(Above image by Devin Yalkin)
Recently when I went to Tokyo, I had a ton of fun shooting in the streets with Charlie Kirk and Bellamy Hunt—both who shoot film. I never really understood the rationale why people shot with film. To me at the time, it seemed like a burden. First of all, you had to buy the film. Secondly, after you took the photos you couldn’t see them instantly. And lastly, it was expensive to develop it (and even more money to scan). For these three reasons, I was mostly put off by film. Although I did shoot a bit with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder and did enjoy it—at the end of the day I preferred my digital camera.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued with film once I came to Tokyo. In Tokyo, the analog culture is strong. There are tons of used film camera shops, and tons of other places where you can buy film as well. Not only that, but there are many photographers who shoot film who support one another as well and have their own communities. I had no idea how much influence the analog culture would have on me when I was in Tokyo.
Lately I have been having less fun with digital photography. Although one of the huge benefits of digital photography is that it is instant—it didn’t have as much mystery how the photos would come out. Also because taking a photo was “free”—I would take far too many photos when out on the streets (around 300-400 photos a day). This made me far less selective when I was shooting, and it also made the editing process a lot more difficult.
Therefore when I was in Tokyo, I was thinking about buying a film camera. I talked to Bellamy (who also buys and sells cameras for a living) and he suggested a Leica M6. It is the best bang-for-the-buck film Leica, and because I was already used to my Leica M9 it seemed like a logical transition.
While I was still contemplating the purchase, I was talking to my good friend Todd from the Hatakeyama Gallery (and also sells lighting equipment) about my thoughts—and he told me something that shocked me. He had a Leica M6 that he didn’t use much, and he offered to give it to me for free (yeah, I have awesome friends). Like a giddy schoolgirl, I gladly accepted his offer and went out to shoot.
I have now been shooting film for around 1.5 months, and have been loving every minute of it. The process is a lot less hurried and more calm and zen-like. I enjoy the small things of it, like loading the film, cocking the shutter, and hearing the silent click of the shutter. I also love the mystery—that I don’t know exactly how the photo will come out. Although I am not an expert when it comes to shooting film (I don’t even know how to develop/dodge+burn/print my own photos yet) here are some things I have been enjoying shooting film over digital:
1. You cannot chimp
Shooting film was instantly thrilling. First of all, I started to enjoy the fact that I couldn’t see my photos instantly. As you guys well know, chimping is a bad habit when it comes to street photography. With film, you physically cannot chimp—therefore you focus on actually taking photos when on the streets.
2.You look at your images more objectively
Garry Winogrand once said, “Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph.” There have been instances in which after I took a photo, I got excited by the thought, memory, and emotion of the photo that I took. I didn’t take the time to wait and sit on my images—and judge them more objectively (based on composition and content).
When shooting with film, I typically wait around a month (when I have around 10 rolls or so) and get them developed. Therefore I don’t see my images about a month after I take the photos, which means that when I look at my images—I actually forget a lot of the photos I take. Therefore because I get detached emotionally from the photos, I can more objectively edit and choose my best images.
3. It isn’t as expensive as you think
Although buying and developing film can be expensive, the barrier to entry is very low. Film cameras are far cheaper than digital cameras, and have a longer lifeline. Based on pure conjecture, I would state that the average photographer upgrades his/her camera every 5 years. However if you buy a solid film camera (and maintain it well), it can last you a lifetime.
Let’s do some (very rough) math for fun:
- A Leica M9 is $7000, and a typical lens will run you around $3000. Let’s consider that the average Leica M9 user has 3 lenses, that is a total of $16,000.
- A Canon 5D Mark II is $2500, and the typical L lens will cost around $1000. The average DSLR user probably has around 3 lenses as well. That will run you around $5,500
- You can buy a film SLR as cheap as $100-200 with a lens. If you want a rangefinder, you can get a Leica M6 for ~$1500 in good condition. If you are on a budget, you can get a Voightlander lens for ~$500. So a film camera will typically run anywhere from $100-$2000.
Let’s factor in the cost of film. One roll of Tri-X is around $5 (in the states). The price of developing/scanning your photos vary depending on where you live. I’m in Korea right now, and get a roll developed/scanned for $5. If you are on a budget, you can save a ton of money by buying your film in bulk and rolling it yourself (comes to around $2 a roll) and develop/scan yourself (developing costs practically nothing, but a scanner can run you $300-700).
For simplicity sake, let’s say shooting/developing a roll of film is around $10. Up-front it seems like a huge cost, but also consider the fact that you will be shooting less with film—as you will be more selective. When I shoot digital for an entire day, I take 300-400 photos. With film (if I am in the shooting mood), I will take a maximum of one roll. Assuming that I shoot a lot (one roll a day for an entire month) it factors to around $300 a month. However I argue that the average person doesn’t shoot that much, maybe 1-2 rolls a week – and maybe 4-5 rolls a month. So developing costs might range from ~$50-300 a month.
Let’s take this a bit further. Therefore a year film/developing costs will be around $600-$3,600 a year. The high end may be shocking ($3,600 a year is a LOT of money—but that is assuming you shoot a roll a day, which are for the very small minority of photographers). I would say the average costs will be more around the $600/year range.
$600/year isn’t much if you think about it. That means $50 a month, which is probably less than we spend on Starbucks (10 coffees at $5/pop). It is also less than a “nice” lens, which will range from $1000-3000. Also considering that the average DSLR or digital photographer upgrades his/her gear every 5 years, here is a rough estimate:
- $600/year for film/processing x 5 years = $3000
- New nice DSLR every 5 years = $2000-3000
- New Leica digital rangefinder every 5 years = $7000
Don’t get me wrong, film is still expensive—but if you do the math and think about it rationally, it is roughly the same in costs to digital in the long run. Also note that these calculations are very rough and not scientific at all, but hopefully it can be used to illustrate my point. And also remember, if you roll/develop/scan your film by yourself, the cost is very low.
4. Film has more dynamic range
Although the average digital camera has strong dynamic range, it is still horrible in comparison to our human eye or shooting with film. To my understanding, the average digital camera has 256 shades of grey (I haven’t fact-checked this yet) while black and white film has (theoretically) infinite shades of grey.
Also I love film because it is nearly impossible to blow your highlights. Even if they are over-exposed, they will still retain some shade of grey and not have that artificial bleach-white look.
5. You become more selective
When shooting digital, taking a photo costs “nothing” so you take a ton of photos without discrimination. Although I believe it is a great thing to take a ton of photos to your heart’s content—it makes the editing process incredibly difficult.
What I enjoy about film is that I am much more selective when I am taking my shots. Therefore at the end of the day when I get my film developed and scanned, I am working with a better batch of images (and far less in number as well).
6. Your photos look good straight out of the camera
I love black and white and especially the gritty film look. When I shoot with my M9, I shoot in RAW and process my photos afterward in Silver Efex Pro 2. Although I can process my photos pretty quickly (I typically use the same preset), it is still a hassle and something I would prefer not to do.
With film, the photos often need little to no processing. I find that my film shots look great out-of-camera. Of course if you want to dodge/burn your images, that means more work in the darkroom (which is difficult). But in the end for me, I find that my film shots don’t need much processing—which is one less thing for me to worry about.
7. You can’t delete photos
When I am out shooting in the streets, there are times in which people ask me to delete their photos. When I am shooting in digital, I typically comply and delete the photos (most of them aren’t good photos). However I have had a few instances in which I checked the image, and really liked it—and refused to delete the images. This has led to some stiff confrontations and conflict (things I don’t really enjoy).
With film it is a different story. When people ask me to delete the photo, I tell people I can’t and show them the back of my camera. Most people when they see a film back—they are perplexed (after all, what kind of camera doesn’t have an LCD back?). Then most of them are a bit confused, and say “oh – okay” and keep on going on. My conjecture is that the average person sees a film camera and thinks that you are just of a hobbyist (rather than some weird photographer that is going to instantly upload your photos online with your digital camera).
Of course this could lead to some conflict in which someone forces you to take out the entire roll of film. In that case, it is best to stand up for your rights as a street photographer (it is legal after all in a public place) and refuse. In my short time shooting film (around 1.5 months) I haven’t had a single person ask me to take out my entire roll of film yet. But I have heard stories in which it has happened to other street photographers who refuse to do as well. But once again I argue that this won’t happen much when you are shooting film (as most people don’t mind film photographers as much as digital photographers).
8. You don’t need to worry about megapixels
Film cameras are all pretty much the same. They are all “full-frame” and don’t differ much in image quality (factoring out the lenses). Therefore you don’t need to upgrade your film body much (if ever).
With digital photography—there is always a new and hot camera. I honestly find all of it a pain and a headache to keep worrying about having to upgrade to the newest and greatest camera. Although I do feel that technology is great and does make our lives easier, it can also make our lives more stressful in many regards.
9. The prints are beautiful
If you have ever gotten a digital photo printed out and a film photo printed out and put them both side-by-side, there is no comparison. Digital images on print look very cold and artificial, while film images look much more natural and smooth. This is because digital files are still not yet up-to-par to film (film has a higher dynamic range).
10. You make beautiful mistakes
Nowadays the dogma in digital photography is that your photos much be sharp, in-focus, and not blurry. If we see one of our images that are technically imperfect, we may be inclined to edit them out or even delete them.
I have made tons of mistakes shooting film—but it gave me results that pleased me. I took a shot when I forgot to change my shutter speed (it was at 15th of a second, rather than 250th of a second) and it gave me this gorgeous blurry image full of depth and soul. Considering that during the editing process I look at fewer photos (36 in film and 300-400 in digital) I notice these beautiful mistakes more. The same goes with images that a bit out-of-focus or under or overexposed. Through my mistakes I have made many technically imperfect images, but I have learned to appreciate these images far more.
Film photography isn’t better than digital photography, and vice-versa. They are both ultimately used to take photos and create images—which is the most important part. I remember recently in an interview with John Sypal, he commented that the average film photographer owns both a film camera and a digital camera.
If you haven’t had much experience shooting street photography and film, I highly encourage you to do so! Although there are negatives about shooting film—you can also find great joy in it. Who knows, you might make the switch and love every minute of it!
Recommended Film Cameras
Here are some film cameras which work great for street photography and are a great “bang-for-the-buck”. There are a ton of film cameras out there, but I’m not the expert! Contact Bellamy Hunt for questions regarding cameras.
- Leica M6
- Bessa R2A/R3A
- Contax T3
- Ricoh GR1S
- More suggestions
Places that I recommend finding film cameras:
What have your experiences been shooting street photography with film? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below!