Film – The Misunderstood Medium

<<Article was first written in 2019>>

Previously I wrote an article “Film or Digital?”. I wrote about the differences between Analogue Film and Digital, more importantly how the film medium might just be the thing for you. Since then, I’ve had a number of questions and misconceptions about film. Some assumptions made about film are not quite true and some are complete myths. So, in this article, I’m gonna attempt to debunk some of the misconceptions about film photography, and hopefully present the analogue film medium in a very different light.

Film is Inferior to Digital

Jonathan & Joyce / FujiFilm Superia 800

Most photographers who dabble with film today would somehow want them in digital scans. Digital scanning is a process of converting images on analogue film (either negatives or positives) into a digital images as we know it today.

Why are quality of Digital Scans so much more inferior than digital images from a digital camera?

They don’t if you do it right.

Many don’t realise the importance of a good film scanner.

One of the most important thing that many photographers neglect is on the film scanning process and end up with digital scans that are inferior in quality and mediocre in resolution. Not all scanners are made the same, the same way how cameras are and why there’s a difference between consumer-grade films and professional-grade films.

Fuji Reala x Holga 120GN / Scanned on an Imacon (now Hasselblad) film scanner
Kodak TRI-X 400 x Canon EOS 3 / Scanned on a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED film scanner
Ilford Delta 3200 x Holga 120GN / Scanned on an Imacon (now Hasselblad) film scanner

Getting inferior quality scans with a good quality film on a sub-par scanner is akin to watching 4K Netflix on a cheap TV. You’re not getting the best from what the film has to offer.

With good film scanning equipment and an acute knowledge of the film, film digital scans are every bit as good as what digital has to offer and in a lot of cases, even more.

Film is Very Risky

Deon & Sheila / Kodak Portra 160

Yes, it is somewhat riskier than digital but this is where the experience of the photographer would make a difference.

Equipment matters a lot too. With more professional film cameras, you’ll see obvious tell-tale signs that the camera is not working the way it should either from a malfunction or incorrect camera settings. With experience and good knowledge of your camera and film, you can dial down the risk factor to almost zero. A film can fail the same way your SD card can.

The risk in film photography is really about how confident are you that you have you captured what saw through the viewfinder without the comfort of a LCD review screen.

Thaddaeus & Holly / Kodak Portra 160

Films Can Only be Edited in Darkroom

Jeremy & Elizabeth's Pre Wedding at Wessex & Tiong Bahru / Wedding Photography by thegaleria
Jeremy & Elizabeth / Double-exposure on LCA-120 / Kodak TRI-X 400

Not if you have digital scans. You can edit and share them on social media the same convenient way you would with your digital images. The fact you’re seeing my film works on this page and on my social media channels is a true testament to that.

Why Bother with Film? Digital can create the “Film Look”

Hong Kong Pre Wedding by Film Wedding Photographer Brian Ho / thegaleria // Kodak TRI-X 400
Felix & Joyce / Kodak TRI-X 400

This is possibly the most asked question. Why bother with film when digital images can be edited the create that much fabled “film look”. My question is always this – why buy a new Mini Cooper and turn it into a 1960s model?

To describe film photography purely in terms of the “film look” is an over-simplistic view without considering why photos taken in film look the way they are.

What is less understood and often ignored is the visual experience of the photographer and how he or she interacts and responds to it. That very experience and intuition is really what makes film photos look and feel the way they are. It’s the thing that legendary French photographer Cartier-Bresson describes as the le moment decisif (the decisive moment).

In my experience, that is what truly differentiates the confidence, discipline and patience of film photography from the immediacy of the digital world.

In the film world, you learn to trust your visual experience without the immediately knowing for certain that what you see and think visually is really what you’re getting. It’s really one of those things that makes film photography exciting.

Sai Ming & Melanie / Kodak TRI-X 400

Film is Passe

Adriel & Winnie / Paris Pre Wedding / Film Wedding Photographer / thegaleria
Adriel & Winnie / Kodak TRI-X 400

So are things like vintage cars, vinyl records and vintage watches. Yet, they are still around and in most cases, they command a premium. A lot of this misconception about film is mostly due lack of real-life appreciation and experience especially when they are not a common sight these days.

One thing you need to understand is that film is not digital, and vice versa. It will never be and was never meant to be.

The film medium needs to be appreciated on its own merit pretty much like why vintage cars don’t come with automatic transmission. There’s a certain charm in driving in a vintage car and shifting the stick around, some would even say exhilarating.

Film is exactly the same. Film photography isn’t just merely a look, it’s an experience unlike any other.

Reeve & Alana / Kodak TRI-X 400

Film Will Eventually Cease to Exist

Ronald & Lai Shan's wedding at Flutes National Museum Singapore. Wedding photography by Brian Ho / thegaleria
Ronald & Lai Shan / Kodak TRI-X 400

Just the other day, I was packing my films on a wedding assignment and I didn’t realise there was a crowd of little kids surrounding me gazing at what I was doing in bewilderment. “Why do you have so many batteries?” , one of them mustered enough courage to ask. “Oh, these are not batteries my dear. These are films”, I answered them thinking it was common sense…. but it’s not. They stared at me in confusion.

It was then that I realised there is a new generation that is completely unaware of what film is and what it is used for.

So, by that account, film might just cease to exist in the near future. Oddly enough, that has been said of film 10 years ago and the same thing is still being said now.