The rapid improvement in the image quality and sophistication of the smartphone camera in recent years has turned all of us into photographers. Has it ever been easier to slip out a camera from your pocket and with a few quick taps, quickly take a picture, see the result and share it with others? For the generation who have grown up in the era of the internet, social media and digital photography, this is the reality of taking a picture.
Compare the ease and speed of digital imaging to the photographic process of a generation ago when film still ruled. When digital was in its infancy in the 1990s, we all used film cameras with a maximum of 36 exposures per roll. You couldn’t see your results immediately; instead you had to pay to get your films developed and wait hours, days, or even weeks to see the prints. Furthermore, you paid for all your mistakes too – those prints that were out of focus, blurred or badly composed. At least with digital there is no waiting around; you can see your mistakes immediately and hit delete. No charge.
But film is making a comeback. The latest evidence came earlier this year at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Amid all the headlines surrounding launches of new smartphones, drones and high-tech gadgets for the home, an old product from the non-digital past made a surprise appearance.
Kodak Aliris, the new company that bought the remnants of the film brands from the once mighty Eastman Kodak company, announced it would reintroduce Ektachrome, a colour reversal (slide) film discontinued five years previously. Both Kodak Aliris, Fujifilm and Harman Technology, the UK manufacturer of Ilford black and white films and papers, have reported steady film growth of around five per cent year-on-year, and they expect the trend to continue.
Research says this renewed interest in film has been triggered by professional photographers seeking a creative point of difference from their digital rivals in a fiercely competitive market. Many of these new customers are photographers who have grown up with digital, been curious enough to dabble in film, have now become enthusiastic practitioners and added it to their businesses. Interestingly, the renewed growth in film sales (albeit still a fraction of their early-1990s peak) has corresponded with a decline in digital camera sales as smartphones continue to make inroads into the compact camera market.
Although major film brands such as Kodak, Polaroid and Agfa Photo collapsed during the digital revolution, other niche film makers, start-ups and management buy-outs have ensured that a surprising array of film types continued to be marketed to the world’s film devotees. For example, when Polaroid, the most famous name in instant photography, ceased film production in 2008, a consortium of businessmen stepped in at the company’s closing event to buy the last remaining factory in Holland. Calling itself The Impossible Project, the company today produces instant film in colour and black and white for Polaroid 600-type, SX-70 and Image/spectra cameras, as well as large format 8x10in instant film.
The revival in instant film photography has also been driven by Japanese manufacturer Fujifilm’s investment in the instant photography market with its range of Instax films and cameras, selling over six million of the models last year.
In many ways, instant film photography offers the best of both the digital and film worlds – producing a hand-sized photo print that develops in front of your eyes in just a couple of minutes. What appeals to many users is that each print is unique and the colours and tones more muted than the bright, saturated colours of digital images. It is a colour palette that evokes the era of its past.
This ‘vintage’ feel of some colour films is another factor contributing to its new-found popularity. Ironically, many of the creative filter modes available on today’s digital cameras and smartphones mimic film emulsions of the past, such as Fujichrome Velvia, Kodachrome or the peeled-borders of a Polaroid print. It is hardly surprising therefore that some digital photographers will be curious enough to try the original by taking a step into the world of film photography.
A different approach
In terms of creativity and technique, shooting with film requires a very different approach to digital capture. The aspects that many people regard as film’s greatest disadvantage to digital – the need to change films after 36 or 24 frames and the absence of instant review to check results – are also the reasons behind its perceived strengths. Many film photographers cite the need to slow down and make more considered decisions about each image so as not to waste exposures as a major advantage to working digitally.
Sticking to old habits
Of course, many famous photographers who made their best-known images on film are now using digital cameras, but some still choose to work in the same, disciplined way as they did when shooting film. For example, legendary war photographer Don McCullin used a Nikon F loaded with Kodak Tri-X for most of his career. Now retired, he owns a digital camera but has covered the monitor with black masking tape to prevent himself from immediately checking each image.
Until very recently, the wildlife and documentary photographer Britta Jaschinski shot all her award-winning pictures on black and white film and rarely photographed more than three frames on any subject. ‘I have educated myself to frame an image very carefully,’ she says. ‘I believe it’s quite important to get the right shot. When I look through my contact sheets, for every subject I have there are just two or three photos, maximum.’
Jaschinski finally switched to digital capture last year, but she still yearns for the tactile characteristics and different tones of film photography and printing: ‘There’s something about the craft of photography that I really like, and an image exposed on traditional film and printed on silver gelatin paper is still one of the most beautiful things for me to look at.’
Another professional who misses film is the rock music photographer Kevin Cummins. Although he switched to digital more than ten years ago, he continues to count each frame he takes, as if he’s still using a 35mm film SLR. He explains: ‘When I shoot on digital I shoot it as if I’ve got 36 frames in the camera. The reason is that for a long time the film counters on my cameras were broken, so I’d count to 36 in my head so I’d know when I got to the end of a roll. Even now, when I shoot on digital I still count to 36, and I’m thinking “I don’t need to do this!”’
Of course, anyone shooting film needs a film camera. The once ubiquitous 35mm SLR may not be as common as it was 20 years ago but there are still several models in production, as well as plenty of affordable choices secondhand. Indeed, some older, all-manual 35mm SLRs, such as Nikon’s classic FM range from the 1980s, are highly sought after due to their retro design, solid all-metal bodywork and simple, mechanical construction. With fewer electronic components these cameras are less likely to develop faults. An FM2 body in very good condition today will cost around £250.
If you want to buy a new 35mm SLR camera, then Nikon still markets two versions: the all manual FM10 costs around £400 (with 35-70mm zoom lens), while the pro-model F6 will set you back around £1,900 (body only).
There are several non-SLR 35mm film cameras in production, most notably two rangefinder models from Leica, the M7 and the MP, renowned for their engineering precision and build quality. At around £4,000 and £6,000 respectively, they are expensive, but Leicas hold their value like Rolex watches due to their longevity and collectability.
Standing in a league of its own is the Lomography Diana F+, a cheap plastic toy of a camera that has a global cult following due to its low-quality manufacture and quirky results. It costs just £79 and uses 120-roll film. The Diana F+ is the latest in a line of cameras from the Soviet-era that became popularised after a group of Austrian students fell in love with the results obtained from the Lomo LC-A in the early 1990s. Thanks to their enthusiasm and a tax break by the then deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, the Lomo factory was saved from closure. For some enthusiasts, the popularity of Lomography today is reason enough for them to boldly ask: did Vladimir Putin save film photography?
Choose a film camera that has only the basic manual functions for exposure setting and focusing. This will make the transition from digital even more stark – not to mention interesting!
Make every frame count. Remember, you only have 36 or even 24 frames on each roll of 35mm film before having to reload, so don’t waste it.
Compose, focus and expose carefully for every frame. Pictures cannot be reviewed and deleted as with digital. You are paying for every frame to be developed, including mistakes.
Change the ISO setting. Unlike digital, you cannot change the ISO setting from one frame to the next when shooting film. Stick to the stated ISO, or the one you choose at the beginning should you decide to override the nominal rating.
Open the camera back before rewinding the film! This is probably the most common error made with film. Exposing the undeveloped film to light will fog the images.
Leave rolls of film in direct sunlight or heat. Film is best stored somewhere cool and dark. Many pros store their film in a fridge to prolong its life.
The Film Photography Handbook by Chris Marquardt & Monika Andrae; Rocky Nook; £26.99 (hardback)
Kodak Film: The Art of 35mm Photography; Kodak; £3.49 (softback)
Experimental Photography: A Handbook of Techniques by Luca Bendandi & Marco Antonini; Thames & Hudson; £19.95 (hardback)
Film option: 35mm black & white film
There are a variety of film options still available today and many devotees favour black & white to colour. Ilford HP5 Plus £4.99 (36 exposure, single roll) is an ISO 400 black & white 35mm film, which can be rated up to ISO 3200. The film is also available in 24 exposure lengths, 120 roll film format and sheet film for large format cameras. It is widely available, easy to process and costs less when bought in bulk.
35mm camera option: Rangefinder
Many 35mm film photographers lust for the quality of a Leica rangefinder, but are put off by the price. An excellent and more affordable option is the German-made Voigtlander Bessa range (from £700), such as the R4M or its predecessor the R4A. These cameras resemble the Leica and share many of its classic features.
Instant option: Instant film camera
Millions of instant film cameras continue to be sold every year and the Fujifilm Instax range has a wide selection of very affordable cameras and films. One of the most eye-catching is the new Instax Mini 90 NEO Classic (£124), with a design and construction that harks back to the golden era of instant photography of the 1960s and 1970s. Shooting modes include double exposure and long exposures up to ten seconds.
This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.