There was a time when image quality was everything to me in photography, regardless of the subject, for all images. I wanted no noise, perfect sharpness, infinite detail. I was a pixel peeper. And this is still true for my landscape photography when shooting digital, and when I am taking those types of images, I’m using whatever techniques I can-multiple exposures, HDR, ETTR-to get that ultimate image quality. But it’s not everything anymore. That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from using film.
I developed my first roll of film just before New Year’s Day this year (2021), and a few weeks later I was telling one of my non-photographer friends about it. He said, “Let me get this straight. You take a picture on film, develop the film, then you take a picture of the film with your digital camera and use some special program to make it look good. Why?”...because it’s film. Film. Because you can hold it in your hand. Because you can smell it when you load the roll into the camera. Because when your hard drive crashes, your still have the negatives. Because it’s something in life that isn’t digital.
In the last two months, I have bought and/or had repaired four 35mm film cameras. They are cool. Retro. The ones from the later 70s and 80s remind me of the cameras I only saw in catalogs as a kid but could never afford. Now they cost less than a tank of gas. One of them brings back memories of holding my dad’s SLR and trying to figure out how the focusing screen worked (I think it may have been a Canon AE-1; it definitely had a 50mm lens. I have no idea what happened to it.) So there is definitely an element of nostalgia for me in using these cameras.
The first summer I was using film cameras again, I decided to try an image quality comparison between film and digital. I had my Sony a6000, Yashica Electro 35 GSN with a roll of Portra 400, and Yashica-Mat TLR 6x6 also with Portra 400. I was sure the 6x6 would blow away the digital. Well, I set it up wrong with the cameras pointed at backlit trees on the creek behind my house. The flare on the Yashicas was terrible, the image from the Sony (with a Zeiss T* coated lens) blew away the film shots. But aside from the flare, the film shots look really good.
I did some other comparisons that summer, putting the film cameras into ridiculous low light setups where film has no chance against digital (but can actually produce some lovely images like the one above). I also took some really bad landscape photos, almost always disappointed with the results. I learned that empty blue skies look terrible on consumer-grade 400-speed film. I learned that empty blue skies look terrible on professional-grade 400-speed film, even on 6x6. But I also learned that same film can capture a wonderful portrait of a dog or incredible soft pastel colors in the clouds just before sunset (with the lens pointed away from the sun). And I learned that kids look great on any type of film taken with any type of camera, but especially on Portra.
I’ve also learned that image quality isn’t everything, even on digital. ISO 12800 probably looks better than ASA 400 on a 32-inch monitor at 1:1, but they both look just fine on a 5x7 print. I’ve even learned to add grain to my digital photos sometimes to cover up the blemishes.
Footnote: I wrote the text of this post before selecting the images. When I reviewed my catalog to pick out the photos to include, I have to admit that the film images look a lot better than I remembered, and I had to revise some of my statements that had been too harsh on the film. Maybe this is an example of how my tastes for photography have changed over the last couple of years.
Something else I noticed is just how incredible that the Yashica Electro 35 GSN really is. All of these images were captured with my Electro 35 the first summer that I got it. I'm sure it had been sitting in a closet for close to 40 years, and I did was replace the light seals and battery and wipe off the lens.