Why I Shoot Film - But Also Everything Else


Maxwell Barna is a local photographer and writer based right here in Philadelphia. He has written for national publications such as Vice, Huffington Post, High Snobiety, HypeBeast, Thrillist, Leica Camera, and many more. 

It took a while, but with enough nagging, we finally convinced him to write a couple pieces exclusively for us, from the perspective of a photographer of course. This is the first of these pieces. 

All images ©Max Barna, used with permission. 

Why I Shoot Film—But Also Everything Else

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the undisputed best photographers of the 20th Century. He shot strictly on film—almost exclusively with Leicas and 50mm lenses—and he is what many believe to be the father of street photography as we know it today. One of his most famous statements is, “Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

Of course, Cartier-Bresson came up in a completely different era of photography. When he was taking photos, each roll of film offered an opportunity to make less than two dozen good photos per roll—which, as we can see living in the digital age, has both upsides and downsides.

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film Photography Image shot on Kodak Ektar 100 in a Leica M6

As it happens, Cartier-Bresson is also the guy who said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I don’t know when the last time you had a roll of film developed was, but uhh… Between purchasing the film, having it developed and scanned and printed up, it can get expensive. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

And I suppose that’s about as good a place as any to begin.

I’ve been shooting photos for 14 years now, give or take. I started on a tiny point-and-shoot my parents gifted me for Christmas when I was 16 (Thanks for being supportive, Mom and Dad!), and when I was 18, I purchased my first film camera because I was broke, it was 50 bucks, and I figured, “How tough could this possibly be?” Well, three months later and after several awful rolls of poorly shot film, I used my first-ever credit card to purchase a new Canon DSLR, which I used for years. Sometime later, after I had become well versed in the magical Pythagorean Theorum of shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, I again tried my hand at film—and immediately fell in love with it.

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film Photography  Image shot on Kodak Ektar 100 in a Leica M6

I love all types of photography—film and digital—for different reasons. Since the battle between film and digital has become such a hot button issue recently, I figured I—as someone who truly enjoys shooting both—should weigh in on the issue:

Here’s Why I Shoot Film—But Also Everything Else

Ode to Film

If you were to ask me what my favorite medium to shoot on is, it is—without a shadow of a doubt or any remote hesitation—film. Film is exciting. It’s unpredictable (in mostly great ways), and it’ll teach you things about photography, about paying attention to details, and—most importantly—about yourself that you won’t learn anywhere else. It will test your limits, it will kick your ass, and its rewards are second to none.

It’ll Teach You Patience

One of the downsides to film is there are only a few opportunities per roll to get the shot you want. Depending on what kind of camera or what format film you’re shooting, you may have anywhere from less than a dozen to 36 exposures on every roll. With digital, you have as many shots as you can fit on the memory card in your camera (Think: Thousands of frames).

Shooting film will teach you about patience because after spending half a roll of film to take one not-very-good photo of a statue in some park somewhere, you’ll realize how valuable it is to be patient, take your time, and find the shot you know is best, rather than relying on the ol’ “Spray and Pray” technique so popular in digital photography.

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film Photography Image shot on Kodak Tri-X 400 in a Leica M6

Of course, this is all without even considering the fact that once you press that shutter button down, you can’t see what you’ve done. The only way you’ll know whether you did it right or not is when you get the photos/scans/negatives back and have at your work. It’s exciting, it’s terrifying, but every new roll is exhilarating and fun (or totally groan-inducing, depending).

It’ll Teach You Composition

Because you have such little room for error on every roll, shooting film also teaches you a lot about composition. Rather than becoming secondary to things like the subject or lighting, you’ll start to look at every aspect of every single frame you’re capturing. Every line, every corner, every shadow, every color—every little detail will start coming together to mean something important. Film ensures that the work you’re doing is entirely purposeful, and there’s something really special about that. 

Film Is Effortlessly Beautiful

There’s no polite way to say this: Film just looks better than digital. Tones, colors, textures… People love film the way they do because all of these pricelessly important compositional elements shine through in every frame, on every roll. No matter how incredible your digital camera is, or how much you pay for your monthly VSCO subscription, you simply won’t be able to recreate the kind of dynamic range you get while shooting film. I personally edit every single digital photo I keep, but will almost never even touch up my film scans.

It Turned Photography Into a Labor of Love for Me

Film is an incredibly challenging photography method to learn. The learning curves are super steep, there’s a lot of room for error, and there’re a lot of variables that can have both positive and negative impacts on a given frame. But that’s what makes film so great. You can’t imitate or replicate it—for better or worse.

When we spend all this time shooting digital photos that we can look at moments after we take them, make adjustments, re-shoot, etc., it takes away so much of the unpredictable magic of making a good photo. With film, it’s all right there, all happening, all in that magic moment when you press down the shutter, and just…

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film Photography  Image shot on Kodak Ektar 100 in a Leica M6

Hope for the best. Hell, shooting film can even teach you to love the little imperfections that make film photography so neat—being slightly out of focus, a little under or over exposed, whacky sun flairs, unexpected grain, etc. I can’t say enough good things about how rewarding it all is, even when it’s not perfect.

Embracing the Digital Renaissance

Of course, it’d be totally unfair to not acknowledge the usefulness of 21st Century digital photography technology. It has made the process of learning photography and creating images easier and more accessible than ever, and has completely changed the way people take photos. Though I’m partial to film, digital definitely has its obvious upsides.

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film Photography Digital Image shot on a Fuji X100F

It Makes Learning Photography Simple

Part of what made film photography so difficult to learn when I was a kid was that I just couldn’t understand the relationship between shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. And even when I would shoot a good roll, I’d have forgotten all the things I’d learned while waiting for the film to be developed, scanned, and sent back to me.

Digital, however, makes learning photography a very immediate process. I can take all the photos I want and—in real time—see what kind of impact changing the exposure has on a scene. I was able to witness first hand what stopping down or up would have on the depth of field of a subject.

I was able to learn very quickly how my camera reacted to certain settings, and what I’d have to do in order to compensate for these changes in lighting, scene, subject, etc. Shooting digital makes the learning curve drastically less steep, because there’s never any waiting or guesswork involved.

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film Photography Digital Image shot on a Fuji X100F

There Are No Limits to How Many Photos You Can Shoot

This reason is definitely a little on the subjective side, as some people enjoy the patience and care that film forces photographers to have and take. But for professionals and hobbyists alike, digital photography affords the opportunity to take as many photos as a memory card can handle. In some instances, that’s thousands of photos at a clip. For the cost of a memory card, your possibilities are practically limitless.

On a personal level, I definitely enjoy having the opportunity to not have to worry about lining up every single aspect of an image—subject, composition, exposure, depth of field, etc.—before snapping off a couple photos. It’s nice being able to experiment with different exposures and compositions to see which one is most fitting for a certain situation.

It’s More Economical

There are plenty of people who will point to the short term cost effectiveness of film; that you can head out to a flea market, pick up an old Canon for 50 bucks, and start burning five-dollar rolls of Ilford HP5 through it almost immediately.

However, What happens when you’re shooting even just a roll of film a week? The cost of film, plus the cost to get it developed, plus the cost of scanning negatives, etc.? You’re looking at upwards of $1,000 per year just in the cost of film and developing—unless you have your own dark room, load your own rolls of film from bulk feeds, etc.

Max Barna for TogTees Why I Shoot Film PhotographyDigital Image shot on a Fuji X100F

With digital, you might spend a few hundred—or even a couple thousand—bucks on a body and lens setup, but you’re spending that one time, and then bam! You’re in business. From there on, all you need is a memory card.

Resolution, Resolution, Resolution

It all really comes down to resolution. No matter how beautiful your film photo is, unless you’re shooting the best quality film on a high quality medium or large format camera, you’re only looking at something like 13 megapixel scans for the average and most common 35mm film.

Even the most basic consumer-grade DSLRs shoot more than 13 megapixels. There are a few variables here, but when it comes down to basic common applications of film and digital, there’s really no comparison between the two at this point in time. If you want to shoot the highest resolution photos possible while spending the least amount of money, digital is your way to go—no if’s, and’s, or but’s.

Conclusion?

At the end of the day, it’s really all about what it’s always about: Personal preference. It’s my belief that there are strengths and weaknesses to both film and digital, and that each should be applied in certain situations. I definitely believe that if you’re looking for cost-effectiveness, ease of use, and spot-on reliability (reliability to deliver good photos, so long as you have battery life, that is), then digital is your huckleberry. But if you’re looking to really learn, comprehend, and enjoy the art of photography, there’s no better way to do it than on film.

Visit Maxwell on Instagram to see more of his photography and writing work (the captions are clearly worthwhile). 

Want to stay up-to-date with Photography News and Inspiration from TogTees? Join our Newsletter.  

 


Leave a comment