This is not just a rhetorical question for a blog post title. I still ask myself this question from time to time.
My interest in the art of the still image was re-ignited a few years ago. Not long after, I was down a YouTube rabbit hole of videos about shooting 35mm film. Shooting on film was not foreign to me. My dad bought my brother and I our own 35mm camera when I was about 13 years old. From 13 till about 22 I would take it out from time to time and experiment then put it away. By the time DSLRs took over the photography landscape my trusty Olympus was a book end on my shelf.
In college my obsession with the moving image took over and my interest in the still image took a back seat. A major reason for this was access to gear. My Olympus camera had issues and I never re-invested in another film camera. Years later those 2 creative realms collided again when I purchased my first DSLR. I immediately started using it to take stills as well as using the video function of it.
Here are a few of the reasons I shoot film.
One of the initial reasons I got back into shooting film was the challenge. Even though I had some experience shooting film before it still was a bit intimidating for me. It was a challenge I wanted to overcome and master. I felt that the more I understood about shooting and processing my own film the more of a well rounded photographer I would become.
Nod To Influences
Having grown up in the 80s and 90s my early artistic influences were masters of the analog world, because that’s all there was. I may have not always known the story behind each photo I loved and I probably didn’t know the brand of camera or focal length used to take it. I just knew they were amazing pieces of visual art, made with film. As I grew older I researched and learned the creative methods, tools and tactics of Ansel Adams, Elliot Erwitt and other influential visual artists. After getting back into photography through the digital realm I immediately appreciated the luxuries that digital photography allowed me. Knowing instantly that your image will work or not is fantastic. After learning with my entry level DSLR I felt I was ready to upgrade to a professional model. The price of the cameras I was looking at at the time made me pause. I couldn’t justify a brand new camera for what was essentially just a fun hobby. That got me thinking again about all of those great images I loved as a kid. They were created on film cameras that had none of the modern luxuries of a DSLR. I started researching more about the availability of some of the classic film cameras and got excited about the possibility of utilizing more similar tools as the photographers I looked up to. That sent me on a long search for my personal perfect film camera. (Spoiler alert: I have a few favorites.)
Need For The Tangible
Multiple Mac laptops, a couple of Mac desktops, 3-4 iPods, 3 iPads, 4 iPhones and not to mention accessories to all of those are just some of the digital devices I’ve owned over the last 20 years. I love computers and digital technology so much that it has been a bit of an obsession at times. Over the last 5 years or so I’ve realized that I need more ways to get my face away from a digital screen, whether that’s my phone, laptop or even the screen on the back of my DSLR. I dove into journals and notebooks and have carried one around constantly for years now. I started drawing again, with just pencil and paper. Shooting with film seemed like another logical step. It’s another great analog tool for creating. Having a sheet of developed and cut negatives to hold after I’m done is amazing. I don’t think I realized when I started shooting film again how much I would appreciate this aspect of being able to archive my photos in a 3-ring binder. They are independent of any software I need to pay for, or online storage subscription and even free of a deteriorating hard drive. I’ve come to realize that I need that balance of analog and digital tools in my life.
One of the aspects about shooting on film that I was initially excited about was the choice of cameras I would have. At first I thought all I need is a manual camera that allows me to easily adjust shutter and aperture and that’s it. Of course my love for cool gear did not allow me to stop there. I revisited Olympus, tried the classic Pentax K-1000 and the like. I spent most of my film camera obsession, and still do, with Nikon and Canon cameras. Over the past few years I have tried as many film cameras from these two companies as I can get my hands on. The simple verdict is, there are many great choices. Personally, I have learned what features are important to me and have landed on a few cameras I will always use and keep around. A couple from Nikon and a couple from Canon. I love trying different film cameras and probably won’t stop trying new ones for as long as I find cameras I haven’t tried before.
Becoming A Better Shooter
Having a LCD screen on the back of a DSLR is luxury that is easy to take for granted. It is also a feature I was guilty of abusing. If I took a shot that I didn’t think was perfect after looking at it on the back of the screen I would take many more until I liked one. This is great in theory but the time I spent obsessing over one shot was time I wasn’t spending looking for the next composition, the next shot. Another modern luxury that was handicapping me and not helping me were large SD cards. Having a card that holds hundreds of photos sounds awesome, and it is but it was another element of digital photography that was not helping me advance my skills. Just randomly shooting a ton of photos hoping I captured something cool was not a good creative strategy. I needed discipline. Film photography helped introduce that discipline and dial in my skills at the same time. With a limited amount of shots and no preview of my exposure I needed to be more strategic about my shots. Shooting on film forces me to think about my composition choices in my head first before committing them to film. Once I have my composition locked in then I have to decide how I want the image exposed. I decide on what to meter on and how to creatively adjust to that meter reading. After years of practicing that way of shooting I find I like treating my DSLR in a similar way. I often turn off the LCD screen so my eye looks through the view finder more than anything. I don’t over shoot. I think about my compositions and exposures in the same way I do with film. Shooting with film as helped me take better photos with my DSLR cameras as well.
I think every photographer would enjoy some aspect of shooting film but shooting with it consistently is definitely not for everyone. I found I need that balance of having analog and digital tools in my life. For as long as I possibly can, I will keep my paper notebook and pen and my Canon camera and 35 film with me.