You may wonder why any photographer would still shoot film in this digital age. Just 36 exposures on a roll, no instant feedback of what has been shot, and labour-intense processing and printing in order to see your images. Film doesn’t let you change ISO or white balance mid roll, or offer the ability to swap between black & white and colour. It’s not as good as digital in low light either. But for many photographers, these drawbacks that are the very reasons that they still shoot on film.
Placing such creative limitations on what can and cannot be done with a camera can be a liberating experience, and can make you a better photographer in the long run. Ask any film-shooting photographer what they like about working in this way and they’ll tell you that it’s as much about the process of making the image as it is about the finished results – both of which can be very different to digital photography.
One such photographer who’s passionate about film is Alex Grymanis, who started out shooting digital before discovering the pleasures of analogue from a teacher at university. “At first I was thinking ‘I’m a digital guy – I want to download quick, edit in Photoshop, then send my files instantly,’” he says.
“But my teacher said I should try shooting film to discover the romantic side of photography – and he was right. It’s magical. You shoot blind, without looking at a screen, then develop your film and make prints by trying to do the things you do in Photoshop with your hands in the darkroom.”
Like many photographers, Alex’s love affair with digital was confirmed when he first saw a print emerging in a try of chemical developer. “I thought ‘Wow! This is the real thing!’ I spent a lot of time in the darkroom making prints, discovering the ‘real’ side of photography,” he says.
But is the appeal of shooting film just emotional? Do people like Alex get caught up in the romance of a process from a bygone era that is now technically outdated. “There are obviously times, when working professionally, when film is not a good choice,” Alex admits. “Like when you are covering an event and the client needs you pictures 10 minutes after they’ve been shot. That’s when you have to shoot digital. But when I’m doing personal work, or organising shoots I can take my time over, I’m happy to use film. It’s not all about the process – the results that film photography gives is different to digital, and I like that a lot.”
Alex isn’t alone. The widespread availability of film-simulation software, which recreates the feel of analogue film with digital files, tells you something about the popularity of the film look. For those that can’t be bothered with the method, the results are available at the click of a mouse. Though most film-shooters will say you’d be missing out to rely entirely on such an approach.
The differences between digital and analogue photography don’t stop here. Photographers who shoot film are far more likely to print their images, which means their images are far more likely to still be around in the future. So-called ‘digital rot’ (the obsolescence of file formats and storage media over time) means that JPEG images shot and stored today will be difficult to access in a decade’s time, unless they are ported from disk to disk to keep them available. Compare this to black & white negatives, which can be scanned or printed after 100 years or more, and you can see why film has an advantage in terms of longevity, even if it loses out to digital in terms of speed of delivery.
“So I don’t know if shooting film makes you a better photographer, but it certainly makes you a better person”
Alex believes that everyone can stand to learn something from shooting some photography on film, even if it’s just everyday personal work. “Many people ask me about photography – what to buy and how to use manual mode,” he says. “I recommend buying a cheap 1980s film camera and learning how to shoot with it. It doesn’t matter if it has a piece of paper stuck to the back that says ‘Sunny = f/8’ and stuff like that. Your first film might be totally blank, but your second will have 10 good pictures, and your third will have 20 good pictures. You’ll get better the more you shoot.”
It’s often said that the extra discipline required to shoot film makes you a better photographer. “It certainly does make me think more,” Alex says. “There are aspects of the film-shooting workflow that make you slow down and think more. For example, on a workshop run by Samo Vidic in Slovenia, we tried an exercise where we taped over the screens on our DSLRs and shot without reviewing pictures. Some people found that really difficult, but it reminded me of shooting with film, where you think more carefully about what to shoot,” he recalls.
“So I don’t know if shooting film makes you a better photographer, but it certainly makes you a better person,” Alex laughs. “It’s a romantic notion, but I believe that if you love something – like photography – then you have to make the effort to know everything about it. Shooting film can help you do that.”
See more of Alex’s photography on his website at www.alexgrymanis.com.