By Bill Dobbins
One of the staff at Samy’s Camera Culver City and I were looking at some old film cameras, the kinds we both used to use. He told me there was a renewed interest, especially on the part of young people, in shooting photographs on film. This is to be expected, given how culture works. Something is current, it becomes old fashioned and with enough time is rediscovered.
Hence the renewed popularity of singers like Tony Bennett.
We are now in the digital age but film had a long and very important run in the history of photography. Early in the 19th century there were a number of experimental methods created to chemically record the image transmitted by a lens. One of the most significant was the daguerreotype, which involved fixing an image on a piece of silver-plated copper. This process was pretty much superseded by the wet-plate colloidan process in which a glass plate was coated with an emulsion and an exposure had to be made before the emulsion dried. This was followed by a dry plate technology where plates could be coated in advanced and exposed when convenient.
In 1885 the Eastman Kodak company introduced the first flexible film, an emulsion coating paper. In 1889 they developed a film using a highly flammable nitrocellulose base. Finally Kodak came out with a “safety” film in 1908, which was the basis of film as we know it right up to the present.
Film continued to go through all sorts of evolution over the course of its history. In terms of BW photos, different emulsions and a variety of different developers, plus the technology of print materials and chemicals, yielded all sorts of interesting artistic possibilities. A photographer like Ansel Adams was practically a master chemist when it came to creating new photographic looks and possibilities.
Almost from the beginning there were attempts to create color photography technologies. In the 1930s, Kodak introduced Kodachrome, which was a system in which the film recorded three different BW matrices and color was added later. (Technicolor works this way as well.) Several companies then came up with processes in which the color dyes were actually in the film itself.
There are a number of limitations using film compared to digital. You have to decide in advance whether or not to shoot color or BW. Shooting digital, especially RAW, you simply record the pixel information and can decide on color or BW later. Color film has a certain color temperature, for example daylight or tungsten, and using the wrong one produces undesirable results. This is not the case with digital. Film emulsions have a certain sensitivity, a set ISO. You can push or pull film to a certain degree, but there are limits. Modern digital cameras can easily be set to be incredibly more sensitive than any normal film – say 20,000 ISO compared to 200.
But there is a tradition in film photography for some photographers to continue to work with certain processes long after they have been superseded by new technology and are considered old-fashioned or archaic. When most photographers had switched to wet-plate photography in the mid 19th century there were some who continued to shoot daguerreotypes. In fact, there are still photographers today who work with daguerreotypes, wet and dry plates and tintypes – all archaic processes.
The same is true for printing. The standard type of photo print before the digital age was the gelatin silver process. But there have also been emulsions based on platinum, palladium and other emulsion alternatives. Nowadays you will still see some photographers who choose to work with these alternative processes. Those working in color also can take advantage of processes more popular in the past, although environmental restrictions on things like dyes sometime make this difficult or impossible – especially in the United Stages.
So why choose film as a medium at all? For one reason because this gives you unique looks that digital has trouble emulating. This is like the preference many have for vinyl records over CDs in the belief that they give a fuller and richer audio experience. It is certain that digital rather than chemical pixels are not the same, although they can be made to look remarkably similar.
Director Quentin Tarentino is as familiar with digital imaging as anybody. But he chose to make his movie The Hateful Eight using 70mm film because the quality of the image he believed would be far superior to anything that could be done using digital cinematography. Watch this film in a theater, or some other wide screen masterpiece like Lawrence of Arabia and you’ll see why Tarentino made this choice.
The same could be said for shooting using very large pieces of film. The amount of information you get from a 16X20 sheet of film that was exposed using the best quality of lens is incredible. You can approach this using a digital camera but only the most technically evolved and expensive can hope to achieve this. This kind of digital camera can cost $40,000 or more while a 16X20 film camera can be bought used nowadays for a fraction of what they used to go for. And the same is true for darkroom equipment.
Another reason to consider film is that the type of camera and the technology you use has a big influence on what kind of photos you shoot. The process makes its own demands and imposes its own limitations. Edward Weston used to go out with a large format camera and just a few plates for the entire day. This meant he had to be highly selective in what he chose to photograph. And using this kind of equipment makes it impossible to shoot “snapshots” as you might with a 35mm camera.
Shooting large format portraits or fashion photos in the studio as was common in the past also requires a lot of very careful set up and results in a slow process in which relatively few exposures are made compared to other types of cameras. Even switching between medium format film cameras and 35MM will tend to influence and change how you go about shooting photos.
The point is that working with film rather than digital changes how you go about creating images and changes how those images look. So just as archaic processes like daguerreotypes or wet-plate photography have continued to persist over a century or more, so is film photography in general like to be around far into the future – even though a relatively few photographers will choose these ways of working.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: