Reflecting on Film Photography

The Waiting - I recently purchased a couple of rolls of Ilford HP5+ film for my “well rested” Nikon FE, no real reason or thinking behind it, just something I have enjoyed every so often since moving to digital. The first roll is now off for developing, previously I would have done this myself but given how rarely I shoot film now, I am not going to pull all the equipment out from my loft and hope the chemicals are still OK. The waiting - whilst I don’t look at the screen frequently while out taking pictures, the wait is itself a different and novel experience - often ending with disappointment but occasionally one or two nice surprises. 

How important is Dynamic Range? A number of my photos from Hong Kong were taken on Fuji Velvia RVP100, this has about 5 or 6 stops of dynamic range - around half what I would get with digital at similar ISO. It is sufficient, but that’s not to deny the luxury and depth with digital. Some dynamic range is lost in printing, but an image such as that below of the bar has immense detail in both dark regions such as the roof of the bridge as well as light areas. 

Maybe the emphasis on seeking and relying on cameras with high dynamic range is an excuse for poor practice - it is often more about highlight or shadow recovery than a real need for DR in many cases - but there might be an exception in some photography, particularly landscape where improvements in technology have resulted in some outstanding results never seen with film. 

What film has taught me - My photography style and habits are based on how I used film cameras. Although I used a Nikon F5 for a short while, mostly I used fully manual Nikon SLRs and Leica rangefinder cameras, so I worked relatively slowly. 

Less clicks - I still take a similar number of frames with digital as I did with film, though I am trying to get into the habit of trying to take a few more, varying angles and trying to squeeze a few more options out of what I see. 

I still work slowly and like to set most things manually, getting things right if possible before pressing the shutter. Not exclusively from film habits, but I continue to measure light quite carefully, still relying on centre weighted or spot metering rather than matrix or multi-zone metering. I try to get the picture right in camera when in fact I actually have huge latitude in post processing, especially as I always shoot RAW. 

Darkroom to Lightroom - Although I work in technology, in fact perhaps because I work in technology, I don’t like to spend my non-working hours in front of a screen. So I spend as little time as possible in post processing. My processing in Adobe Lightroom is still based on darkroom practice - perhaps this is an area it limits rather than teaches, but I still think in terms of dodging and burning and working with contrast in development and, for example, have never really sought to fully understand the nuances of the sharpening controls. With black and white conversions I think of the colour sliders as colour filters. 

I don’t look back at film with feelings of nostalgia - it was limiting and digital is to me is a positive evolution of photography. The reality is the resolving power of any modern lens / sensor combination exceeds what I was accustomed to with film and grain is considerably greater than noise levels at all ISO levels that I would ever consider using. 

Occasionally shooting film helps me focus again on composition and content rather than worrying overly about absolute image quality. I have no desire to return to film now (but I am hanging on to my developing kit ;) )

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