To describe my return to film as long-awaited is to over-sell it; I had only been away for a handful of years. My dad has always been a keen amateur photographer so from an early age I had been introduced to dark rooms and taught the basics of using a manual camera.
Through art college in the 90s and into adult life I had continued to shoot film, generally black and white, and mostly on a second hand Leica M6 that I’d bought with money inherited from my grandad under strict instructions to “not save it and spend it on something”.
I used that Leica for personal work after I left college but was becoming very comfortable with DSLRs from their infancy thanks to a career in film visual effects, a job I still do. In fact, slightly off-topic, I think the DSLR is probably the most important new technology in VFX from the last 15 years. I used a shiny new Canon 1Ds for work and was very impressed. They were clearly the future, but also very pricey at that time.
…but that all changed when the Canon 20D was announced and I thought that the writing was on the wall for my time with film. Digital was the future, so I stopped shooting film. The 20D I bought eventually became a Leica M8, which I bought as soon as they came out and was, ultimately, the only camera I’ve ever regretted buying. In a further twist of youthful stupidity, the purchase of the M8 was partly financed by trading in my beloved M6, and with that, I thought film and I were finally done.
I had one lingering doubt, which was that I’d always liked odd formats of film. Friends and I had rented a Hasselblad XPan years previously and I often thought about how much I enjoyed the panoramic format. I decided If I ever came across a panoramic camera that took my fancy, that might tempt me back to film, since no one was likely to make a panoramic digital camera, at least not one with an affordable price tag.
I went about my business for another year or two waiting for second-hand camera lightning to strike. That moment occurred when I was in Istanbul shooting Skyfall. There is an amazing indoor market there, called Hayyam Carsisi, mostly comprising second-hand camera shops. I was like a child in a sweet shop and there, on the top floor, was a shop with a Fuji G617 in the window.
It was a monster: impractical, no help with metering or even focus, it was as basic as a camera can get. On my first visit, I left it on the shelf, but it nagged at me, and a few days later, nervous that it had been sold in the interim I returned and, finding it where I’d left it, bought it there and then. I found the only place in Istanbul that still sold film and bought 4 rolls of ILFORD FP4 PLUS. I was hooked.
The big beast was amazing. I bought a Leica Disto to help with focus and a Minolta light meter. I shot a fair amount of film and loved how disciplined I had to be, how much more I needed to concentrate to take a picture, but ultimately it’s a limited camera for a specific task and so I traded in my M8 and bought another M6, a decision I’ve never regretted. I shot a lot, and still do, with my second M6. It was when I compared how I worked with the M6 to the M8 that I finally began to understand what film meant to me.
It’s not that I think it necessarily makes better images (whatever that means) it’s more of a psychological difference in me. When I have a digital camera, I always check the image I’ve just taken on the screen on the back instinctively. I’m living in the past, thinking about the photograph I’ve just taken. With film you can’t do this, so you’re always thinking about the next picture. This is better for me and I find it liberating.
This separation in time between shooting and reviewing your pictures means I actually look at my negs with fresher eyes with film than I did with digital. Often the image I thought I’d think was the best doesn’t have the impact I’d hoped, whereas another might leap to the fore. I don’t think I’d have that clarity if I was always going through images I’d just taken. I need a break and then to return to my pictures to see them clearly. Of course, you could argue that I just shouldn’t look at my photos on the digital camera, but I can’t help myself.
Another limitation of film that I find a boon is that the amount of film I carry is finite. You can’t (without breaking your back and bank account) shoot 2000 frames a day on film, but it’s trivial and effectively free on digital. Digital photography allowed me to become lazy. That’s not its fault, it’s me, but once I realised that I need to be forced to concentrate to take, to my eyes, decent photographs, I knew that I was back with film for good.
Of course, there’s also the pleasure of the physicality of film, the mechanical nature of the cameras I use is also very beguiling (all my cameras are completely manual, no electronic shutters, or auto anything), but mostly I think that it’s the psychology and discipline of film that works for me.
You can argue that film looks different to digital, and there’s truth in that, but since a lot of my working life revolves around making something digital look like film, I think you can make a digital picture look like film if you really want to. I’d argue that you should embrace each format on its own merits, but I can’t honestly say that I think film images are superior, they’re just different, and they have a look I happen to love.
The last part of my re-conversion to film was the return to the darkroom and making prints again. Most of my film is scanned and ends up online, but there are few things in photography, analogue or digital, that beat the loveliness of a good black and white print on fibre based paper. The blacks are richer than any other print and the texture of grain and the paper itself have a lovely tactile, sensual quality. A good black and white print is a very sexy thing. And if you fixed it and washed it properly, it should also last for many many years, beyond the life of hard drives and compact flash cards.
I am a digital native for work, for my own soul and my own pictures my return to film has made me happy and I’ve produced more pictures that I like since going back to film than I ever managed on digital. In my more coquettish moments, I like to suggest to digital photographer friends of mine that digital photography is a fad that won’t ever really catch on.
It’s not true, but I enjoy the thought.
~ Andrew Whitehurst
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