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Is film dead? The pros and cons of film photography

As the influence of Instagram, Pinterest, and other photo-sharing social media platforms grow, there is an increasing amount of people reverting back to film photography. Once digital cameras became the norm, one would think film would fall into obscurity, but the opposite has happened. The clean, crisp, unblemished results that digital, even phone cameras, produce are becoming blase, and now the grainy imperfections achieved using analog are the trend.

Photo from The Darkroom: both unedited photos, left is film, right is digital

It's clear here that the photo taken on film is richer, brighter, and the grain gives it this warm, inviting feeling. Who wouldn't want to replicate it? But there are several problems one might encounter when beginning their journey into film photography. The most major: the cost. When shooting on digital, you need an SD card and a camera. Both are one-time purchases, and you can find many lightly-used digital cameras on craigslist for under $300. Undeniably expensive, but they can get you a lifetime of unlimited photographs.

Film is a different story. If you can't find a camera buried underneath your grandpa's old sweaters, there's almost no chance of you finding one anywhere BUT second-hand stores. Now, there's actually quite a few of them in the Los Angeles area, and the initial cost of the camera is cheaper than digital - many are under $200. But then comes the condition of the camera, its lining - will there be light leaks? Any broken pieces? And the biggest problem of them all: procuring the film. Two Rite Aids and a were CVS sold out, to order it from an individual store would mean paying a shipping cost higher than the film itself and, perhaps most horrifying, even AMAZON, amazon PRIME, does not sell film for under $20. Per roll. The best deal I could find was five rolls for $40 dollars. When you think about that, it's 36 photographs per roll, and comes out to 180 exposures that you can take. And then… there's developing them. If you don't want to go through the lengthy (and expensive) process of setting up a darkroom in your bathroom, you have to go to one of the three places in Los Angeles that will develop them for you. This was the part of my search that proved the most difficult. CVS was suggested, but they only do disposable cameras. If you want to drive downtown, you can find a place that does it for $13 per color roll, but they don’t do black and white. You can mail the rolls somewhere, but then you pay for postage, and along with the few-week wait time, it is probably not the best option unless you're planning to ship lots of them. I found a place in Glendale that will develop a roll of black and white for $20 dollars. Thirty-six photos, for 20 bucks. So developing those five rolls that you got for 40 bucks on amazon will mean $140 dollars shelled out for the amount of photos you could take on a digital camera in one day.

Photo from Studio Binder

But despite all that, say you have a camera, film, and a place to develop the photos. What could go wrong now? Ha.

Between loading film into the camera and taking it out, there are quite literally a thousand mistakes that can be made. The first time I tried to load my camera, I wound the film all the way back into its canister. One roll wasted, 20 bucks down the drain. The second time, I thought I had finally loaded it correctly. But now I was cautious. Not daring to waste a single exposure on an imperfect shot, I spent a month, biding my time, filling up the 36 photos ever so cautiously. But as I went to unload it, the film was not rolling back. I opened the back of the camera in horror to discover that, again, the film was improperly loaded, and none of the images I had taken actually existed. I was, for all intents and purposes, back to square one. To avoid my (many) mistakes, here's a good tutorial on loading and unloading, but make sure you follow one that is specific to the type of camera you have.

Through the next months that it took to fill up two rolls, I was kicking myself for not using a digital camera the whole time. It was safe, and I had taken for granted the advantages that it gives you. Especially for beginning photographers like myself, one of the biggest pros about digital is that you can see your photos right after you take them, which means that you are able to see the errors you make, and adjust accordingly. I wondered if it was really worth it to go through all the cost and effort for something that could be achieved with the swipe of an Instagram filter.

So, if digital is easier, faster, and cheaper, why would film be coming back at all? There are two big components to this. One of them is Black and White film. Even still, digital cannot capture the detail in black and white photos that film can, and often to achieve something even close to that effect in a digital camera one would need to edit the contrast and lighting on an editing platform before applying a filter.

Photo by Ann Street Studio: left is shot with black and white film, the right on digital edited to add contrast

The other factor, film is unique. For learners, it is unpredictable, and forces you to really learn a manual camera and all the settings it requires. It also makes you be conscious of the photographs you take, really think about the placement and framing, instead of falling back on a digital camera and just pressing the button, hoping the photos turn out okay. Along with this, the negatives you develop are an art component on their own, and can be scanned and overlaid raw to create some really magical things.

Photograph by Ella Esther: black and white film, contrast added

All in all, this process was more stressful than not, and truthfully, out of the 36 photos that I took, only 6 or so are even usable. And I know it sounds like I am advocating against film, but that isn't the case. This was the first time I had tried, with zero background knowledge and not enough research going in. Despite the frustrating process and multiple mistakes, the blurry outcomes and the anticipation in waiting, it's exciting. It feels like a way to travel back in time, and to create things that will last in the future. Who knows what the next 40 years of photography will bring, but regardless, film is going to be around for a while.

Photograph by Ella Esther: black and white film, contrast added

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