Adventures in Film

Partially out of boredom, partially to see what all the fuss was about, I decided I want to try out film photography. Film loyalists say a lot of things about how you get better colors and better performance out of film. There’s at least some truth to this since it seems quite a bit of Hollywood is still done on film, but I decided I needed to investigate first hand.

So, I ordered a Nikon F5 (used but still in good shape) off Amazon along with a few different rolls of film, and have started playing around with it. Below are some early “learnings”.

Learning #1: Cameras are older, but probably more robust.

Nikon D5100 on the left, and the Nikon F5 on the right

My first (and only) dSLR is the Nikon D5100. I bought it in 2011, and in some key ways, it’s starting to feel old already. The sensor, which was  far from Nikon’s best at the time, is now even further along. A few of the buttons are sticking. It doesn’t even shoot full HD video, which is a long way away from the 4K hurdles most content creators are dealing with.

The Nikon F5, in comparison, is positively ancient in age. While I’m not sure when exactly mine was made/sold, they were only in production from 1996 to 2003, which means it’s at least twice as old as the D5100. Comparatively though, it’s a tank: everything works, including all the (mechanical) focus and film winding functions. Add in the fact that it takes 8 (!!!) AA batteries to run, and it’s pretty clear that this object is something from a different age.

I’ll probably do a full rundown/review of the camera at some point in the future, but suffice it to say: the shooting experience is drastically different.

Learning #2: There a significant reduction in flexibility, especially if you’re not shooting a ton.

Blown out highlights even with an overcast sky, but good color in the trees

Now, I’m not a professional. I shoot when the mood strikes, or when I have a particular project in mind. That means that when I first got going, even as I made a deliberate effort to just shoot, it took me a full day to fill up one roll – which meant that in one roll, I was in a variety of environments, indoors and outdoors, at a variety of times of the day.

Over the first day, I was on the same roll, which meant that the bright daylight tree shot above was shot on the same roll as the shot at night inside below. I had to use ISO 200 for both shots – not because I wanted to, but because the film is rated for that ISO speed (and that ISO speed only!) With digital, it’s trivial to change the ISO rating and go from day to night – with film, it’s fixed for the duration of the roll.

Yellow tones way off color from what you would perceive

You’re unlikely to want to switch rolls up halfway through shooting, and if you don’t want to waste film, you’ll definitely need to plan out when and what you shoot. And while it is possible to shoot films rated at certain ISOs as if they are rated differently, you do have to do that for the duration of the roll, since in most cases, all the shots in the roll are developed at the same time in the same run.

Learning #3: There are a lot of differences between films that you need to be mindful of.

The blinds are on the verge of being blown out but the rest is way underexposed

The truth of film is that most films are not designed to be all-in-one – that is, some are balanced for daylight, others for indoor shooting, still others for nighttime. I’ve been shooting with Kodak ColorPlus 200 so far – a cheaper film that I’ve been using to get into the swing of things. It’s about as close to all-purpose as you can cheaply get to, but realistically, it’s far better suited to daylight shooting outdoors than anything else. There are other types of film that do better with night photography.

The implication of shooting a daylight balanced film in low light is above – the extreme noise and simultaneous overexposure is a result of reciprocity failure. That is, when it comes to low light, not all films perform predictably, and some fall apart.

More importantly, people that say dynamic range in film is better are at best misinformed and at worst, lying. Some films are better than others, but few films get you 12/13 stops of range as the best digital cameras are currently getting to, and some of the best films for rendering great colors have a tendency to be even worse. Where film does currently have an edge is in color rendition, but different films have a tendency to do better among different colors.

Learning #4: You will not be able to check to see if you got the shot!

If you shoot digital, you’re probably used to taking multiple exposures for every shot you see – that way you’re likely to nail focus and exposure for at least one of the shots. With digital, this is cheap (free, really) and even if you miss for all three, you can go back and check immediately to check for focus and exposure, so you can immediately correct for the mistakes.

With film, you’re restricted to 36 shots per roll and however many rolls you’re carrying. So you’re probably going to be more deliberate about the shots you do take, which is further amplified by the fact that you can’t actually check the shot you just took.

For the above shot, I thought I nailed the focus as I was taking the shot, but it’s clear that I missed at least a bit. This is not a difficult mistake to correct for, but since I didn’t know I had missed it, I didn’t know I needed to take this again!

Learning #5: You will need to find a good way to get the film developed.

Mirror selfie in bathroom

Once you do get the shots all on a roll, well exposed, you will need to find a place that will do the film development for you, or you will need to do it yourself.

Some pharmacies and shops will still do film development, but the more casual shops won’t return the film negatives to you. Others that do film work exclusively won’t provide high resolution digital files.

More importantly, not all shops will do all kinds of films (especially color slide film, which it seems only a handful of shops in the country are still doing).

If you decide to do it yourself, there’s additional investment on your end in terms of some the equipment and chemicals needed to do the development, although it is definitely possible to do film development without a full darkroom.

Overall Impressions:

When you cut down on the dynamic range involved, great colors emerge

After coming from digital, the challenge involved with shooting film is refreshing. I can sense that I’m more deliberate with every shot as I shoot on film, which I suspect is going to impact my digital work positively too.

You can definitely get pin sharp results with great bokeh

The F5 is probably overkill for what I’m looking to do, but in all honesty, I am loving using it, to the point where I’ve already bought up some slide film that I’m going to start shooting. I’ll get in depth into why I chose an F5 at a later time, but suffice it to say, I strongly recommend it (and a few sets of rechargeable batteries) to anyone looking to try film).

Sometimes sharp shadows and sharp highlights are what you want

I’m enjoying toying around with it so far – my next step is to get into some really deliberate nighttime shooting with some slide films by the time summer comes to a close. Below are some more of the highlights from shooting so far: definitely more to come!

It is possible to correct for color shift, to positive final results

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