Why I Shoot Film in the 21st Century

The argument over which photographic medium (film or digital) is better is pointless. Both film and digital have practical applications in 21st century photography. I don't have to tell you how awesome digital camera technology has become recently. I do, however, like to take every opportunity possible to talk up film. No, film is not "dead" simply because the future of Kodak is up in the air and you can't get your 35mm developed on site at your local drug store in an hour. Film photography is definitely a niche market now, but film sales have been on the rise since 2009. Several film developing labs have popped up all over the U.S. in recent years to accommodate the increasing number of film shooters. Labs like Indie Film Lab, Find Lab, State Film Lab, and the Darkroom offer full developing, scanning, editing, and even printing services in various formats. I shoot both film and digital. I usually use film for my personal projects and digital for my business. If given the choice of one over the other (desert island scenario), I'd probably pick film. Here's why:

Rock Formations, Vik, Iceland. Ilford HP5+ (copyright 2015 Jon Reaves Photography)

Film Is Real. Film is a tangible thing that exists in the real world. When you expose a frame of film, you create a two dimensional image on a three dimensional object. You are actually making something! I love that. Something about shooting film seems more artistic; and not being distracted by a screen, or histograms, or white balance, frees me up to concentrate on the subject (aka the real world).

Film Makes Me Shoot Differently. After shooting digital for several years, I was surprised to find that film made me more intentional. With less distraction from the back of the camera, I can shoot without taking my eye off the subject. Because I don't know exactly what I'm getting out of each shot, I have to think more about composition, lighting, aperture, shutter speed, etc before I shoot. This sharpens my skills so that the next time I pick up one of my digital bodies, I tend to think more and rely less on the LCD. Also, because film forces me to take in every element of a scene, I get more keepers (and spend less time editing, too)! When shooting film you don't have the luxury of firing a hundred shots and then hoping you got a good one when you review them. You get 24 or 36 shots per roll with 35mm, 8 to 16 with 120, and only one at a time with large format (if you're that hardcore). Each of those frames costs a bit of money to process, so that tends to improve film economy as well.

Whitetail Doe in Morning Mist, Elk Knob State Park, NC. Fuji Superia Ultra 400. (copyright 2015 Jon Reaves Photography)

The Look. People usually say they shoot film because of "the look" it gives their images. I feel like that implies to non-film shooters that film just supplies that vintage look that you could otherwise create in Photoshop. I don't want my photos to look like they're 50 years old. That's not why I shoot film. None of the film stocks I use look that different from properly exposed digital images with proper white balance. However, the additional effects that film has is sharpness, a pleasing amount of grain, and good color saturation. My favorite film for color landscapes is Kodak Ektar 100. It's a color negative film that renders beautiful greens and reds. My favorite black and white film for general use is Ilford HP5+, which has a bit of grit like documentary photos from the '50s and '60s. It has a very obvious, but pleasing grain. Another color negative film that I like to use is actually still available at most big retail and drug stores. It's made by Fuji, and they call it Superia Ultra 400. It's cheap and is considered more of a "consumer" film, but I love it for wildlife and low light situations- like dense forests. 

Exposure Latitude. It is easy to over-expose a digital image. I usually dial my exposure compensation down -1/3 or more to avoid blowing highlights and losing detail. With film, I don't worry about that as much. Pro color negative film stocks have much more exposure latitude than digital camera sensors, which allows me to over expose as much as two full stops and still have detail in the highlights depending on the type of film I'm using. Underexposing too much with film will cause muddy areas in a scene that have no detail or information whatsoever. Digital is actually a bit better with underexposure. Because film has greater exposure latitude, it also has better dynamic range. A high contrast scene, which may require that three or more digital shots at different exposure compensations be layered in post, can usually be accomplished in one single frame on film. Since I can have my film scanned, I can also edit it in lightroom just like a digital image.

Roaring Creek, North Carolina. Kodak Ektar 100. (copyright 2015 Jon Reaves Photography)

Film Cameras are Awesome. I tend to get more excited about a "new" film camera than a digital one. Digital cameras are pretty much the same; you can't tell the difference in an image taken with two different camera sensors of the same era. With film cameras, and especially older lenses, you get different "looks" depending on your lens and film stock. Older manual SLRs hearken back to the days of when Steve McCurry's and Jim Brandenburg's images graced the cover of National Geographic. In fact, all the images that inspired me to want to pick up a camera in the first place were shot on film in the '70s and '80s. I actually own and use cameras from that era. I have a Canon A-1 and a Canon AE-1- both awesome manual SLRs. My main 35mm is the newer Nikon F100. It was made from 1999 to 2006 and is fully compatible with all my modern AF nikkor lenses. I often carry it along with a digital body as a backup. If you want to get into medium format, there's a plethora of interesting camera designs. The lenses that go along with Mamiya, Hasselblad, and Rollei systems are typically superior in construction and sharpness than lenses made today.

Ultimately, I think digital has more practical purpose in today's fast-moving digital world. But that's another thing I like about film; it's pace defies our modern world. Film slows me down and makes me think. There's just something about pressing that shutter release and hearing the click and winding of film to the next frame.

Tufted Titmouse. Kodak Ektar 100 converted to black and white in post. (copyright 2015 Jon Reaves Photography)

My favorite films: Ilford HP5 Plus (black and white), Kodak Ektar 100 (color), Kodak Portra 160