Yet Another Article About the Benefits of Shooting Film

Yet Another Article About the Benefits of Shooting Film | Mastin Labs

Two things to preface my post about film and camera formats:

First: you should trust me because this is the internet and I proclaim myself an expert. So there.

Second: this is NOT a blog post about which medium (film or digital) is better.

I’ve photographed weddings and families professionally (sic) on film for a few years (as well as loads of personal work), and while I’m mostly digital now, I still carry around my Rolleiflex for hipster status.

Personally, I’m generally quite wary of photography advice unless I’ve seen an author’s work, which for me often leads to excessive Googling, and then quite often excessive eye-rolling. To save you time, I’ll spare you the Googling: http://zalmyb.com (I can’t promise to spare you from excessive eye-rolling though).

By Zalmy Berkowitz, edited with Mastin Labs Ilford PanF preset

Along the way I learned a few things. Most of which I’m not going to share. But, here are three MAJOR reasons why everyone (almost) should shoot film (and one extra credit).

1. Formats (of the film and digital variety)
Film is simple. They (you know “they”: Kodak, Fuji) make these gargantuan rolls of film (something like 40 inches wide and 6000 feet long). For the most part it is divided into three types

  • 35mm rolls (for photojournalists, or anyone that desires portability and speed over pure image quality). This means they are literally 35mm wide and rolled into 24 or 36 frames per canister.
  • Medium format film (70mm rolls, made into varying lengths, either 120 or 220 length)
  • Sheet film (4×5, 5×7, 8×10, 16×20 etc) for ultimate in image quality along with allowing for extensive movements of the lens and camera (for architectural work, for general focus funkiness, and the “look” that one gets with larger formats. We’ll talk a bit about that later).

Taken on a Speedgraphic 125cm-fp100c. By Zalmy Berkowitz

Digital is a lot more complicated, and one can’t really just “cut” a sensor to any size and format as he wishes.

“So what?” you ask. Sheesh, patience! Kids these days… smh.

Since with film the “sensor” came in one long roll, medium format camera makers, while being limited to 6mm on one side, were able to choose how long the other side should be. The formats were (generally): 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×8, 6×9 (this one is equivalent to 35 mm wide), 6×12, and 6×17 (yeehaw!)

(35mm cameras could do the same to an extent, but being limited to 24mm high, they couldn’t really skimp too much, so the majority used a 35mm x 24mm frame–what we now call “full frame”–though a few were “half frame”, a few 24” x 24”, and a few were panoramic ones like the Hasselblad Xpan which measures in at a whopping 65mm x 24mm.)

Digital image shot on a Nikon D750 camera body with a 20mm lens. By Zalmy Berkowitz, edited with Mastin Labs Ilford Delta 3200 preset

Throughout the years (I won’t make believe I’m an old-timer, I maybe shot film for 4 years) I’ve worked with most of the formats. And each time I moved to different a format I saw the world in a different way. Sometimes it was drastic (the square and 6.5x 2.4 being the most different for me), other times more subtle (645 and 67). Your compositions change, your preconceived visions change. In other words: you grow.

My big point here on film/digital formats is: Moving from a d700 to a d750 won’t do that much, but going from a d700 to a Hasselblad, or a Pentax 67, or a Fuji GX680, will totally change how you see the world. And how you photograph it.

Of course you can crop to any aspect later, but seeing it in camera (and being limited to that aspect) is very different.

Got it? Good. Next.

“Your compositions change, your preconceived visions change. In other words: you grow.” - Zalmy Berkowitz

Ektar film image shot on a Rolleiflex SL66 with a 80mm lens. By Zalmy Berkowitz

2. Camera Formats (closely related to number 1)

As mentioned above (kind of), camera manufacturers didn’t need to worry about the sensor. Kodak and Fuji and Ilford and Agfa (yeah I know about the comma, I get paid by the word) and a bunch of smaller companies as well did that part. All they had to do was make a light-proof box, either make a lens or outsource one, have some sort of shutter, and a way of focusing. Which is pretty easy.

Digital image shot on a Nikon D750 with 20mm lens. By Zalmy Berkowitz, edited with Mastin Labs Ilford Delta 3200 preset

So back in the day, when we walked to school uphill in the snow both ways, and gas was a nickel a gallon (and I wasn’t born yet), we had hundreds (literally) of random camera companies making awesome, ridiculous, and ridiculously-awesome cameras. Whereas now you need to be a fairly large corporation (with a board and shareholders and all that jazz) in order to make a decent camera, back when Mustangs and Camaros belched clouds of smog obscuring the crowds of cheering hippies, all you needed was a garage and some mad soldering skillz (I think they spelled that with an “s” at the end back then. Weirdos.)

And even the big companies were making funky cameras. Mama and Fuji were duking it out in the weird department (with Fuji usually winning), Hasselblad and Rolleiflex were dueling over who had tighter tolerances, Contax was busy making a bunch of amazing beta cameras which never made it to the next stage (I’m looking at you, you crazy overpriced Contax 645), and in the US, where bigger is better, Aerial lenses were being slapped on 4×5 bodies with tiny rangefinders and 4 shutters to shoot synchronized skiing (thankfully that sport has disappeared).

Photographed using a Nikon D810 and a 35mm Sigma Art lens. By Zalmy Berkowitz, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset

Twin Lenses! Rangefinders! Waist level finders! Sonnar autofocus! Leaf shutters! Spy Cameras! Pinhole!

Just as switching out the aspect ratio changes how you see the world, the type of camera does the same. Looking and shooting through a Mamiya RZ67 is a totally different experience than doing so with a Pentax 67, which is totally different from a Plaubel Makina 67 (which I still have to try), even though they are all 6×7. Same thing with a Rolleiflex TLR, a Hasselblad 500, and a Holga.

By Zalmy Berkowitz

I’ve tried more camera systems than most (mostly because I’m crazy), and I can say without any hesitation, that with each system change my photography perceptibly grew and evolved.

I was also able to find out what I REALLY liked and what worked best for me. I fell in love with the square and the waist level finder. And even though the latter is hard with digital, the former isn’t. I shoot mostly now with a digital body and a 20mm (equivalent) cropped to square, which is the closest I can get to a 50mm on 6×6.

Stop thinking so much and just buy a film camera. Worst comes to worst you’ll sell it for the same price. Use it. Figure it out. Let it guide you. Close your eyes and see where it takes you. See it’s advantages and shortcomings, and then go buy another. And another.

3. The look.
Film is made to look good. There are decades of science and art poured into each emulation. The way it renders specific colors, the contrast, the highlights, the shadows, the curves.

Digital is 1’s and 0’s. There’s a lot of info there, but who knows what to do with it all?

When I first picked up a “real” digital camera, some sort of Canon Rebel, I had absolutely no clue what to do with those fancy raw files. I pushed this slider and that slider. Did the whole vintage thing for a while, maybe a bit of matte, and a slight (horrible) dabble in HDR. I just didn’t have a baseline for what good images were supposed to looked like.

I somehow stumbled into film photography after buying a cool looking Hasselblad on a whim. That’s a story on it’s own.

Film image shot on Portra 160 with a Mamiya 6 with a 50mm lens. By Zalmy Berkowitz

I fumbled around scanning my own work for a bit on flatbed scanner (not for the faint of heart, or for anyone with a life), but once I started sending things out and seeing how the film came back I really started seeing what “looked good” what good skin tone looks like, what good contrast is. I started focusing less on getting the most detail in an image (newsflash! shadow detail is overrated) and more on how the image actually looked. Then my buddies in LA let me use their fancy pants Frontier scanner whenever I drove up, and doing that for a while made me much more aware of the subtle white balance and exposure tweaks needed to take a good image and make it great.

Now I’m mostly shooting digital and using Mastin Labs presets to get my image looking as similar to film as possible. But it’s my knowledge of film that allows me get my images to where I like them. Yay film!

Image shot on Rolleiflex SL66 with 125cm Portra 400. By Zalmy Berkowitz

Extra Credit: The size!

As noted above, film is made in these huge master rolls, so a 6x7cm piece of film isn’t any harder to make than a 24x35mm is, or an 8×10 piece for that matter. With digital, larger sensors are VERY expensive to make. In fact you can’t find any larger than 6x45cm, which is on the wimpier side of medium format.

I’m not going to get all tech here, but think of an 8×10 piece of paper held around 4 feet from your face. Now think of that paper recording your face. Got it? Okay now imagine a Forever stamp 4 feet from your face, and now it’s going to record your face. Even if they covered the same angle of view, the image would be drastically different.

If that makes sense good, if not, ignore it.

Point is: larger formats generally have a different look, and the longer lenses they need are more pleasing as well.

A 105 2.4mm on a Pentax 67 looks very different than a 50mm 1.2 on a 35mm body. And a Aero Ektar 175mm 2.5 on a 4×5 body looks even more different.

Unlike the first three points I made though, I’m not so sure that shooting with larger formats will make your work much better. Cooler, yes, better…depends. Sometimes we tend to rely on “cool” too much, and it even gets in the way. That’s why this one is only extra credit.

Digital image shot on a Nikon D750 with a 20mm lens. By Zalmy Berkowitz, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset

And that’s all folks! If you have any questions or comments (or tomatoes to throw) please comment below (but be nice!).

Peace y’all!