(Above photo from my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” series. Shot with my Leica M6 and Kodak Tri-X film)
I never really understood the appeal of film in the digital age. After all, shooting film was expensive, cumbersome, and a pain in the ass to do compared to digital. Not only that, but with digital I had all the instant gratification I wanted. I didn’t have to wait before seeing my images- they would come to me instantly. I could post-process them all I wanted- to give my images that certain ‘look’ that I desired.
For this post I will share how I first got introduced to film street photography, the pros of shooting street photography with film, and how you can get started shooting street photography with film as well. Keep reading to learn more!
Shooting film in Mumbai, India
The madness then started when I first visited Mumbai, India and stayed with my friend and fellow street photographer Kaushal Parikh (founder of Indian Street Photography Collective “That’s Life“).
Kaushal (nicknamed K.P.) shot with two cameras: his Leica M6 TTL for film, and his Fujifilm X-100 for digital. He used both mediums, yet in the end he told me his love for film. He shoots black and white Tri-X film, and gets his film imported overseas and gets all his film processed/scanned himself. It all seemed like a hassle and I didn’t understand why he did it.
He then suggested that I try shooting with the Leica M6- and give film a go. I had some negative experiences shooting street photograpy with film before (I opened the back of my grandpa’s Contax IIIa and ruined at least 5 rolls of film on accident) and was reluctant. Regardless to say, I was intruiged and decided to try giving it a go.
I then held his Leica M6, and felt a sense of calm. I loved the simplicity of the design – and the lack of extraneous buttons and an LCD screen of my Leica M9. The most intruiging was the film advance lever- something I would learn to adore very soon.
I gave it a go shooting on the streets of Mumbai, and I started to understand the appeal of shooting street photography with film. The experience was much more zen-like, and rather than thinking about the shot I just took (in digital) I would look forward to the next shot. Of course I was concerned if my exposures were incorrect- but K.P. reassured me that I shouldn’t worry too much, as b/w film has a far better dynamic range than digital. At the end of the day, I had a fantastic time shooting on the streets, and was curious to see what I got on my film.
My first time processing film
After a few days, we decided to process the film. K.P. took out all the chemicals, beakers, and tools necessary to process the film. It was like a mad lab out of a science-fiction movie.
K.P. then showed me how to mix the chemicals, explained the theory of rolling the film on the spool (he did this for me), as well as agitating the film and when to stop. He mentioned the whole process of processing his film was like a religious and meditative experience for him – something that caught my attention.
We then processed the film, and when it was done- took it out to let it dry. I was still concerned that my film would all be black and nothing was properly developed, but I gasped with awe when I saw my photos on the negatives. It was beautiful – something I had never seen before. It was like magic, something wonderful and unexpected.
Scanning the negatives was a breeze- and after seeing the images on the computer screen, there was something special about the look of the black and white images. They weren’t cold and lifeless like the digital images I usually shoot- but they had character in the grain structure, ink-jet blacks, and the best of all- great details in the highlights.
I still wasn’t convinced about making the full conversion to film. After all, I had my Leica M9, my hard drives, my quad-core computer at home, and my Lightroom workflow down to a science. I convinced myself I didn’t have the time, money, or the effort to shoot street photography with film.
Then came Tokyo.
Tokyo and film: The madness begins
I went to Tokyo to teach a street photography workshop sponsored by Leica alongside Charlie Kirk, Bellamy Hunt, and Alfie Goodrich. Charlie and Bellamy both shoot film exclusively- and told me to give it a go. I then met a bunch of other passionate photographers in Tokyo- a ton of them also shooting film. After visiting the vintage camerastores in Tokyo and seeing the stores of still dedicating to selling film, I thought I would give it another try.
But I still needed a film camera.
I was quite fond of K.P.’s Leica M6 I shot in India – and knew it was reasonably priced. I then started to talk to my friends about getting a Leica M6 and trying more film- when I talked to Todd Hatakeyama, my good friend and gallery owner of the Hatakeyama Gallery and Simple Studio Lighting.
I was in casual conversation with Todd, when he casually told me that he had a spare Leica M6 he never used. He then asked me, “Do you want it?” I gasped, held my cool, and said, “Sure- why not?”
For the next several months, I decided to shoot exclusively film to see what I would get.
I then shot the rest of my trip in Tokyo in exclusively b/w with Tri-X, and headed to Korea afterwards to get my film processed. Having used my Leica M9 for a while, it was quite easy to transition into shooting with film. After all, everything was the same except shooting fully-manual instead of aperture-priority on the M9.
Discovering the advantages of shooting in film
I noticed a few advantages when shooting with film- namely that when people asked me to delete the photo I told them I couldn’t- as it was film. Also while in Tokyo I was working on a small project titled: “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” – a project about the irony of Japanese society: they are one of the richest countries in the world, yet have one of the highest depression and suicide rates. Shooting film helped me stay focused on the project and the whole-picture, rather than individual images.
I got my film developed and scanned when visiting Korea the month afterward- and fell in love with my film shots from Tokyo. The depth, soul, and the dynamic range were to die for. Shots that were blurry or out-of-focus (that would have looked horible in digital) looked more like beautiful mistakes in film.
While in Korea I would then embark on another small project titled “Korea: The Presentation of Self”. The project was an exploration of how Koreans try to present themselves in a positive manner to others by the way they look and dress, the cars they drive, and the material things they own. I shot the entire project on Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600, and once again- was able to focus on my project (rather than individual images).
I am now in the middle of working on two projects: “First World Asia” – trying to document the rise of Asia from a capitalistic, socio-economic, and political perspective. I also am trying to explore the role of tourism, capitalism, and globalization in Asia. The second project is focused on “Suits” – capturing the stress and anxiety of the 9-5 workday (based on my past experiences working corporate). For these two projects I am shooting all on color film: Kodak Portra 400.
Making the full transition from digital to film
I am now making the full transition to film from digital for my personal street photography work, and recently sold my Leica M9 and now making the full move into film. Why am I making the plunge into fully film from having shot street photography in digital the last five years? Let me explain a bit more below:
1. Film helps me focus more on my personal projects
For my street photography, I am more interested in the project-based approach rather than the single-image approach. I want to create projects that are meaningful and have social statements- rather than taking interesting individual images, uploading to Flickr, and hoping to get 100+ favorites.
With film, I can focus on my personal projects by not stressing about the individual images. When shooting digital, I end up looking at my images too quickly. Although I try not to chimp, I too fall victim to this bad habit. Furthermore, I typically look at my images after a full day of shooting in Lightroom- which prevents me from disconnecting emotionally from my images. I end up falling in love with my bad photos (based on the memory of the images) rather than looking at them objectively.
2. Film helps me focus on my photography, not gear
My friend said it to me best: Digital cameras are like computers. How often do you upgrade your computer? Every 2-3 years? How long did you use your brand-new white MacBook before you had to upgrade to a new aluminum MacBook pro?
With digital cameras they get outdated in around 2-3 years. Sure you can keep using the camera you have, but you will always be tempted by the newest and greatest. The newer cameras will always have more features, better ISO-performance, better image-quality, and new designs.
I fall victim to G.A.S. like everyone out there- and I hate it. I don’t want to make excuses for my photographs not being good enough because I don’t have the right camera or lens. Now with my film Leica and 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH– I have no excuses. It is a kit I can theoretically use for the rest of my life. It will never get outdated (as it already is!) Imagine having a 1960’s Mustang vs a brand new BMW. The 1960’s Mustang will always have a nice appeal, whereas you constantly are pressured to buying the newest BMW.
3. I don’t have to worry about post-processing
I think post-procesing is a pain in the ass. I like to tell people in my street photography workshops to spend 90-95% of your time editing, and around 5-10% of your time post-processing.
With film, the photos look great out of the camera and I rarely have to ever adjust them. With digital RAW files, you still have to fumble with the filters and presets and have so many choices to toy around with your image. Once again, I would prefer spending more time shooting and editing than post-processing on y computer.
4. I take fewer photographs and am more selective
Every time I click the shutter, it costs me roughly .50 cents. Therefore when I’m out shooting on the streets, I am not shooting away blindly- but being far more selective. When I used to shoot digital, I could easily shoot 500 photographs in a day. Now with film, shooting 3 rolls a day is on the extreme end (around 108 shots).
This helps me in the end- because there are fewer photographs I have to look at when editing, and the overall quality of the images are better as well.
5. Film isn’t going away anytime soon
People are concerned to shoot film, as they are worried that companies will quit producing film. Sure Kodak filed for bankruptcy, but it is their film department that is still making money. When photography came about, people said nobody would paint anymore- yet painting is still thriving. When TV came out, people said nobody would listen to radio anymore. People still do. When MP3’s came out, people said nobody would listen to vinyls anymore- yet they are still around.
In my opinion, I don’t think film will ever go away- but inevitably it will become more expensive in the long run. Is it worth it to me? Yes. I spend a lot of money on my photography, but still drive an old-ass car, and own only three pairs of clothes.
6. I never run out of batteries/my camera is always on
Traveling with film is actually far better than digital. I don’t have to worry about constantly charging my camera, as the film Leica M6 can operate without a battery (you only need a battery for the meter). Also taking film through the X-ray has never been an issue for me at airports (as long as the film is below ISO 1600-3200 you are okay). I took my ISO 400 film through x-rays at airports at least 3-4 times consecutively and never had an issue.
An Introduction To Shooting Film For Street Photography
If you are intruiged in shooting street photography with film, and haven’t ever tried it before- here are some tips I have. Note that I am still a noob when it comes to shooting film. All this information I am providing is based on my personal experiences and advice I have gotten from others.
1. Buy a film camera
If you are interested in shooting street photography with film, I would recommend either getting a film rangefinder or a point-and-shoot (or both). I prefer the manual controls of the rangefinder when shooting on the street, yet love the compactness and unobtrusiveness of a point-and-shoot when out on the streets. Some of my camera recommendations:
Leica M6 or Leica MP with a 35mm Summicron f/2 or 35mm Voigtlander f/1.4.
There are a plethora of great film rangefinders out there (Konica Hexar, Contax G-series, Canonets, Bessas, etc) yet I prefer the Leica. Why? They are the most reliable, are simple, and will last you a lifetime. I don’t believe in buying a ton of cameras/gear. I like the idea of one camera and one lens- yet prefer to have a camera that is reliable and functional.
A Leica M6 will run you around $1300-$1600 (depending on the condition) and the Leica MP (newest film Leica) will run you around $3200-$3700 (depending on condition).
For a lens, I prefer a 35mm lens (it is a nice overall focal length) and currently use the Leica 35mm Summicron f/2 ASPH. It is expensive (starts at around $3000+) yet it is the lens I will probably use for the rest of my life. If you don’t have the $3,000+ (most of us don’t – I depleted my savings to purchase it) I highly recommend the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4. Why? It starts at only $630+, is very sharp, compact, light, and ergonomic. Everyone I know who has it loves it.
I am a huge fan of film point-and-shoots. Why? They are compact which causes you to take them with you everywhere you go. In the end, you end up taking more shots, especially in places where you want to be more low-key (subway, bus, supermarket, etc).
I recommend either the Contax T2 or Ricoh GR1s. The Contax T2 is the more functional camera, as it has a fantastic 38mm lens which is very sharp and contrasty. You can also adjust the aperture directly on the lens, it has a flash, and you can easily adjust your pre-focus (or shoot in AF) with a thumb-wheel. It is built of quality (out of Titanium) and won’t break the bank (they are around $400-500).
I currently am using the Ricoh GR1s. Why? It is slimmer than the Contax T2 and lighter- so I can fit into my front jean pocket while on-the-go. It also has a 28mm lens, which supplements the 35mm lens on my Leica quite well. It is very comfortable to hold, and has autofocus, flash, and I can also zone focus with it with the “snap mode”. Check out my review of the Ricoh GR1s and Bellamy’s Ricoh GR Buyer’s guide.
If you want to get a film camera, I highly recommend contacting my friend Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter) who sources all of his cameras from Japan. I have gotten a few dud cameras in the past, and hate dealing with fixing them. Bellamy sees the cameras in-person, tests them, and makes sure they are minty fresh before shipping them out. I recently got my lovely Ricoh GR1s from him, and am in the middle of getting a Leica MP from him.
2. Choose a film
For black and white, I currently shoot Kodak Tri-X 400 and for my color, I prefer Kodak Portra 400. They are both lovely films, and not too difficult to find online. Tri-X has been used for decades by professional photographers and journalists, and have great grain and high contrast- while Portra 400 has great skin tones, a fine grain, and nicely saturated.
Also note when you are shooting street photograpy with film, my suggestion is to push your film to 1600. If you are not familiar with pushing film, the idea is that you put in ISO 400 film into your camera, and adjust your meter to ISO 1600. You then shoot your ISO 400 film underexposed by 2 stops, and process your film for longer to get the correct exposure. This allows you to get a faster shutter speed.
Why push to 1600? You need roughly at least 250th’s/second to capture people walking without having them blurred. If you are shooting in the sun, you will have no problem (probably shooting at f/16 at 1000th/second) but once you go into the shade you will probably need to shoot at f/8 at 250ths-500ths/second. I recently read in Bystander: A History of Street Photography that Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz always pushed to 1600 to capture decisive moments. Follow the masters- they must have done it for a reason!
3. Shoot on the streets
When you are shooting on the streets, these are the settings I recommend with a rangefinder using zone focusing:
Aperture: f/8 or above
Shutter: above 250ths/second
ISO: ISO 400 film pushed to 1600
Focus: Prefocus to 1.5 meters
Remember when shooting street photography with a film rangefinder you should always zone-focus during the day. However once it becomes night, you sometimes have no choice but shoot wide-open at f/2 or faster.
Also note that with film it is always better to overexpose than underexpose. Film retains details in the highlights very well, but don’t hold much details in the shadows.
4. Process your film
There are two ways you can go about processing your film. 1) Doing it yourself and 2) Sending it to a lab to do it for you.
1) If you decide to do it yourself, make sure to google online how to deveop your own film. You will end up saving more money, but it takes more time. I don’t know how to do it myself yet- but I hope to learn soon!
2) If you decide to send it to a lab, there are a lot of choices. Back in the states, I send my color film to Costco- they process any color film for only $5 USD/roll, including a high-resolution scan (roughly 3500px wide). Unfortunately they don’t do black and white and don’t push-process.
Most places in the world charge a lot more for developing/scanning film. My recommendation is to just ask them to develop the film for you, and scan it yourself. I recommend either the Epson V700 or the Epson V750 (if you want a flatbed) or the Plustek 7600 scanner for 35mm negatives. The difference? The Epson will scan your film quicker and be easier, yet the Plustek will give you higher-quality scans, but take longer.
Tip while scanning: Try to scan the photographs without clipping your highlights and don’t add contrast while scanning. Just try to get a good exposure, and add contrast in Lightroom or Photoshop afterwards.
5. Organize/edit your film
Organizing film is incredibly difficult. Everyone has their own system, but what I do is the following:
I organize my film according to my travels and location. For example, I have a folder for all of my Korea film negatives, my Singapore shots, my Tokyo shots, and so forth.
Keeping your film organized early-on will save you a whole ton of headache and pain.
When editing my scanned film, I still use Lightroom 4. I use it to edit down my shots (select my best work) and even do some post-processing if my shots are a little overexposed or underexposed.
Shooting film for me has made me a better street photographer. I am now far more selective when shooting on the streets, I enjoy the zen-like process more, and I am able to edit my shots better. I generally don’t process my film until a month after I take my shots, which means that I am able to emotionally detach myself from my photographs and judge them more objectively.
Film is still quite expensive, yet a cost I am willing to take. After all, I think everyone is entitled to one expensive hobby (for others it is cars, expensive clothes, etc). For others it is buying a new Mercedes. For me, it is shooting film. Also I like not worrying about buying the newest and greatest digital camera. Remember: Buy Film, Not Megapixels.
Shooting film is not for everybody, but I still highly recommend everyone to try it out. If you have an old film camera collecting dust at home, blow off the dust, change the batttery, pop in a load of film, and go out and try it out. You might like it a lot more than you expect. You might hate it. Just try it out!
I am now fully-committed to film for my street photography, but who knows how long it will be for. If something better than digital comes out, who knows- I might switch to that! But for now, I am enjoying the ride!
Once again, if you are interested in shooting film or getting a film camera, contact Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter) who has at least a decade+ worth of knowledge of this stuff.
Thank you for your feedback and thoughts in the comments below! The post I written has sparked a healthy amount of discussion and debate. However I would like to clarify some points which I made in the article which I feel was misinterpreted.
1. This is not an article on digital vs film (and whether either is better)
This is the most common confusion I have gotten in terms of comments. This argument is not whether film or digital is better- it is about my personal experiences in shooting both mediums- and now why I personally prefer to shoot film.
I still own a digital camera (an Olympus EPM-1) that I use for my snapshots of friends, family, workshops, etc. I am only making the full transition from digital to film for my personal street photography projects. I don’t shoot any commercial work or editorial. If I got a commission, of course I would probably borrow a Canon 5D Mark III and shoot it with that.
2. I’m not suggesting for everyone to sell their digital cameras, but to experiment with film for street photography
About a year or two ago, I never understood the hype of shooting film vs digital. I would make many points saying that if you trained yourself enough, you would get all the benefits of film (while shooting digital). For example, not chimping, sitting on your images for a longer time before editing your work, as well as processing your film to ‘look like film’ using Silver Efex Pro 2.
However after actually shooting for film for several months (around 4 months to be exact) I now know the differences. I feel that photographers cannot make a judgement on the benefits of shooting film until actually having tried shooting film for a certain period of time. Otherwise you are not speaking from experience – and more assumptions.
For example, one may have the determination and willpower not to ever chimp or review his/her images for an entire month – but I would argue that the most of us don’t. Even having the temptation will make the editing process far more difficult. One can also make the argument to only use a 512mb or 1 GB SD card when shooting on the streets – which can make one more selective. But even in that case, it doesn’t “cost” you anything upfront to process your shots- which will mean you are ultimately more selective when shooting film.
Once again, the purpose of this blog post was to encourage people to experiment and try out film if they have never. If people don’t like film – no problem. I don’t discredit photographers just because they shoot digital. I myself have shot digital the last 5 years, and just have recently shot film myself.
3. “The camera doesn’t matter” argument is a bit flawed
I used to always say that “the camera doesn’t matter”. In a nutshell, it encapsulates my feelings quite concisely. I hate people putting down others because they don’t shoot with a full-frame camera, have expensive lenses, or shoot with a Leica. However some caveats below in how the camera does matter- to a certain extent.
For example, if I want to be mobile and shoot on the streets- I physically couldn’t use a large-format camera or a pinhole camera. Using a more compact and portable camera would allow you to do that.
To me the importance of using a certain a certain camera is in the handling, ergonomics, and appearance – not the image quality. If you put an image of a photo shot wide open with a Canon 5D Mark III next to a Leica M9 I couldn’t tell the difference. If you did the same with a micro 4/3rds camera shot at f/8 vs a Leica I couldn’t tell the difference. If you put a b/w film photo next to one processed in Silver Efex Pro 2 I probably couldn’t tell a difference either.
You want to use a camera you are comfortable with. I prefer shooting with a Leica- not because it is expensive but because it listens to my personal preferences. I rely heavily on zone focusing, like having a camera with a quiet shutter, and one that doesn’t look menacing. I have found in my personal experience that someone is less likely to be threatened by a rangefinder than a DSLR. I am also more comfortable with the simplicity of design when compared to other rangefinders.
Once again, having an expensive camera won’t make you a better photographer. But find a camera that fits your personal needs (not the needs of others).
4. Yes, I contradict myself – and pride myself in it
I contradict myself all the time. I don’t agree to points what I wrote two years ago. I am constantly changing, evolving, and transforming as a photographer. I experiment with different cameras, with different mediums, as well as different approaches. I started this blog to also share my personal experiences shooting street photography to help others, not to paint things black and white.
It is important to contradict yourself. Otherwise, you become close minded. Think of all the scientists who said the earth was flat for hundreds of years. Once there was scientific proof that the Earth was round, they refused to say it was the truth. This is because they didn’t want to contradict themselves.
I encourage everyone to try to contradict yourselves. Don’t be stuck to one position. Otherwise, it makes for a quite boring world.
I am currently shooting purely film for my personal street photography – but who knows, I might end up switching back to digital in the next few months. Nobody knows (not even myself).
5. Photography is the most important thing
I don’t care if anyone shoots digital or film. I just want to spread the love of street photography with as many people as I can. Honestly in the end I have become quite annoyed when people try to debate what street photography is and what it isn’t.
As Nick Turpin eloquently wrote,
“Street Photography is Photography and … the future of Street Photography is intrinsically tied to the future of the medium itself, while there is Photography there will be Street Photography because it is the Prime Mover, the evolutionary inheritance of all Photography.” – from “Undefining street photography“
I drool when I see alligator-skinned Leica MP a-la-cartes, love the build and creamy bokeh of the Leica .95 Noctilux, and fall victim to G.A.S. all the time myself. However I am aware of my weaknesses- as I am only human and flawed myself.
Remember that in the end- just focus on the photography and go out and shoot, a lot.
For your reference, check out my old post I wrote about a year ago titled: “Which is better: Film vs Digital” in which I said that I still preferred digital at the time.
Did you used to shoot digital and have started to experiment with film- or made the full transition? Share your thoughts/opinions and thoughts in the comments below! Also make sure to continue the conversation on my Facebook fan page