Like (I would imagine) the majority of photographers these days, I mostly work with digital cameras — a couple of Nikon DSLRs and a Panasonic compact. They are highly technically advanced, offering accurate auto focussing and exposure, and there is the attendant convenience of working with a digital RAW file: so many things — white balance, exposure, tonality — can be adjusted in software that one can lose sight of the technicalities when actually taking the picture. On balance, this a good thing, especially when the pressure’s on: at a wedding, a sports event or when time is short.
And yet… Sometimes you just want to slow down, to savour the art, to involve yourself in the picture making process — measuring the light level, getting the focus just so, taking time over the preparation for the shot and then taking the one picture, knowing that it will work, rather than firing off a dozen because memory’s cheap.
Which is why I still have my film cameras: a Nikon F90X, a Graflex 5×4, a Yashica twin-lens reflex, an Olympus Trip and — my pride and joy — a Hasselblad 500C/M. I had lusted after a ‘Blad since 1969, when I first read about them (they were the cameras that astronauts took to the moon) and I finally got one about three years ago. There’s something about the build quality; just hold one and you feel in charge. The sound of the shutter is unmistakable — a solid ‘thunk’ that says “there’s another one in the bag”.
And yet… the real reason I still have film cameras is — I just love film. As good as digital is, there’s something different about an image taken on film. I suspect it’s to do with the fact that film responds differently to light than does a digital sensor. The sensor reacts linearly — twice the light intensity always produces twice the output — whereas film respond logarithmically — as the intensity goes up, its response slows down. This is the same way the eye works: a doubling of intensity is perceived as a step change. The ear’s the same: double the frequency of a note, then double it again and the two changes will sound equal.
In practice, what this difference in response means is that film will respond fairly quickly to differences in light levels in darker areas than it will in brighter areas, so you get a bit more detail in the shadows, and the highlights retain detail for longer — something that you have to fiddle about with tone curves to achieve with a digital image.
Below are some scans I made of pictures taken with the ‘Blad on Fujichrome slide film, with a digital image taken at the same time. I’ve split the digital image: the top left shows the original as it came out of the camera, and the bottom right shows it after some fiddling around with tone curves, white balance and so on. No matter what I do, though, I can’t quite recreate that certain something that the film images have.
Photos were taken in November 2011 at Walton Hall in Warwickshire.