I have been a photographer for many years so it is a given that when I started out, I started working with film. Then, about 10-15 years ago there was a huge shift in the professional industry and almost every single photographer I knew switched to digital. I felt the pressure to go along with the masses, but I tried out some digital cameras and hated them. So I decided to just keep doing what I was doing. Then a few years passed, the pressure to conform was mounting, and I tried another digital camera. I was again disappointed. Maybe my expectations were too high but the images lacked depth and needed to be manipulated on the computer after the fact. That was not what I liked about photography. In fact, digitally retouching images after the fact is the thing I like the least. It is not photography, it is retouching. In contrast, I love everything about using film. I love the feel of the film as I am loading it in the camera, I love the sound the shutter makes on my Hasselblad – a big, loud, clunky noise. I love the sound that it makes as you finish a roll and it rolls through. I love the anticipation of getting my film back from the lab and seeing the images for the first time. I love the smell of the fixer in the darkroom when I print my own. I love when I get a delivery from my printer and open the package to see the beautifully printed portraits.
So I kept doing what I was doing. Frankly, I didn’t see a reason to switch until I was around other photographers. I went to conventions and all I saw and heard was how much better digital was. But I just didn’t couldn’t see it or understand the draw. I was so happy using my film. I even got yelled at a few times by other professional photographers who told me that I was stuck in the dark ages. Thankfully, I had (have) a phenomenal professional printer who is himself an artist in the darkroom. He told me to keep doing what I was doing and he would keep printing for me. Then, I went to photography workshop in Santa Fe. There I met my soul sister. We are different in every way at first glance – she is 6ft tall, blonde and very outspoken. However, when you look at the images we create, they are very similar. I was happy to learn that she was still using film. I had found someone else to talk to, compare techniques, different film types, etc., so I decided to keep doing what I had been doing and not to be cajoled into doing what I did not want to do.
After all, it was the process that I loved and still love. It is deciding which film to use for a given situation, how I will set my camera to get exactly the look I want, which filter and lens will maximize or change that look, and what instructions I will give my lab to develop to make it what I want. That process is what I love. I love knowing in my minds eye how the image will look because of my years of training, but then getting the images back and being surprised that they look better.
Since meeting my friend in Santa Fe and deciding that I would not switch to digital, I have fully embraced the fact that I can give something completely unique to my clients and to myself. In fact, I have gone in the opposite direction of the digital movement – I have learned to use large format cameras, print my own portraits, and have even built a darkroom in my home. (Though I continue to use my master professional darkroom printer for all my client work because he is still so much better than me!)
Yes, with film you have to think about what you are going to do before you execute it, because you have a limited number of photographs you can take before you have to load more film. And, you really have to know how to pose and light your subjects in the most flattering way, because you don’t have the attitude of “you can just fix it later”. But, that is the challenge and the fun of photography after all. And, you can “fix” things in the darkroom through creative techniques like diffusion, darkening and lightening certain areas of the print, adding contrast, toning, etc. That is an art form in itself and yields a real one of a kind art piece for my clients that literally cannot be recreated exactly.
It is ironic to me that the use of film has now become trendy among younger photographers. It seems like it is what all the hipsters are using now. That makes me happy because they are learning a magical process that you can only learn with film, but also gives me hope that film companies will see the trend, latch on and continue to manufacture all the great film! If not, I will have to become a film hoarder 🙂