An Experiment in Film

posted on: January 16, 2011

This holiday I decided I was going to shoot all family memories on film again- just for the creative challenge and fun of it. My tools were a 1979 Olympus OM10 w/ 28mm f/3.5 lens, a 1980 Minolta w/ 50mm f/2.0 lens, a few rolls of expired Kodak NC Portra, a few rolls of expired BW TMax, and some new rolls of Kodak High Definition 800. Below are some of my results, thoughts, and conclusions about this experiment.

My husband, deep in his favorite record store "Encore" in Ann Arbor, MI

Shooting with Film:

I love my old cameras because they are entirely manual focus and manual advance- and the meter functions pretty much only in AV mode and I have to change the ASA rating on the film in order to over or under expose in situations like back-lighting. Using the older cameras means fewer frames per second, needing to prepare for a "moment" in advance by pre-focusing, and taking the time after the image to advance the film. I'm generally a VERY fast focuser and shooter- so there were several times when my patience was tried or I was frustrated that I wasn't able to get the shot I wanted simply because I had to spend the time manually focusing or advancing the film- this part I knew going in and made me really get back to anticipating the moment I wanted. However, I would say I only got about 20% of the shots I REALLY wanted because of the manual aspect of these cameras and film, much of the things I really wanted had to be posed and created so that they could be prepared for in advance. I've really come to embrace being able to seize a moment without needing to be fully prepared for it with digital.

(Mary did this spontaneously before I was fully prepared, so I had to ask her to do it again for the film.)

On the other end of that... I lost an entire roll and a half of film because the film simply DID NOT ADVANCE. Half way into one roll- something must have been bumped off balance, because a perfectly good roll suddenly no longer advanced. I thought I was getting tons of awesome shots and in reality... I ended up with nuthin'. I was PISSED that I had nothing to show for an entire hour of making my sister and her boyfriend freezing cold and even having them lay their heads directly in the snow for a full 10 minutes- which they were not too happy about. Another strike against film- or against that camera I was using. Not to mention I was limited by the ISO that I had in my camera- which meant I had to use flash when I was indoors with 400 speed film before I could switch to my 800 speed film... either that or waste the rest of the 400 speed roll in order to move on quicker to the 800 speed, which I did once over the experiment. Strike 3 against film.

(They went up the hill 5 times in order for me to get the action shot I wanted. The film stopped advancing after this series.)

Developing Film:

Next comes the proofing. I still have to pay to send, or spend gas, to physically drop off and pick up my film with a processing center and hope that they take good care of it. Each lab processor has a different eye for color and exposure- which can be adjusted when they are developing and/or creating the final output from the film. If you can always get the same person to work on your film- that's awesome, but most often, unless you're working with a tiny lab or a huge lab that can provide you with your own dedicated developer, you get a lab that has different people with different preferences working on your film at any given time.

(An interesting red streak during exposure - would not have been so cool if it was over a bride's face as she walked down the aisle.)

Since I generally have my film scanned to disc, I also have to hope they don't get any dust on the scan or film. Now, since I'm a cheapass when it comes to experimental projects, I just went for Costco- who usually does a great job and keeps the dust to a minimum while letting their negatives hang to dry. I still had issues with the scans produced from the film, but they really weren't any worse than some of the professional labs I've worked with in the past when I used film regularly.

(Nope, Rob doesn't have his nose pierced, that's a dust spot on the scan of the negative.)

What did suck was that something was either wrong with some of the film or something happened in the developing process itself to create crazy colors and light patterns on the film. Granted, some of the film was expired and it was expected that the results be "off" but this was also the case on some of the "new" film. We may get dust spots on digital, but you can't easily fix this kind of color banding problem when the actual film negative has been destroyed or altered in some way. Strike 4 against film.

(Carol needed to convert this image of her grandson into BW just to enjoy it, because the color developing was so terrible on the negative.)

Editing Film:

Then came culling images on the computer. I definitely shot less- WAY less than I normally would- which makes editing super easy. I can just edit out the bad instead of editing in the good. My expected keep rate with film is around 80%, while my expected keep rate with digital is around 25% of what I shoot. However, I definitely get MUCH better candid moments when I'm working in digital because I'm going for those least expected in-between moments that are very hard to capture when the film needs to advance at a rate less than 3fps. Strike 5 against film.

Then there were the white balance and exposure controls. You're limited by the gamut of the film itself and whatever colors it can give you. While you can choose your film for its color profile and even use filters to alter the color at any given time, you're still limited by the color gamut available in the chemicals of the film itself. With RAW, your gamut and exposure range is at least 10 times or greater than that of film- there's just no comparison the brightness and saturation that you can achieve in digital compared to film. Strike 5 against film.

(These colors do not reflect their real-life vibrancy, and there's not much I can do about that in post-production without adding something that wasn't originally there.)


For me personally, this holiday experiment in using film has renewed my love for digital photography. I don't mind film for unpredictable results when creating personal artwork or on the side as an added bonus, but it has reminded me that I will not rely on it for a client who is paying for consistent and reliable results. I will not put my clients in a situation in which my choice to use film has resulted in a lack of coverage or an undesirable outcome. I have so much more control with digital - for better or worse - and when it comes to serving my clients in the best possible way, I wouldn't want to give them anything less than my personal best.

(Thanks to all my family for trusting me with the holiday memories while I take uncalculated risks to screw them up for my own artistic experimentation, and to Brian and Mary- hopefully we can do it again, but in digital next time!)

4 comments, to add [click here]:

  1. You totally used the wrong film if you expect it to be comparable to digital. First don't use expired film, then use film that has properties you want - NC film is neutral color which isnt going to give you the popping colors which are typically in your shots. The HD film is high ISO so its going to be pretty grainy and hard to post process.

    Having your film scanned by the shop is a huge shot in the dark and you have to pay extra to get it scanned at a resolution comparable to your digital stuff. If you shoot more film, you should get a scanner of your own.

  2. Tom - I fully acknowledge these limitations in my post.

    It's not that I used "the wrong film" but that film, in and of its own limited nature, can only produce a certain gamut of colors, which is limited in scope to that of the RAW digital format.

    I also fully acknowledged that I went cheapo out on the scanning. This was not to suggest that every lab has these problems, but that it is a problem which can occur when turning over your scanning to a lab.

  3. I was actually thinking of doing something similar to this... glad I kind of know what to expect now... :)

  4. totally with you on this.

    I convinced myself one year I needed to start doing film again with my weddings, and went for it, and realized my photography suffered for it. it wasn't my look, and it didn't doing anything for me or my photography. it kept me from playing as much, and the idea of film being creative was a crutch I couldn't overcome.

    I love my digital camera and the things it allows me to do.

    thanks for sharing and giving it a try! I'll never fully stop shooting film for fun here and there, but I definitely am a digital wedding photographer.


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