What’s the point of film?


by Bellamy /

6 min read

What’s the point of film? By Paul Schofield
Paul Schofield is back with another article. Following on from his ‘what’s the point in taking pictures‘ article, Paul now ponders the question many wonder. What is the point of film? Well, let’s see shall we?

What’s the point of film?
Photography used to be so simple. If I felt like taking pictures, I’d load up my Contax 139 with slide film and off I’d go. No bag, just one prime, a polarising filter and maybe a spare roll of film. I didn’t think about it too much, it was just something I did occasionally and I’d sometimes go months without taking any pictures at all. But I always came back to the Contax in the end and was pleased when I did. It was a well-made, uncluttered little camera that did the job.

When the Contax stopped working I bought a Nikon FM and it was the same with that too. It was a well built, no frills camera that just asked to be picked up and used. The FM was all metal and unlike the Contax its appearance improved with age. The edges became nicely brassed and I remember even non-photographers wanting to pick it up and look through the viewfinder.

As different as they were, those cameras had one thing in common. They both had soul.

I don’t usually have regrets but I do wish I’d kept that FM. Eventually, I decided that I should go digital so I got a Nikon D70. Then Kodachrome was discontinued and I took that as a sign that film was finally redundant. All film related kit was flogged on Ebay

Previously my photography involved periods of furious picture taking punctuated by long periods of inactivity. After going digital, the periods of inactivity got longer and longer until I was barely taking any pictures at all. The rot set in quite slowly but eventually I had to ask myself if I wanted to carry on taking pictures or stop altogether.


It was the D70 that did it. Once the novelty value wore off, I was left with a camera that I didn’t really want to pick up. For its time, the D70 was a game changer – a digital DSLR for the masses. And it took good pictures, too – the colour had a nice quality to it. After the D70 got left on the roof of the car, the insurance company send me a D90 as a replacement – another good camera that moved things on. But neither of them had soul. They were Boring Plastic Cameras.

Professional photographers are pragmatic about cameras – they want usability coupled with cutting edge picture quality. For non-professionals (this one, anyway), it is cameras and the process of using them that often drives us to take pictures in the first place. We don’t do it to put food on the table we do it because we want to. Cameras contribute to the creative process in the sense that if you ‘click’ with your camera, you are more likely to get to know it by shooting with it regularly. And the more you shoot the more interesting it gets.

So, in answer to the original question, the point of film photography for me is that film cameras are more fun. And they’ve got more soul. When I hit my photographic brick wall I found the perfect antidote to the Nikon D90 was a Nikon F3.


Going back to film again brought my interest in photography back to life. It was like discovering film again for the first time. I had missed those little canisters with all their locked up potential. I had missed loading them into the back of a camera. And most of all I had missed the anticipation of waiting for a new batch to come back from the lab.

As for the F3, well if there is a more perfectly designed SLR in existence I haven’t seen it yet. If mine ever breaks, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy another.
Over the last few years, I’ve invested a fair amount in film cameras and lenses. First there were two F3 bodies and various Nikkor primes, then came the compacts (a Nikon L35AS, an Olympus XA and XA3) and then medium format (a Pentax 6×7 and several lenses).

I’ve had a very nice time indeed experimenting with these cameras. The compacts were a revelation. All three have extremely good lenses that produce distinctive results. The XA is a primitive camera by modern standards but is amazingly capable and I’ve probably produced some of my favourite pictures with it. There is a 1.5 stop exposure compensation lever on the base for backlit subjects and it works perfectly every time. The XA is a timeless and brilliant piece of design.


The Pentax is a monster of a camera and in some ways I have enjoyed using it more than anything else. It demands a slow and methodical approach that I find very appealing and encourages you to think hard about what you’re doing before unleashing the shutter. My keeper rate has been quite high with this camera. You only get ten frames per roll and changing rolls is a pain so it’s a camera that encourages frugality. And those big transparencies – wow.

But there have been down sides to going back to film. Experimenting with film again has re-ignited by passion for photography but as I’ve worked through the experimental phase, the constraints have become more noticeable.

For example, with manual focus you inevitably miss more than you do with autofocus. You get better with practice but nailing focus is more difficult. Taking pictures in low light without a flash is also frustrating – it’s either touch and go or you quite simply can’t get the shot you want. There is a Canon video in which Don McCullin is introduced to digital for the first time. And the great Don is blown away by the fact that he will never again have to walk into a room and worry about there not being enough light.


The main issue with the Pentax was time. Unfortunately, it did not get used enough to justify having it in the drawer so I recently decided to sell it. It was a hard decision because I liked it a lot but I am emphatically not a camera collector – I don’t want my cameras to collect dust.

The other ‘issue’ with the Pentax 6×7 system is that the camera is just too good. It is capable of producing images with stunning resolution and detail but unless you need that kind of quality and the rest of your process is geared up to produce huge prints, there is arguably no point in having a camera like that, even if it is a joy to shoot with. It’s like having a top of the range 4×4 just for taking the kids to school.

Most of the compacts have gone, too. I kept the XA as a car camera but I increasingly use the camera on my iPhone 5 for snaps. It does the job I want and has some interesting qualities in its own right.

Camerajunky film stash part 1

There is also no getting away from the fact that film is expensive. The cost of buying and processing a roll of film is anywhere from £12 to £18, enough to make some of us think carefully about how much photography we can actually afford to do.

So in some ways I’ve come full circle. I don’t want to be without a film camera again but the practical benefits of digital are overwhelming.


With that in mind, I recently bought a Fuji X-Pro 1. I haven’t completely bonded with it yet but initial signs are good – it’s definitely not a Boring Plastic Camera. It’s made of metal, it’s got dials and it takes unbelievable pictures indoors without flash. The film simulation modes are better than I thought they would be, too. The Nikon F3, a couple of primes and some rolls of T-Max will stay in the bag for days when I need a change.

All this self-reflection could be an elaborate way of justifying another camera acquisition, of course, or it may be a reaction to a typical Scottish winter. Real photographic activity always goes down when it’s dark and dreicht outside. Spring is definitely in the air, though.


Thanks to Paul for sharing his thoughts and feeling on his photography. This is a fascinating journey you have taken, and I think many of us have followed a similar path.
How about you? How are you feeling about your work and why you shoot? Share with us in the comments.


20 comments on “What’s the point of film?”

    Dan Castelli March 4, 2015 at 8:21 pm / Reply

    Nice. I’d like to add:

    Film is about process. When I load my camera and plunge into picture making, I’m thinking about the end result, and the steps involved to get there: do I push/pull my HP-5+?; paper surface/contrast grade; final print size; final presentation. To me, it’s an unbroken chain from exposure to final print. I’m lucky – I’ve kept my darkroom (just rebuilt it in January) and I can exercise personal control over the process.

    The second point: When the (software) art program Illustrator was introduced, most artist’s didn’t destroy their art material. They made room for the new ‘kid on the block’. Go into any art store and you’ll find a full complement of tools & supplies, including fine art digital paper.

    Photographers & photography should be big enough to accommodate both pixels and silver halide.

    Film practitioners are a minority, and B&W shooters are even a smaller minority. So are artists that work in gouache, or stick charcoal. It’s about the process, as well as the eye. We’re not going away.

    Thanks for the articles that make us pause and think.

    Nubizus March 4, 2015 at 10:43 pm / Reply

    My reasons to shoot film:
    1. Endorphin / Dopamine rush. Every picture is a life event. Digital has no soul. Binary illusion for quick buck.
    2. The Negative. Every frame counts. Its real. I can touch it and smell it. Little light paintings in my hands.
    3. The Process. Film demands concentration and energy. Yes, i know that every click costs money and i am committed to it. No fiddling around.
    4. The Print. Here we are in the realm of infinite interpretation. Yes its hard. But when you see your first print, scanning and digitising your negative becomes secondary activity with purpose of communication.
    5. The Grain. No way to make it digitally. :)

    Rui Esteves March 5, 2015 at 5:45 am / Reply

    Hi Paul,

    Cool article. There’s no denying that film cameras, old and some new, have something to them (a soul as you call it) that is appealing and unique.

    Its the metal body and the mechanics that make using them such a rewarding experience.

    I also agree with Dan. Film is more than just these awesome cameras. Its about the process. And thats why I love shooting B&W. It the whole package, great visuals and I can do most of the process at home.

    Anyway, this is about your article, note me, great one btw. Looking forward for the next.

    Attila Sabbatani March 5, 2015 at 7:15 am / Reply

    I went back to film about one year ago and my gosh how many years wasted in taking digitals. Got me a Bronica SQA, heavy piece of machinery, then an F3, FM2 and just today I bought the last (but not least) a beautiful black Nikon F Photomic tn marked NIKKOR, a rarity, a Micro Nikkor 55 2.8 (what a fantastic piece of glass)
    and have on the list an F2 and a couple of primes. What can I say, every shot is an emotion, every time I push the shutter I feel myself alive. This must be the reason why I remember every good shot I’ve taken with film during my 40 years of photography wile I can’t remember a single shot of the digital besides a few stunning lucky shots. I take a look at my 40 years old photo and… what immediately comes to my mind is, the place, the camera, the lens, the f stop, the developer, the lens of the enlarger and everything used to finish that photo. With the dig most of the time I can’t even remember the place of the shot. and I don’t want to speak about the feeling of the 4 Lbs. Bronica in my hands and the pleasure when the mirror comes up and locks out the view until I cock the winder lever.
    By the way… my girlfriend asked me to teach her photography, that’s why I bought the FM2 with a prime 50. She said “WHAT???” So I answered her… “either this or learn yourself”… well she’s learning too.

    Taomeister March 5, 2015 at 7:30 am / Reply

    I think much of the process that leaves film a great artistic medium is the unpredictability of the emulsions or the wait before you could see the results – this delay and uncertainty in how an emulsion handles color / tone / light forms the ‘magic’ and mystery. With digital you can expect perfect results as everything is encoded in a linear (more or less) bit response off each sensor pixel. But with film the grain is more random, the sensitivities to different spectrum harder to pin down. With VSCO / Maskin presets some of those tonal qualities may be recaptured, but even then they can’t possibly factor in everything that can affect the result – light flares, reciprocity failure, push / pull effects, cross-processing, polaroid processing, different processing chemicals, and expired film, to name a few. With enough practice you can to some degree predict how a film shot might turn out, but there will always be a degree of faith / trust and unexpected surprise that can’t be replicated with digital.

    Paul Schofield March 5, 2015 at 3:32 pm / Reply

    Some interesting comments here.

    I’m always aware that I’m only doing half the process when I shoot film. I had a few hours in a dark room a few months ago and had pathetically little to show for it at the end but it was a lot of fun. And I kind of liked the smell of the chemicals too.

    One irritation I’ve been reminded of recently is that digital cameras clip highlights so abruptly. The dynamic range b+w film is a dream by comparison. Another reason to keep the F3 in the bag.

    Joseph Sambataro March 6, 2015 at 10:31 am / Reply

    In medium format I have two Mamiya 67s. A 7ll rangefinder, and a 3rd model RB.

    Small format has it’s very practical side. Such as documenting the construction process of a small building.

    For art I want at least the six seven format.

    My personal opinion only.

    Lorraine Healy March 7, 2015 at 1:32 am / Reply

    Loved the heart-felt article, Paul. Agree with you totally. For me, giving up some of my most favorite film cameras has been about not being able to carry that kind of weight anymore, and creeping arthritis in my arms and elbows. Walking around all day with the Yashica Mat 124 G around my neck is just not possible anymore. The price of getting older added to the price of film and processing… But I do stick to my lovely Holgas, which match my eyes’ blurring acuity perfectly. And have added the Fuji X100s to the light arsenal. And will die with a brick of Fuji 400 NPH in my freezer, I hope!

    Stephanie March 7, 2015 at 10:20 am / Reply

    I agree with everything you wrote. I learned photography with digital although I’ve primarily turned to film over the last year for these reasons. It has taught me so much, but more than anything, I value the simplicity and mindset that comes with shooting with my Leica rangefinder. It’s more methodological and it puts me in a “zen” state of mind. I slow down and enjoy a more comprehensive process of making a photograph, not just taking it. It’s here where I enjoy photography so much more. And despite the fact I shoot with a professional DSLR, my film shots have so much more “soul.” I use VSCO filters, but nothing beats the real thing. I hate how expensive film is though which is also why I still shoot digital.

    Scarlet Billows March 7, 2015 at 3:23 pm / Reply

    Interesting, but this is, to my mind, more an article about gear and G.A.S. than about film as such.

    Rob March 8, 2015 at 12:19 pm / Reply

    I found myself shaking my head in agreement with much of what was said, and then I realized why I compromised with the digital vs film demons in my brain by acquiring a Fuji X-T 1. It looks like a film camera with all kinds of metal knobs to stimulate the pleasure receptors in my fingers and gives me wonderful images that I can manipulate to a much greater degree than I could in a dark room. Part of this process has been accepting that I must embrace Photoshop as my friend and try to find the same feeling of creativity/control that film naturally gives. I really believe there is something to actually “feeling” our art with our hands because when I held a print it seemed so much more “real” than just looking at it on a monitor, which is why I have decided to focus more on printing than just looking at pixels. Thanks for your observations and the questions they raised in my mind.

    Guest March 9, 2015 at 10:49 am / Reply

    Here’s a group on Flickr you need to join called “I Hate Digital!”

    Wayne Lorimer May 22, 2015 at 5:43 am / Reply

    Hi Paul
    Loved the article. Spoke to me very strongly – as did the other articles you have written on JCH (I went back and read them all).
    Your photographic journey echoes mine and we are of a similar age and stage in life.
    I’m torn between both digital and film – digital for accessibility, film for enjoyment and aesthetics. I shoot the occasional wedding, so digital is almost a must have, although I am considering introducing a few rolls of film into the mix. But for my own ‘enjoyment’ I still reach for film.
    I also have a Pentax 67 which I love, but am thinking of selling because of ‘overkill’. Thinking that 645 might be a better compromise – or just stick with 35mm?
    Anyway, love your articles. Might print them out and get my wife to read them so I can prove to her I’m not the only one who wrestles with all of this :-)

    Paul Schofield May 23, 2015 at 4:24 pm / Reply

    Glad you enjoyed them, Wayne. I still get a little pang of regret when I see a Pentax 6×7 but it really was OTT for my purposes. There’s a wedding and family photographer in Perth called Craig Stephen who uses film – I think he uses Hasselblad.

    Oriol July 23, 2015 at 6:46 am / Reply

    Some months ago I came back from shooting with my digital Olympus OM-D, with its cool retro-look, and then I started messing with VSCO presets to get that film look, and then realized: wtf I am doing, perhaps should I go for the real thing?
    I borrowed an old Canon A1 from my father with a wonderful 50 1,4 lens, and then the addiction began. There is no doubt that film is more rewarding, film is organic and has soul, nothing to do with those clinical sharp files from digital DSLRs. The usability is also much better, yesterday I took the Olympus, which is a great digital camera, but I had the feeling to take pictures with a computer. For me it is clear, for enjoyment and experimentation it is always film, and I take my digital cameras for convenience: a trip, a familiar party, birds, etc.

    Alex July 23, 2015 at 10:44 am / Reply

    I also love both digital and film so I have both types of cameras. But it was making my head spin thinking about when to use which camera. Too many choices. So to simplify, when I want to shoot black and white, I use my film camera. Color, I go digital. I just think digital, for all its charms, really can’t capture the magic of a good high-contrast b&w film.

    Mikael Siirilä July 23, 2015 at 2:39 pm / Reply

    Digital almost killed my love for photography too. My excitement with my first DSLR turned into years of photographic boredom.

    Then I found digital rangefinders, loved it for years and finally shifted to film rangefinders. Then I re-learned processing and enlarging. And now, finally, I am selling my last dusty digital camera. No love there.

    And the big benefit: nobody is asking me to take photos at family parties anymore.

    Ralph Hightower July 23, 2015 at 10:30 pm / Reply

    I’ve been shooting film since 1980 when I bought my Canon A-1, which I’m still using. I bought a used F-1N in July 2013 so I could share my FD lenses. Even though I now own a DSLR, I often shoot digital and film side by side. I still enjoy the film process even though I don’t do my own developing.

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