This article is a written collection of thoughts explored in an attempt to think through some recent considerations. Every once in a while I get the itch to explore different film formats. The initial inspiration for this article was the recent consideration of diving in to large format film photography.
I’m approaching this from the standpoint of which film format works best for my type of shooting, and why. Not film vs. digital, which grew tired years ago. Both have merits, both are worthwhile. Exploring the choice of film format though, to me has merit. It’s an investment. Not just the film itself but the infrastructure/gear to shoot, process, scan and archive. There are advantages and disadvantages to each format depending on what/how I’m shooting.
I began thinking through buying, outfitting, then hauling around and using a large format system. I considered the benefits and weighed the cost. With that – this article isn’t a attempt to establish the “best” film for everyone to shoot, but the best film for me to shoot based on my own personal creative goals. My hope is this might help others who’ve considered different formats, and they’re able to glean any insights to draw their own conclusions.
One foundational question when choosing a camera system is what type of photography you’re interested in. If you’re strictly a landscape photographer making very large prints, a 35mm film camera probably isn’t your best option. Answering the question of what you’re planning to do with the photographs is important before making the commitment to a system.
Besides prints, printed books are one of my favorite applications for photographs. The ideal resolution of a 35mm photograph is far more than adequate to print any reasonably sized book, even large, coffee table books.
Of course, if you want to go totally old school, pop some corn and fire up the projector, you could have a good old-fashioned slide show (who remembers that distinct smell of the projector bulb as it heats up to throw your beautiful images across a dark room)?
Sheet Film & Large Format
Sheet film’s immense size has obvious advantages to image quality due to the amount of information contained. There’s nothing like it. Gorgeous, super high-resolution images you can zoom into various parts and form compositions within compositions allow printing gigantic prints people will ooh and ah at. It’s truly spectacular. Another advantage to sheet film is the processing. Because you’re not developing 12, 16 or 36 different exposures at a time – and just one – you’re able to customize development for that one, specific shot. This allows custom processing and tremendous creative control for each frame. The down side is, sheet film is expensive and a bit cumbersome to work with. A 20-sheet box of 4″ x 5″ Velvia 100 runs about $72. That’s about $3.60 per shutter release. A 20-sheet box of 8″ x 10″ Velvia runs about $255. That’s almost $13/shot. That’s some pretty serious dough if you’re going to shoot a lot. There’s also the idea that – because something is so expensive to shoot, and you’re only carrying so much film at a time – one may be reluctant to make an image they’re not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. No one is right every time they decide to frame up and shoot – or pass it up because it’s just not happening.
A few years ago we were climbing Independence Pass returning from a fall colors trip. It was near the end of the trip and colors were in their prime. Light was gorgeous and leaves were twinkling in the breeze. We pulled over just as two large format shooters were breaking down their large, heavy cameras off their large, heavy tripods. They’d pulled over and seen the same forest – but when it came time to frame up – I heard one say it just wasn’t happening; it’s time to move on. My friend and I spent some time nosing around and I came away with this:
This image was made with the superb Micro Nikkor 105VR to reach into the inner depths of what I found interesting in the forest, and compress the layers of trees into an expressionistic style montage. It was also shot with a shallow depth of field because I wanted to accentuate the abstract, expressionistic feel to the foreground leaves. The bokeh on the 105VR is super smooth and optics with ED glass are super sharp. It was the perfect lens for the composition I saw. The image is crisp enough to be enlarged quite large without quality loss.
If I were a large format shooter with only so many sheets of film at the end of a week-long trip and limited focal length lens, would I have been willing to make this shot? Hard to say – but those two guys walked away from the same scene without an image. I was glad to have had enough of the right film and a lens with the right reach to frame up what I saw in that forest, which turned out to be one of the best images from the trip.
Large format is also a bit cumbersome to haul around quantities for extended trips. I know people do it and get some great images – but as much as I admire and respect the image quality of the good shots resulting from such an investment of time, money and energy – I guess it’s just not something I’m willing to do.
120 Roll Film and Medium Format
Medium format roll film is a higher-volume alternative to sheet film, coming primarily in two flavors: 120/220. 220 provides the same physical frame size as 120 but provides twice as many shots because the roll is twice as long. But it’s tough to find these days – and doesn’t alleviate what I view as the more significant problem of shooting medium format: the larger size of the cameras.
The technical attributes of a medium format system are impressive. Initially I thought of it as the “goldie locks” format: not too big and cumbersome, higher number of shots per load, more detail in the negative… was it just right? It was clinically perfect; large negatives providing way more detail and information than the resulting print required. Beautiful, yes. But was it getting the proverbial drink of water from a fire hose?
I enjoyed my Mamiya RZ67 system- until it came time to use it the field. At that point it became a boxy, cumbersome beast. And even with a good assortment of high-quality lenses the RZ never was quite as wide – or close – as I wanted.
Then when I’d go out to shoot there was the internal struggle with what system to bring. After all – because of its flexibility, bringing the smaller format kit was a given. Its smaller form factor and a mind-numbing array of lenses and accessories provided a clear advantage. Bringing the medium format system too, meant doubling the amount of gear I had to fumble through when it came time to shoot. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fumbled through bags of gear searching for a doodad in the dark. Just too much stuff, I’d mutter under my breath as a headlamp flickered on low batteries and fingers hoped to land on the one item so I could get back to work.
In 2009 I took a backpacking trip into Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the Spear Head, a gorgeous, granite blade jutting out of Glacier Basin. I was a little younger and stronger then and figured what the heck, I’d just bring it all. I intentionally didn’t weigh my pack until after the trip. It weighed nearly 100 pounds. I’ll never do that again – I was miserable. I got some decent photos but really struggled beneath the weight.
Dynamic, Fluid Compositions
For me artistically – somehow the content of the medium format frame usually lacked something; a spontaneity, a whimsy, surprise. Larger format systems often lack the ability shoot off the hand; to respond to fleeting or decisive moments worth photographing as they appear.
To fully realize the benefits of the larger film size, shooting from a tripod is often required. This usually (but not always) means slow to set up and often resulting in a somewhat rigid, undynamic angle resulting from reluctance to mess with a perfectly level horizon, for example. The net result is a well-structured but often stiff, stagnent image. Still, I kept trying to talk myself into believing the larger, ‘higher quality’ image was worth the trade off. In the end, with reservations, I sold the RZ system. I’ve missed it occasionally but believe I made the right decision.
So then, lets take stock so far: 1) It seems one of the things I value is portability, and the ability to remain flexible to my environment – and have a camera in-hand when it yields an image. 2) I also value consolidating systems and gear as much as possible to avoid hauling around too much incompatible “stuff.” 3)Having the flexibility to shoot a larger number of images per load has also proven valuable. 4) While I do use a tripod, I also value the fluid, dynamic composition shooting off the hand allows. 5) And the ability to fine-tune composition through focal length (which by the way is one of the reasons I prefer SLR cameras instead of rangefinders) is a real plus.
35mm Cameras, systems and Great Design
OK, if portability is so important why not a point and shoot camera? This introduces the idea of aesthetics and style to the equation; the tactile component; what brings beauty, elegance and joy to the process. Photography isn’t bereft of beauty; not simply an analytical equation or assortment of facts and figures. It’s art.
To shun the aesthetic component of photography is to strip the very essence of its role as art. This aesthetic component extends to the tools used in the process… it doesn’t mean you can’t make a good photo with an ugly camera – but why would you want to?
Stripping photography of aesthetic value and trying to turn it into pure pragmatism is like eating bread and water all the days of life because it’s convenient. Give me a solid, well-designed, well-built, rugged tool over a fragile, plastic box any time. Yes – the point and shoot will fit in my pocket and be very portable. But the aesthetic and flexibility hits are just too great.
The design of cameras; their usability, tactile layout, human engineering, curb appeal and just joy-in-hand is a real thing. It’s why some cameras resonate with some but not others; why people collect – but don’t use – cameras. The engineering, thought, devotion to manufacturing excellence and even quirkiness/funkiness – is all a real thing. Art, beauty and great design are most excellent qualities in life.
O.K. you say… beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where’s the beef? What about the practical, the functional side of shooting a 35mm film camera?
How about weather sealing? Fatigue-minimizing ergonomics? Drop-resistance? A mind-boggling assortment of lens? Modern benefits like super sensitive electromagnetic shutters made of space-age materials? How about low operational noise? Rapid frame rates? Underwater housings? Interval exposures? Remote triggering for positioning in difficult or dangerous places or to capture wildlife.? And of course the aforementioned accessories? Interchangeable backs and viewfinders, for example. The list goes on and on because the 35mm system has been so popular for so long, and so many have wanted to do so much with it.
When initially exploring a system the first temptation may be to think “oh, I don’t need anything fancy…” But as your passion for the art of photography grows and you want to experiment, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to start all over again with a new system? The benefits of a contemporary 35mm film camera combined with today’s film is an awesome total photographic experience.
OK, so along with the points raised before, some sense of style, design and aesthetic appreciation is important to me. Got it.
So let’s look at the attributes of 35mm film itself and see if they line up with creative goals:
35mm roll film attributes
35mm is convenient. Not as convenient as digital, but more convenient than large or medium format. As roll film (not sheet film) with 36 frames available on a roll, you can load it and shoot a good many pictures before it runs out. When it does, because it’s so tuckable; stowable, it’s easy to have another roll or 3 in your pocket, ready. So being able to take a few rolls on a hike, for example, is pretty nice. It doesn’t mean you need to shoot it all – but if you need it, it’s there.
35mm still relatively inexpensive and available. Even if your local drug store no longer stocks/develops film, it’s easily obtained in quantities at a moderate cost. So if you pick up a brick or two, store it in the ‘fridge and use it over a span of time – it’s a great value.
35mm has a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s pleasing to some and not others. Some call the 6:7 aspect “perfect” (i’m guessing it’s the ones who developed the camera who decided it was perfect)… because you don’t have to crop for 8″ x 10.” Others say 6:45, which is pretty close to 3:2. Still others site the advantages to the square format because you don’t have to turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait. Whatever… I don’t know if it’s an old habits die hard thing or what, but I find the shape of the 3:2 frame agreeable to virtually any composition; either horizontal or vertical. Some things frame up better side to side, others top to bottom. And turning the camera on its side to shoot vertically being labeled “too difficult or inconvenient” reminds me a Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about having to shake the juice before opening it. It’s not complicated.
I’m a believer in the L-bracket because with certain cameras I do shoot on the tripod regularly. The L-bracket provides fast, sure, solid mounting in either horizontal or vertical position. But the real power of the 35mm form factor is being able to easily hand-hold the camera.
The future of film
There are still plenty of different emulsions available from which to choose. It’s true – chrome (slide) films have taken a hit in past years. But other films are emerging in their place, and they’re really, really good. Still – Velvia 50 on a tripod with a good lens is capable of amazing image quality. Today’s 35mm film is relevant because it’s better than anything produced in the past. Kodak’s Portra line, for example, has been completely retooled, and it’s awesome. Portra 400 is not the same 400 speed film as yesteryear.
When I visit one of the few remaining camera stores in my area I ask how film sales are going. Every time I’m told the same thing: we can’t keep it on the shelves. People are still buying lots and lots of film whenever they find it available. Add mail order from local suppliers like Denver Pro Photo here in Colorado, or national mail order retailers like B&H out of New York- and continued availability seems assured.
I think it’s safe to assume the heyday of large-scale film production like we saw in the past is behind us. But there are new players emerging, and businesses seem to be consolidating, positioning themselves for future success. I for one am very encouraged. To form some idea of how many people are still devoted to film photography take a look at instagram and search something like #filmisnotdead, or #filmfeed, #analog, #filmphotography, #analogvibes or countless other film-centric hashtags. Film is very alive and very well.
35mm film is easy to work with. Because it had such a wide commercial appeal, having it processed is easy. Processing it yourself is even easier, as I’ve recently been reminded. The tanks to hold it are smaller, the reels are smaller, the chemicals are less. Everything about 35mm is smaller and easier to work with. Yet, done right – the image quality is amazingly high.
What about image quality? Let’s get this out of the way: this is where you get into the limitations of 35mm film for certain applications. It will never produce a 30″ or 40″ or large print as cleanly as that big, beautiful 4″ x 5″ piece of film – or today’s super high-resolution digital cameras. So if that’s the goal, 35mm is the wrong tool. But… how many times have I actually wanted to print a photograph that large? Not many. The rest of the time, something in the neighborhood of 18″ x 12″ with a nice, 2″ matte all around is more than large enough. And if it’s a good shot I want to go larger with – if technique is perfect and equipment is first class – I can.
The 35mm look
When people think of 35mm film often time they think of grainy, black and white (or color) photojournalism photos made over the years. There is a reason those images look like they do. Often times photojournalism films were in the ISO400 speed category and therefore had a courser grain. The reason was pretty obvious: as a photojournalist you need to be ready for anything, in any light. And a 400 speed film was a good way to stack the deck in your favor. The point of the photograph wasn’t how sharp or perfect it was – the point was the content of the image itself. So a “great photograph” might be great not because it’s super sharp and has no visible grain, but because it’s a compelling image.
35mm has a “look” to it. What is that look? Difficult to decisively say. Here’s a brief discussion by Ted Forbes and the “Art of Photography” that touches briefly on the topic. It has to do with the relationship of the size of the image to the grain structure. If you were to make an image on 120 film, then again on 35mm film – and print them the same size – they’d look slightly different to the photographer’s eye. Not radically different, but slightly different.
Today’s 35mm film is capable of many other things beside grainy photojournalism photos. A fine grain 35mm film like Velvia (color slide film), Kodak Ektar 100 (color negative film) or Ilford PanF50 (black and white print film) has virtually no visible grain and possesses tremendous enlargement capability. So many different “looks” can be created with different 35mm films, developers and scanning or darkroom techniuqe. See the “look” heading down further for more on this topic.
To the casual viewer who couldn’t care less what type of camera was used to make the picture – they see the contents of the frame, not the technical attributes of the photograph. The photographer is the only one who cares what camera was used.
It’s the same sort of thing that makes a digitally captured photograph look different than a film-recorded photograph. Most people would see the contents of the frame, not the presence or lack of subtle tone falloff, clipped highlights or grain/no grain. With today’s digital post-processing techniques, one could choose to process that “look” right out of a 35mm made image if so chosen.
When I parted with my RZ system – as painful as it was – I consoled myself with this: when I go out to shoot, everything uses essentially the same F-mount, Nikon system. I can use virtually any lens on any camera, film or digital, and everything just works. There are of course caveats in the details. But largely it’s true, and it’s reliable. And I like that because it reintroduces simplicity to shooting and allows me to enjoy the process of creating again. UPDATE/FULL DISCLOSURE: After this article was written I decided for those normal to wide shots where a little more resolution would help, adding back the ability to shoot medium format was a good idea, and picked up a Mamiya M645 1000S. It’s considerably smaller and more compact than the RZ system and with one lens, fits perfectly into the bag above. The M645 uses the same, screw-in cable release as my older Nikons, the same Kirk ball-head mounting plate I’m already carrying, and has a easy Mirror-Up mechanism. A 58-77 step up ring allows use of the same filters and lens accessories I’m shooting with the Nikon lenses. So now technically I’m back up to two systems, but now the MF rig is tiny and self-contained.
Easy Film Processing
As mentioned in a previous post, recently I’ve begun developing my own black and white films again, after a 30 year hiatus. To say I’ve enjoyed the process again is an understatement. I should have done it years ago. But I had a great local lab available and didn’t need to.
Processing your own black and white film is extremely easy. There’s a small, initial investment required for tanks, reels and a few odds and ends, but after that your cost per roll drops to virtually nothing. Contrast that with $10-$12 from commercial black and white processing and the cost savings is significant.
As wonderful as cost is – it’s perhaps the least compelling reason to process your own film. You also have the ability to try different developers to produce different looks. Then there’s the convenience of shooting and processing your film on the same day. Add to that the feeling of actually creating something with your hands again and the case for developing film at home is solid. Don’t wait like I did. Jump in with both feet and enjoy it.
A Buyer’s Market – Finally
The overabundance of high-quality tools with which to work in 35mm is one of those pinch me moments we don’t get enough in life. Really, really good cameras and lenses are ridiculously inexpensive on the used market thanks to people simply retiring their tried and true friends after experiencing the convenience of a first digital camera.
A few years back I picked up a Nikon N8008s for $26. It retailed new for about $500-$600 in the late 80’s, which in today’s money is around $1,100. I often wonder how many wished in hind site, a year or two later, they’d held onto their trusty 35mm friend rather than selling it for pennies. I’ll bet lots. It’s a shame, really. Things don’t suddenly become useless because something new comes along. This is an on-going problem in our culture; not just for cameras but other consumables too. After spending so many thousands of dollars on digital gear from 2006 to 2010 I’m pretty happy to get a great-working camera for $26. Be warned though: the used market has caught on and prices are rising.
Of course, being the best of the best, the F6 is still considerably more expensive than $26. And the F6 is the focus of this web site. After all, the F6 could be one of the greatest reasons to continue shooting 35mm film. Or – perhaps shooting 35mm film is one of the greatest reasons to have and use the F6?
I’ll leave that for you decide.