Why I shoot film: A reflection on photography (part 2).

Following on from my post yesterday, it’s my intention over the next few days to delve a little more deeply into my recent foray into film photography. I’m fully aware that for every reason I offer for shooting film, there is most likely a valid and reasonable counter-argument that suggests digital can work just as well, but it’s not my intention here to provide reasons for why everyone should shoot film – rather, it’s about why I have been, and why I think I’ll continue to do so.

Our post today explores the first of four reasons I listed yesterday in my ‘teaser trailer’ – the cameras and lenses that are available for shooting film.

The shot above was from my very first roll of black and white film (Ilford HP5+, of course) that I put through my shiny new (to me – very much second hand!) Leica. This wasn’t the very first roll – several rolls of pretty cheap colour film had already passed through my hands by this stage – but it was the first that made a big impression on me. I’ll talk about why that was from a perspective of the film itself tomorrow, but for today, I’d like to explore the equipment involved.

My camera is a Leica M4-P, aka a Canadian Leica (made during a brief period of time where Leica was suffering significantly after a pretty monumental ‘flop’ in the form of their M5, and so moved production to Canada and did away with hand-made cameras in favour of machine-made precision parts). This doesn’t have anywhere near the prestige of a German-made Leica (and in fact production moved back to Germany for the M6), but it has the same lens mount, a very similar viewfinder, and is still very much the solid chunk of metal that is a film rangefinder. The lens that happened to be on the front of aforementioned rangefinder was a Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Biogon C – extremely small, extremely light, and yet still capable of pretty extraordinary results. Together, the camera and lens are capturing light onto a standard 35mm frame. I have an external light meter for the camera, meaning I have to take a reading, dial in those settings, and then compose, focus, and shoot. It’s all very manual, it’s reasonably slow, and I love it to bits.

In the digital world, I could certainly buy a ‘full-frame’ Leica. It would cost well into the five figure range. And I could fit the same lens to the front, although if I’ve just dropped five to ten thousand on a camera body, I’m probably going to drop the same amount on an ‘official’ Leica lens. Or, I could choose a full-frame digital SLR instead for about half that amount. It would weigh a lot more, it would be considerably larger, and would be a completely different shooting experience (SLRs and rangefinders work in entirely different ways – with a rangefinder you don’t see ‘through the lens’ at all, but rather through a separate viewfinder window with framelines marked to correspond to the focal length of your lens. allowing you to see not just what’s in the frame, but also what’s about to enter it on either side).

But film Leicas are much cheaper than this. Much. And any resolution difference between an ‘official’ Leica lens and the much cheaper Zeiss version is probably beyond the capabilities of 35mm film to resolve anyway. And at the end of the day, my film Leica, which is already about 30 years old, will keep shooting well beyond any digital Leica because there is no sensor to break, no batteries to wear out, no screen to shatter – it’s entirely mechanical, and made in a way that no digital camera I’ve seen has been. And at the end of the day, any film camera rarely needs to be upgraded, because as long as you can focus it well enough, and as long as your shutter speed and aperture are working fine, it’s really just a lightproof box that lets the right amount of light onto the film. There’s no megapixels to burn out, no buffers to fill up, no dynamic range of a sensor to consider. Because it doesn’t have any of these things, they never go out of date!

But for me, the biggest point about the cameras is the type. All of my film cameras are rangefinders – it’s a shooting experience that feels at once fresh (I’ve shot digital for so long, and mirrorless at that, that I’m now very accustomed to seeing the shot as the sensor sees it before I even take it), and yet still familiar (from my early photography days playing around with Dad’s old Yashica rangefinder, and then my own experiments with photography in the pre-digital era – yes, I’m that old). It’s a shooting experience that would be almost totally inaccessible to me in digital terms, as the price to enter that game is so much higher. (Yes, I could talk about Fuji’s X-Pro series, but they aren’t ‘true’ rangefinders so I don’t want to!)

So, the first reason I shoot film is for the cameras and lenses. It’s a completely different shooting experience, and the quality of the cameras, and indeed the lenses, is just a significant step above what I’ve grown used to and/or can afford in the digital world. I simply couldn’t shoot this gear in a digital setup. And I tend to think that means I couldn’t produce the kind of images that I’m producing now either – they reflect an interaction with the equipment at hand, and the particular strengths and limitations it offers.

More on that, though, in the posts ahead…


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