Substance over style: The return of film photography

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Photographic film, more than just nostalgia (Image via

Shooting on film is growing in popularity — not just by trendy hipsters but by photographers with a genuine love of the medium, writes Ben Higgins.

PEOPLE YOUNG AND OLD, including myself, are falling in love with film photography — not just to get an edgy look, but because film gives a sense of taking a timeless image that captures the exact memory.

The comeback of the medium

Most new photographers these days pick up a digital camera, which is not surprising because of the transition into the digital age. The old medium of film photography has many disadvantages compared to the new digital cameras, and has well and truly been on the decline since the introduction of digital photography. You certainly don’t see too many film cameras going around these days.

The film market peaked in 2003 with 960 million rolls of film; today, it represents roughly two per cent of that,” says Manny Almeida, the president of Fujifilm’s Northern America division. However, there is an increasing trend of photographers picking up film cameras instead of digital cameras. In fact, film is really making a comeback.

We’re seeing film growth of five per cent year-on-year globally,” says Giles Branthwaite, the sales and marketing director at Harman Photography.

But why? There is nothing worse than spending $20 for a roll of film followed by the development process, only to find out two days later the photos were fuzzy.

The nature of film photography

According to Kate King, the editor of Maidenhair Press Magazine and a regular user of film photography, the old medium is still superior.

In a phone interview, she said:

Film definitely tells more of a story because you have to frame the shot and you don't want to waste film…. You really capture the moment in time.

When taking a photo on a film camera, each photo has so much importance on it because you only have 24 photos, so more thought goes into every shot. A photo shot on a film camera has a unique quality to it. Not only because film photos are grains, not pixels, but it also has a more ageless characteristic to each photo. This is due to the fact that, having only a limited amount of photos you can take means it changes the way photographers shoot.

Said King:

I find that a lot of photos that I take on my film camera are of people like my friends and at events, that sort of thing… I usually take landscape photos and photos when I go travelling (with a digital camera).”

Kate believes that film makes people take photos in different ways and it’s not surprising. Why waste a frame of film on Times Square when you can get one off the internet? You only get 24 opportunities on one roll of film, so each photo has to be perfect. This means a lot more effort must go into framing every photo perfectly, so the process is worthwhile. 

I just sit and look through them and I can’t stop smiling, it’s pretty unreal,” King told IA.

Kate and other film photographers believe that photos shot on film are more sentimental and it comes back to this nostalgia for film. It is so easy to fall in love with this artform and the enjoyment is found in the process of taking the photo just as much as seeing the result. Film photography involves you in every step: the manual loading of the film, the cranking of the film lever, the changing of aperture, the adjusting the focus and exposure, the taking of the photo, the unloading of film and getting the roll developed. There is nothing like hearing the mechanical clicks, the clacks, clunks and the cranks. It truly makes for a more individual and manual experience and brings back the true nature of photography — the enjoyment of the photographer.

The film industry

Developing film is a long and expensive process and it is not surprising that most film photographers these days go to processing labs to get their film developed.

Phil Gresham, a film processor in Brisbane, has seen an increasing demand in film processing and says its mostly new photographers picking up cameras and having a go:

We get four or five customers daily who want film processed and lots of phone calls asking us if we do it. There's that excitement of getting photos printed and for many it's the first lot of prints they've ever had.

This is great for the film processing industry, with shop owners often being overwhelmed.

This has led to longer wait times to get film developed, but Kate believes it's a good thing:

I get so excited when I go to get my film developed. The excitement of not being able to look at your photo once you've taken it, then looking back and being like 'oh, yeah, I remember taking that one, I remember where I was'.

The risk of film

Once you take the photo, there is no guarantee what the photo is going to look like until you get the photos developed, so it’s the anticipation of getting the photos back that film photographers like Kate seem to enjoy:

When I had a roll of film developed recently, my friend and I dropped it off and then went to get lunch. We were reminiscing on all the photos we shot. Then, when I went to collect it, the roll was blank, but the anticipation was there beforehand.

With digital, there is no doubt and no risk. You see the photo, you take it and you instantly have it. With film, you never know if the picture you’re seeing in the viewfinder is going to be the picture you get back from the lab. With film, you never know how many photos you get towards the end of a roll of film. Every crank of the film lever is fraught with the danger of stopping halfway and reaching the end of a roll of film. With film, you never know if you are actually taking photos until you get the roll back. Will you get a roll of photos or a roll of blanks?

It’s strange — the drawbacks of film photography are now the reasons people are using film cameras.

This high-risk, high-reward situation film photographers put themselves in is nerve-wracking, when you think about it. So much expense goes into film a single roll of film, with the chance of leaving disappointed or, even worse, empty handed.

Who are film photographers?

So, who are these people who use technology from 20 years ago? A common view is that they are millennial hipsters who are trying to be “edgy”. To an extent, this is true, but it is certainly a niche community and people of all ages are rediscovering film.

It's all ages that are doing it, they want to shoot traditional film as it's cool again. Film is not dead,” said Phil Gresham.

So, is it fair to say film is well and truly back? We will have to see if film continues to grow in the future, but one thing is for sure: film is cultivating in the photography community and many are discovering it due to the many aspects that digital simply cannot replace.

I will definitely be using film well into the future, no matter the price point,” says Kate King.

Ben Higgins is a student at Newington College in Sydney’s inner west, studying various humanities and sciences.


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