Pro photographers who still use film

It’s not often you see a professional photographer taking the time to formally survey his colleagues about an issue, but that’s just what San Diego–based shooter Robert Benson has done at his blog. Curious about professional photographers who still use film—he calls them “the holdouts”—he sent some questions to 11 shooters, including our own Jeff Lipsky.

I’ve posted an excerpt below, but if you have the time, it’s worth going here to read the whole thing.

Why do you shoot film?
Brian Finke: I almost exclusively shoot film, with the exception of recently starting to shoot video with the new Canon, and soon checking out the new Nikon HD camera.  More and more these days when I am on assignment I get the, WOW, reaction when I pull the first Polaroid and everyone on set sees I’m shooting film.  I am instantly seen as an art photographer, which makes by happy. I learned shooting film and love it.  I shoot exclusively with the Hasselblad, it is a great process, taking the Polaroids, loading all the backs, then while shooting taking a pause and reloading, the physicality of the camera and process are beautiful.  I also prefer the grain and depth of film and the chromogenic print, especially when viewed in a large scale, gallery environment.

Paolo Marchesi: I like the “organic” feel of film and the process.  When I shoot film is mostly large format and shooting large format makes you think about the shot more.  It makes you a better photographer.  With digital is easy to just fire away without really taking the time to take “the shot”.

Amanda Friedman: Film has better exposure latitude. Film does significantly better in low light, I get better blacks. I shot a ton of night photography and I’m still finding film to be a much better choice. I can shoot ISO 800 speed film and get beautiful results—can’t really do that with digital yet.

Simon Watson: Because it is beautiful, easy to use and it is always so much more sophisticated looking than digital. Always.

Finn O’Hara: I love the pace of shooting film, and the reality of the exposure is much more tangible when shooting film.

José Mandojana: A few reasons.  I like my medium format and large format film bodies and lenses better. I just see the frame better with these cameras vs. a digital SLR. I also shoot film because the color neg is perfect in my eyes. When shooting raw, a lot of tweaking needs to be done to get it to look like my film. It can be done, but film still has a richness unmatched by digital. Why mess with perfection?

Michael Sugrue: In addition to the look/feel of the image, I most like the workflow of shooting 4×5.  It’s a very quiet, studied approach.  A lot of the mental aspects of shooting large-format film are lost with the instantaneity of digital capture.

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A recent portrait of actress Ellen Page by Jeff Lipsky.

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Jeff Lipsky: Many reasons…… For one, I love shooting my film cameras. There is something special when shooting a portrait with my 4×5. I feel digital takes the pace and feel away. I still enjoy looking at a proof sheet with a good loupe. The editing process is easier and more tangible. Digital format has yet to reach the 6×7 format.  Film is more forgiving and has more range. I can flare and backlight images and still have information in the negative. Digitally it would be lost. I actually like being the first person to see and edit my film. To many times there is a crowd of people surrounding the monitor, no matter how hard I try to hide it. I love working with 120 films. Changing a film back or reloading enables me to change things up and get more variations.  Believe it or not, it’s still more economical for most editorial jobs.

David Lauridsen: Film is beautiful. It has a depth to it and a painterly quality in the way it captures light and texture that digital just isn’t capable of capturing… yet. I shoot a lot of travel photography and like strong side light and backlight, which I think is the biggest weakness of digital. With film, I can expose for good shadow detail and just burn in the sky. With digital, the sky is just gone completely or if I expose for it then I end up with an image that is just much darker than I like. It’s recoverable to some degree in post, but it still doesn’t have that “lushness” that film has.

Bryce Duffy: I still really love the aesthetic of film. I’m not saying it’s not possible to get very similar results with digital, it’s just that in 20 years of working with film stock and polaroid, and a long standing relationship with a lab, there’s so much that is going in to achieving the aesthetic that I’m after, and other peoples expertise as well. Switching to digital means that so much more of that falls back on the photographer. In a way you’re your own film manufacturer, your own lab, your own printer. And I still really feel that there are certain lighting situations where film just “feels” more organic and digital can not replicate that as far as I’ve seen.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted 01/12/2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Film has that added depth and a singular beauty that digital hasn’t. I use digital for MOST jobs due to time and cost reasons. Most of my stuff headed for internet.
    The joy of film is using beautifully crafted cameras.Design and a joy to work with unlike the plastic glob of digital. Sure film cameras don’t have all those features.. So even pros go to the Green-Auto Button!The wonderful range of tones and colors.The contrast fighting built in! No melted foreheads a la digital.
    You can look at one’s slides from decades ago.
    Digital will not be like that!
    If NASA cannot read their early data, what chance do we have?

    • Posted 02/16/2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      I began with film, and after much work in digital, have nearly exclusively returned to film, not only for all the reasons shared by other professionals, but for the cameras themselves.

      In terms of my Leica system, for instance, I use an M2 from 1958, and Leitz lenses dating back to 1929. Why?

      There’s a certain quality and character of these old lenses that, in my view, can’t be reproduced by the modern digital age, at least, not “organically” produced without intensive use of post-processing software, which, for me, takes away the magic of photography, the instant of the image. By spending hours manipulating an image, you’ve removed “the moment”, and now it becomes something else.

      Since these old lenses were computed by hand with early lens design, and put together by hand, they have imperfections when discussing them within the modern day designs, and it is these imperfections that, for me, make them beautiful, and different in a world where digital photography is beginning to all look the same.

      In addition to these imperfect characteristics, it the history of these vintage cameras and lenses that also grabs hold of my heart and passion: when I pick up this gear, my hands and eyes are part of a continuing story. There have been generations of human being using this equipment, seeing and experiencing the world, long before me, and will long after I am gone.

      I am part of a story much larger than my own life, and this is thrilling!

      You just can’t get this from a new digital camera fresh out of the box that hasn’t seen anything nor been anywhere before you.

      This is why I use film.

  2. Posted 10/23/2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I shoot commercial work and mainly food photography for my restaurant clients.
    I feel digital just doesn’t have the depth or range of color that film has. Digital also falls apart at extreme enlargement a case in point: My 120 shots have been shown on the big screen in local theaters for one of my clients and holds up beautifully, I don’t think digital could boast the same results unless I spend thousands on a leaf back for my 4×5, which I certainly cannot justify.
    I also feel digital has the unfortunate capability of turning what would have been amateurs and hacks 20 years ago into pros. After all just erase and re-shoot and if it still isn’t right after the tenth time you can just photo-chop it and voila a sellable image. I come from a background as a Navy photographer and we had to capture everything from plane crashes and crime scenes to re-enlistment ceremonies on film.
    And guess what if you didn’t get the shot or it was screwed up too damned bad. Now obviously things like a plane crash you either get it or you don’t even with digital. But if you underexposed the award ceremony you only had so much you could do to fix it, so it better be right the first time!
    Finally the digital pro will never know the joy of working in a darkroom, flashing paper to bring out detail in the highlights or adding a 10% Potassium bromide solution to the developer to increase the warm tones in a BW print.
    Nor will they ever know how to color correct a print with CC filters (BTW you color correct for perfect whites, since it is a known entity, and everything else will usually fall into place).
    Film rules, digital just fools.

    • Posted 10/03/2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I love that statement”Film rules digital fools.”

    • Posted 08/02/2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

      Almost two years later after you wrote, I gotta agtee with the “film rules, digital just fools”. Great line!

  3. Posted 10/23/2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to post twice but some other points that are rarely discussed.
    1. Micro-filming in the US has almost exclusively returned to film due to the archival storage issues of digital. The cost and time involved in transferring all of the digital data to the newest storage media every so many years was prohibitive.
    2. I can take a Matthew Brady glass plate and still enlarge it in my darkroom some 150 years later, what are they going to read that CD with in 150 years?
    3. I still have ALL of my film images and can print any of them at will, But have one computer crash without good backups and guess what.
    4. Most of us old pros can tell you in detail how the whole process works, from the silver halides in the film and paper to the chemical make-up of the developer and how to tweak the process because we understood the “technology”. Most digital phtogs can only give a very basic overview of how the whole digital thing works because of the technology involved.
    5. The digital “workflow” model is false economy. When you consider that you must upgrade your cameras every few years, buy new computers, and the latest software. I still shoot with a Mamiya C3 twin lens from the ’60s, and the resolution of my image is based on the film not the camera, so I don’t need to buy a new 24 MP camera to stay competitive only new film.

  4. Posted 01/07/2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I do all my commissioned home & vacation portraits with Black & White Film. After it’s processed, I now also have a back up CD made. That CD is used also for me to personally make 6 – 12 enlarged digital proofs of various sizes for people to take home and try out on their walls. I also provide painters’ tapes for that. It’s a good marriage of film and digital and the best use I’ve found for my printer which disappoints in much of B/W printing from scanned negatives.
    I, otherwise, use digital “for fun” and am also selling those as fine art prints. Thanks for this discussion – a new client recently commented on how much she enjoyed the “slow process”! She also brought along some home made candy . . Marjorie

  5. Posted 07/08/2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I shoot both film and digital, but enjoy less the taking and prepping of the images when I use digital. It feels unfulfilling. Regarding the results – they speak for themselves – film is organic and ooozes emotion.

  6. Posted 07/31/2013 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    I love to see that people are still shooting with film cameras. I use to have a Hassleblad with a film and Polaroid back, but sold it for a new digital camera. I regret it in some ways but others make doing graphic design more convenient! I do still shoot with my other film cameras. There is nothing like developing your own art!

  7. Rom
    Posted 09/13/2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    i would really like to be a photographer when i am older. i need the practise for it though…

  8. Manny
    Posted 12/30/2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    First of all, I am not a pro and by most reasonable measures I am not at all qualified to comment.

    I prefer to shoot 4X5 inch negative color. I let the lab process the neg, but I make the print. What I think happens is that when one works with certain tools, the brain adapts to make best use of that tool and avoids using the tool when the tool would not work out that well for the given situation.

    What I state is purely opinion and is not based on any real study. I have noticed that ‘thinking’ improves photos. For example, should I find an interesting looking chair and I take the effort to refinish it, while I am doing the painting, I am thinking on how to use the chair. So, this long contemplating often does somehow seem to cause improved results.

    Every tool has limitations and it is useful to avoid those limitations — or take advantage of them.

    So far as the cost of film and digital, since I make few images, film is actually quite cost effective. Yes, one can manipulate digital in ways that are not realistically possible with film: just try to bend the sensitometry curves with film.

    Yes, glass plates were flatter than plastic film.

    Getting information about which photo product to buy is not easy. I wound up with medium format and 4X5 inch film, shooting negatives, mostly in color.

    I subscribe to several photo magazines and have decided that I must actually see the ‘real’ results to form an opinion.

    No guarantee that this is free of typos.


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stockland Martel, Jose Mandojana. Jose Mandojana said: RT @stocklandmartel: Pro photographers who still use film: http://wp.me/pqdVV-HP [...]

  2. [...] It’s not often you see a professional photographer taking the time to formally survey his colleagues about an issue, but that’s just what San Diego–based shooter Robert Benson has done at his blog. Curious about professional photographers who still use film—he calls them “the holdouts”—he sent some questions to 11 shooters, including our own Jeff Lipsky. [...]

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by stocklandmartel: Pro photographers who still use film: http://wp.me/pqdVV-HP

  4. [...] out this great post on the Stockland Martel blog from photographers who still shoot film. People ask me ALL the time why I shoot film. Why, why, [...]

  5. [...] Pro photographers who still use film | Kristina Feliciano, Stockland Martel [...]

  6. [...] more organic and digital can not replicate that as far as I’ve seen." …look at this link Pro photographers who still use film Best [...]

  7. [...] graced photographers with an ever-expanding set of tools for their craft.  Although photographic film is still utilized by a large number of professional photographers, many have kept pace with these technological [...]

  8. [...] I shoot exclusively with the Hasselblad, it is a great process, taking the Polaroids, loading all the backs, then while shooting taking a pause and reloading, the physicality of the camera and process are beautiful.  I also prefer the grain and depth of film and the chromogenic print, especially when viewed in a large scale, gallery environment. -Taken from stocklandmartelblog.com [...]

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