Why do we photograph with film? On the one level, it is a silly question. Why do some people like cookies and cream, and others like choc fudge? Because it exists, it is an option, and we just do. For those of us where film photography is an equal option to digital photography, there is no need to necessarily think further about it. But if you are able to access the reasons for your decisions it can sometimes provide valuable insights. When a few of us in the Pixels and Grain collective shared our thoughts about film photography it interestingly led to a suspicion it was because we were lazy. Needless to say, this led us down a little rabbit hole of thought. Alan, Christopher, and I muse on the subject in this article.
Not a film vs digital debate
A first caveat. This is absolutely not a film versus digital debate. In the Pixels and Grain collective we adore, photograph, and GAS with both. We do not advocate one media over the other for photography. We are providing a personal insight into our choice for using film. We appreciate it may be very different from yours.
Why do Photography?
A large part of the reason I make film photographs is that the pleasure of photography is experiential. It is the reason that I tend to make more photographs when I am travelling, rather than in my free time at home — at least beyond the simple answer of having more time. The experience of being somewhere lovely or somewhere new, and looking at it through a lens whilst manipulating a camera, is intensely pleasurable. It doesn’t ignore the pleasure of achieving a great final image, but the process of creating an image has its own pleasures.
A lot of this stems from the use of manual cameras that have a look, a heft and feel, and an operating protocol that engages me fully with the process of photography. I should admit that it isn’t film per se, as I have fully automated film cameras like the Minolta Maxxum 7, and I use this a lot less than my Olympus OM-1 or Leica M4. It is about the mindfulness of completing a task requiring more than just a push of a button well, almost regardless of what the result is. As an example, my handicapping of the A7rii’s capabilities by using vintage manual lenses adapted to it is part of making the photography process more hands-on, at the expense of faster, and more accurate focusing. It just so happens that the majority of my cameras requiring a completely manual process are film cameras.
As Christopher tells it:
…it’s not just that film is pleasurable – tactile, considered and immutable, it’s that in my experience it’s the camera and not the photograph that is the agent that gets me up out of bed, climbing the cliff or getting out of my comfort zone.
So whilst the anticipation of the image to come is part of that pleasure, paradoxically that is why the experience of making the photograph may be more pleasurable than the image itself.
So if I am working harder to operate a camera to make a photograph because I am using cameras that require so much more manual input, why does that make me feel like I am being more lazy? It is because that process of working hard for a photograph allows me to make more excuses. If I make a mistake in the choice of film, the choice of camera, the settings, or the developing, then that is just part and parcel of film photography. The serendipity of film that provides those unanticipated magic images are also excuses for not getting the perfect image. In contrast, where is the space to hide when using my digital camera? My Sony is so capable the only weakness to a superb image is the operator. That can be more intimidating.
Below is a digital image at night in Sydney. It is remarkable for what it can achieve and in a fraction of the time it takes to make a film photograph. How else can you see the Milky Way in the middle of a huge city with dawn so close at hand? And yet I know the camera is capable of more, more than I have the skills to deliver. This isn’t a bad photograph, but I know the camera’s capabilities exceed my own.
At the same time and place, I made a large format film photograph. It was a technically more difficult task, and it shows. The image is very flawed. Yet rather than be dismayed by it, it showed me that the task was possible.
I returned to produce this image from close by. Again, it isn’t perfect, but it is an improvement. The process of using film and the expectation it would be difficult softens the blow of the first failure, and in fact those first flawed results are more encouraging, rather than demoralising.
Achieving a result with a task that is seemingly difficult keeps me going, whereas getting a good result from a tool that should deliver great results can be less encouraging. Is this just a psychological difference when using film? Yes, it clearly is, but I’ll take it.
I’ll go back to Christopher, who says:
…when I shoot digital there’s no escape from the photo. The image appears immediately on the screen (it’s there even if you turn the screen off) and there are no excuses. I also take SO MANY photographs when I shoot digital. Hundreds just in an afternoon out – honestly it’s exhausting. With film you are not nearly as accountable for the photo because seeing it is way off in the future. I think the reason film makes us lazy is that I feel entitled to be lazy.
Look at those extraordinary technical photographers out there – astrophotographers like Jason De Freitas – he proves that if you accommodate for every facet of film photography then there’s no reason not to get exactly the shot that you set out for.
But because it’s so ridiculously difficult we give ourselves permission to fail. I love that. Creating enough barriers so that failure becomes acceptable sets us free. We’re all out there failing away, enjoying ourselves rotten, and anything that REDUCES our chance of failure (like a more automated film camera) actually damages our enjoyment because it reduces the risk of failure and increases the pressure.
So this is the nub of it.
I am usually luckier with film, where serendipity does play a role in image creation, whereas in digital there is nowhere to hide except for in your own skills. I am not working as hard as I should be if my goal was to improve my photographs. It is not that I have stopped striving to improve, on the contrary, I am usually not content with my results and aim for better images. But I am investing relatively more in the pleasure of the experience of using film or mechanical film cameras compared to a pure effort of improving my images. I am enjoying myself at the expense of my images.
And it isn’t because film is incapable of providing a quality of image as good as digital. But the more steps involved in the process, the greater room for error, the more permission we allow ourselves to fail. I have created sufficient barriers to success that failure is acceptable, but this also sets us free. Anything that reduces the chance of failure, like the Maxxum 7 or digital photography, actually damages the enjoyment. The permission to fail is a path of joy, rather than a path of results. It is a path not without some regret, but as I am a hobbyist and not an artist it is also the path appropriate for me. This allows me to love my hobby, even if you might not love my images.
You might be interested in...
Is It Laziness
But am I really being lazy when using film? Am I really accepting failure? Maybe it will be clearer if I let Alan explain his process.
There are photos you take to document/snap/record your life/events/scenes, and there are ones you make for art – something unique that evokes emotions, memories, a certain mood and feeling beyond the image and scene itself. Sometimes the two overlap. There are photographers who love gear/specs/dials/whizz-bang features/ collecting and those who love the ‘making’ process of the art side, and also sometimes the two overlap.
In my opinion, when the camera/gear/medium you use and the purpose/aim/artistic choice you make for a photograph align, you can have a happy time and create! When they don’t you might struggle and fail, but then again you might surprise yourself! Such is the contradiction and bipolar life of a hybrid shooter!!! Film is 90% the medium of my choice because it is a. easier, b. quicker, and c. more unpredictable than digital. But I still love my digital…
If this shot above was digital, I would really worry about my camera’s sensor, plus it would be chucked out in Lightroom. But film ‘forgives’ my dodgy handling of the film and light leaks to create something unique – all with less effort – in an unpredictable way!
I suspect many of us have a similar bipolar experience with film/digital photography as hybrid shooters. Often we shoot out of need to create, express, release, and the tactile, dare I say ‘slow’ and experiential nature of film can soothe a restless soul. Sometimes we just need a quick accurate snap of that blood moon and the autofocus stabilized digital shot scratches the itch. Sometimes we totally F up a roll of film and it makes us want to throw the Mamiya in the bin, except it was 100% our own fault… Sometimes the spectra film jamming issue makes us want to burn all instant film in a bonfire. Sometimes we get a digital photo that surprises us by how good, sharp, and rich it is , but usually not…
In this crazy dualistic existence (why I have separate dig/film Instagram accounts and espouse the benefits of both!) I’ve noticed some patterns emerge. When I need a quick autofocus shot of the kids running around and going nuts, my Fuji xpro3 nails the shot every time, even at f1.4. The bokeh is good, the ‘art’ is satisfied, and I can Wi-Fi it to my phone or print an Instax and all is good!!
BUT, when I wake early to catch a sunrise, and need to create something imaginary, artistic, ethereal, or just do something a bit different 9/10 times I’ll grab the pinhole, Rollei, or a 35mm camera and a roll of experimental low iso or expired film. Being ‘surprised’ by the outcome, usually pleasantly, and with minimal effort apart from working out composition and exposure, I feel like a bit of an imposter sometimes.
Being made in chemicals and grain, with a tactile ‘feel’ to the process with dials/knobs and manual focus and loading film, brings me one step closer to the ‘art’ making process, vs Photoshop/Lightroom, even though I’m scanning it in – did I mention bipolar? It is for me, more fun, and:
A. Easier: because I can let the film choice/medium create ‘art’ with less effort – portraits become ‘easy’ because the film/vintage lenses I use give me an instant look, like the portrait of my kids below taken on Leica M3 and Fomapan.
B. Quicker, especially if I use a lab, because the look is ‘baked in’ and it looks great SOOC!! No fiddling in Lightroom to colour correct and sharpen 3000 images for that one perfect shot, because I only get 6 shots on the pinhole, 12 on the Rollei.
C. more unpredictable, and hence mistakes can be ‘arty’ and I’m often surprised by how great the unexpected photo turns out. See below Ondu pinhole shots with lensless sunrise flares adding photons of goodness.
Increasingly, 1/10 of the time (more if I’m busy) I’ll grab an old digital camera – Leica M8 with a vintage lens, xpro1 set in monochrome, and also experience an ‘instant’ art moment. The photos are more ‘perfect’ than my film ones, but not as fine-tuned as a modern digital mirrorless/DSLR, and I still get my ‘art’ fix without having to dev/fix/dry/scan!
Does film make me lazy?? Yes, in making art, it certainly does because I know I can make something unique, interesting, and artistic (and certainly more pretentious!?) with minimal effort. Grab an Ondu, sunrise, Ektar, and bam there’s art!!! Pop some Lomo purple in the Rollei and do a long exposure at night, and you have magic! Dare I mock the Cinestill 800t crowd and their gas stations??!!! Smack a vintage lens in front of a digital dinosaur like Xpro1/M8 and let that old sensor reinterpret a scene with low dynamic range, unique colour and low-megapixel goodness, and you have art!
Modern Digital is hard man. I need to work on the photo, choose a ‘look’ in Lightroom, and edit it properly to create something fantastic. I always end up with more photos than I need or want, which I then need to find time to edit, and storage space on yet another external drive, which I then need to backup. Everything looks so ‘perfect’ I have to try harder to make the composition, mood, light, match and create something visually stunning and unique.
Nobody got time for that! Obviously I’m being a bit silly about all this, but as a busy dad/husband/worker and non-professional shooter who creates out of a need for escape and art, I’m taking the easy route! Get me a sunrise and some Ektar please!!! Anyone know any good gas stations around here????
So using film isn’t just being lazy, but it is also about being smart. It leads to a result that a photographer is looking for that could be achieved with a digital edit (I know this is debatable) without the effort of having to do a digital edit. It can be a shortcut to a planned result, even if that result is in search of happy accidents. We love the sprockets, the tones, the colours, the grain and imperfections. That’s not to say there is no value in going to the effort of creating the effects you want from scratch, but a craftsman has never been criticised for picking the right tool for the job either.
This leads me to the second caveat. We are, of course, in no way implying that film allows you to be lazy because the results are automatically worse. I really needn’t have to say that film can give just as good a result to digital in the right hands for the right situation. And it doesn’t mean accepting a lower quality image is acceptable when photographing with film. You have every right to aim for the best quality image you are able to get every time you photograph with film, just as much as digital.
Getting those 10,000 hours
Ultimately using film keeps me in the game. If I didn’t love what I was doing with photography it is very likely that I would only be making a small fraction of the photographs I make today, and this love of photography largely comes down to film and film cameras. There is a reason that there is a huge difference in the volume of photographic output after my film renaissance compared to before. Does it mean I hate digital? Absolutely not, I actually love my Sony camera, but my perception that those images should be perfect can get in the way of picking up that camera. The joy of the experience and the freedom to fail allows a freedom to experiment, to practice, and to participate.
Again, back to Christopher:
I have two examples here. My best example is our Pixels and Grain lomo purple night shoot. We all went out there assuming it would be a disaster, instead of all going out there already knowing that if our images sucked it would be our fault and no excuses. That’s what made it fun.
This is my second example. A reflex shot – one press of the shutter. It’s not a good photo, but there’s an immediacy to it that reminds me of my children’s obsession with mints at a particular time of their life. I spent no time taking it, no time post-processing it and there’s no pressure to share it. It’s lazy – and fun.
In contrast, this is ALSO not a good photo and it’s made with my digital Sony a6600. I took several versions of this. It has been post-processed. I call it a self-portrait because that makes it sound pretentious. It was a lazy shot but I worked at it before, during and after taking it. I’m even working at communicating it to other people – because it pops onto my phone via Wi-Fi from my Sony and it’s easy to share on Instagram! How do you hashtag an image like this? Why am I even doing that? It’s superficially lazy but actually much more effort than my film photo.
I love many things about film photography, but the permission to fail is one of my favourite. It lets me dream, play, imagine, hope – and just get out and shoot. I can be thoughtful if I want to be casual and lo-fi, and it’s still fun and rewarding.
All of this adds up to using film resulting in me wanting to pick up that camera every day, every time.
You Still Need to Work At It.
I know that a million monkeys hitting the keys on a million typewriters for a million years will not lead to a monkey Shakespeare. Just because I am making more photographs doesn’t mean I will automatically get better. There is thoughtfulness, self-analysis, and learning required for progress in your art or craft. I am not ignoring that. But a starting point has to be a willingness to practice your art or craft to be able to get those 10,000 hours in the first place. Would I have gotten there with digital photography alone? I think I would, but the sheer joy and freedom of using film will accelerate that process because of my willingness to engage with it.
With digital I can be more disappointed with what I produce. In this regard my acceptance of a film failure is a mental trick, a bit like looking at falling as fun so I can keep climbing back on a tightrope. For someone else the digital path alone might be the best for them. There is nothing wrong with that. My enthusiasm for using film for photography, because of the embrace of failure, gives me a vehicle to practice being more thoughtful, self-analytical, and to learn how to make a better photograph. And before you ask, yes, that’s having your cake and eating it. We never claimed to be entirely logical!
No one needs to dissect their hobbies too closely, but for us this was an interesting insight. We use film a lot. It gives us a freedom to fail, an excuse, a reason for a bad image that we can blame on anything except ourselves, but of course, it also doesn’t. We know it’s still on us, but that seeming freedom keeps us practising photography far more than if we weren’t using film. It provides a vehicle powered by enthusiasm to get out there with a camera whenever we can, upon which we can learn to be better photographers. The experience of using largely manual cameras is also very much fun.
…And of course, it’s also a smart choice to get to an image we are looking for, faster and with less effort. But you also don’t need an excuse to use film or not use it. You don’t have to accept failure as an outcome, you can demand perfection in film. You don’t have to enjoy fiddling with manual processes, you can demand automation to enhance your process. Photography is an incredibly broad church. This is just what works for us, at least today. Find what works for you and run with it. Live, love and make photos.
What do you think?
~ Bill Thoo, Christopher James, and Alan Ma for the Pixels and Grain Collective
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.