Film - Exactly what is the attraction?

Boulogne Harbour France - Pentax 645 + 35mm lens - Mid 1990's - Digitised using Leica SL (Typ 601) and Canon 105mm Macro lens.

If there is indeed a significant revival of the use of film, just exactly why is that? I have indicated that I need to shoot less and that my film images sell proportionately more on stock library websites. But why might others, including apparently people starting out in photography, want to embrace, what is after all, a relatively expensive and complicated process. Ultimately everyone can only answer for themselves, but I thought I would outline some of those complications which deter many but seem to attract others.

First off if you want to shoot on film these days there are financial considerations to be considered. Buying cameras and lenses can be relatively cheap, though top of the range Medium Format gear is still a significant investment, even second hand. (And you can still buy film cameras new - see LINK.) Any advantages are however somewhat counterbalanced by the price of film and the cost of processing. Even more if you want your images scanned. Film is more expensive than when it was what everybody used it. A roll of 35mm 36 exposure film can be as cheap as £3-4 if bought in bulk, but many of the higher regarded brands can be £8-10 per roll. Fuji Velvia, often regarded as the best transparency film there is can cost as much as £12-14 per roll. Processing is between £4-6 on average per roll, more obviously if you want mounted slides or some small prints made from negatives. Scanning a 36 exp. roll is between £5-40 depending on what kind of quality you are looking for. And my local lab quoted me £36 PER IMAGE !!! if I wanted top of the range Hassleblad scans. If you have to include postage in that as well because you don't have a nearby lab, then this all adds up. Yesterday I sent off 4 films for processing and scanning and I included a cheque for just over £50. Adding in the cost of the rolls (£8 each) and each time I press the shutter it costs me between 50 and 60 pence per shot here in the UK. (Since the Pound, Dollar and Euro are pretty much the same these days that's 60 cents.) Now that doesn't sound that expensive per shot, but when I go out for a days shooting I come back with anything up to 200 images. If I shoot that amount on film then that could end up costing me £120. And that's not cheap.

After taking that into consideration, there is the hassle of actually getting your film processed. Now if you buy bulk film and process it yourself, as many B/W shooters do, then the costs and processing difficulties diminish. But bulk processing for colour film is not so cheap or easy. And if like me, you absolutely loathe darkrooms, then it's important to make sure that every shot is worth it. Plus these days, if you want to sell your work via print and electronic media, you somehow have to get it digitised. There are very few outlets that will publish from a print or a transparency any more.

So, film is complicated, expensive and if you are shooting 35mm arguably less good quality as (certainly) high end digital, then you really need to have a good reason to do it. And that may be aesthetics, fashion, a love of the arcane or simply your idea of a good time. Because it isn't easy or cheap. And of course you have no idea whether your efforts are any good until you have gone through the process and made a dent in your bank account. For those of us who started our photographic journey with film, this is nothing new, but for some moving from a totally digital experience of photography, a lot of this may come as a real shock. 

So, what is the attraction of film?

Somewhat perversely, I would cite many of the 'difficulties' of the above as being that attraction. Higher cost and the time it takes to get results from film lead to an inevitable slowing down of the image creating process. There is no 'snap it and get it on facebook / twitter / instagram /snapchat' here. In fact any idea of a snapshot goes out of the window. Getting good results from film takes time, practice and craftsmanship. In contrast to digital, the camera and the lenses are just the beginning, not ends in themselves. What the final result looks like depends on a number of factors, including film choice and processing options. There is an end result that doesn't rely on electricity to be viewed and while film can be converted to enjoy all the 'benefits' of digital, it doesn't have to be. It is self contained and can be as private or accessible as you want it to be. For some of us there is more colour depth, dynamic range and contrast. And I have to say people on photographic film forums, review and web sites, seem a lot less combative than those endless fanboys arguing about nothing. Diversity of approach and alternative ways of working are encouraged rather than pounced on and there is far less hyperbole, exaggeration and 'lies damn lies and brand boasting' is left to those with insecurities about their digital purchasing decisions. There is no 'next big thing' in film photography and it embraces and celebrates it's history rather than see last week as a lifetime ago. 

However finally I thought I would give you the 'tabloid headlines', for those more used to those.

  • Film cameras are way cooler
  • No holding the camera out in front of you and looking like a prat
  • No 'chimping'
  • Any idiot can get an image from a digital camera, you actually have to learn something to get an image from film
  • All the best photographers shoot (shot) on film
  • Film photography is nearly 200 years old and still going strong
  • Certain YouTube 'gurus' will never make a video about it (Thankfully !!)
  • Sony will never make a film camera
  • You can be a film photographer and never go near the internet
  • It's not 'AWESOME'
  • Digital is for wimps