The Fine Art of Seeing: The Magic of Shooting Film

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain is reported to have said when told that a newspaper had run his obituary. The same may be said of the death of film. I am enough of a pragmatist to acknowledge that these days Digital is King. Yet, somehow, film usage not only hangs on but in recent years has increased. Sales have not reached levels seen in the 20th Century, but demand has been enough for Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji to increase production. Believe me, this would not happen unless there was a significant market for the product. In 2017, an estimated 1.2 trillion images were made with digital cell phones, tablets, and cameras. That same year about 16 million rolls of film were sold, down from 1 billion rolls in 2002. I suppose we can safely say that every year a million times more bad pictures are made digitally than are shot on film.

Photography always follows technology, but the old ways never die. Old hands like me like to use film because it enables us to make the kinds of images we are good at making—and maybe a bit because we resent the learning curve and impossible amortization of digital. Newbies see in film a connection with the romantic ideal of an earlier time—and because the look and processing of film is now old enough to seem new and exciting again.

What is the magic of film, or analog, photography? What is its appeal? These are my six reasons for loving film:

1. Film is Tangible

When you shoot an image on a piece of film it exists in the physical world. If you go old-school and choose to process and print your images in a darkroom, you are handling silver-based materials. Your hands get wet. You see the magic of a latent image revealing itself in the developer. You learn patience, and you have the distinct pleasure of learning to master a hands-on physical craft and art.

2. Film is Archival

A properly exposed, developed, fixed, washed and dried piece of film can last with even moderate care for hundreds of years. It doesn’t need to be stored on multiple devices to protect it from the inevitable hard drive crash. It won’t get locked up on a disk that can only be opened and seen with equipment that is no longer available. Today you can go to an antique shop and find daguerreotype images that are 175 years old and are as beautiful as the day they were made. I can go into my files and pull out negatives I made half a century ago. I can print the images traditionally in a wet darkroom or I can scan the negatives and make a beautiful print with ink on paper. I am not sure how many of our digital images we are going to be able to lay hands on in 50 years, or even 5 years.

3. Film Looks Different

Images made on film look different than images made with digital sensors. The image in a traditional silver negative is the result of microscopic particles of light-sensitive silver halide grains embedded in a gelatin coating that sits on top of the emulsion base. The grains are randomly placed but have a consistent size and density. Each type and brand of film has its unique character and grain structure. Each type of developer affects film grain in different ways. Contrast that to the pixels of a digital image that are arranged in a uniform pattern. In normal-sized prints, this results in a difference that is felt more than measured, but it can be recognized. Images shot on film reveal exposure and processing errors, as will images from digital capture, but the flaws look different. This said I have made beautiful silver gelatin prints and beautiful digital pigment ink prints. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. These days, when I shoot film I scan my negatives and print digitally. I achieve more subtle controls that way, and I don’t have to keep the water running… Other folks achieve success in different ways.

A good silver gelatin print has a luminous quality and depth that ink prints can’t replicate, due in part to the microscopic silver halides particles embedded in the gelatin emulsion sitting on top of the paper base. However, I do really like the look of ink on paper when it is well done on good paper. I can hit from both sides of the plate.

4. Film Records a LOT of Information

Back in the ’90s, as digital was starting to get a foothold in the marketplace, I spoke with some KODAK representatives at a trade show in New York. The gist of the conversation was if George Eastman had originally invented digital imaging, and along came a couple of guys today with a 35mm Kodachrome slide. If they showed us the slide and told us you didn’t have to boot up a machine to see the image, the color was fantastic and very archivally stable, it was easily stored and easily scanned. If you were to digitally copy all the information in the slide you would have a 300-megabyte file. And it costs 50 cents. We’d all be saying it was the greatest thing since hotcakes! All that and more can be said for medium format, 4x5 and 8x10 sheet film. Digital capture images continue groundbreaking advances in image quality and latitude, but there are still some ways in which film can blow digital away.

5. Film Slows You Down and Makes You Think

With a modern digital camera, cell phones included, there is practically no limit to the number of photographs we can expose before you need to insert a new SD card in order to keep on making our share of the trillion images that will be recorded this year. What has happened in the digital era is that making a photograph has become a thoughtless act, a reflex. If we load a roll of film into a 35mm camera, we know there are only 36 possible images before reloading. If we shoot 120 format film we may only have 12 or 10 or 8 frames per roll. Focusing with said camera is more than likely manual, as is setting the exposure. The result is that we take more time in selecting the images we really want to make, and more time in making the photograph. We have a chance to think about what we’re doing, rather than falling into the default mode of a reflex action. If you have never slowed down and paid attention to what you are seeing within the frame of your camera, I don’t think you’ll ever consistently make images worth looking at.

6. Film Cameras Don’t Become Obsolete Every Few Years

Several years ago, I was having some issues with the meter switch on my Leica M6. I sent it into Leica for repairs, and before long I got a call from them. “Mr. Miles. We have looked at your camera. It seems you have owned the camera for 18 years.” I was shocked that it had been that long, but they were right. “The part that is failing, we can try to repair and it should be OK for a while. But we only made that part to last 14 years. For a little bit more dollars we can replace it with a new part and it will be good for another 14 years.” The point is, no digital camera this side of the Hubble Telescope will be a viable professional tool for 14 years, let alone for 30 or more years. That Leica is still one of my preferred film cameras to use, and since that repair, I have gone through 5 generations of my digital cameras. By the way, the camera is probably worth nearly as much now as it was when I first bought it.

Starting Points

Assuming you have a film camera – and there are plenty of them floating around unused in closets and basements, and they show up regularly in thrift shops, pawnshops, and eBay – you need to choose a film to use. Try a 400-speed film such as Tri-X, TMAX 400, Ilford HP5 or Ilford Delta 400. These are all black and white emulsions that can be processed locally by these labs:

If you like to take risks you might be able to find a photo student or old-time photo enthusiast who will develop your film and make contact prints for you.

You can also develop it yourself if you are really into hands-on adventures. The basic principle in exposing and processing negative film is “Exposure determines density. Development determines contrast.” Make sure your shadows get exposed enough to provide detail. There are plenty of online instructions for exposing and developing your film.

Once the film is processed you will need to see what you got. You can make a contact print, or you can have the lab make small proof prints, or you can have the lab scan the negatives before they are cut up and put into protective sleeves. You will see the bones of the images you made when you look at the contact sheet, proof prints, or scans. Then you need to put flesh on the bones by interpreting the image when you make a print. That is the fun part.

This, at least, will get you started to see if you might like to pursue this craft. The thing that will really hook you, though, is taking a Photo 1 class from one of the local colleges or universities. That will give you a chance to go into the darkroom and experience the magic of seeing an image appear on the paper under a red safelight while the water gently washes away fixer and anxiety. Try it. You’ll like it.

But remember, ultimately it is not the film or the sensor that makes a great photograph. It is the mind, the eye, and the heart of the photographer that makes the photograph great.

Now for the eye-candy:

Accident Scene, Paris 1983 taken with Leica M6 Accident Scene, Paris 1983 ©1983 Kent Miles Camera: Leica M6, probably with a Leitz 35mm f2 Summicron lens. Exposure unrecorded. Film: Kodak Tri-X

I was walking in Paris, my preferred method of transportation when I am there, and came upon an accident involving a motorcyclist that had just occurred. (The sock of the injured cyclist is seen at the bottom, center edge of the frame.) Perhaps the element that truly binds the composition is the police officer in the center background, back to us, legs apart. Other little gems is the gesture of the man in the center of the frame, and especially the man in the window of the car passing in the background. It is an image that only took a moment to record, but it took years of preparation to recognize and make the image when the elements all came together.

 

Fascination, St. Stephansplatz, Vienna, 1990
by Kent Miles Fascination, St. Stephansplatz, Vienna, 1990 ©1990 Kent Miles Camera: Leica M6 camera and 50 mm Noctilux lens at f1 about 1/60 second. Film: Fuji Neopan 1600.

What caught my eye was the gesture of intent engagement of the young man in the center of the frame. Beyond the primary couple, a couple in the bar seen through the window in the background mirrors the foreground, as does the figure on the tright edge of the frame. I was thrilled when I first saw the negative, and knew I had something, but it was not until I made a print that I saw how perfectly this moment came together. I was further pleased with the way the grain of the Neopan 1600 film enhanced the mood of the scene. And of course, the image quality of the Noctilux at f1. Photograph made late in the evening.

It Is Time, Salt Lake City, 2006
by Kent Miles It Is Time, Salt Lake City, 2006 ©2006 Kent Miles Camera: Fuji GW690 6x9, Fujinon 90mm f/3.5 lens, Exposure unrecorded Film: Kodak TMY 400 Film

In early April 2006, there were significant demonstrations in Salt Lake City against HR4437. Thousands gathered at Washington Square, the location of the Salt Lake City government offices. The crowd marched from there to the Utah State Capitol about a mile away.

I stood on the steps of the City and County Building and watched the exuberant yet well-behaved throng. From my vantage point, I saw this man holding his home-made sign “It Is Time!” By far the best image I made that day.

First Communion at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, Salt Lake City 1985 by Kent Miles First Communion at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, Salt Lake City c1985 ©1985 Kent Miles Camera: Leica M6, 35mm Leitz f1.4 Summilux lens. Film: Kodak Tri-X, exposure not recorded.

Throughout the last half of the ‘80s, I worked on the Ethnic and Minority Documentary Project for the Oral History Institute ( now the Center for Documentary Expression and Art). In addition to portraits of people from 8 minority communities of Utah, I photographed events such as this First Communion service. It was a wonderful event attended by many members of the congregation and their extended families. This image captured the essence of the First Communion that the young congregants had been prepared for. The interaction between the aged Nun and the young girl is one of the great images to come out of the project and was recognized by a regional Leica Medal of Excellence award.

"Hey Man, Take Our Picture" Compton, CA 1975 ©1975 Kent Miles Camera: Canon F1, 24mm f2.8 lens, exposure unrecorded, Kodak Tri-X film @ ASA 400

The assignment was for an art concepts class at Art Center. The concept was Chance in Art. Our teacher had all of us 4th-semester photographers come to the front of the class, one at a time, and stick a pin blindfolded into a page of a Thomas Guide to Los Angeles. (The Thomas Guide was like a detailed printed version of Google Maps.). Wherever our push pin went on the page was the spot we were each to go to make a picture for the next week’s class critique. My push pin went in at Compton. Being a raw, naive white boy from Utah, I didn’t know that Compton may not have been the safest place for me to be hanging out. By chance, I got there as the neighborhood school ended for the day. These kids came by and said “Hey, man. Take our picture!” So I said, “OK. Get together here off the street.” They did, and the young man in front struck his perfect pose and I took the picture. Ever since, I have trusted in Chance, in Serendipity, and in my ability to find and make good images wherever I was. It is the ability to remain spontaneous while paying attention to what is going on all around you.

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The winners of the previous contest are Danielle Creamer, Hank Liese and Les Spencer. Congratulations! Come down to the store anytime after Friday the 31st to claim your signed print.

This week’s Fine Art of Seeing contest is for readers to respond to one of these statements in 100 words or less:

"I really like shooting film because _________________."

"I really like shooting digital because _________________."

The responses will be judged by pictureline employees to be the most compelling, amusing, or illuminating. Each category will win a print by Kent Miles of an image of your choice from his images in this week’s blog.

Winners can pick up their prints from pictureline.

Related Articles:

The Fine Art of Seeing: What Makes a Photographer 

Photographer Kent Miles on Wedding Photography

About the Author

Kent Miles is a native of Salt Lake City, Utah who graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He has worked with the Center for Documentary Expression and Art (CDEA) for more than 35 years and was a principal contributor to many CDEA exhibits and book projects. In 1987, he was selected as one of the "Top One Hundred New [American] Photographers" by Photography's Annual Awards in New York City, sponsored by Eastman Kodak and Maine Photographic Workshops. He has taught at the Salt Lake Art Center, Brigham Young University, and currently teaches at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College, as well as mentoring the Salt Lake Seven photographers group. His experience with both film and digital photography and the ease of his style allows for a clean and refreshing look at not only his well-known portraits but also his landscapes and cityscapes.

3 comments
  • Kristi Burton |

    I really like shooting film because of the nostalgia it stirs, the possibility of light leaks that add unexpected charm, and the thrill of using my husband’s great grandma’s Canon AE-1 with her name in embossed tape on the back.

  • Hank Liese |

    I really like shooting digital because I get immediate feedback, which provides both validation and second chances. Would that life were always so.

  • Les Spencer |
    I really like shooting digital cause it is so much quicker. Developing film used to keep me up all night. Now I just look, and there it is. Instant masterpiece! :)

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