Reopening the book on Film Photography

Sadly, I’m a bit too young to have really experienced photography using film, worse still, when I first became interested in taking pictures 12years ago, I was already in possession if one of the first affordable digital cameras. To make up for this; a couple of years back I borrowed an old 35mm film SLR from a friend. I guess this was more out of curiosity than anything else. Throughout the time it was in my possession, I ran about 10 36-exposure rolls through it. It has since been returned to its owner.

But just the other week I bought a 35mm film SLR of my own. See, here’s the thing: I just wasn’t quite happy to close the book on film yet.

So why on earth would anyone in this day and age bother to continue shooting 35mm film? Well that is a very interesting question, one which likely has a different answer, depending on which film-shooter you ask. Is there a technical benefit of shooting film? I’m a technical kind-of-guy so surely I’d have some kind of argument to this effect?

If you read the opinions of a well-known photographic-equipment blogger, he’d have you believe that there is a super crazy amount of detail on a 35mm film slide, sufficient to produce 30 megapixel scans in superb detail, but then he would, because he likely gets a cut each time he refers one of his readers to his photo lab. I know from experience that this claim, in the context of scanning to digital, is simply not true. Let me take a minute to explain why. Even the finest grain films (i.e. Velvia 50) do not yield more than 5-7 useable megapixels after scanning, I say useable because sure, you can scan at higher resolutions, but as you start going above this figure, you start noticing the grain, which is the key problem here. Grains and Pixels just don’t mix. If you found a film with exactly 30 million grains which lined up perfectly with all of the pixels on a 30mpix scanner, then you’d get the promised 30mpix. In practise this doesn’t happen, so we have to scan at significantly lower resolution to the extent where there are many grains “under” each digital pixel scanned in order to keep them invisible, this is known as undersampling, and that undersampling just stole 50-75% of your film slide’s resolution. It is true that you could scan at very high resolutions (think 50mpix) and apply complex algorithims, such as noise reduction, then scale the image back down to say, 20mpix, which would get some of that resolution back, but to me this is once again starting to wander into the realm of “just buy a high-resolution DSLR”…

To date, I have never taken a digital photo with the camera in “Black & White” mode. Shot on Black & White film, the images in this post are scans my first B&W frames, shot on my prized newly-acquired Nikon F6.

So what other technical benefits could there be? Is the dynamic range better? No. It’s not. Well, OK, it could theoretically be comparable or better, but without your own darkroom and a lot of dodge-and-burn, how are you going to cash in on that? Considering that most scans are likely 8-bit sRGB or Adobe-RGB, you’re not getting that dynamic range anyway, worse still, if you go directly to print at your processing lab, they’re just scanning it into an sRGB JPEG file and printing it digitally behind your back anyway, so your extra DR Is instantly trashed right then and there. You might as well have given them a JPEG from a cheap point and shoot camera. What about pure optical printing process? Optical printing processes are becoming very rare these days and I needn’t go further than my parents’ photo albums to see that the ones that did exist en-masse weren’t all that great anyway. OK, so you could get some greater-than 8-bit scans done for a higher price, but sheesh, you might as well put your money into a DSLR, because even with the most disciplined scanning workflow, digital is always going to involved at some point, so you might just as well say ‘sod it’ and start off with a digital image.

Colour rendition? Nope, that’s pretty average on film too. With such a ridiculous amount of information captured in each frame taken by a high-end DSLR, you can easily emulate the rendition of any photographic film ever made. What about contrast?

I could go on but as far as I am concerned there is absolutely no tangible technical benefit of shooting film. So what on earth am I doing messing around with the stuff then? Well I actually largely covered my opinions on this one in a previous blog post, but I’d go on to say that there’s just something so satisfying about sitting down and flipping through a pack of newly-developed photos, which at the very least, I had to wait a few days to see. These days photography ought to be satisfying, because it sure as hell doesn’t earn any money… I’m just not quite sure if digital gives me that obliged satisfaction personally. Having said all of this, it’s unlikely you’ll catch me travelling with a film SLR because, hey, I’d prefer a little more than 6 megapixels, 36 exposures, ISO 100 and no instant-review for my holidays snaps thank-you-very-much! But then, my parents managed just fine with this limitation during their European travels, and they were happier with their pictures than I have been with mine so far. Damn it.