Why I like using film

Evergreen tree at sunset in the mountains

The other day, I was sitting on the couch talking with a friend and was simultaneously checking eBay for a film camera I was bidding on. He asked me “why do you like using film? Is it better than what you can get for your digital?” I felt a little sheepish, but the simple answer was no. But, I guess that is also totally OK. So, here is a go. Why do I like film?

The first is that it’s how I got into photography. I distinctly remember the moments as a kid when my parents handed me the family point and shoot and let me take a photo. Whether that was in the home or at the Grand Canyon, it was a moment that I got to make the decisions. I got to hear the click and feel the vibration in the machine as the 35mm spool wound up inside. It was magic, but I also totally understand why the didn’t let me do it all the time. Film wasn’t cheap, we weren’t rich and I was known for slurping up everyone else’s bottles of Coke with one sip (and therefore was likely to do the same with those 24 photos on the roll).

woman spins yarn and llamas in peru on film

Fast forward, film was how I really got into photography. After college, I moved to Lima, Peru to work with the Red Uniendo Manos. Among other roles, I knew that I was going to be doing communications. It was going to be a chance to see communities and make photos that I wouldn’t otherwise. So, I bought a Minolta SRT-200 camera with a 50mm f2 lens for $25 off eBay and the bought a whole lot of black and white film and boarded the plane. (see more in my non-profit portfolio)

portraits of peruvians on film

I quickly learned that there was nowhere to develop the black and white film, so just locally bought color, but I was still given opportunities to go out into communities and take photos. Whether traveling with the organization or just on my own, this film camera was a passport that let me walk up to random people and start talking. I could hear a little about their day, why they were there and then make a portrait. In the grand scheme of things, these weren’t my best images, but the set images mostly made on Kodak Gold 100 were some of the most important that I’ve made. They were the ones that made me love using a metal box with glass and transform images onto rolls of plastic and silver.

black and white film photo of baby

Another reason that I love film is that it connects me to my family of adventurers. My grandfather used to travel the world for work. My great grandma traveled the world for her volunteer organizations. I come from a long line of people who have seen the world and used film to bring those memories home. I have been working for months to scan boxes of photos that I was given when my grandfather died. With every slide, I am in love with the colors and I want to know the story. Why were they there? Who is in the photo? Why was this moment important? I just can’t imagine my grandson being excited to ask those same questions if someone brought him a box of hard drives.

So, I have come a long way since my days of wandering around Lima. I have a lot of fancy ass cameras. Why do I want some antiquated tool that simply isn’t as advanced as these modern machines? The simple answer is for that precise reason. We fly when it comes to images. In a given wedding, I make somewhere between 2500 and 5000 photos. I can easily use this machine to make over a hundred photos a minute. But, what film does for me is slow me down. Every frame costs me money. Every frame will take time to develop and scan. If I make a mistake, it will be much more of a waste, so slow down and make sure to do it right.

In the end, I use these tools not because they’re better. I’m not Adriana from Midnight in Paris, I’m not trying to say that the best time for photography was a generation before me. I’m just saying that there is a time for each tool and I like knowing how to use all of them. Plus, what is more fun than waiting for a roll of images to come back?

Lastly, I like film because it’s hard. It is unruly to have to transport the negatives. It’s sometimes frustrating to get them into development tanks. It’s always a bit of a mystery if I’m getting the chemicals just right. Scanning is an enormous pain. But, it’s that challenge that is pushing me and my understanding of how color, light and movement come together that will consistently make me a better photographer.

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  1. Pingback: Film Week 2018 | Joe Tobiason