Photography. As I type the word “photography” it has certain connotations for me. Beyond subject, composition, light and all the other elements that combine to create the art of photography. A more grounded one of those meanings is the modern medium for photography. That medium is digital. In the same sentence I also used the word “type”. Typing has a fairly straight forward meaning for me. (I don’t associate typing with writing). Typing is the act of tapping keys on a keyboard. Typing seems cut and dried, even the medium of typing. I don’t think anyone thinks about typing on a typewriter anymore. It is understood that typing happens on a computer, or possibly pecking out keys on a smartphone, but a typewriter? No. The world has moved beyond typewriters. While the modern medium for photography is digital, we have not moved beyond film.
The medium for photography has recently migrated from film to digital, but the old medium has not passed. Film still has place in photography, in our digital world it continues to hold the crown of high resolution. A medium format camera can produce higher resolutions than any commercially available digital camera. Ironic isn’t it, a film camera can produce a higher megapixel image than a digital camera.
When someone takes a picture, or shares a picture today it is almost certainly digital. I doubt that is much of a revelation to anyone, but it sometimes makes me ponder when it happened. This “it” was the transition from film photography to digital photography. I belong to a large generation of people who grew up with film and were weaned on digital photography. Our early photographs were entirely composed in celluloid. Digital was unknown to consumers.
That transition took some time, my estimate is eleven years. Digital cameras entered the mainstream consumer world in about the year 1999. This is when you could reliably see digital cameras offered for sale, side by side with film cameras. At this point they were tech novelties. Sony made a camera at that time that wrote digital pictures directly to a floppy disk. Each floppy disk could hold around 50 photos. Placing that in perspective, it would take about 15 floppy disks to save a single image from my Nikon D7000.
Gradually the cost and capabilities of digital cameras aligned with consumers, finally making digital cameras a suitable substitute for film. Digital had not fully taken over. Many people still had film cameras that produced superior images to what was possible with digital. That tide was turning though. For me the transition came in 2005 when I purchased my first DSLR. I spent over $1000 for a Nikon D70s. I was amazed by its ability to take a picture when I pressed the shutter button. At the time most digital cameras had a second or more of lag time from pressing the button, and having the shutter fire. In 2005 you would still see film SLRS at the store, an economical alternative for a DSLR.
As the prices dropped, and quality improved even film SLRs were pushed out of the picture. This lead to what I call the end of the film age in 2010. Two events marked the end of the film era. Kodak stopped making Kodachrome a film immortalized in pop culture by Paul Simon, and of equal importance smartphones finally had cameras that could produce acceptable photos.
Kodachrome film was the gold standard for 35mm photography. This was the film that captured many iconic photos, and it was the go to film for professional photographers. Professional photographers were a holdout for film. These people needed there camera for their livelihoods. When Kodak stopped making Kodachrome it was sign that the digital counterparts to film cameras had a firm grip on the professional world.
Smartphones were an accidental accomplice, but an important one. In 2010 smartphones did two things, they became widely available and the cameras improved. Prior to this most people had flip phones, or not so smartphones, and if they had a camera, the quality was just passable. So if you were heading out on a family vacation, you made sure to bring along the “good” camera from home, knowing the smartphone would not properly record your memories. For many people the “good” camera was still using film.
With wider availability came better cameras. With more people purchasing phones, manufactures added features to differentiate their phones. Upgrading the camera on a phone was an easy sell. By 2010 many more people had smartphones, and those phones had better cameras. Now you could reliably record your child’s first trip to Disneyland on your phone. No film required.
The end of the film era brought a silent end to the culture of film. The one hour Fotomat is extinct in our grocery store parking lots. The drugstore no longer prominently stocks a wide selection of film right behind the register. In fact it is hard to find a store that still sells film. Once you overcome the challenge of locating film, you are faced with the more daunting task of getting it developed. Film and its constructs are slowly weathering away from our lives.
You can still buy film cameras, film, and get it processed. But it is getting tougher by the day. Film is not dead yet, and it can still offer advantages over digital cameras. In terms of overall megapixels film still beats digital. A medium or large format camera has more surface area to record information than the digital sensor of a commercial camera. If we look beyond the analytical, there are other reasons for film.
A roll of film is like a wrapped package with unlimited potential. Each time we unwrap the package, we push to the limits of our imagination to expose our ideas. There is a connection with film that cannot exist in the digital world. When I have 24 frames to expose, I do in a thoughtful careful manner. Striving to create the best impressions possible with each action of the shutter.
On this site I will share my experiences with finding and buying used cameras, working with film processors, and how to digitize and organize your film. Hopefully I can help someone answer some questions about film, and keep the medium going just a little bit longer.