Last year I made some hesitant steps towards giving film a try once again, after not using it for more than 15+ years. I certainly can’t remember having touched film since around 2000, even though I have plenty of film cameras, so that recent nostalgia hit was interesting in many ways. It brought into focus (pun intended) what film was all about and why I’d lost interest in using it and, to a large extent, photography as well for what seemed a very long time. After those first rolls of film that I put through the old Kodak Retina and Olympus Trip 35 cameras, I was really keen on taking it further until reality, or perhaps pragmatism, hit home. I realised after a while that film, for me, was no longer relevant in any shape or form and it really didn’t bring back the ‘good old days‘ or any resurgence of potentially lost creativity.
While there has been a resurgence of interest in film, especially by some who have never used film and others that lament the onslaught of digital and refuse to give up on film, I suspect that in the long run film will be restricted to a very small clique of users. Even though the likes of Kodak, Ferrania and Bergger and others have stated that they will bring back some of their old film brands, how long such will last will naturally depend on sales. I see all of this somewhat akin to the revival of vinyl, it will have a following, but will need constant support to remain viable. By no means am I against film and its survival, I hope it does survive and if Kodak had brought back Kodachrome, some of my interest may have remained intact. But there are other issues involved that make any transition moot, as far as I’m concerned.
One of the first issues involved is actually finding someone that sells film, colour or B&W. For my nostalgia hit, it took some searching to find anyone that sold film in Australia. The place where I got my rolls of B&W film at the time had quite a range available, but many were perennially out of stock. In the olden days, when you became familiar with a certain type of film, be it colour or B&W, you rarely had any problems getting as much as you wanted. And this is something that is becoming increasingly difficult for film photographers who want to settle on just one or two types of film. You may end up spending a lot of time searching, buying and eventually receiving your rolls of film before you can take one photograph. In places like the US, this may not be such an issue, but in the Land Downunder, nothing is ever easy.
The other issue is cost. A single roll of 35mm B&W film with 36 available shots usually costs a minimum of around $8 per roll. Colour negative film can be more expensive and colour slide film moreso, though it’s swings and roundabout depending on type. Then you have to add the cost of processing on top of the purchase price. B&W film can be processed at home with basic tools, but when it comes to colour, you really do have to rely on a colour processing lab that can provide chemical and processing consistency. Colour processing labs are rapidly disappearing and the cost of processing can exceed the cost of the film stock. And many will only do C41 colour processing, which means that you will be limited to colour negative film (or B&W film designed for this process – chromogenic film), unless you want to cross-process your slide film. Once again it involves more time waiting and perhaps fretting over what’s happening to your precious photographs.
So if you’ve been able to manage all of these hurdles, then you have in your hands perfectly exposed and processed rolls of negatives or slides (you hope). Then what? Well, unless you have a darkroom printing setup at home for B&W (very unlikely nowadays), and like everyone else your life revolves around the internet, you’re really going to need to digitise those negatives or slides. So now you need to take a step back and consider whether that digitising should have taken place at the lab that processed the film, or should you now do it yourself. If the lab does the digitising for you, they’ll charge varying rates depending on the resolution that you want, the higher the resolution, the more it will cost. Of course you can do it at home, if you buy/have an appropriate scanner or similar, but that’s going to involve a lot time and effort if you don’t have dedicated tools and appropriate software. When you scan colour negatives, for example, there’s a yellow substrate in the film that will cause all manner of issues if you don’t have the right software or filters to eliminate the colour. And if you do scan the film yourself, expect to put in a lot of hours.
So now that you’ve digitised your film and they are successfully stored on your hard drive and backed up on another one at least (right?), you’ll have to consider what to do with your film. Obviously you don’t want to throw the film away, given the time, effort and cost involved in getting to this point, so now you need to find a way to store it so that it doesn’t deteriorate. You could just toss it into a shoe box in the plastic storage sheet that it came back in, or you may want to be more meticulous and seek something that will be somewhat more archival. Special storage is not really that necessary, as B&W negatives have stood the test of time in some of the worst storage conditions and colour slides have also lasted well. Either way, you’ll need to have some form of manual storage and recording in place so that you know what is where. I have completely lost track of where I put those rolls of processed B&W film that I took last year.
So what does all of this mean? For me, I’ve worked out that no matter how much nostalgic pleasure I might obtain from using film, at the end of the day, the hassles and costs far override any likely enjoyment I might find from using film. If you do all of your processing and digitising through a specialist photo lab, you’ll be up for a minimum of $8 for one roll of film, around $16 for processing and handling, probably another $15 for digitising. That’s nearly $40 for 36 shots and given that you have to be quite amazing to achieve a 10% success rate (that’s 3.6 successful photographs, let’s say 4), it means that those 4 photographs have cost you around $10 each. The figures will vary depending on how you approach things, so they can be lower or higher. But at the end of the day it not only becomes expensive, it’s a very slow and tedious process finally getting those 36 photographs into your computer. And you will still have to ‘edit and prepare‘ the digitised film in the same way as if you had used a digital camera. And from scanned images, this can often take way longer and even then not get it to your liking (which is why I suspect many will just use B&W).
After all of this effort, are the results any better than what you could achieve with a digital camera? For me, no. Going back to film offered nothing more than hours of extra work, frustration, as well as a lot more time and money spent before I could even take one photograph. And, more importantly, the results really are no better than using digital and in many ways are worse. From a photography perspective, we are absolutely blessed with what digital imaging has provided us and what it allows us to do photographically. Film, in many ways restricted us, made some things extremely difficult and other things virtually impossible. At the end of the day I have no issues with those who wish to return to film, I wish them good luck but, for me, film is now just a part of history.