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.
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.