El Nido cliff on 35mm film

On paper, shooting 35mm film makes little sense in this day and age. After all, digital photography is convenient, and it’s much more likely to deliver flawless results given the ability to review and retake shots. It even works out to be significantly cheaper in the long run, with film photography being an ongoing investment that’s only getting more expensive.

So why do we continue to shoot film?

In this post, I won’t be making any arguments for shooting film backed by concrete data or statistics. That’s because, honestly, these are hard to come by and, for myself at least, they’re irrelevant to why I still regularly shoot 35mm film; subjective experiences aren’t the easiest thing to quantify. So with that, let’s delve into the six reasons why so many of us continue to shoot film in 2023.

 

The aesthetics of 35mm film

Philippines on 35mm film
El Nido rainstorm 2

The first, and probably most obvious quality that drew many of us to film photography in the first place is the way that photos shot on film look and feel. This is particularly true for photos shot on 35mm film cameras as 35mm film camera sensors capture less detail than their larger format counterparts, and photos may end up with more imperfections and details that are characteristic on film photos.

Photos shot on 35mm film tend to have a certain nostalgia-inducing quality that’s difficult to describe. The colours of certain film stocks and the optical imperfections in these photos can even induce nostalgia in younger people who grew up with digital cameras.

Durdle door on 35mm film

Of course, digital photos can be edited to resemble film stocks, and manufacturers like Fujifilm even include their film simulations in all of their digital cameras. While these methods can produce optically similar digital photos, they haven’t managed to deter many from shooting film. This is arguably due to the experience of shooting with a 35mm film camera, rather than solely the aesthetic qualities of its results, as we’ll discuss in the next few sections.

 

Every frame is intentional

 

There’s a fairly obvious reason won’t find many film photographers with their eye permanently on their viewfinder, snapping away at anything and everything: film is expensive. This is true for 35mm film, and even more so for medium or large-format film.

While it’s easy to claim the ongoing cost of shooting film as a solid argument for digital photography, it fundamentally changes the way in which you approach photography that many film photographers, myself included, love. Every shot costs money and unless you have an endless budget, you’re working with a finite number of shots on any given day.

Scotland on 35mm film
Scottish beach on 35mm film

With digital photography, it’s too easy to raise your camera and half-mindedly snap away at anything that somewhat resembles a good composition. I’ve fallen into this trap myself, shooting on a particularly beautiful hike with my Fujifilm X-T2. I finished the day with well over a hundred mediocre photos and three frames that I actually liked. Unsurprisingly, those three photos are the only ones from that hike that I’ve even looked at since that day.

Shooting film forces you into a more intentional and conservative way of shooting. When I’m out shooting with 35mm film, I generally feel like I come home with significantly better and more memorable photos, due in part to the fact that these are not drowning in a sea of average photos that are doomed to spend the rest of time stored in a rarely visited corner of my hard drive.

This way of shooting intentionally also leads into the next reason.

 

Focussing on the moment and not just on photography

El Nido rainstorm on 35mm film

As explained in the previous section, when compared to digital photographers, film photographers are likely to spend a lot less time actually taking photos. While film shooters may be on the constant lookout for a nice composition, less of their day is spent actually raising their camera, snapping away and then reviewing the photos immediately after taking them.

For me at least, film photography is a supplement to an activity, a way to document experiences without becoming a central focus of those experiences. When I go out with my digital camera, I find that it commands a lot more of my attention throughout the day, taking focus away from the moments and experiences I’m using it to document. Film photography, on the other hand, does this to a much lesser extent, allowing us to spend more time experiencing the trips and moments we’re taking photos of.

 

Mechanical film cameras are virtually unbreakable

 

Nothing proves this fact more than the fact that many of the 35mm film cameras that are owned and used around the world are older than the photographers using them.

Nikonos V 35mm film camera

I recently bought a Nikonos II to add to my small but growing Nikonos collection. It’s fully working and in mint condition – a camera that’s almost 30 years older than I am. When I bought it, I was assured that if I flood its internal components with seawater, all I need to do is rinse it out with fresh water and let it dry before it’s fully usable again. And while I appreciate that the Nikonos line of cameras was explicitly designed and built to be as tough as they come, the same is true for cameras that weren’t.

Fully mechanical 35mm film cameras, given their complete lack of electrical components, are extremely difficult to break and even if you manage to, they’re often reparable. Repairs will also likely cost a fraction of what it would cost to repair a digital camera, making a fully mechanical film camera a safe companion on a multi-day camping trip or any time you don’t feel like babying your kit.

 

The 35mm film camera market is a no-loss gamble

 

Unlike digital photography, the popularity of 35mm film cameras is driven less by raw specifications and more by the hype surrounding them. This is why some film cameras command astronomical prices, while other optically similar cameras remain underappreciated and comparably under-priced.

Buying a film camera at a charity shop or on eBay can feel like betting on the stock market – you never know if or when the value of your camera might jump or crash. You need only look at the prices people used to pay for a second-hand Yashica T4 or an Olympus Mju II compared to what these 35mm film cameras are selling for now. All it takes is someone like Kendall Jenner bringing her Contax T2 on the Tonight Show for the value of that camera to multiply overnight.

But regardless of what happens to the price of your film camera, the fact remains that you still have that camera to use as much as you want. If my Nikonos V’s value dropped to virtually nothing, I would still own a Nikonos V to shoot with. As long as you keep them in working order, 35mm film cameras are as close to a no-loss gamble as you’re likely to get.

 

Waiting for the results

Buscalan rice paddy on 35mm film
GR 92 coastline  on 35mm film

Finally, the fact that photos shot on film are not accessible immediately after they are captured is another aspect of shooting film that sounds like it should draw someone towards digital photography. For me and many others, however, it doesn’t.

I don’t develop my own film, so when I finish a roll of 35mm film, I send it off to a lab to be developed and scanned. Unless I need the images for something urgently, I don’t just send one 35mm film roll at a time, so it can be weeks or months before I see the photos I’ve taken.

Getting your photos back and seeing them for the first time when the moment itself is no longer fresh in your memory is special in itself. This way of ‘discovering’ your own photos after some time has passed allows you to relive that moment again, sending you on a nostalgia trip that’s difficult to replicate with digital photos which, by this time, would be forgotten behind hundreds of more recent photos in my camera roll.    

 

Wrap up

Talisker distillery on 35mm film
Old Man Of Storr on 35mm film

So there we have it: my attempt at explaining why I still shoot 35mm film and will likely continue to do so for as long as I can. Or more accurately, for as long as I can afford to.

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