Film is alive in the 21st century. Analog cameras offer simplicity, artistic expression, low cost, low noise long exposures, low battery consumption, and yes, high performance. There are film cameras for everyone: beginners, serious amateurs, and professionals.
Durable mechanical and analog electronic cameras are readily available. Old classics like the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1, can be bought secondhand for $100. New, mint copies of the Nikon FM2 and FM10 can be found. State-of-the-art digitally-controlled film cameras, such as the high performance Nikon F6, are still being made.
Is a film camera right for you? Let’s take a look and see.
Advantages of Film Cameras
Why would anyone want to use anything other than the latest digital camera? Lots of reasons:
- Simplicity. Mechanical cameras only have a few dials, yet offer full control over every aspect of photography. This makes them ideal for beginners. Techniques such as exposure lock and exposure compensation, are easily understood and executed.
- Low cost. A $100 secondhand SLR can give professional results.
- Artistic expression. Creative techniques are easily applied: infra red film, multiple exposures, long exposure, cross processing. Examples can be found in the vibrant community of Holga camera enthusiasts.
- Low noise, long exposures. Exposure times of a few hours are possible. Unlike digital cameras, there is no increase in noise or grain. This is ideal for astronomy. A mechanical shutter can be locked open indefinitely in “B” (bulb) mode, without running down the batteries.
- High resolution. A large format 4 x 5 inch film camera has more resolution than the best full frame DSLR, at a fraction of the cost of a digital medium format camera.
- High dynamic range, exposure latitude. Film handles over-exposure well, maintaining detail in the highlights. Comparing a 6 megapixel Canon 300D DSLR with 35mm Kodak Gold 200, Rik Littlefield found that, “Dynamic range of the film is significantly greater than the DSLR – approximately 15 f-stops for film versus 11 f-stops for the DSLR, as measured by ability to recover medium contrast detail at 20 line pairs per mm.”
- Longevity. SLRs and rangefinders that are a few decades old, still give good results. Today’s DSLR is going to be an obsolete pile of junk in ten years. You might not even be able to buy batteries for it.
- Instant photos. Polaroid-style photography has been revived in the form of the Fujifilm Instax and Polaroid Pic-300 cameras. They produce credit card-sized instant photos. Share photos with strangers that you meet on your travels, with these unique cameras.
- Cachet. Nothing says cool, more than an analog 35mm Leica M6 or M7 rangefinder. Casually stroll around with one, and watch the professional photographers with a ton of digital equipment around their neck, stare enviously.
- Visceral, tactile enjoyment. There’s something special about feeling the film being pulled out as you wind the crank, the aperture click-stops on the lens, the trigger break of the mechanical shutter-release.
- Direct connection to the hardware. A film camera’s back can be opened and the shutter released, allowing beginner photographers to see the shutter open and close, and develop a feel for the different shutter speeds. The lens can be removed and the diaphragm size for different f-numbers examined. The lens f-numbers are no longer some meaningless numbers on a screen, but a tangible physical property.
Advantages of Digital SLR Cameras
Digital SLRs do have significant advantages:
- Low or no cost per photo. Memory cards are erased and reused. With a film camera, it’s possible to spend a few hundred dollars on negatives and print costs, for a wedding or a long vacation. Low digital costs means that you’re more likely to bracket shots in tricky lighting, and use high frames-per-second continuous shooting to catch fast action.
- Large photo capacity, practically no reloading time. No danger of missing an important shot while you’re reloading.
- Internet integration. Digital photos are easily emailed to friends or uploaded to Facebook. Film needs to be scanned first.
- Embedded information. Digital cameras can record aperture, shutter speed, focal length, color balance, and other information, into the photo. This is useful for analyzing photography technique and improving performance. GPS coordinates can be stored with GPS-equipped cameras.
- Instant feedback. Exposure adjustments are easily made. Beginners can experiment and immediately see the results of different settings.
- Good high ISO performance. Based on my own experience, I’d say that today’s 1.5x crop DSLRs produce photos at ISO 6400, that are better than 35mm ISO 400 photos. That’s a more than 4-stop or 16x advantage in light sensitivity.
- Flexible ISO setting. ISO sensitivity can be changed from photo to photo. On a film camera, the whole film roll needs to be changed.
- Convenient image editing and manipulation. Free, powerful and easy-to-use software such as Picasa, makes it possible for anyone to edit their photos for that professional look.
Film Camera Basics
To be able to come to an informed decision, some basic knowledge of film cameras is required.
The larger the film, the higher the resolution. The two main film sizes are 35mm (36 x 24mm) and medium format (60mm wide, 45 to 70mm long, depending on the camera). Larger 4 x 5 inch and 8 x 10 inch formats are also used.
Film cameras can produce high quality images at low cost. This is because a lot of the technology is in the film. As long as a good lens is used, an old camera will perform well. The camera mainly provides the shutter, light meter, viewfinder, and housing for the lens and film.
There’s no expensive, quickly-obsoleted electronic image sensor. New, better, negative (reversal) and positive (slide) film can be used as they become available.
Despite the complexity of today’s digital cameras, the basics of photography are simple. To get a clear photograph with a film camera, you need to:
- Set the ISO or film speed (tell the camera what type of film you’re using)
- Set the lens aperture
- Set the shutter speed
- Focus the lens
This simplicity is reflected in the Pentax K1000 instruction manual. It is only 32 pages long.
Choosing Between Film and Digital
There are photographers on both sides of the great film versus digital debate. In 2003, Photographer Michael Reichmann compared a Canon EOS 1Ds (11 megapixel full frame DSLR) with a Pentax 67II medium format camera loaded with Velvia film. He found the images from the Canon to be more detailed.
However, Marco Boeringa compared 35mm film against the 25 megapixel Sony Alpha 900, and concludes that, “A medium format 100 ISO film scan though, is very likely to beat the Alpha 900 in terms of detail, considering Velvia is already that close in 35mm format.”
Ken Rockwell compares digital with 4 x 5 inch large format film, and argues that there’s more to the film versus digital question than first appears to be case.
Here are my recommendations:
- General photography (most people): digital for free film, good high ISO performance, Internet compatibility.
- Some specialized applications (large blow-up prints, astronomy): film.
- Serious beginners: start with film for the basics, then switch to digital for instant feedback and free film (encourages experimentation).
- Serious amateurs: digital, for good high ISO performance for available-light (no flash) photography.
- Fashionistas: film, for retro-chic.
- Artists: film, for flexible creativity.