Inspiration

Why Millennials Are Using Film Cameras vs. Digital Cameras

When I started my position in July of 2017 at KEH Camera, one of the biggest surprises was the fact that almost a third of our business was film cameras. I had assumed, as I watched the change in photography from film to digital back over ten years ago, that only a small handful of photographers were still using film. I also assumed that this group probably were photographers who had spent most of their lives using film but had decided the process worked for their vision and saw no need to make the change.

The next surprise came after being asked to be interviewed for a series of podcasts by Studio C-41 on various film format cameras. The podcasts were recorded at Dunwoody Photo here in Atlanta, which is one of the only local businesses offering processing and scanning of film. Speaking with the owner I asked who his film customers were. His response was 100% of them were age 30 or under.

My initial assumption (and you know what they say about assuming), was that these millennials were just interested in using film as an “alternative” method, somehow distinguishing themselves and their photography as being “different”. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I joined the Atlanta Film Photographers Facebook page and started following the conversation. Most of the posts were either questions about cameras/film or more frequently, about film processing. None of what I read supported my initial assumption of why younger photographers were using film, especially since most of them probably had smartphones with cameras. Wouldn’t the natural progression from a “digital phone camera” be a DSLR?

I posted a question on the Facebook page asking for any photographers thirty or younger interested in speaking to me about why they use film, to contact me for an interview. Five photographers agreed to an interview and I spent thirty minutes on the phone with each of them. What I learned both surprised me and made complete sense.

As you might guess, all five had completely different journeys into film. Most were either working as photographers or doing work on the side as they tried to make photography their full-time profession. All incorporated using film as part of this process. Some had formal education and degrees in photography while others were completely self-taught.

There were three major areas that each spoke about during our conversation. Not one mentioned wanting to “be different” by using film. So goes my assumption.

© Bill Manning

#1. Using film cameras gave them a lower cost entree into high-quality photography equipment. They were able to purchase used camera bodies and lenses, which were considered top-of-the-line twenty/thirty years ago, at a much lower cost than current digital offerings. Current professional new DSLRs camera bodies range anywhere from $2,000 – $8,000 with top-end lenses running thousands of dollars more. Buying a used Hasselblad/Nikon/Canon/etc., with a few lenses that have been professionally certified and come with a six-month warranty from KEH is a much better investment. Check out what we have in stock at www.KEH.com

© Michael Morales

#2. Most felt that, as millennials, they were taught during their grade school, high school and college education experiences, to learn the answers for the test rather than how to think for themselves. Learning how to use film cameras on their own forced them to become problem solvers, which they enjoy.

© Erik Jarvi

#3. Finally, they all spoke about how using a film camera allowed them to concentrate on the creative process while photographing. I couldn’t agree more. Having used film cameras for the first thirty-five years of my career, this is something I have realized while teaching photography workshops.

© Kate Lamb

Film cameras don’t come with an LCD screen. You can’t review your images in the field. While photographing you are in the creative process of making images knowing the technical workflow will come later. With the change to digital, I watch photographers new to the process consistently switch between making an exposure and then immediately checking their LCD to see what “they got”.

© Jordana Russell

I know the argument for reviewing the LCD in the field and making sure you “have” the image, but I believe that in a photographer’s long-term growth, staying in the creative zone while photographing will advance the quality your images much faster than constantly switching between each mode of the process. Take a new page out of an old book and learn from the millennials. The next time you are photographing, resist the urge to review your images until they are on your computer. My prediction is that you will be surprised with what you “got” without having to constantly review each exposure.

I want to thank the photographers who volunteered their time to be interviewed for this post and for sharing their film images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 comments

  1. This is a very interesting post Mark, I too spent most of my professional photography career using traditional film and print tools but now have switched to digital. I recently stopped in at a photo show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I was informed that many of the students use film and silver photo paper because the quality is better than digital. It may be different but I think its hard to make solid argument for better. I do think that there is a benefit to learning the traditional processes whether silver based or even platinum, palladium, etc. They all contribute to the development and internalization of the style the photographer is trying to achieve. I’ve found that with those processes and their subsequent “looks” tucked away in the back of my head that I can consider at a subject and imagine the final rendering of that subject (previsualization). This maps onto my intent for making the image in the first place.

  2. Robert Bledsoe
    bobb2830@comcast.net
    7068557625
    I have an assortment of Vivitar lenses and sigma lenses for a ishika tell Electro ax and a Nikon FG camera. Would you please share with me if there is a market for those and how I would go about selling them?

  3. Love the photographs…colors on the elephant and his friend are beautiful

  4. Critical Distance observations of film use by students.

    I should start by mentioning my teaching of a community college photo class in Los Angeles, where the class curriculum involves B&W film. I work for MegaVision Inc, maker of digital camera systems involving camera backs and capture software. We also make LED lights that illuminate with 10 visible colors, 4 UV colors, and 5 IR colors, all within 360 nanometers to 1100 nanometers. I was a Zone System junkie prior to digital capture and I use that thinking to communicate all things digital.

    Regarding the assertion of higher quality access to equipment at a reduced cost. Nice plug for KEH, by the way! Higher quality photo equipment, why is that relevant when you still have to put film in them? Are we talking higher quality of photographic gear, or higher quality images? Are multiple shutters in multiple lenses higher quality when they do not share the same exposure timing? How about the maintenance cost of a V series Hasselblad? Or the transitory life of a shutter rebuild? How does this equipment translate to higher quality images?

    If we’re talking image quality, I wonder what students think about the notion. Where does image quality come from? Does film or digital have higher quality tonality? Does film render greater line-pairs-per-milimeter compared to a digital workflow? USM is not possible until the film is converted to a file, is that film sharpening improved when compared to a direct capture to file? To be honest, we film shooters proofed our image making with a reflective print (Polaroid). A transmissive back-of-the-camera display is not the same density range and it receives the camera’s jpg rendering intent. Why is that believable for film, or if you’re shooting RAW?

    I always ask my classes for a show of hands, who thinks film is better than digital? Of course I get them. My favorite response was that film is more authentic, whatever that means. During my class semester I always compare film to a digital workflow, specifically with regard to threshold response, and diffraction of light through heavy depositions of film density. Both contribute to a lack of local contrast at highlight and shadow, those tonal compromises are based in physics and they cannot be overcome. Scan or print film with an enlarger, you’re a prisoner to less local contrast.

    If you under expose the film, threshold suffers with a more distinct lack of tonal density. If you correctly develop a minus for contrastier than normal scenes, you are rewarded with, in addition to not blowing out the highlight, a compromised adjacent contrast in the highs. Of course with color film we don’t control contrast with film development because color shifts ensue. My problem with B&W film image making started with my eye; I was attracted to the more dramatic contrast resulting from light direction coming from the side or from the rear of the scene I liked. Almost always I needed a normal plus development in the shadows and a normal minus in the highs. Not possible with film but a no brainer with digital. You can effect this disparate digital development with the same RAW exposure, or with multiple bracket exposures using a tripod.

    As to the notion of previsualization, I am now in the minority of modern photographic educators. Previsualization is becoming mostly dead. At my school, some teachers require 400 exposures of an assignment or it cannot be turned in. The idea is why tie yourself down to a conceptual previsualization when you can shoot the hell out of a scene and find out what you have later? Of course this fundamentally changes the notion of photographic vision. Do you have vision if you shoot everything just to see if there’s anything there?

    1. Thank you, Richard Chang, for your salient comments. To these, I would add that the current interest in film photography mystifies me for the reasons you gave above, and for mine below.

      First, I’ve been an avid photographer since the mid-1960s, with both B&W and color, prints and slides, and as an “art” photographer, a commercial photographer, and an instructor in photography (Wells College), during which (with film), I averaged about 20,000 frames per year taken with film. I’ve had about 50 museum and gallery shows of my film work, with some of it in the collections of MOMA, George Eastman House, Philadelphia Museum, and Cornell University Museum (with a book published by the last).

      As an instructor, it would take about a term to get some students (in a B&W photography course) to the point where they could begin to produce with any consistency an interesting image of good technical quality. I could never teach, nor could I ever guarantee with the materials available at the time, the permanence of the produced photographs! There were “guides and techniques” available, but never much that could really predict the future condition of those images produced. With film, technically, the qualities of tonality were also directly connected with print size and film-format size — and influenced heavily by the light level available at the time of an image’s creation (this last is a condition that is still with us with digital imaging, but with good light levels, image sensor and print sizes have become less important to the resultant print quality).

      With digital photography, I’ve found that there are FAR MORE very good photographers in existence now, and this is likely due to digital’s lowering of the hurdles of materials expense for “massive shooting” (for both learning and for image-selection purposes), and due to digital’s capacity for giving “instant feedback” (for evaluating image technical and aesthetic characteristics). That latter digital advantage is best with mirrorless digital cameras with high-quality and image-characteristic-adjustable eye-level viewfinders that can be set to retain the image just shot until it is released from the EVF by a light touch to the shutter-release. In addition, there are currently available excellent and highly versatile digital cameras and lenses at surprisingly low prices. I’m currently on a very low budget for photography, but by buying carefully (both new and used, often from KEH for the latter), I have a good collection of high-quality cameras and lenses. Descriptions and reviews of some of it (with many sample images) are here: http://www.david-ruether-photography.com/MFT-Lenses.htm

  5. Interesting article. I don’t quite qualify since I’m 31 but I came back to shooting film about 4 years ago. What drew me back was seeing other specifically medium format and large format photographs and wanting to get my photography to that place. Since I couldn’t afford a Pentax 645D or Phase One back, I went to film. I am old enough to still remember when film was king and am totally aware of film’s shortcomings. Often I hear from other people around my own age that they think film is better than digital but I can’t agree. Digital has a leg or three up on film in almost every way. Especially when it comes to workflow. When a band hires me to shoot their show I’ll bring a film camera for personal kicks but I shoot most of the time with a DSLR because the band expects the photos within 12 hours. I couldn’t really do that with film even though I do most of my developing at home. Anyway, my point is that I think using film over digital because someone thinks film is better is incorrect. One should shoot film because they like it. They like the camera, the look of film, working in a darkroom, the process, etc…not because it is better than digital, because it isn’t. I love shooting with film! Especially large format but I do it because I enjoy the process and the look of film. After spending hours dust spotting 4×5 negatives, you have to love it.

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