Why Film? (Redux)...or, 'The Bond Between Process and Product'

Recently, I've been making a lot of camera purchases.

My black paint Leica MP - The last survivor of the great purge

My black paint Leica MP - The last survivor of the great purge

Now, you might ask "So what?  You're always doing that."  But this is different.  These camera purchases were actually re-purchases of much of the same gear I sold off in the great purge of early-2016.  Leica, Hasselblad, Mamiya.  All back in my hands, and for about the same price I sold them for.  I sold off the X100T and a few other trinkets to finance this, and I'm back to just a single digital camera and lens (Fuji X-T10 and the stellar Fuji 35 f/2).

Anyway, all of this buying and selling got me thinking a bit more about why I do this.  By "this", I mean 'film photography'?  Why is it that I choose to use an admittedly retrograde medium for virtually all of my photography?

Many people, myself included, have spent much bandwidth on this question, often coming up with responses such as:

"The dynamic range of film is just so good!"

"I love the colours that film provides"

"The fine detail is just incredible" ;)

"I love using old film cameras"

"Film slows me down"

Now, with the notable exception of the last point, I agree with all of these points to some extent.  Film does provide outstanding dynamic range (negative film, anyway), and the colours are remarkable.  Fine detail?  Sure, it's there.  And who *doesn't* love an old mechanical camera?

But the more I think about this, the more I settle on one particular aspect of film photography that draws me in more than any other: film, for better or worse, simply engages me in the process of photography more than digital photography does.  Let me explain.

When I use my digital camera, I go out, I shoot, I come home, I pop the SD card into my card reader, I edit - usually with the help of a number of Lightroom presets, and I post/print.  Now, before I go on, let me state clearly that there's nothing wrong with this process.  In fact, this is absolutely ideal for situations in which you absolutely, positively have to have final images ready in as short a time as possible.  But the downside is this: the images become a commodity; they become something that needs to be pushed out as quickly as possible.

When I shoot film, on the other hand, I am forced to take a much larger role in the entirety of the process.  I have to load the camera.  I have to wind and rewind the film.  I have to ensure that the exposed film is stored safely until it can be processed.  I have to process the film, or at least walk the film down to the local lab and then walk back to the lab to pick it up.  I have to scan (or print) the film.  I have to invert (for negatives) or gamma-correct (for positives).  I have to perform some amount of dust removal on the positive scans.  Once all of this is done (and this can be anywhere from a day to a month later), only then am I in the same place as I was when I returned home with my digital camera.

Now, you might argue that a lot of this is tedious, and it is.  No one likes removing dust from scans.  But in the tedium grows a much deeper connection to the final product.  Obviously, this is a luxury that arises from the fact that I am not on a timetable to deliver my images to anyone.  But still, the more time and effort I invest in the process, the more value I place on the final images.  Again, this is not to imply that digital photographs do not take effort or that photographers do not value their digital photographs.

But there remains a fundamental disconnect between process and product in digital photography that does not exist in film photography.  Yes, one could simply shoot film for all of the reasons stated above, and just send the film off to be developed and scanned.  And there's nothing wrong with this.  But at the very least, that photographer has had to go about the process of buying the film, loading the film, winding the film, storing the rolls before shipping, buying a stamp, walking to the mailbox, and mailing off the film.  There's still an effort being made that creates a bond between process and product.

I think this is fundamentally the reason that the traditional darkroom is so loved by so many; this is truly bringing process and product together in the most intimate way possible.  I personally don't make darkroom prints, but this is mainly because I don't shoot a lot of B&W film, and optical printing of reversal film (i.e. Cibachrome/Ilfochrome) is no longer possible.  I also think this is part of the draw I (and others) feel towards large format photography; again, the photographer must take a deep involvement in the process, in order to ensure the quality of the product.

So the next time you're shooting film, or even developing film or printing from film, be mindful of how involved you are in the process of making the final photograph. and consider how much of this process would be lost - and how much that loss would mean to you - if you were shooting in another medium.