My 'new' film camera

THE CAMERA

Having got my test rolls back and seen that they were perfectly fine, I thought it time to reveal my 'new' film camera, write about what it's like to use it and why I've decided after all this time (15 years) to go back to shooting with film.

Firstly the camera is a 25 year old Leica R5 SLR plus a motor winder. This cost me £135 in total on ebay, which just shows how cheap film cameras are now, even Leicas. First off I have to say it is in pretty much mint condition. It has obviously been well looked after and I suspect not used much. The test rolls indicate that everything is working perfectly. The auto / electronic modes AE, SP and Programme (PASM) are all spot on, as is the spacing between the frames. 

In terms of how it compares to a modern digital camera, focusing (manual) is via a rangefinder split screen circle in the middle of the optical viewfinder. The shutter and combined motorwind are pretty noisy and the size and weight is similar to a Fuji X-T1. It is a nice camera to use and take pictures with and the experience has been enjoyable. I use my old Leica R lenses on the camera.

THE PROCESS

I guess there are some people who actually have no idea how a film camera works, so I'll just outline the process. Firstly you have to buy film, either slide (positive / transparency) or negative. The film then has to be loaded into the camera. This is at a set ISO so all 36 frames will be at the same ISO setting. No changing the ISO when things get a little darker. You don't of course get to see the results until the film is developed. This is done by a lab (you can do it yourself but colour processing is best done by those who have the machines) and there are fewer and fewer of these as time goes by. However, Birmingham, my local city, has a couple still operating and there are also several postal services around. I had my colour negative film processed by a local lab, with a turnaround of a few hours and my sllde / transparency films processed by a lab in Sheffield. (5 day turnaround via post) All arrived back perfectly processed and ready for scanning.

And scanning is the next part of the process. These days all labs offer a scanning service since digital sharing is the way images are distributed these days either for amateurs or professionals. I have my Nikon LS-9000 35mm and MF dedicated film scanner however, so I decided to do it myself, since I can batch scan 12 x 35mm frames, in strips of 6 at a time. And then I have the images on my computer monitors for 'Photoshopping'. 

This is of course way longer. more expensive and more complicated than digital. So - was it worth it?

THE RESULTS

1. COLOUR NEGATIVE

2. COLOUR TRANSPARENCY

To be honest I was a bit stunned by the improvement in colour negative film, since I last used it about 20 years ago. In my film days stock picture libraries wanted transparency (slide) film as it printed better. So that's what I shot. However, these days all film has to be scanned to produce digital files. And modern colour negative film such as Kodak Portra 400 and Kodak Ektar 100 that I used above is better for that. As you can see, the dynamic range is just unbelievable, way better than any digital sensor can produce. When the shot of the swan above started appearing on my screen as it was being scanned, I almost fell off my chair. A white swan swimming between black shadows on the water and no highlight burnout, amazing. 

I have to say I'm mightily impressed by Portra 400. There is hardly any more grain than with the 100 Ektar and I was able to get pin sharp 20MP scans from it. Obviously if I want higher contrast and a punchier look I can easily do that in Photoshop, but for now I'm appreciating this 'reality' look and I like the balance between highlights and shadows. A very flexible and very good film.

The slide film, Agfa CT Precisa 100, which is apparently rebadged Fuji Provia is good too and scans very well, though the negative film is better and I'm will be sticking with that for the time being since getting a flexible, sharp, high resolution scan is my priority here. 

SO WHY DO IT?

Something different basically. Both in the way of producing images and in the look of those images. This is partly influenced by the fact that I sell a much higher proportion of the film scans I have on picture library sites than digital. On those sites the differences between the two are pretty subtle, but enough of a difference for me to try this. There is also the fact that I shoot way too many digital images, (I'm sure I'm not alone in this!) and I thought if every time I press the shutter there is a cost involved, I might take less images with a consequent improvement in quality control. I'll see whether or not that actually materialises. 

There is also the important consideration for me that a film camera is a lot simpler to use. No menus, no fiddly buttons and lots of (mostly unwanted by me) options. It's a pared down process and one that requires me to use my experience as a photographer to make sure I'm getting usable images. I have for some time been getting more and more disenchanted with what modern cameras offer. I dislike the gimmickry, the gadget worship and all those tech. addict specs., that I'm afraid mostly leave me cold. I see no evidence that they improve the images we produce, in fact the more complicated cameras get and the more they seemingly offer, the less I see results posted on the internet with them that actually give me any kind of a visual surprise or any kind of inspiration. 

 

WHERE IS THIS GOING?

At the moment this is something I'm adding in to what I use already and I have no idea how things will develop with this. 

However, one trip has already produced an interesting comparison. The gallery above was shot on film with the Leica R5 and digitally with my Samsung K zoom smartphone. I have to say firstly that it was enormous fun. Basically missing out the whole digital / DSLR / mirrorless gear revolution and using the oldest and newest picture taking methods to create images with. It was definitely different and something that I will certainly try again. 

I would like to make one thing clear finally. There is no way that I'm recommending this to anyone. Ultimately it's all about the final image anyway and quality isn't restricted to one way of creating images. As regular readers will appreciate I love to experiment anyway and seem to get 'restless' if I use the same gear over and over again. And being a stock photographer gives me that opportunity to indulge myself. Apart from anything else I've been doing this for a long time and anything that 'freshens up' my workflow is generally a good thing. People who still own film cameras probably give them a run out now and again anyway and if you did actually want to try it, the available options are pretty cheap. Film itself isn't cheap and neither is processing, but considering the cost of the cameras the whole thing isn't as financially demanding as getting the latest digital cameras. 

And while I have no intention of attempting to persuade anyone to shoot film, I will say that I've found it very enjoyable indeed and a nice 'blast from the past.' It also has a lot to do with the fact that when I was getting serious about photography the Leica R5 was a camera I could only dream about owning, since they were prohibitively expensive when they came out. However, the state my camera is in shows just how well they were made back then and I would anticipate that the R5 will be working fine for a good many years yet. It is using a piece of photography's (admittedly quite recent) history and I've certainly found it more stimulating and interesting than I thought it would be.

We live in a world of instant everything and to a certain extent it's possible to fake pretty much anything with technology, so it's nice to have a slower, more considered approach to creating images as far as I'm concerned. It's also nice to create images that actually don't need electricity to become viewable and that will not depend on forever having to upgrade their storage media. It's also nice to have a camera where battery life lasts years instead of hours and not to have some flickering screen forever taking the mystery away from my creativity.

Eventually, of course, with some chemistry and electronics they end up in the same place as digital images, which is why I can share them with you. But it's nice to know that they were created in a much more leisurely fashion and without any kind of requirement for instant gratification on my part. When the images did eventually take on a form that I could view, it was definitely more of a surprise. "Oh that's what I took a picture of' was a reaction I remember from my film days and that element of serendipity is something I'd lost and have reconnected with.

How long it lasts, who knows, but that isn't the point. Whether I go back to film 100% (doubtful but possible) or get bored with it isn't really whats happening here. It's all about trying new (old!) ways to create images and see what happens. I've never been one for predictability and that is precisely what I don't get with film. And taking a chance and coming at something from a different angle has always appealed to me anyway.