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Monday, September 10

Return to film - a year on




It was back in September last year when I took the difficult decision to set aside some expensive digital gear and go back to shooting film. Digital has a lot going for it - instant feedback and the tremendously creative power of Photoshop being the two most important. But it has drawbacks as well and a major one for me was just a lack of satisfaction. Digital printing aside, which I hate with a vengeance, I find the taking and processing parts of pixel-based photography to be a doddle. So whilst I find it easy enough to take and process images to get them just the way I like, I can't for the life of me get any consistency using inkjet printers.

Dead End

In the last ten years I must have spent close to £1000 on printers and got no more than a handful of good back and white prints from them. I've still got an HP B9180 but gave up using it months ago other than as a normal office printer. I recently checked the cost of a set of inks for it and it was over £200 if I remember correctly (that's quite a lot of film and Multigrade IV). You'll not catch me throwing good money after bad as I rush down that dead end again.


So film it was and black and white exclusively. It felt strange when I returned and the lack of an LCD screen was particularly unsettling. Now it's as if I've never been away. And I can tell you now that my photography is ten times more satisfying. Although I used to look upon negative developing as a chore, I now love the process and the moment when I pull the developed negatives from the spiral just before hanging them up to dry is one of the most rewarding. A properly exposed and developed negative is the promise of good things to come and the culmination of artistic vision and craftsmanship. By comparison, the digital process can sometimes seem like little more than pressing a button on the camera and another few on the computer. Like a lot of modern-day activities, it can feel soul-less.

As a result of ditching digital, I'm glad to say that I'm spending a lot less time at the computer these days. I'm taking photographs, developing film and popping it into negative sleeves. A little scanning is involved to update this website but that's about it. Many blog posts are written on an iPad and a spot of repetitive strain injury I'd been experiencing on my "mouse" hand has largely subsided as a result.



The Fellowship of Film

It's not just about the photography, though. I think most of us are honest enough to admit that we're never really going to make a mark in the world of photography: we're hobbyists, and glad to enjoy that status. Although the image is - and should be - the prime concern, it isn't the whole thing. I also find that what I like to think of as the "fellowship of film" is richer and more interesting than its digital equivalent. Really, there isn't that much variety to the digital process. It's all a variation on a theme, the theme being computers and software. If you're like me, when you're not taking photographs you'll be spending a lot of spare time reading about photography. And there's just so much more to read about where film is concerned! Film, developers, printing paper, toners, enlargers, different formats, DIY cameras - all offering something different. This rich heritage makes the photographic experience so much more immersive.

Another advantage to film photography are the cameras and lenses. I can honestly say, with the possible exception of the Leica M Monochrom (haven't handled one yet but I like the idea), there isn't a single digital camera that I covet. But there are still lots of film cameras I lust after (read on to discover my latest, unrequited love). If you appreciate fine engineering and enjoy using beautifully-crafted and designed tools, then you're unlikely to be happy using digital cameras. It's also interesting to realise that you can find out what cameras your photographic heroes used to use during the film era and follow in their footsteps. An email friend likes the work of W. Eugene Smith and has just bought a Leica IIIf - the model Smith used for some of his most memorable projects. What a brilliant idea! One of my idols was J. Allan Cash, not so much for his photographs but for the fact that he was amongst the first photojournalists to make a full-time living travelling the world and doing something he loved. He used a Leica II with a 50mm Summar. Hmmm... Now it will obviously be possible for digital photographers to do the same thing when pixel-based heroes emerge (are there perhaps some already out there?) but is it likely someone will search out a Canon Digital Rebel to recreate a shooting experience? Not a chance, even assuming that it's possible to find a working example.

Printing Blues

On the downside, I've had rotten luck when it comes to printing - and the irony isn't lost on me! Initially and just as I was getting everything set up, my Durst enlarger packed up. The transformer developed a fault and started to smell as if it was going to burst into flames. Eventually, Cath's dad did a great job of detecting the fault - no mean feat at all - and soldered a couple of replacement widgets into place to bring it back to good health. Then, after just a couple of prints, my Leitz Focomat V35 blew its bulb. This is no ordinary bulb: this is a bulb that is no longer made and neither is there a substitute for it. I can buy a new bulb holder at a cost of £100+ but I'm not going down that route. I have a solution in mind that I'm hoping will work and I'll let you in on that one later.


Concurrent with the Durst coming back on stream, we did a bit of spring cleaning with the result that my darkroom is being used as a store room and isn't fit for printing just now. This is a bigger problem than it sounds. There's a lot of stuff that doesn't have a home right now other than my darkroom. It can't be thrown out and it's not an easy job to put it somewhere else so it will have to stay there for a little while longer. The good news is that I don't have printer heads and ink cartridges drying out at vast expense through lack of use!

Ebony RSW45

Want to buy a D700?

Am I happy I made the switch back to proper photography? Absolutely. Do I plan to go back to digital at any stage? Other than for stock photography, not a chance. In fact, and keep this to yourselves just now, I'm thinking of selling my D700 outfit. It's only going to see use as a stock photography camera now and I reckon I can manage to do that OK with my old Pentax K10D. The Nikon gear is still worth quite a bit of cash and I have to weigh up whether I'd like to hang onto it or perhaps get an Ebony RSW45 instead. If you haven't seen one of these, they're absolutely gorgeous. Ebony and titanium in a lightweight, compact, high quality body with just the movements that a landscape, rather than advertising, photographer might need. I'm going to wait and see how things go with the Tenax 54 before making up my mind.

So that's been my experience and it's mostly all positive. The photography skills I developed over about 35 years and which largely faded away using matrix metering and autofocus have returned. I no longer check the back of the camera to see if I've got the shot: I know I've got the shot. But what about you? Many of you must have made a similar journey back home. If so, it would be great if you could share your own experiences by leaving a comment. How are you coping? Any regrets or is it all plain sailing?

19 comments :

Paul Glover said...

"If you appreciate fine engineering and enjoy using beautifully-crafted and designed tools, then you're unlikely to be happy using digital cameras."

I think this is part of why I enjoy working with older film gear so much more. I've always been a tinkerer (my mother still remembers how every radio we ever owned had been taken apart "to see how it works" by the time I was 7 or 8 years old!) and I appreciate well-made machines. When I pick up my Canon F-1, with its solid construction, decent heft, perfect fit-and-finish and overall purposeful feel, I know I'm holding such a machine. The IBM Model M I'm typing this up on is another example from the time before computers became commodity items made to a price point. I feel that digital cameras are heading the same way computers eventually did, with all but a few prestige models built cheaply with the knowledge that they'll be gathering dust in a few short years anyway.

My own film shooting experience has been generally positive, too. It has improved me as a photographer. It has freed me from the tyranny of gearhead discussions which owe everything to technology and nothing to actual photography.

I'm still scanning my film but have some hope that I may, eventually, put together a darkroom. For now I outsource my printing from the scans I make; having a lab do it is cheaper and less overall hassle than running an inkjet. We have an inkjet photo printer, it's been out of ink for so long the print heads are most likely shot.

Anonymous said...

Like yourself Bruce I found digital photography a shallow experience so returned to film with enthusiasm . I shoot 35m with a leica IIIf , medium format with Rollei and Mamiya gear ( all cameras I only previously dreamt of owning) and I am currently enjoying the 4x5 format and carrying a Toyo monorail camera over the yorkshire dales. The excitement at trying a different film and developers is something digital photography cannot compete with. I usually go out shooting Monday mornings and my planning photo experience begins on a sunday evening, not charging any batteries but checking the weather considering my location, loading my six film holders with maybe four film types , Rollei IR or efke for infrared shots ,Rollei ortho 25 high contrast grain free , Adox 50 for a 1950's feel, fuji velvia if a nice color scene is likely.Venturing forth on the monday morning knowing you have only 12 shots available adds another dimension to your picture selection. When you return home you then have multiple options on how to develop.(Usally over next couple of days) Then scanning much better than contact printing unless of course you want to do salt prints or the many available alternative processes. Then of course you step into the darkroom and ............ I may have to pay for each film shot I take but the hours of pleasure/entertainment from even an average shot makes it great value.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Thanks for chiming in guys. Couldn't agree more, Paul, about semi disposable digital cameras. Once you've handled an F1, Nikon F2 or the likes of a Konica Autoreflex T3 you appreciate the difference between a camera made to last using the best materials and a piece of throwaway junk. That might sound harsh but I think it's accurate for probably about 85% of digital cameras.

Anon, I think it's the variety that makes film photography such a great experience. It's not all just silicon-based, is it? You sound like you have loads of fun just in the planning stage! I wish I were that organised!

Tim said...

You might want to try scanning your film and send it off to Ilford who can then laser print it onto proper chemical photographic paper. The results are very impressive indeed, I've only seen other peoples results so far but I will definitely be trying my own very soon..

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Thanks, Tim, but I'm not too far away from getting back control of my darkroom. A few weeks at most and I should be pulling some nice Multigrade prints out of the fixer. I don't want to give up control of any part of the photographic process now I've got it back again.

Dave Green said...

I totally agree with ..."there isn't a single digital camera that I covet". With the exception of the Leica M9 :-)all the cameras on my 'wish list' are film cameras. I appreciate the engineering that has gone into making them and the fact I can put the latest film into a 1950s camera and get great results.

Neal said...

Same story for me here, I've been shooting since I was 12. (on and off but mostly on) until digital came along, I jumped on the band wagon for a little bit but kind of fell out of love with photography during that period, I didn't shoot as much and the digital became more a documentary device as the quality and feel just wasn't there. after my hiatus from photography I realised there's no reason to stop doing it the way I love doing it. So I picked up the rolleiflex and got right back into it.

My laundry doubles as my darkroom, I have 3 enlargers setup to handle different film and paper sizes and I have been dabbling in alternative processes too, I especially like the bromoil printing process. very hands on.

I shoot in formats from 35mm all the way up to 4x5 and I'm loving it...

Next step for me is to get a nice big 4x5 enlarger with film holders for all the different formats, then I can relegate my other enlargers to storage which will give me more space.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

It seems we all got fed up of digital for much the same reasons. Maybe we're a small subset of photography but it's hardly our fault that we've got such good taste and class!

Richard Warom said...

Hi Bruce
I had a similar journey but with a slight twist. It started sometime early on in the last decade when I suddenly decided that I wanted to get back into photography, (in my late teanage years I had owned a Zenith B which I still have but not sure that it works anymore) so with this desire in mind I went to a local Argos and bought a Nikon F55 kit as it was all I could afford at the time. I had some fun taking colour pictures and getting them developed and printed at Jessops in Leicester (I live near)which at that time had a fantastic second hand camera section as did the big Jacobs store at the other end of town. I did enjoy drooling over the wonderful goodies on offer and eventually bought myself a lovely Nikon F100 and a Mamiya 645 the newer type these I used for colour E6 and really enjoyed processing the film myself and scanning the results as my computer skills grew. Then I was beguiled by digital and worked my way up to a Nikon D300 with lots of lenses and sold my film cameras to pay for my new obsession, but like you and the other commentators I found that the process didn't satisfy me. I have now completed the circle by coming back to film but this time just B&W and have truly found what I was looking for, like you I love the developing process when you take the film out of the final wash and seeing the results and I am enjoying working in my darkroom trying to make those negatives come to life in print. I do have the occasional pang when I think of the film cameras I sold at a loss, but you have to move on and I now have some lovely film cameras that are a joy to use. The whole B&W process is very challenging and gives me the feeling that as much as I try to learn about it the learning process will never end. Thanks for your blog.
Richard

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

It doesn't matter how we got here, Richard, just that we arrived at the right destination. I have your film gear pangs whenever I think of the money I've wasted on digital equipment. The only people who did well were those who were never tempted away from film photography or those who started their photographic journey with film when the market was at its lowest - and there aren't too many of either.

Frank M. said...

Even though I understand quite well your love for film gear (a good film camera is forever a good film camera, a good digital camera is obsolete the next month), I don't share your fascination with film processing. Hell, SebastiĆ£o Salgado switched to digital and loved it!
But that aside, I am very happy to see you are blogging again. Looking at your photos (film or digital - they are photographic images anyway) is always a lesson in photography to me.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Hi Frank! Nice to hear from you again. I get the point you're making about film processing and felt the same way myself when I was trying to shoot film and digital at the same time. When you're shooting digital film always seems too much bother which, I suppose, is why so many photographers moved away from film in the first place. When you ditch digital, though, film returns to what it always was - a considered, high quality way of capturing the world.

Aside from getting great satisfaction from developing negs, I like the idea that I'm responsible for every part of a process that requires different skills from choosing the right film for the job to mounting the finished print. I wouldn't like to surrender the developing to anyone else. Digital demands a much-reduced range of skills that, as I said, are variations on a computer/software theme and which I just don't find as satisfying.

Anonymous said...

Bruce:

When you wrote "The Fellowship of Film," I thought at first you were going to describe how film users seem to have formed into a kind of support community. "Oh, you shoot film too? Cool..." I'm sure you get that a lot too. And there is an element of common bond at work here too. Using film can be just a way you like to do things, but intended or not, it also makes a statment.

Keep up the great postings!
Gary

Steve Weston said...

I have gone on the same journey. My wife is disgruntled because I am buying back the film equipment I sold to go digital. My family think I have gone nuts but me, I am loving it. I have a D3 sitting in the cupboard which I will be selling shortly. It has not been used for a long time and now I have just picked up an M3TTL it probably won't get used again. I do have one last little problem which is sitting in front of the computer following people on the web who use film but I will get there. :)

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

The feeling that we're missing something with digital seems confined mainly to ex-film guys, Steve. I sometimes wonder if digital only photographers would feel the same way if they were to have a go at film.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

The feeling that we're missing something with digital seems confined mainly to ex-film guys, Steve. I sometimes wonder if digital only photographers would feel the same way if they were to have a go at film.

Mike Geng said...

I have only been shooting beyond point and shoot stuff for 3.5 years, so to me photography as a personal journey began then. I started with a Canon 30D slr I bought used. I now do photojournalism covering motorsports/aviation and do general personal photography and am on the board now of our local photo society (Roswell Photo Society). Having the latest fast SLR gear and long lenses is great for what I need to do "on assignment", but my personal "art" shooting was suffering and I felt unfulfilled. So I did the next logical thing and got an M9 and love how it slows me down and makes me think. I then have taken that to the next level and have an M3 and M6 and have been focused, along with the M9, on just doing black/white if I am not shooting an event. I am working on framing, working more with light, and contrast. I also just picked up a bunch of 2ndhand darkroom equipment. I firmly believe immersing myself in film and having an appreciation for the analog process and black/white will make me a better photographer. I don't see myself not shooting digital...but who knows. I shoot with a mostly 30-50 year old crowd, and I want to do things differently. I have tons to learn, as I am learning backwards, but it will give me a stronger foundation to build back from. Anyway, thanks for the blog, just found it today and will comb through it thoroughly.

Al Denholm said...

My experiences were slightly different,as I started learning photography using film around 3 years ago,I decided on film as I really wanted to learn photography from the ground up and felt that using a digital camera wouldn't teach me much,,firstly it was colour film,then monochrome which I fell in love with and stick with now and do all my own work at home,around a year ago I bought a Nikon D40X with nikon 18-55 kit lens,a bargain at 150 quid,the Nikon gets used while on holiday sometimes,,but there's no way it will ever take the place of my fim cameras,silver halide all the way here.

Richard Keeling said...

Excellent post. I, too, am a hobbyist and enjoy my photography as such. Although I started out with film as a young man, I didn't really get into photography until digital came along, and digital was my sole medium for over a decade. Then I began to get more interested in the history and aesthetics of photography, and that led back into a consideration of film. I picked up a cheap Elan 7E for my Canon lenses and away I went. I thought it would be a fad, a fleeting pleasure, but it is not. I, too, find myself getting more pleasure from film than digital even though I will never wholly abandon digital - it has advantages over film that should not be minimized. But seeing a roll of home-developed film hanging and drying is part of a very special form of tactile pleasure that simply cannot be matched on a computer screen.