and Ilford have maintained a decent selection. I think Agfa still makes a few types, too. There’s also a lot of cheap film out of China – the infamous ‘Lucky’ brand, whose name perhaps refers to the quality of one’s results – which is good for experimentation and learning. Although it’s not as easy to get film these days – chemists don’t stock it, nor do popular tourist attraction kiosks, or even most camera shops for that matter – it isn’t that hard, either. Here in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve watched as over the last five or six years, I’ve gone from being able to buy Velvia 50 from most mass market camera shops to nearly being unable to find it at all.

Processing is probably more of an issue. There are only a small handful of decent pro labs left in Kuala Lumpur; to be honest, the results from even these places are a pale shadow of their former selves, and they weren’t even the best of the bunch back in the day. Realistically, this means that unless you have access to a decent local lab, or don’t mind mailing your films out for processing – with all of the risks that entails – you’re going to have to do it yourself. For black and white, this isn’t so hard. E6 (slide) and C41 (colour negative) films are going to be a bit more challenging as they’ll require several chemical baths at very specific temperatures.

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Finding balance. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Pan F

Workflow

Assuming you have some way to convert your exposed film into clean negatives, the next step is output: whilst you can project slides, you certainly can’t do the same with negatives, and thus either printing or scanning is required. Minilab prints these days – assuming you have a local minilab at all – are not optical. The negatives are scanned digitally and printed on your 4×6″ or 5×7″ using a dye-sublimation printer; (this is just one of the reasons why the negatives are often much better than the final prints) those files are available on a CD if you want – but note that even at 300dpi, you only need 1200×1800 pixels to make an excellent 4×6″ – most of the time, it’s going to be even less than this to increase throughput. Getting proper digital scans or optical enlargement prints is certainly an option – but both have been relegated to the realm of the specialist, with the expected accompaniment in pricing. A drum scan – again, if you can find a lab that will do one for you – costs about $40 per roll of 35mm, at least in this part of the world. Even the mail-order scanning businesses that have sprung up in the ‘States mostly use film scanners like the Nikon Coolscan or a dedicated flatbed with a lamp in the cover.

Although optically enlarged prints are probably the best way of appreciating your images, it’s simply not practical most of the time unless you plan to do it yourself. I admit that since I started shooting film again in December, I’ve not made a single optical print – firstly, my wife would kill me because of the chemical smell in the house, secondly, I don’t have an enlarger.

There is good news, however. Digital has brought most people DSLRs; couple with a good relay lens – a flat-field, high-resolution short focal length macro is ideal- these are actually ideal copying devices. 35mm film doesn’t have more than the equivalent of about 8-10MP of information; this means that pretty much any DSLR today will out resolve film. (Something like a D800E is positively overkill, but it does do a wonderful job with medium format negatives.) You can either buy a slide copying adaptor that simply screws on to the filter threads of your macro lens – perhaps with an adaptor ring or two in-between – or if you’re industrious, build yourself a stand to hold the camera perfectly perpendicular to the film you’re copying, with a diffuse light source underneath to light it. I use my macrophotography lightbox and a jig made out of Lego that clips on to the end of either the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, or the Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G – depending on how lazy I’m feeling on the day.

Converting your DSLR ‘scans’ to output should be relatively easy. A little Photoshop action can be made to convert the negatives into positives, with the right tonal qualities; you’ll still need to do some manual dust spotting, but not much. If you get your action right, the tonal values should look great without too much – if any – extra work on your part. I’ve not done any dodging or burning or local adjustments to my negatives; they go through my action* and out again, otherwise unmolested. If I wanted the tonal qualities of digital, I’d shoot digital. Finally, don’t forget that you need to have a place to store your negatives – sleeves work just fine, though they’re becoming increasingly hard to find. My advice? Buy in bulk online.

*Some of you are probably going to ask if I’m going to make these actions available; the answer is that there’s no point because it will depend heavily on several factors: your input brightness/ contrast, the tonal response of your copying camera, and the film you’re using. The action I’ve got for the D800E and Ilford Delta 100 won’t work for a T-MAX negative copied with a 5DIII.

Your output medium

I’m writing this assuming that like most people, your output medium – i.e. for final viewing of the images – is going to be digital or some variation thereon, whether it’s online social media or on an iPad. You can even make a very nice print from a decent scan, so physical media isn’t out of the question, either. As with all images, unless your viewing medium supports the full tonal range and colour gamut of your capture medium, it’s going to be a poor representation of the original. The minute your output goes digital, just be aware that you’re going to have to deal with the restrictions induced by your monitor, colour spaces, profiling etc.

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Planter boxes. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

Limitations

In my mind, the largest limitations have got to be colour, high ISO and resolution – with the latter two suffering in tandem. I say colour because almost all film these days is daylight balanced; even back when there were a lot of film choices, you got tungsten balanced film, and that was about it – anything else had to be corrected for with gels or filters. Of course, to get accurate colour we need to get our white balance right – and this is nigh on impossible with film. You can get pleasing colour quite easily, but not accurate colour. Anybody who complains about the retina-searing ‘vivid’ modes in camera has obviously not shot with Velvia. It gets worse: finding a good colour lab locally – at least in Malaysia – is nigh on impossible. And DIY colour developing is not something I’d like to entertain due to the complexity of the process; it might be worth doing if you shoot a lot of it, but I can’t see any hobbyist doing it in volumes to make it worthwhile. Stick to digital for colour applications.

Although there are films as fast as 3200 available, and push-processing techniques to take you into the five-digit ISO realm, the results frankly look like crap. Even at 3200, grain is the size of golfballs and you can kiss goodbye to fine detail or smooth tonal transitions; I wouldn’t want to go much higher than 800 on a 6×6 negative, personally. And even then, things get pretty ropey. Let’s be honest: in this arena, digital has long surpassed film; ISO 6400 images from the D800E have more detail and less noise than an ISO 400 medium format negative. This gets even worse when it comes to 35mm, since the negative is smaller. Of course, you could actually like the way the grain looks – I don’t mind it, but I’d rather have as little of it as possible – in which case, push away.

There’s one final fly in the ointment (silver?): I’ve been searching for a term to describe it, but the closest I can come is lack of security. There are no do-overs: if you mislead the film, you won’t have any images. If you accidentally expose the film before processing, you’re toast. If you mishandle the film while loading it into your developing tank’s spooler, you might land up with scratches or uneven developing. If your bag or room isn’t totally light-tight, then you’ll have fogging. If you are shooting high-sensitivity film, stay away from X-ray machines. If you mess up the developing, your images might not appear, or be too dark or too light. If your negatives get lost in the mail to or from the lab or scanning house, you’ve got no backup. There’s no dual card slot RAID for film. Basically, until you get the film digitised and stored in a few places, that one set of negatives are the only place your images exist, anywhere. And that makes me very, very nervous when it comes to using film for any mission-critical applications. I suppose it’s a good thing that my light meter also happens to be an RX100.

You’ll note that I haven’t said much about equipment. The reality is that there are very few 35mm film cameras being made today – I think there’s not a lot between Lomo and Leica; the proliferation of high quality compacts and various SLRs are long dead. The majority of new film cameras produced and introduced are medium and large format, where technology hasn’t really changed in the last decade – you can still buy a new Hasselblad 503CW, which for all intents and purposes is the same camera as forty years ago. (I’m quite happy with my 1995-vintage 501C, thanks.) This means that if you want anything else, you’re going to have to look at the second hand market. There’s a proliferation of choices – I’ll cover this more extensively in another article – but a similar number of pitfalls thanks to failing electronics, mechanical issues, limited availability of spares etc – not to mention many of these cameras becoming cult objects in their own right, with commensurately inexplicable prices. The good news of course is that you can get an excellent simple SLR and some lenses – say a Nikon FM2 or Canon AE-1 Program – for not a lot of money at all; less than a midrange point and shoot.

With all of these shortcomings and restrictions, you’re probably wondering why bother with film at all. Hint: it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality and the idea. I’m convinced that having just 12 or 24 or 36 shots available to you makes you both antsy (to finish the roll) and more discerning. This in turn means that you may spend more time per image processing, but you probably have better material to work with. You force yourself to see with a more critical eye, with a higher consciousness of the quality of light. And that in itself will help to make you a better photographer. There is also of course the fringe benefit of getting to play with some beautifully built machinery; I think one shouldn’t underestimate tactile pleasure in the grand scheme of things. After all – commercial work notwithstanding, for which film is not really viable except for fine art – isn’t that what photography is all about?

In short: film isn’t dead. It definitely has some limitations, and I personally wouldn’t use it for critical or demanding applications. I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to get a lot of the time because of the various unpredictabilities in tonal response, processing etc, meaning that there’s both an interesting anticipation and extra satisfaction in the process when it comes out as you envisioned, or sometimes, even better. And that’s the second major strength of shooting film: aside from the fun and satisfaction factor, the tonal map of a good B&W negative is almost impossible to duplicate with digital; one can come very, very close, but it requires a lot of work and the results still aren’t quite perfect.

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