Does film still have a place in modern photography?

Short answer: yes, and you can still get just about any kind processed, printed, and scanned! We’ll even take care of your film by mail, if there’s not a lab near you.


Decline and Rebirth of the Analog Empire

In 1982, Sony and Philips pioneered the Compact Disc system, quickly replacing vinyl records as the dominant music format. Vinyl sales were reduced to almost nothing, until a sudden jump in 2008 kicked off a resurgence of interest by a community of enthusiasts. It is unlikely that vinyl will ever reach the kind of cultural presence it had in the ’70s, but its continuous, accelerating growth over the last 10 years suggests that a stable community will be supporting demand for years to come.

Similarly, digital cameras quickly devoured the film market when they became viable at the consumer level. The 2000s were a very grim time for analog photography. Miraculously, a cultural shift seems to have saved film. Not only is film being reintroduced (Kodak just revived its T-Max P3200 and promises Ektachrome in the near future), but my own experience working in photo labs since 2010 attests that demand has steadily grown for physical originals. People today increasingly hunger for the hard realness of analog media. The difference between the way a small album of printed photos makes you feel and a cell phone with 10,000 images really illustrates the fact that it’s not really a photo until you can hold it in your hands.

The Chemical Effect – Control vs. Collaboration

“But my digital camera takes super-high-resolution photos, and if I wanted it to be black and white or have a certain color tone, I could do that in Photoshop,” one might object. Why shoot film instead?

I’ll answer with the photo above. I’m almost exclusively a digital photographer, but I encountered someone giving away an old Minolta Vectis and a bag of APS film. The film was years past its expiration date and almost certainly heat-damaged, but the excitement I got from seeing how the color shifts and damage patterns interacted with my images after I developed them was totally unique. I can also say with confidence that I would not have thought to create the look of the above photo digitally, but am delighted to have had it happen organically. The odds of the halo forming around my wife’s head were astronomically low, but lo and behold, it happened!

While you can more easily control digital photographs, it is difficult to replicate the unexpectedness—the life-essence—which is integral to film because it is a physical object. Whether you want your images crisp and lifelike, lo-fi and nostalgic, or just plain out of this world, the image creation process becomes a collaboration between the photographer, the chemicals involved, and the physical process of developing the film; a kind of alchemical distillation of life’s ephemeral moments.

Smiles like butterflies pinned to the page.

You don’t have to use film that’s been abused to get curious and exciting effects like I did, either. One unique method of experimentation, called cross-processing (sometimes x-processing), can produce two distinctive looks.

Kevin Dooley via Creative Commons

Processing slide film in C-41 chemistry produces hard, bright, almost solarized images. The colors tend to be intense, the contrast very high. Note that, because this is the most commonly-used process, we can do this (and normal C-41 processing) at any Mike’s Camera location, at no extra charge!

Chris Marchant via Creative Commons

The reverse—processing color negative film in E-6 chemistry—is more or less the opposite, as the images produced tend to be softer and lower-contrast, but is better described as simply “weird.” This is one of those things you really have to play with to see what comes out well, and something that would be very difficult to replicate digitally.

Macey Sigaty

There are even films designed to produce unusual effects with no alteration to the standard process at all. The above image was shot on LomoChrome Purple XR and processed C-41. Similarly, there are cameras designed to create physical special effects. Ever used a “toy” filter? It was probably mimicking something like the Lomography Diana.

Instant Prints

It’s not just traditional print/slide film that’s coming back, either. Not just one but two instant printing systems are now widely available. Real Polaroid cameras and film have recently come back from the dead, reviving thousands of 30+ year old cameras. Meanwhile, the Fujifilm Instax system, created after Polaroid shut its doors, continues to grow.

Instant prints are an incredible way of connecting with people and making fleeting moments last. When my wife and I recently drove from Colorado to Florida, we stayed with friends along the way; before we left, we’d take a picture with the hybrid digital-instant Square SQ10 and leave a print as a memento of thanks. We could have mailed photos later, but creating something on the spot was uniquely magical, and helped make those visits even more special.

What are you waiting for?

You can do it!

Film cameras can be found quite cheaply, both used and, occasionally, new. If you’ve never experimented with film, it’s an enlightening experience. When you’ve only got 36 exposures to work with and you won’t know if they came out until much later, you’ll find yourself slowing down and taking extra time to make sure your shots come out the way you want them to. Practicing this mindset has even helped my digital photography. Whether you shelved your old F2 when you picked up a DSLR or have never even seen a sprocket hole, grab a camera and couple different rolls of film, head out on a photo expedition, and see what lessons you can learn (or relearn) from the analog experience! I’d love to hear what you discover in the comments.

Macey Sigaty

Appendix: Types of Film

Before I close, here’s a bit of technical information for people who are precision-minded like I am. Film stocks generally fall into one of three categories: color negative (a.k.a. “print film”), black & white negative, and color positive (a.k.a. “reversal film” or “slide film”). Black & white positive exists, but is very uncommon. Modern labs use C-41 chemistry for color negative film, E-6 chemistry for color positive film, and a variety of chemistry for black and white. By default, Mike’s Camera uses T-Max RS. It’s also worth noting that our E-6 processor is a dip and dunk machine, meaning that nothing but chemistry and water touches your film during the developing process (zero risk of scratching) and the wash tanks are always fresh.

Roll film is most commonly found in 135 (35mm) and 120/220 (medium format) sizes. Less-common roll film sizes include 110, 116, 126, 127, disc, and APS. Sheet films produce the finest images of all when used correctly (check out this 709 megapixel scan of an 8×10 sheet), but most commercial labs only process up to 4×5 sheets and all sizes require more advanced scanning equipment than the smaller rolls.

There’s almost always a way to accomplish something, though, so if you’ve found something quite obscure, don’t hesitate to drop in to any of our locations or give us a call. You’re also welcome to send me a message using the form below!

NB: All images used in this article were scanned from film, except the digital photo of an instant print. Featured image by Shannon Rose.

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