Like most film shooters these days, I get asked quite a lot about my hobby. The most frequent is, ‘Can you actually still get film?’ The second most frequent being ‘Places still develop that stuff?’ I don’t get asked much about why I do it, perhaps out of embarrassment to ask the obvious question: ‘Why?‘
To answer the first question: Yes you can buy film! After Kodak went bankrupt in 2012, it reorganized and pared down. It cut many films from its lineup including iconic ones like Ektachrome. Agfa basically stopped making films, and Fuji dropped half or more of its films. But a few like Ilford in the UK actually seemed to thrive. Last year, Kodak started producing Ektachrome again and even introduced a new high speed black and white emulsion. A couple years ago Fuji dropped the fabulous B&W film Acros, but then a year later reintroduced it by popular demand. Prices have definitely gone up, but there are still a number of lesser known film makers selling excellent budget films for as little as $4 a roll.
As to the second question, ‘Can you get film developed today?’ the answer is a resounding yes. Many drug stores still take in film for processing, and while one-hour photo services are largely gone, you can still get a good job done in most cities. Labs exist as well to serve the needs of those demanding higher quality control and specialist services. Outside of major cities, many people resort to sending in rolls by mail.
Gen-Z’ers think film is cool, and many first time film users are coming from this age group. There are lots of Instagram accounts now with film photos, and I have personally witnessed many young people in camera supply shops buying film. The many Flickr groups dedicated to film photography and processing attest to the resurgence of interest in the old ways of silver halide chemistry. Shop owners confirm this trend – there seems to be a 20% per year growth rate in film use in many countries. The more experimental people (large format cameras, wet-plate process, home-built cameras) seem to be more of my generation, i.e. people who have more time on their hands and more budget. Even Polaroid-style instant photography has made a comeback and is supported in part by Fujifilm with newly designed cameras.
There is even a newly designed computer-controlled developing system from Germany, the Filmomat, that is one of the coolest must-have machines for processing film ever created. The inventor can’t keep them in stock despite the 4-figure price tag. There is also a burgeoning market in 1800’s style wet-plate and dry-plate glass and tintype for those with a more experimental streak. A tiny French company started making films out of Japanese Gampi and Washi papers to create a unique look, even if they are very hard to develop. My title photo for ‘Passageways’, the passage in Montenegro, is one such photo, taken with a delightful hand-made wood Polish pinhole camera.
But just to prove I am not a Luddite: My pocket sprouts an Android phone and I often go jogging with a Bluetooth headset, and I did design this website, and populated it with photos taken by a mix of film and digital. Most film shooters are probably like this: Enjoying a fusion of past and present, a delightful (if eccentric) mix of pleasures. I often bump into other film shooters in my travels, usually tourists from Japan or Germany, sometimes England; in that moment of recognition there is an exchange of knowing smiles like a shared secret, and sometimes, conversation.
Many, myself included, develop black and white film at home and when the gods of chemistry are smiling, color. A great many film shooters develop their own; it’s not hard, but it takes practice and diligence. The results create a feeling of craft, creation and ownership that is gratifying beyond words. There are a great many YouTube videos describing the process, making life easier for the newbie.
Personally, photography and processing came to me as a teenager, back when one of my hobbies was model rocketry. In a huge abandoned field behind our house north of Pittsburgh, there was once upon a time a Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile battery having a concrete radar platform smack in the middle, at the crest of a hill. Back in the 50’s and early 60’s, it was part of a network of such sites designed to defend American infrastructure and manufacturing from Soviet nuclear bomber attack. In the case of Pittsburgh, this meant defending steel mills. The field eventually became ringed with housing developments that grew to become part of Pittsburgh’s commuter belt, and the Nike-Hercules base was abandoned. Today, this very field sports a large indoor shopping mall; all traces of the old missile site vanished in the early 80’s.
However back then, the concrete radar platform made for a great model rocket launching site. I scraped up enough money to buy a ‘plastic fantastic’ film camera for one of my rockets – it used a rubber-band powered shutter triggered by the explosive charge that ejected the parachute when the rocket was (hopefully) nose-down to earth. The film was round, pre-cut to fit the fat cross-section of the cylindrical camera tube atop the rocket body. The nosecone was topped with a cheap plastic lens. Since the film was round, no shop would process it, so I had to develop it myself. I read up on the subject and ended up buying a small manual processing tank, three little print trays, a cheap Omega enlarger, some Ilford print paper, and a stash of chemicals – D76, Kodak fixer, and Dektol – all required to develop those negatives from film through to print.
On my very first launch, the film captured two houses next to the field.
Being a broke teenager with no allowance made me into a keen entrepreneur from an early age. Aside from having a newspaper route, I also repaired radios and other small electrical appliances, eventually working my way up to televisions. Going door-to-door asking for things to fix was easy among my newspaper clients, and then with practice, to neighborhoods beyond. When my first rocket photo emerged from the fixer tray, I figured there could be a market in aerial photography, so I made some enlargements of the shots and sold them to the homeowners whose houses were captured in those round negatives. People looked a little stunned to see me at their doorstep, a pimply teenager with spy shots of their properties. There was no sales resistance – they simply had to have them! It didn’t even pay for the chemicals but it was something fun to do and it got me out of the house. It also helped teach me how to sell by cold-calling, something that became invaluable to me decades later as an entrepreneur.
Then came college, then working ‘real’ jobs, and by my mid-20’s my photography hobby had fallen by the wayside. Oh I had film cameras, but mostly really cheap things that took terrible, fuzzy photos. I eventually decided to up my game and bought a mid-priced 35mm Mamiya SLR and a few prime lenses. Nothing was autofocus back in those days. I still have all my negatives from the 70’s through the early 2000’s, and recently I undertook to have them all scanned; today they fill 6TB of RAID storage, safe and secure unless the house burns down. The scanning project brought back a flood of memories – 40+ years of my adult life in silver-on-acetate to remind me of my many sins.
Being a technology guy, in the late 1990’s I decided to purchase my first digital camera, an unassuming 1MP Epson PhotoPC 750, a real piece of junk by today’s standards. The LCD display didn’t even have a backlight, as white LEDs weren’t even a dream back then. Then came the stream of upgrades to more and more sophisticated boxes and lenses, culminating in DSLR’s from Canon and Nikon. It took until 2009 or so before digital matched 35mm film in terms of resolution, and even then, film in many ways remained superior (and to me, still is). Although digital kept improving, my scanning project reminded me of the look, physicality and nostalgia of that older technology. Film became an itch I had to scratch.
Finally in 2015 I bought a second-hand Nikon F6 body via eBay. Since I had already invested in a set of Nikon lenses, the F6 body seemed to make the most sense. The F6 felt like old times – all the important controls were on the top plate, easy to use and as familiar as an old shoe, no trouble at all to adapt to. My first roll of film came back from processing, and just like that, I was hooked. I plunked down for a decent scanner, a pack of negative sleeves, and set about to enjoy once again this hobby from my past.
The F6 is a fairly new camera, still in production; by rights it is the best 35mm SLR camera body ever produced, a culmination of Nikon’s 50 years of camera engineering expertise. The shots it can take with the better Nikon lenses is phenomenal. It takes hard work to create a bad shot; a lot of this is down to film itself. Negative film in particular is far more tolerant of overexposure than any digital sensor, giving film a wide tolerance for error. The F6 has a matrix metering system borrowed from Nikon’s high end DSLR line which gets shots as close to theoretically perfect as can be. It works perfectly with Nikon’s latest auto-focus lenses. The camera even looks like a DSLR, so taking it on the street doesn’t turn heads. The only real downside is that it requires non-rechargeable (and expensive) Lithium batteries, a real drawback.
In my thirst for ever more novel experiences, I also bought a medium format camera, the Pentax 645Nii, and a few SMC and Takumar lenses to go with it. The results blew me away. Even today, with a good scanner, I can get more resolution and color depth out of a decent medium format camera than anyone can get out of any sub-$2,000 consumer DSLR. But the real difference lies in the color palette and saturation characteristics of certain films, and the natural organic grain of black and white. Unlike digital, which I usually have to subject to tedious sessions of Photoshop tweaking to come out ‘right’, film ‘just is’, right off of the scanner, virtually every time. It has to be said that digital cameras do a lot of in-camera processing to make up for the shortcomings of the CMOS image sensor – each image is processed to death before you ever see it just to make the image look moderately acceptable. The results can be extremely good, but there is something to be said for having more control and less interference in the creative process. My own beef with digital is that while images can look quite stunning, these very same images can also look lifeless, flat, and clinical. That’s not something I’ve ever felt about film. You can get used to any look, but when you compare digital with film one for one, you begin to realize that the soul of photography has been wrung out of the modern photography experience.
The bad side of film of course is the lack of convenience. You have to endure fiddling with rolls of film, and changing them after 12 or 36 shots (and depending on the camera, sometimes only 8 shots). Then comes the processing and waiting; this is not a suitable state of affairs for those who demand instant gratification. You certainly don’t shoot a frame of film lightly. You are forced to deliberate over every shot. You slow down. You check the camera settings carefully and you frame the shot as perfectly as you can manage; meantime your subject could have moved and the shot you were expecting to take is gone. It can be very frustrating to see a wonderful shot go by and be incapable of capturing it. Any smart phone does a better job of capturing on the spur of the moment, which is why I also use a phone quite often. Different tools for different purposes.
Film photography is more of a craft, and a return to first principles. The practitioner must be at least dimly aware of the physics of the film itself, from basics like film speed, metering, and low-light color shifts to more esoteric things like depth of field and ‘reciprocity failure’; digital cameras take most of these concerns away from the user. Manual cameras without autofocus or exposure control are perhaps hard for the digital shooter to fathom, but doing these things manually brings a unique connection with the process, and far more creative control. Learning these things as a reflexive skill has made me into a better digital shooter.
So yes, I still shoot my DSLR. I have a very nice Nikon D850, and I swap lenses around all the time between that and the F6; Nikon did its customers a huge favor by making most of its lenses forward and backward compatible, more or less, since the early 1960’s, and they extended this into the DLSR line (although, most new Nikon lenses will not work very well on pre-2005 cameras). The D850 takes amazing pictures, for sure. But more and more, I prefer the less clinical, more organic look of films like Kodak Tri-X, Fuji Acros, Fuji Pro-400H, and the delightful saturation of slide films like Velvia and Ektachrome.
On a trip to Japan in 2017 I wandered into a side-street second hand camera shop in Kyoto. There in the back of the store high on a shelf was something I’d never seen before – a Kodak Retina IIIC from about 1958. It was gorgeous – a real gem, with a lens still in fine condition. It had been recently cleaned and adjusted, and the mechanism sounded like something German. I bought it on the spot. Later I learned that this camera was indeed made in Germany, engineered and crafted by some of the best German designers both before and after WWII – notably the famous Dr. August Nagel, who had been one of the founders of Zeiss Ikon. As a flagship camera for Kodak, it was top of the line in the market back in the day and gave Leica a run for the money. I discovered later that this camera line was the first to use the 35mm metal cartridges from Kodak that revolutionized consumer photography, way back in the early 30’s – almost 90 years ago!
After shooting a few rolls of film with this camera I fell in love with it. It’s light, pocketable, needs no batteries, folds up and needs no lens cap, has a light meter, and is extremely quiet. The photographs it takes are stunningly sharp and crisp owing to its German made (and coated!) Schneider lens. As an engineer, I have an idea of what it took to design this camera and manufacture it. I seriously doubt that such a camera could ever be produced today – the required skillset among engineers and craftsmen is simply gone, poof! …up in smoke, wiped clean by ‘silicon logic’. Holding such a camera in the hand is a wonderful tactile experience, difficult to find in anything made today. It feels like a precision photographic instrument, not just a ‘camera’. Using such a mechanically intricate, precise and well engineered thing makes me feel like I am a part of the process, and it gives me a certain satisfying thrill that’s hard to put into words. Far more than just ‘taking snaps’, it gives me a connection with a craft that is simply absent from the cold silicon logic of today’s disposable boxes.
And disposable they are. Can you imagine – I am using today, a 60 year old precision mechanical device that takes archival quality photographs as good as – and I think more artful than – anything that can be produced by a modern digital camera? What camera or phone made today can we imagine will be desirable or hold value 60 years from now? The batteries will no longer be manufactured, and the interfaces required to offload images will have long ceased to exist in 60 years. The world will have gone through 60 iterations of new models, guaranteeing the obsolescence of anything made today.
Today’s cameras, like my Epson PhotoPC 750 from 22 years ago, will be unusable. Maybe they will look good in a museum. But in 60 years, my Kodak Retina IIIC will still be cranking out fine images, of that I am sure.