For the past few years I’ve been pretty dedicated to shooting film. Aside from occasional shots around the house I’ve been shooting the medium pretty much exclusively.
As I’ve touched on in the past I enjoy most aspects of shooting film – the more deliberate process, the simpler tools and the look of the output all contribute to a greater sense of connection to the experience to me.
Still I’m not dogmatic in my choice of medium and I’m well aware of the downsides too. Shooting film is undeniably slower. In many ways that’s a good thing – taking your time and being more deliberate often means better results in the end. But with a busy schedule at work lately, as well as a big pile of negatives to scan after summer I felt a need to mix things up.
So for the past months I’ve been shooting a mix of film a digital, going with the medium I’ve felt like at the time rather than defaulting to either. And as a few things about this experience surprised me I wanted to note down a few quick thoughts while the experience is still reasonably fresh.
Before the birthday party – Fuji X100T
Contemporary cameras are incredibly sophisticated. However something that was very striking returning to my digital cameras was how much you actually needed to babysit all the automation that’s supposed to make things easier.
On one of my first outings with a digital camera in a long time I was shooting the Fuji X100T. I felt a constant need to tweak the exposure compensation dial, keeping an eye on the live histogram to optimise exposure and avoid blowing out the highlights.
I was moving the focus point around and switching between different focus modes to keep up with my kid at the playground. I felt like I was constantly a step or two behind.
Now this is absolutely mostly down to me not having shot the camera much in quite a while, and most of the images came out despite my unease, but it was decidedly more work to keep tabs on what the camera was up to than I remembered.
Compared to shooting film it certainly felt convoluted. There I preset exposure, which is way easier than it seems, and then with the camera to my eye all I need to concentrate on is just focus and composition.
Picking up my Leica M9 again was a less jarring experience. It’s not a sophisticated camera, but that’s a big reason I find it so enjoyable (and I feel more confident with it since there’s so little to keep track of). However even here I feel a need to babysit it to a greater extent than my film rangefinders.
On the other hand there are certainly situations where the automation is helpful and can allow you to capture images at shorter notice than with a film camera. In particular in challenging conditions.
Perhaps the most obvious strength of digital is how usable it is in lower light. And while I’ve gotten used to shooting film in rather dim light too things are definitely easier with digital. The output is cleaner by several steps and a modern camera can pretty much see in the dark.
That you can squeeze off a few extra frames at marginal shutter speeds and pick the sharp ones later also helps.
It might not look it, but this shot of my kid playing SNES was made in very low indoor light. Shot at ISO 2000 it would’ve been very hard to pull off on film.
On that last note the medium of choice can often have a strong impact on how you shoot. With film you’re pushed towards a more considered pace, with digital it’s easy to get carried away. I often end up with way more shots on digital, but usually about the same amount of keepers. This sucks in some ways – there are more so-so shots to sift through to get to the good ones, and picking a keeper between a few very similar ones can be frustratingly time consuming.
On the other hand this also allows for more free form shooting. You don’t tend to play as safe and you can end up with pleasant surprises when being a bit more loose. Where film pushes you towards discipline, digital allows you to experiment.
I probably wouldn’t even have tried to make this image if I’d been shooting film at the time. Getting both focus and timing right (while walking backwards) would’ve likely felt way too risky to waste film on. But with digital nothing is lost in taking a chance. And in this instance I’m happy I did.
I really enjoy the look I can get out of a negative shot in nice light. But at times it can be a struggle to get to a nice end result, in particular doing your own scanning. What I get from the scanner combined with a preset or two is usually pretty close to a final image, but taking it from pretty close to all the way there can be time consuming. Getting rid of any color casts and dust marks as well as deciding on an appropriate amount of brightness and contrast often takes a bit of care.
In comparison a digital file is a much more forgiving starting point. Unless shot under odd conditions you won’t be facing any of the issues you do with film scans. They’re much quicker to edit and it’s easier to do subtle tweaks. This saves you time and effort that can instead be spent elsewhere.
It might sound like I’m pretty down on shooting film currently, but that’s not really the case at all. In most ways I do prefer the process of it to digital.
It’s simply that certain circumstances lately have made it a little harder for me to commit to it exclusively. So I figure that shooting more of a mix makes sense for a while (especially heading in to the very dark and generally busy winter time). This will allow me to take advantage of each mediums strengths and not be to bothered by inherent drawbacks.
As a side effect to this new foray into digital I’ve decided to upgrade my lovely Leica M9 to the newer M Typ 262 – a camera that offers almost the same experience but with a few modernizations. I’m sure to return to it before too long.
Remember though, it’s all just means to an end.
For now I’ve simply been shooting with whatever camera I’ve felt like at any given time, but moving forward I might have a more considered split. Perhaps shooting the day to day family stuff is better done on digital with film being a better fit for outings more focused on photography. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Or maybe just going with the gut feel is the way to go.
Anyways I thought it could be interesting to offer a bit of a status update on my approach for those interested. Maybe it’s possible to take something from my learnings too – enjoy the strengths of each format, don’t worry too much about the weaknesses, and maybe most important of all; shoot whatever you enjoy as one isn’t better than the other.