Recently, a past student contacted me to express an interest in experimenting with a 35mm film camera. They had been studying the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sally Mann and asked my advice on which camera they should buy. I initially tried to keep it succinct, but I climbed up on my soapbox and rambled on a bit about why I shoot film. I’ve edited my response’s format and content to better fit this blog. I hope I don’t sound too preachy.
You’ve got some good reasons to try out film.
I shoot film for two reasons: the increased resolution and the ability of a well-developed black and white negative to span more stops of exposure latitude than digital. Film handles blown highlights more gracefully than digital. I regularly use 4in x 5in large format, 6cm x 6cm format with a Hasselblad, and less often 6cm x 7cm with a Mamiya RZ that weighs more than the 4×5. I don’t shoot 35mm at all anymore. For 99.5% of my jobs, I’m shooting digital. It’s fast, you get instant feedback, there’s no nail-biting waiting for the film to be developed, and the technical image quality surpasses 35mm film.
For the fine art work, or when I want to give one of documentary or people projects a special look, I’ll use film.
Why? Because I don’t want to juggle tens (or hundreds) of 35mm canisters in the field anymore. I don’t want to peer through a loupe at 35mm contact sheets to choose selects. I don’t want to guess about which day and time a set of negs was shot so I can match it up to my caption book. I don’t have the physical office space to store thousands of plastic pages full of negatives or slides.
Today’s digital cameras are very good and I love the quality of images that they are capable of producing.
I’m not trying to dissuade you from experimenting, I just want you to know what you’re getting into. I love film, but shooting film is significantly more time consuming than digital. Some of my favorite photographs from my own work were done on film. There’s something about the process that makes you more purposeful and selective with what you shoot. You take your time and slow down. Perhaps it’s that bit — the slowing down and taking your time to consider the composition — that makes better pictures, not the little particles of silver halide suspended in polyester. After all, it’s the carpenter and not the hammer that builds the house.
Film is addictive. A few months after starting with 35mm, you’ll want to jump up to medium format. Pretty soon you’ll be eyeing that spare bathroom as a space to set up a small darkroom. After a year of that, 120 film won’t be big enough and you’ll start cruising eBay for large format cameras. At some point you’ll stumble upon the work of David Burnett and wonder how you can safely store one of the (mildly) radioactive Aero Ektar lenses in your home.
Now that I’ve (hopefully) discouraged you from film here’s what I’d suggest if you’re absolutely dead-set. Go to eBay or KEH.com and buy yourself a Nikon FM, FM2, or perhaps an F3 (anywhere from $80 to $250) and a 50mm ƒ/1.8 AF-D Nikkor for $100. Get the 50mm ƒ/1.4 AF-D if you can afford it. Aren’t you already a Nikon shooter? Go for the Autofocus lenses on the manual body because those lenses will transfer to your modern AF bodies seamlessly (as long as they have the AF motor in the body).
I hope you’ll excuse the sermon and that you get something useful out of it. As always, please contact me with questions. I’ll be happy to provide assistance where I can.
PS: Check out the work of Mary Ellen Mark, Josef Koudelka, Alex Webb, and Hiroshi Watanabe. Also, I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to adapt this email into a blog post on my website. I can leave out your identity if you wish.