Why I Shoot Film
I recently decided to plunge into the world of medium format. I’ve owned both a Holga and a Yashica Mat 124G previously, but that was a long time ago. And honestly, I’ve never loved composing squares. This time I opted for 6x7 format and debated for longer than I’d like to admit between the Mamiya 7, Mamiya 7ii, Pentax 67ii and the Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii.
I shiver at the idea of becoming one of those photographers who is interested solely in gear. Of course I like gear. Who doesn’t? But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the experience of making images. Since I already own and love and am not willing to part with my Leica m6, I ultimately decided on the Mamiya RZ67. It’s the best compliment to the Leica, in my opinion.
Disclaimer: The rest of this post has absolutely nothing to do with my new Mamiya RZ67.
I’ve been thinking lately about the debate of film vs digital. It’s a tired subject, I know, and pretty much every photographer at this point has something to say about it. Some people are fearlessly loyal to film, and others can’t understand why anybody would bother. And while Im sick and tired of the arguments, they do make me question why I still shoot film.
The majority of film vs digital debates seem to focus on the end result. And I sometimes find myself getting stuck here, too. I take an image on my m6 that I absolutely love, and then I question whether I would love that image as much if it had been recorded on digital. Do I like it because it’s a good image, or do I like the novelty of having shot it with film? Or maybe I like it because it took a little more work to achieve than if I had shot it with a digital camera. These are questions I am constantly asking myself.
It’s the same reason I don’t love iPhone images. I have taken some really nice photos with my iPhone - photos that, if taken with my DSLR, would probably be in my portfolio. But because they were taken on an iPhone, they’re somehow automatically inferior. But at the end of the day, an image has to stand on its own. Its value cannot be determined by what tool was used to capture it. It’s either a good image, or it isn’t.
So why do I constantly devalue images shot on my iPhone, and maybe overvalue images shot on film? I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me, the joy of photography has almost nothing to do with the end result, and almost everything to do with the experience of capturing the image.
It feels like in our culture, there is more emphasis on the end result than the process. Everything is simply a means to an end, and the end contains almost 100 percent of the value. Life itself is treated this way. People want to be rich and retire and travel around the world, and they spend their entire lives achieving this end result, never realizing that the process of getting there is where life actually is.
Take restoring a car, for example. A father and his daughter spend countless days, months and even years restoring an old car in the garage. They wrench on rusted bolts and make hundreds of trips to the local auto parts store. They mess up and break things that they then have to replace a second or third or fourth time. They might even have limited knowledge of certain processes that they then have to spend time researching and learning before they can proceed.
Why not just go to the auto shop and pay somebody to restore the car? It would certainly be a much more efficient way of achieving the end result. Why continue to endure all the cuts and scrapes and stinging sweat in the eyes and smelling like gasoline for days on end?
Well, because of the experience.
People don’t restore a car to have a restored car. They restore a car out of enjoyment for the process. You can’t buy the feeling of building something with your own two hands. It has to be earned. This is exactly how I feel about the film vs digital debate.
Digital has its merits. I use it all the time. There is no denying the importance of speed, especially in a competitive business market. It’s cost effective (as long as you don’t upgrade your gear every time something new comes out), it’s fast, and most of the time it requires very little thinking and actual knowledge of photography. Just turn your camera to an automatic setting and let it do all the work. If it doesn’t look right on the LCD screen, make adjustments and keep shooting. If it still doesn’t look good, fix it in post. As long as the end result looks good, it doesn’t really matter how the image was made. And digital produces amazing results! And it’s convenient.
But for me, there is something fundamentally lacking with this approach.
Likewise, many die hard film photographers argue for the quality of the end result. They claim film photography has a “look” that you just can’t achieve with digital. And while I agree with this for certain things - medium and large format cameras, for example, do produce a look that is hard to match with the smaller sensor sizes of 35mm and DSLRs - I don’t think it’s as legitimate of an argument as they make it out to be. Most people who make this claim are referring to film stocks and how certain films give different colors and characteristics that you can’t achieve with digital. But I have seen presets on Lightroom and VSCO that come pretty darn close. And I doubt most people would be able to tell the difference, especially on telephone screens where most of these images are being viewed and displayed.
Again, I’m not trying to talk bad about any particular way of photography. If you are enjoying what you’re doing, then you are doing it right!
I shoot both digital and film. I think each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, and I couldn’t see myself taking an either-or approach. Cameras are tools, and different jobs require different tools. That has always been the case. But why do I continue to shoot film?
My argument is that shooting film is fun. I wish I had deeper revelation than that. But honestly, it’s just that simple. I have way more fun shooting with my film cameras than I do with my digital cameras.
Every time I pull out my m6, load a roll of film and press the shutter, something inside of me lights up. The anticipation of not being able to see my images immediately, of not knowing whether or not they came out like I intended, the smell of developer and fixer as I process the rolls in my kitchen - all these things contribute to an enjoyable and sometimes frustrating process that ultimately makes me feel something. It brings a different level of intimacy with my craft. It makes me love those moments that, if shot with digital, I probably wouldn’t love quite as much. It makes me work for something. And almost anything worth doing is worth working for.
I’m not saying that end results have no value. They are certainly always the goal. But if they become our sole focus, then what’s the point of doing anything at all? If we don’t actually love doing what we are doing, then why even do it?