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The Enduring Allure of Film Photography in the Digital Age

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Film photography - a niche associated with charm and nostalgia - continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many photographers, even in the digital age. In a world dominated by pixel-perfect images and instant gratification, the enduring appeal of film photography remains steadfast. There is a certain magic in capturing moments on film, where each frame becomes a carefully composed work of art (especially so in the case of slide film), and the anticipation of seeing the developed results adds an extra layer of excitement. In this article, we will delve into the unique qualities that make film photography a beloved medium, exploring its artistic appeal, deliberate process, and tangible experience.


Despite the advancements of digital technology, film photography continues to captivate our imagination, reminding us of the beauty in slowing down and embracing the journey as much as the destination. It is the prime choice of fine-art photographers such as Michael Elliott because of its artistic appeal.


The Artistic Appeal of Film


Within the realm of photography, film possesses a distinctive aesthetic quality that has entranced artists and photographers for generations. As Mari Makarov mentions, "[o]ur nostalgia has become an aesthetic. Part of the appeal is that film grain gives off that vintage vibe that feels timeless." Film captures light in a specific way, rendering tones, colours, and textures with a certain richness and character that cannot be easily replicated. The inherent nature of film emulsions, combined with the choice of different film stocks, lends each photograph a particular personality and atmosphere.


[...] it’s to do with the aesthetic I love, the grain, the nostalgia that the colours of film seem to offer, the slight-softness of the look, the simplicity of it.

One of the notable aspects of film photography is its remarkable dynamic range. Film is the original HDR medium, known for gracefully preserving details in both highlights and shadows. This characteristic provides a subtle depth and a nuanced tonal range that digital images struggled to emulate for quite some time, though with HDR stacking techniques, can comfortably perform on the same level as film nowadays. However, with film, the resulting photographs possess a distinct sense of depth and dimensionality, enhancing the overall artistic impact.


A black and white shot of the sky with the sun appearing as a star.
Capturing the sun in the sky on film is actually fairly easy and results in a smooth gradation from the brightest whites to the darkest tones. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film and developed in HC-110 / (c) Michael Elliott

Colour rendition is another area where film photography shines. Different film stocks exhibit their own unique palettes, ranging from vibrant and saturated hues to softer and more subdued tones. The subtle colour shifts and variations you see with film create a an evocative mood that can bring a timeless quality to photographs.


A colour shifted shot of a bill poster on a utility cabinet outside.
Captured on Lomochrome Purple film, a deliberately colour-shifting emulsion, shows the creative possibilities that can be had with experimental film stocks / (c) Michael Elliott

Grain, often considered a hallmark of black and white film photography, adds a distinctive texture that can be both visually appealing and artistically significant. It introduces a tactile quality to the image, offering a tactile feel that enhances the overall aesthetic. Grain can evoke a sense of nostalgia and lend a touch of authenticity, contributing to the emotional impact of the photograph.


There is inherent grittiness to anything shot on film—the grain is much more pronounced, giving the overall product a genuine texture that is somewhat nostalgic.

By embracing film photography, photographers can tap into this artistic allure, allowing their images to convey a unique visual language and evoke a range of emotions. The interplay between light, emulsion, and the photographer's vision produces photographs that possess a timeless quality, transcending the digital realm and capturing a tangible essence of artistry.


The Deliberate and Mindful Process of Film Photography


Film photography is often celebrated for its deliberate and mindful process, where every frame carries weight and significance. The limitations of film, such as a finite number of exposures per roll, encourage photographers to approach their craft with a heightened sense of intentionality and mindfulness.


It is very easy to just spray and pray with a digital workflow, which can be detrimental to our creativity. Each picture on a film camera is a carefully considered decision. When shooting film, you are forced to slow down, observe what’s around you, and ultimately, think about the reason you’re taking this picture.

With a limited number of shots available (however many rolls of film you may pack in your bag), film photographers must carefully consider each composition, exposure, and subject before pressing the shutter. As Illya Ovchar mentions in Fstoppers, "[film photography] allows you to focus on balancing the number of frames you take per scene." This thoughtful approach forces them to slow down, analyse their surroundings, and pay attention to details that might otherwise go unnoticed. The deliberate process becomes an exercise in discipline and creativity, honing the photographer's observational skills and fostering a deeper connection with the subject.


However, it is important to note that digital photography can also provide opportunities for a deliberate and mindful approach. While digital cameras offer the luxury of virtually unlimited exposures, photographers can still choose to adopt a mindful mindset in their digital workflow. They can take the time to compose their shots carefully, consider the lighting and framing, and make deliberate decisions regarding exposure settings.


Kharkiv - Gorky Park, on a rainy evening.
Shot on my old Samsung S10, this shows the capabilities of even the sensor in a smartphone. I'm not sure that I would have captured this on film / (c) Michael Elliott

Furthermore, in the digital realm, photographers have the benefit of immediate feedback through the camera's LCD screen. This allows them to review their shots instantly, assess the results, and make adjustments as needed. By taking the time to review and analyse each image, photographers can refine their techniques, learn from their mistakes, and continuously improve their craft.


The reality is that the LCD screen is part of every digital photographer’s tool set. You can see your images right after they’ve been made and when used properly chimping can lead to informed image making.

Of course, if the digital photographer truly wants the film experience, they can elect to switch off the instant feedback and not succumb to the desire to "chimp", and simply wait until they plug the camera in at home and download the photos to their computer.


The act of slowing down, regardless of the medium, encourages photographers to be more present in the moment, fully immersing themselves in the photographic experience. It enables them to engage with their surroundings, connect with their subjects on a deeper level, and capture moments with a heightened level of mindfulness.


Mindful photography is not the sole preserve of film photography; in fact, digital photography enables countless people to be able to practice mindfulness. Just Google "mindful photography" and see how many results come back. How many of them refer to film photography specifically? None on the front page, I'll guess. As one site describes an exercise, it becomes clear why: "See what shapes, colours, textures, angles, shadows and reflections you notice. Then take photos of anything you feel drawn to"; you do not need a film camera to practice that!


A scarf discarded on a bench on the South Bank in London
Walking around the Southbank one day, I was switched on to looking for interesting compositions, and it is this mindfulness that allows you to pick up on the things that you may miss just walking around. This scarf lying on the end of a bench, forgotten, cast aside, evoked a sense of loneliness, solitude and longing. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film and developed in HC-110 / (c) Michael Elliott

Both film and digital photography offer the opportunity for a deliberate and mindful approach, albeit in slightly different ways. While film may inherently impose certain limitations, digital photographers can actively choose to embrace the same level of intentionality and thoughtfulness in their creative process. By adopting a mindful mindset, photographers can cultivate a deeper appreciation for their craft and produce images that carry their unique artistic vision.


The Tangible Experience of Film Photography and its Environmental Impact


Film photography offers a tangible and authentic experience that is often cherished by enthusiasts. From loading the film into the camera to manually advancing frames, every step of the process engages the photographer physically and emotionally. The anticipation that comes with waiting for film to be developed and seeing the physical prints or scanned negatives adds a sense of excitement and nostalgia to the entire journey. A lot of this process is much vaunted by photographers, but by the same token, these processes necessarily get in the way of taking the photograph.


The champagne bar at St Pancras International
A film shot inside St. Pancras station, of the main serving area of the Champagne Bar. Shot on Portra 400NC, the muted colours of the film complement the metallic structures to add a sheen / (c) Michael Elliott

It's also important to acknowledge the environmental impact associated with the tangible experience of film photography. The production and disposal of film rolls, as well as the chemicals used in the development process, can have significant ecological consequences. Film manufacturing requires the use of raw materials and energy, contributing to resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.


Indeed, while traditional cameras are durable and age well, many aspects of analog photography involve pollutants, namely the chemicals and materials needed to manufacture and develop film. Film, whether color or black and white, is made of plastic and silver halide. Developing it necessitates the use of chemical developers and fixers, which constitute toxic waste and end up in the sewage or ground water—or in garbage if one has scruples, but it’s heavy waste all the same.

Digital photography, on the other hand, offers a more eco-friendly alternative in terms of reducing waste. With digital cameras, there are no physical films or chemicals involved. Photographers can capture and review images instantly without the need for prints or developing processes. This significantly reduces paper waste, chemical pollution, and the overall carbon footprint associated with film photography.


Admittedly, avid digital photographers produce less waste. However, manufacturing a digital camera requires a lot of energy, and involves extracting and refining rare heavy metals. Gold, platinum, copper, aluminum, and lead go into various parts of the camera, while nickel-cadmium and lithium-ion power the batteries.

Nevertheless, digital photography is not without its own set of environmental challenges. The manufacturing and disposal of digital camera equipment, including batteries and electronic components, contribute to electronic waste, which can be detrimental to the environment if not properly managed. Additionally, the energy consumption of digital devices, such as charging batteries and powering computers for post-processing, adds to the carbon footprint of digital photography. Beyond that, the energy consumption of the countless cloud data centres responsible for storing the endless stream of images we are taking on digital cameras is vast.


The absence of film encourages nonstop shooting, which means saving endless images. Here comes in the thorny issue of data storage: once photos have been saved in the cloud, uploaded to a website, or posted on social networks, they actually reside in data hubs. Data hubs consume a lot of energy, usually fossil fuels, specifically to stay cool. Data hubs have been shown to be responsible for 25% of technology-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

As photographers, it is crucial to strike a balance between our desire for the tangible experience of film and our responsibility to minimise environmental impact. This can be achieved by adopting sustainable practices in both film and digital photography. For film enthusiasts, using eco-friendly film stocks, properly recycling film canisters, and opting for environmentally conscious development techniques can help reduce the ecological footprint.


An iron staircase surrounded by trees and plants.
Hidden away behind busy Fleet Street lies Temple Church and the Middle Temple. In the sanctuary of the churchyard, I found this iron spiral staircase, which provided me this lovely composition framed by the trees and plants. Shot on Kodak Panatomic-X film, and developed in HC-110 / (c) Michael Elliott

Digital photographers can contribute to sustainability by making conscious choices, such as using energy-efficient equipment, maximising the lifespan of their gear, and practicing responsible e-waste disposal. Furthermore, embracing digital technology allows photographers to share their work digitally, reducing the need for excessive printing and paper waste.


By acknowledging the environmental impact of the tangible experience in film photography and recognising the potential of digital photography to mitigate some of these issues, we can strive to be more mindful and environmentally conscious photographers. Balancing our love for the tangible with a commitment to sustainability allows us to continue pursuing our passion while minimising our ecological footprint.


Embracing the Synergy: Film and Digital Photography


While digital photography offers undeniable convenience and environmental benefits, there is an ineffable quality to film photography that continues to captivate artists and enthusiasts alike. The tactile nature of film, the distinct aesthetic qualities, and the deliberate process all contribute to a unique and cherished experience that cannot be replicated digitally.


Film photography encourages a deeper level of connection and engagement with the craft. The anticipation of waiting for film to be developed adds an element of surprise and excitement, reminiscent of opening a long-awaited gift. The tangible nature of film prints provides a physical manifestation of the photographer's vision, creating a lasting and cherished artefact.


Moreover, film's inherent imperfections, such as subtle colour shifts and (in the case of black and white film) grain, add character and authenticity to the photographs. These imperfections often become part of the narrative, conveying a sense of nostalgia, emotion, and timelessness that digital filters and effects struggle to emulate authentically.


The way that the colours and tones from film look absolutely perfect straight out of the box. I’m in love with that. I find it so simple to create that dreamy, surreal, grainy, gorgeous aesthetic that I love. And to this day I have never been able to match that look with a digital camera. And even if I could, I’m a sucker for something being ‘real’, so I wouldn’t find the same satisfaction in creating a film effect in post production.

Additionally, film photography encourages a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to capturing images. The finite number of exposures per roll instills a sense of discipline, forcing photographers to carefully consider each shot, thus fostering a deeper understanding of composition, exposure, and storytelling.


While digital technology offers convenience and instant feedback, it can sometimes lead to a more disposable mindset, where images are rapidly captured and discarded. Film photography, on the other hand, encourages photographers to slow down, carefully compose their shots, and savour the moments they capture.


However, in the current economic, digital photography offers a more cost-effective longer term approach. And, as Marco D'Urzo mentions in 35mmc, he "us[es] film simulations to maintain a similar yield to film, but without having to bear the increasingly prohibitive costs", thus allowing the ideal hybrid of volume of output, without the overbearing material cost. This also has the added benefit of reducing indirectly the environmental impact.


The synergy between film and digital photography can be a powerful approach. Many photographers today embrace a hybrid workflow, where they shoot film for its unique qualities and then utilise digital tools for post-processing and sharing. This blend allows them to combine the artistic charm of film with the flexibility and convenience of digital technology.


A shot of a keyboardist at a gig in London
Digital allowed me to catch a dynamic capture during a gig and the long exposure gave me a very cool effect. I wouldn't have captured these with film. Shot on Canon Powershot A2400IS / (c) Michael Elliott
A shot of a guitarist at a gig in London.
Digital allowed me to catch a dynamic capture during a gig and the long exposure gave me a very cool effect. I wouldn't have captured these with film. Shot on Canon Powershot A2400IS / (c) Michael Elliott

Or in the converse direction, digital photographers take their work and apply emulated film grain and effects to their images. As Marco D'Urzo continues, "I use this process habitually. I apply different film simulations to my photographs until I identify the one whose rendering of colour and contrast best represents the meaning I intended the shot to convey"


In this digital age, the resurgence of film photography speaks volumes about our innate desire for connection, authenticity, and a tangible experience. Film photographers value the artistic expression, mindfulness, and rich aesthetics that film brings to their work. It is an homage to the timeless art form that continues to inspire and captivate photographers around the world.


 

Film photography, with its artistic appeal, deliberate process, and tangible experience, maintains its allure even in the face of advancing digital technology. While digital photography offers undeniable advantages, the distinctive qualities of film photography add depth, character, and emotional resonance to the images captured.


By embracing both film and digital photography, photographers can tap into the unique strengths of each medium, creating a harmonious synergy that allows for artistic exploration and personal expression. Whether it's the immersive and mindful process of shooting film or the versatility and immediacy of digital technology, both have a place in the modern photographer's toolkit.


As artists, we have the privilege of embracing a wide range of tools and techniques, and film photography continues to be a cherished avenue for creative expression. So, let us celebrate the enduring allure of film photography, appreciating its timeless charm and the intangible magic it brings to our visual storytelling.

 

Why not stop by the shop and check out the latest in black and white fine art prints, or get in touch and see if I can produce something bespoke for your walls?

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