Is Film Still Worth Using in a Digital World?

The last time I shot photos on film was when Polaroid announced that they were ceasing production of instant film. I bought as many boxes as possible. And when they ran out, I just kept shooting digital.

Recently a friend and collaborator of mine, Lilia Volodina (pictured below), asked if she could shoot some large format photographs here at Starlab. I was excited about the idea and asked her if she could use the film to take Starlab Studios staff portraits.

Large format film cameras are not in common use anymore. But most people know what they look like. You’ve seen them in old films and cartoons. And you’ve surely seen photographs produced with them. A large format camera is a type of view camera. The film plane is connected to the lens plane with bellows, much like an accordion. This is also the type of camera where the photographer has a cape or hood over their head while composing the picture.

Lilia Volodina sets up the camera (source: Richard TK Hawke)

Lilia Volodina sets up the camera (source: Richard TK Hawke)

It takes a lot of time and effort to shoot with this camera. You need to find a dark room where you can load the film into a holder before shooting anything. Then you have to unfold, lock in, and set up the camera, mount an appropriate lens, cable release, and set the bellows to the position you want. You compose your shot by looking through the ground glass in the back, and what you see is an upside down image. This is because these old cameras act like our eyes (which take in the image directly as presented), whereas modern cameras act like our brains (resolving and contextualizing images so we can make sense of them).

You then need use a light meter for correct exposure. Once you’re ready to shoot you need to close up the diaphragm, preventing any light from getting in. This is so you don’t expose your film too soon.

Once you’ve done all that, you can set your aperture and shutter speed, cock the shutter, load the film, remove the dark slide, and then you can take the picture.

It’s definitely a lot more work than using any one of the seemingly endless array of apps, plug-ins, and presets that emulate the look and feel of the film. If you can obtain the look and feel you want without the expense, time, and risk of shooting on film, why bother?

The Large Format Camera we used in our latest photo shoot (Source: Richard TK Hawke)

The Large Format Camera we used in our latest photo shoot (Source: Richard TK Hawke)

For photographers, it’s often just as much about the shooting process as it is about the final product. Lilia told me she “likes that you can do really big enlargements with those 4×5 negatives. I also like the old- fashioned look and feel of it, I feel like I’ve been transported back in time.”

It’s the same for me. While I know that with film I can have a greater resolution and a wider dynamic range, what’s more important to me is the experience.

With film I need to slow down. I have to think about what I’m shooting and why I’m shooting it. Those are questions I have to consider when shooting digitally as well, but when using film there is so much more on the line. You can’t delete a shot and do it again.

Lisa gets gets ready for her portrait in the live room (source: Richard TK Hawke)

Lisa gets gets ready for her portrait in the live room (source: Richard TK Hawke)

“Shooting with film requires much more planning. You can’t just snap a picture and see how it looks. You have to be 100% prepared in terms of lighting, composition and camera settings before you start shooting,” Lilia told me. “It’s certainly more challenging but I like that I have to get into a different, slower mindset to do it. It makes you really appreciate the photographs that come out.”

Using the film camera gave an each photo an old-time, warm feel. Lilia said her favorite is the picture of Lisa Vidal, our financial manager (pictured below). “It’s perfectly lit, well-composed with the Starlab logo as halo around her head, and Lisa somehow just looks like she belongs there with the drums,” she said.

Not every shot came out perfectly, as is always a big risk when working with film. But we are happy with many of the shots we did get, and it’s always useful to try your hand at a new medium.

Financial Manager Lisa Vidal poses for her portrait (Source: Lilia Volodina)

Financial Manager Lisa Vidal poses for her portrait (Source: Lilia Volodina)