The Satisfaction Of Making Film Photographs

Writing down my notes about the film's exposures. These Photo Memo books are made by Shoot Film Co. Nikon FA with 50mm F1.8 AI-s pancake lens.

In tenth grade in the early 2000's, a class I was taking at school introduced us to film photography. The goal of the lesson was to capture a roll of film with the goal of developing and printing it, and while I don't remember most of the details, I do remember printing a photograph of a BMW sitting in the carpark in black and white. It was a real photo print made in the school's darkroom. I never had a clue photography would be for me what it is today, but I always remember this.

Over the years I've spent photographing, my appreciation for film has grown from little more than the acknowledgement that it still exists to frustration and half-baked attempts at shooting it and developed rolls carelessly neglected, to a resounding epiphany at the very start of this year that I have to shoot film.

As I sit here, my resistance against shooting film now feels like it was always going to lose. I just hadn't made results with it that I couldn't get with a digital camera in a way that felt like I could justify the cost and process involved in it, from buying film to developing and scanning it.

My digital SLR, the 36mp Nikon D810, produces images with such high fidelity and dynamic range that you can almost call it a medium format camera. The images are predictable, pristine and perfect, with all the latitude and detail you could want coupled with instant feedback and all the features you can imagine for shooting professionally. There's nothing wrong with that, especially when you're on the job and you're being paid to deliver.

But what made me realise that film is truly something different was a recent (brand new) roll of TRI-X I shot with my new Nikon FA / 50mm camera. I consider myself pretty adept at digital raw file processing, but no matter what I did with Lightroom, VSCO Film and Silver Efex Pro, I couldn't make similar portraits feel like these. To top it off, if I came close, my head would start telling me, "But now you're faking it! Just shoot film!"

Perhaps I'm just not good enough at image processing, but I think it was this coupled with the love for film that photographers like Jason Lee, Ryan Muirhead and others brought to the table that pushed me over the edge in recent times. It helps that using a film camera has turned out to be such a wonderful and tactile experience, something that is sorely missing from digital cameras.

When you take time to make photographs using a film camera with work required to compose and estimate the results in your mind, the payoff when you shoot a great photograph satisfies the soul far more than any digital camera can. That's when it all becomes worthwhile.

Medium format portraits of A Direst Desire band members on a Rolleiflex 2.8E2 using Ilford HP5+ black and white film - Early 2014, still didn't catch me for good...

I love digital cameras for everything they do to produce predictable and high quality results, but in all they do, they do not allow you to appreciate photography in the same way that film does, even when you try. There's a tactile and physical craft required of film that it took me too long to appreciate, and to let go of everything digital had taught me photography was supposed to be.

What I've been discovering is that with the right process and a healthy dose of discipline, shooting film can not only result in high quality work and highly usable scanned images, it can also provide a much richer satisfaction in knowing that you've gone to the effort of creating each and every photograph as a physical and tangible object.

I've also taken up the discipline of writing down notes on a physical notepad (from Shoot Film Co). For every roll, I assign a number, jot down the technical details such as camera and lens and the film stock I'm using. In the ruled lines I write simple notes about when, what and where I shot frames or groups of frames. On top of that I use the other end of the notepad for my daily to-do lists. I've missed the meditative nature of putting aside some time to collect your thoughts and write down your notes about the things I've done and the things I need to do. All of this tactility may get repetitive over time, but I find myself really enjoying this aspect right now.

So I guess I'm just rambling now or perhaps I'm just drinking the Kool Aid, but I'm going to be shooting a lot more black and white film this year, from portraits to street photography. I've ordered all of the B&W film developing gear and chemicals I need to develop at home, so I'm excited.

Some Inspiration

A lot of factors contributed towards the cause of this article, so I wanted to add some of them in the form of existing film photographers for you to see what I'm talking about and hopefully take away something yourself.

Jason Lee - Photographer, Actor & Skater

For episode one of our new series, Table Talk with Chris Pastras, we feature actor/skateboarder/photographer Jason Lee. Watch as Chris talks to Jason about photography, skating and diarrhea.

Ian Ruhter joined by actor Gary Oldman - (Very) Large Format Wet Plate Portraits

The Carnival of Dreams is a short film based on the unforeseen events that transpired over a 48 hour period in a magical place called Slab City where Ian Ruhter and Will Eichelberger set out to make the world's largest Ambrotype. In the midst of this larger 3 year project to photograph and film the community a spontaneous visit by Gary Oldman to Ruhter and our crew in the field revealed something far greater than the process that brought everyone together. As Oldman and Ruhter focus their cameras on each other the plates unveiled a beautiful friendship...

Ryan Muirhead - Fine Art Portrait Photographer