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 untrue and 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

Let’s Talk About Digital Scans

Most photographers who dabble with film today would want them in Digital Scans. Digital Scanning is a process of converting images (using a Film Scanner) on analogue film into a digital images as we know it today. If you’re sharing your film shots on social media such as Instagram, you’ll definitely need Digital Scans.

Why Are Quality Of Digital Scans So Much More Inferior Than Images From A Digital Camera?

They don’t! 90% of the time, it’s because of inferior Digital Scans. In my experience, this is the (final) step that most film photographers get it wrong.

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 resolution.

Not all film 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

Get Your Scanning Right!

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, Digital Scans are every bit as good as what digital photography has to offer and in a lot of cases, even more.

Film is a Game of Chance

Deon & Sheila / Kodak Portra 160

Is Film a game of chance? You’ll never know what you’ll be getting.

On contrary, most film photographers do know (what they’ll be getting) with some level of confidence, and it gets better with experience and practice.

No wedding couple will ever hire you if you tell them their wedding photos (shot on film) is a game of chance and a hit or miss.

The Baking Analogy

I like to use the simple analogy of baking a cake. You figure out your recipe, get your measurements correct, mix it all up and it’s straight into the oven. Only sure way to know if it turns out good is when it pops out from the oven.

Film photography is exactly like that. You have a mental visual blueprint in mind. You find the right moment, hit the camera shutter and wait for the final result from the darkroom.

No instant preview. No instant re-take.

But, that’s Risky!

Yes, it is risky but like baking, it gets better with practice and with enough experience, you can dial down the risk factor to almost zero. Film can fail the same way an SD card can.

A master baker can bake the same beautiful cake every single time. It’s no different from an experienced film photographer. Consistency and mastery comes with a wealth of experience.

A Life without Instant Preview

The real risk in film photography is really about how confident you are that what you captured in your little camera box is exactly what you saw through the camera viewfinder.

And you do that WITHOUT the comfort of an Instant Preview screen.

Film photographers have been doing this for ages and they are still doing it now.

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

Films Can Be Photo-shopped

Traditionally, films are meant for prints and that’s how people view photographs before the digital age came along. With Digital Scans, you can now edit photos taken on film the same exact way as you do with any digital photos.

The fact that you are now viewing film photos here on Instagram is a true testament to that. The analogue world doesn’t always necessarily reside in the traditional space of printed hardcopies.

The Much Fabled “Film Look”

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

Why Bother With Film? Digital Can Create The “Film Look”

This is arguably the question I get asked the most and quite frankly something I find rather perplexing as a film photographer. Why buy a brand new Mini Cooper and turn it into a 1960s model wannabe.

What Exactly Is This Thing Called “Film Look”?

Would it be the classic black & white post-war photojournalism often associated with the likes of Capa, Cartier-Bresson or Doisneau? How about the vibrant colours of McCurry’s Kodak Ektachromes? Then, there is also the cross-processing, low-fidelity look made popular by Lomography

By all accounts, these are all taken in analogue film and would have that so-called “film look” and yet they all look so different.

To describe Film Photography purely in terms of “Film Look” is an overly simplistic view, naive even.

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 do.

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 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

The same has also been said with things like vintage cars, vinyl records and vintage watches. Yet, they are still lingering around and often command a premium. While Film’s golden age is long gone, it still holds a very unique place that will stay for a quite a while.

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.

Reeve & Alana / Kodak TRI-X 400

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.

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

I’ll like to start by telling a story. True story by the way. This happened when I was consolidating my films right after a wedding shoot. Soon after, I realised I was surrounded by a group of kids gazing at what I was doing.

Kid: Why do you have so many batteries?
Me: These are not batteries, my dear. These are Films.

They stared at me in absolute confusion.

It was there and then that I realised there is an entire 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.