This isn’t an anti-digital imaging opinion piece. I love digital cameras. But I think that everyone should own and shoot a film camera in the same way that I think that everyone should own a wristwatch.
Your iPhone tells the time. Your DSLR takes clinically perfect photos. Neither of these things have soul (and though eighty percent of readers just rolled their eyes at the mention of “soul,” hear me out).
The Perfection Problem
The problem isn’t digital cameras, of course. The problem is our obsession with perfection. For proof, visit any mainstream photo blog. They spout endlessly about perfection. We want optical image stabilization. We peep pixels at one-hundred-percent crop. We worry that our old Summicron type IV might not be as sharp as the Summicron type V. And when we’ve gotten the type V we want the Aspherical one. We’re obsessed with fast lenses that “bokeh” the context out of our portraits. We eliminate motion blur. We argue about pixel count, sensor size, maximum ISO numbers, and autofocus points. We pursue photos that are ever cleaner, ever sharper, more perfect.
Equally distracting is the ethos (widely unquestioned) that more is more. I agree that more is indeed more, but parry that more is also too much.
With a digital camera or a telephone-camera, you might shoot two hundred photos of a subject. When you get back home you might upload them to your computer (but probably not) and either forget about them, or spend four hours editing two hundred very similar looking photos. Ten of them will be good; perfectly sharp, in-focus, properly exposed digital files. One of them might be interesting. None of them will have character.
Digital cameras stripped photography of its organic mysteries and replaced them with cold science, provided us with endless possibilities that have entirely overwhelmed.
The Analog Solution
Before digital, photography was equal parts science, art, and magic. Images were ideas captured through mechanical light boxes, burned onto strips of chemically-treated acetate. Shooters were artists and they reveled in the process.
Photos were limited by technology and therefore heavily interpretive. The feeling of the shot was what mattered. Film photographers knew not to obsess over sharpness. Distortion was a tool used (or not) when dictated by the shooter’s vision. Focus was a choice achieved with manual rotation of a mechanical ring. Prime lenses were king and photographers used their feet to get close to the action. Better photos were the result – more thoughtful; more involved.
Luckily for those willing to embrace imperfection and limitation, film cameras still exist and companies still make film. There are shooters who never stopped shooting film even as they adopted a digital workflow. These two methodologies can exist in the same space and time. It’s a matter of taste and choice.
When you want to check the time, do you want to dig through your pockets, pull out a phone, get distracted by a Facebook notification and end up watching the latest viral video? Or do you want to casually glance at your wrist and read the time off of a tiny, hand-made, purpose-built machine from Switzerland?
When you want to take a photo, do you want to make three hundred coldly precise images that all look perfect, or thirty-six varied photos with organic flaws that need no editing?
The Value of the Machines
Classic cameras are uniquely interesting. The best of them are tools made to an incredible standard and for varied purposes. There’s a machine for every shooter and for every situation. Like a Rolex Submariner, they’re classic and mechanical and real. They look amazing, perform a function, and engage the senses. They also happen to cost approximately one-tenth the price of a DSLR. And that’s for a professional’s film camera. The camera that shot that famous photo everyone recognizes costs eighty bucks today.
There are small film cameras, large film cameras, film cameras made out of exotic materials like titanium. There are film cameras with synthetic ruby shutter release buttons, and film cameras that orbited the Earth. There are rare cameras and film cameras that have been on the moon, and film cameras that have dived with Jacques Cousteau. There are film cameras that were used by KGB spies, and film cameras that stormed the beaches on D-Day.
Film cameras are as storied as Le Mans winning classic Porsches (indeed some film cameras were designed by Ferdinand Porsche’s Porsche Design Group). They’re as intricate and precise as mechanical, Swiss wristwatches. The people who made them were as genius as any craftsmen in any field.
Why, then, don’t we talk about film cameras the same way that we wax on about other modern style and function obsessions – wristwatches, cars, furniture?
And There’s More
Barrier to entry? Hardly. Shooting film is easy. Buy a camera, buy some film, load it up and get shooting. The results will be better than you can imagine. Even if you screw up, film has a way of rewarding mistakes. Some of the best photographs I’ve ever made have been technically horrendous, but motion blur can create an impression of movement and imperfect focus can force the viewer to think.
The film images you make are yours to keep forever. Apple won’t ask you to buy more storage space and Facebook won’t sell your negatives to an advertising firm. Making film photos requires thought and patience. You shoot thirty-six frames in a roll, and those thirty-six shots might take you a month to get through. You don’t need to look at a screen, or navigate menus. No one will ask you to tag them in your film photos. You can disconnect from this wretched digital world for those thirty-six shots and shoot for no reason other than to make photos.
Get some experience shooting film and I guarantee you’ll never look back. There’s nothing to compare it to in the digital age. It’s magic, it’s science, it’s art.
You should own a film camera. It should sit on the shelf by your door with your keys and wallet. It should be ready to shoot when you want to shoot. If you’re going out for the evening, you should bring it. If you’re going on vacation, you should bring it.
Making photos is one of the most universally accessible ways of preserving ourselves after we’re dead. You don’t want your life’s record floating in The Cloud. It won’t last. And even if it lasts, people won’t look at it. You want your life stored on negatives or slides, where it can be held and viewed and, yes, even digitized for easy viewing on your computer and phone, or whatever retinal projectors your great-grandkids will have implanted in their eyeballs.
You should make a record of your life on film, so that your boring stories that everyone’s heard a hundred times have a visual accompaniment to make them not so boring.
Too long, didn’t read? Here’s the deal. If you care about style, class, substance, or what you’re doing with your life, you should shoot a film camera. So what are you waiting for?