On the Exploration of Film: Why?

Taken in South Dakota, this photo of my brother’s pickup was captured on film. The negative will long out last the digital photos I’ve taken of the same vehicle. Dustin White photo

Journey of a Photographer
Dustin White

It was in 1853 that the first photo in North Dakota was taken. The photo was shot by John Mix Stanley, a well known artist and painter, whose speciality was American Indians and Indian scenes.

Stanley had ventured to Dakota Territory during an expedition led by Isaac I. Stevens, who was the newly-appointed Governor of Washington Territory. The expedition had set out from St. Paul, Minn., to try to discover the best possible route to the Pacific for the railroad. 

While Stanley would carry his daguerreotype camera, the daguerreotype process being the first successful system for producing photography, there were only a few mentions of his use of it. However, on Aug. 7, 1853, as the crew stopped at Fort Union, Stanley was said to be occupied with taking photos of American Indians, who were “greatly pleased with their daguerreotypes.”

Whatever may have happened to Stanley’s final photographs is not known; however, he did pave the way for more than a century and a half of later photographers in the state of North Dakota. 

Throughout most of that time period, the format of choice had been film. It was also generally the only format available, so there wasn’t necessarily that much of a choice. Today, the situation is a bit different, with digital photography having largely taken over, but film still holds a special place for many in the community. 

Film has also experienced somewhat of a resurgence in the last few years, with 2017 even signaling the resurrection of a few iconic films, including Ektachrome, which has been a favorite of many photographers. 

With the ease of digital photography, and the instantaneous results that one can get, film may seem somewhat counter productive for many. Using film myself, a question that I have often gotten is why? 

Why Film
It was just a little over a year ago that I first began to use film. Before that, I had no interest. Digital photography was perfect for what I did, and I couldn’t see a reason to change.

But that eventually did change. It didn’t cause me to turn my back completely on digital, but there are some great benefits to film. 

One of the greatest benefits of film is that it requires the photographer to slow down. Unlike digital, which allows for the capture of thousands of images in rapid fire, with film, it is much more limited. 

With just 24-36 shots in a regular roll of 35mm film, about 12 for medium format, and one or two for large format, each image means a bit more. For many, that limit means that each shot is thought about a bit more, which slows down the photographer. That is one of the main reasons given for many photographers continuing with film photography. 

Film also allows for a photographer to get into larger formats. To get into a digital medium format set-up, one can expect to pay around $10,000. To do the same thing with film, it can be as low as a few hundred dollars, if not much less.

The quality of film is also largely comparable to digital, especially as films reformulate. While film doesn’t breakdown to pixels, as it is a bit more organic, 35mm film is often equated to around 24 megapixels. That also happens to be the quality of my current digital camera. 

Film is also much more archival. With film, there is a physical object, that one can hold and touch. Besides fire, or other catastrophes, film negatives can survive for hundreds of years. Digital media doesn’t quite give such a security. 

Is Film Better
The benefits of film don’t necessarily mean that it’s better though. Instead, its different. Personally, I wouldn’t give up my digital cameras, as they serve their purpose. My photographer friends who use film, I believe feel the same way. 

But film does offer a nice alternative, or an appreciated change. And for a few of my more special projects, its the format that I have personally chosen to use, largely because of the archivability of film. Film is also what I grab for when I want to slow down and really capture a scene.

Yet, film can also demand more dedication. While one could send their film off for processing and scanning (so it can be shared online), many photographers today have made the decision to process their film at home. 

Home processing reduces costs, but it does take time, and it takes dedication. Its much easier to just take a photo with the camera on a phone, or some other digital camera, but the whole process of film can often give something back as well. In a way, it can be therapeutic. 

In the end though, it comes down to personal preferences. After shooting film for over a year, I can’t see myself giving it up. But its not for everyone. And if one gets the results they are looking for, and enjoys the process, then that should be enough.