Why Everyone Should Own a Film Camera

Why Everyone Should Own a Film Camera

2200 1238 James Tocchio

This isn’t an anti-digital imaging opinion piece. I love digital cameras. But I think that everyone should own and shoot a film camera in the same way that I think that everyone should own a wristwatch.

Your iPhone tells the time. Your DSLR takes clinically perfect photos. Neither of these things have soul (and though eighty percent of readers just rolled their eyes at the mention of “soul,” hear me out).

The Perfection Problem

The problem isn’t digital cameras, of course. The problem is our obsession with perfection.

For proof, visit any mainstream photo blog. They spout endlessly about perfection. We want optical image stabilization. We peep pixels at one-hundred-percent crop. We worry that our old Summicron type IV might not be as sharp as the Summicron type V. And when we’ve gotten the type V we want the Aspherical one. We’re obsessed with fast lenses that “bokeh” the context out of our portraits. We eliminate motion blur. We argue about pixel count, sensor size, maximum ISO numbers, and autofocus points. We pursue photos that are ever cleaner, ever sharper, more perfect.

Equally distracting is the ethos (widely unquestioned) that more is more. I agree that more is indeed more, but parry that more is also too much.

With a digital camera or a telephone-camera, you might shoot two hundred photos of a subject. When you get back home you might upload them to your computer (but probably not) and either forget about them, or spend four hours editing two hundred very similar looking photos. Ten of them will be good; perfectly sharp, in-focus, properly exposed digital files. One of them might be interesting. None of them will have character.

Digital cameras stripped photography of its organic mysteries and replaced them with cold science, provided us with endless possibilities that have entirely overwhelmed.

The Analog Solution

Before digital, photography was equal parts science, art, and magic. Images were ideas captured through mechanical light boxes, burned onto strips of chemically-treated acetate. Shooters were artists and they reveled in the process.

Photos were limited by technology and therefore heavily interpretive. The feeling of the shot was what mattered. Film photographers knew not to obsess over sharpness. Distortion was a tool used (or not) when dictated by the shooter’s vision. Focus was a choice achieved with manual rotation of a mechanical ring. Prime lenses were king and photographers used their feet to get close to the action. Better photos were the result – more thoughtful; more involved.

Luckily for those willing to embrace imperfection and limitation, film cameras still exist and companies still make film. There are shooters who never stopped shooting film even as they adopted a digital workflow. These two methodologies can exist in the same space and time. It’s a matter of taste and choice.

When you want to check the time, do you want to dig through your pockets, pull out a phone, get distracted by a Facebook notification and end up watching the latest viral video? Or do you want to casually glance at your wrist and read the time off of a tiny, hand-made, purpose-built machine from Switzerland?

When you want to take a photo, do you want to make three hundred coldly precise images that all look perfect, or thirty-six varied photos with organic flaws that need no editing?

The Value of the Machines

Classic cameras are uniquely interesting. The best of them are tools made to an incredible standard and for varied purposes. There’s a machine for every shooter and for every situation. Like a Rolex Submariner, they’re classic and mechanical and real. They look amazing, perform a function, and engage the senses. They also happen to cost approximately one-tenth the price of a DSLR. And that’s for a professional’s film camera. The camera that shot that famous photo everyone recognizes costs eighty bucks today.

There are small film cameras, large film cameras, film cameras made out of exotic materials like titanium. There are film cameras with synthetic ruby shutter release buttons, and film cameras that orbited the Earth. There are rare cameras and film cameras that have been on the moon, and film cameras that have dived with Jacques Cousteau. There are film cameras that were used by KGB spies, and film cameras that stormed the beaches on D-Day.

Film cameras are as storied as Le Mans winning classic Porsches (indeed some film cameras were designed by Ferdinand Porsche’s Porsche Design Group). They’re as intricate and precise as mechanical, Swiss wristwatches. The people who made them were as genius as any craftsmen in any field.

Why, then, don’t we talk about film cameras the same way that we wax on about other modern style and function obsessions – wristwatches, cars, furniture?

And There’s More

Barrier to entry? Hardly. Shooting film is easy. Buy a camera, buy some film, load it up and get shooting. The results will be better than you can imagine. Even if you screw up, film has a way of rewarding mistakes. Some of the best photographs I’ve ever made have been technically horrendous, but motion blur can create an impression of movement and imperfect focus can force the viewer to think.

The film images you make are yours to keep forever. Apple won’t ask you to buy more storage space and Facebook won’t sell your negatives to an advertising firm. Making film photos requires thought and patience. You shoot thirty-six frames in a roll, and those thirty-six shots might take you a month to get through. You don’t need to look at a screen, or navigate menus. No one will ask you to tag them in your film photos. You can disconnect from this wretched digital world for those thirty-six shots and shoot for no reason other than to make photos.

Get some experience shooting film and I guarantee you’ll never look back. There’s nothing to compare it to in the digital age. It’s magic, it’s science, it’s art.

You should own a film camera. It should sit on the shelf by your door with your keys and wallet. It should be ready to shoot when you want to shoot. If you’re going out for the evening, you should bring it. If you’re going on vacation, you should bring it.

Making photos is one of the most universally accessible ways of preserving ourselves after we’re dead. You don’t want your life’s record floating in The Cloud. It won’t last. And even if it lasts, people won’t look at it. You want your life stored on negatives or slides, where it can be held and viewed and, yes, even digitized for easy viewing on your computer and phone, or whatever retinal projectors your great-grandkids will have implanted in their eyeballs.

You should make a record of your life on film, so that your boring stories that everyone’s heard a hundred times have a visual accompaniment to make them not so boring.

Too long, didn’t read? Here’s the deal. If you care about style, class, substance, or what you’re doing with your life, you should shoot a film camera. So what are you waiting for?

Convinced?

Find a camera at our own F Stop Cameras

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
38 comments
  • Hi James

    I like your blog, and I like the article except for one thing. Did you really mean to be so sexist??

    Richard

  • Well, you certainly have a valid point of view, and I don’t disagree with you, but there is something to be said for accuracy and immediacy of images that digital photographs can provide.

  • Yann Kaneko (@YannKaneko) February 25, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    “Today we talk about optical image stabilization. We peep pixels at one-hundred-percent crop. We worry that our Summicron type IV might not be as sharp as the Summicron type V. We’re obsessed with fast lenses that “bokeh” the context out of every shot. We argue about image sensors and field curvature. We make every photo as perfectly clear and realistic as possible. God, that’s lame..”

    This is not just in photography, it is in movie, furnitures, customer service, computers, music, etc, ect. This lack of life, of passion, of purposes, of soul. We move like robots and do not stop to do things properly with care and love that this moment every moments, persons, animals and things deserve.

    I now refuse to buy anything not made with a minimum of purpose and care. I avoid those industry like store like Walmart, Target to only name those. I try to eat only where they greet has a human been, they don’t need to converse with me or to be in a great mod but just acknowledge there somebody breathing in-front of them.

    People believe this was brought by technology, I do not think so, I think most peoples can’t stop. They do not enjoy there live because they believe there is something better ahead so they can’t see that life is a series of very small moments, perfectly insignificant.

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows.

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.

    A poor life this is if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    William Henry Davies 1831 – 1921

  • While I do believe that using a film camera (especially a ‘manual’ model) forces one to be more thoughtful about both technique & resource consumption (film & processing are getting pricier), I’m not sure that the experience, character, taste, etc. that one might argue is present in the film-derived print overrides the inconvenience & additional costs incurred with film photography. Also, the statement that a (high-quality) film camera is “one tenth” the cost of a DSLR is not true for some of the sought-after film cameras: on eBay, a nice-looking Rolleiflex 3.5F with Zeiss Planar lens costs more than $1500 (Rollei 2.8F Planar, >$2500) & may need a CLA (cleaning, lubrication, & adjustment) for another several hundred.

    • Compare like with like. That Rolleiflex – which is beyond awesome – is a medium format camera. A medium format digi cam costs anything from 5 to 10 times as much. And if you decide to use something like a Yashicamat 124 – which still produces incredible pictures – the price differential is 20 to 100 times as much.
      AAAAnnd – medium format digital still isn’t as big a 120 film. Which ones are 6×6, let alone 6×9 like a Fuji GW 690? Which is a $400-$500 camera.

  • Great article! 100% agree

  • My father always told me you should always have a good watch and pen. Pens are also a classic, albeit not really needed item these days.
    I agree on a classic film camera too. Very enjoyable article James.

  • Marco Venturini Autieri February 26, 2018 at 6:48 am

    “Today we talk about optical image stabilization.”
    Well, I wouldn’t be using my wonderful EOS 1n if it wasn’t for the wonderful, full frame, IS lenses that I can use with that. IS is especially useful with low-ISO films (think of Velvia 100) and almost useless on digital.

  • I find the title of this article off-putting in that it singles out men vs women who may be interested in reading it further. Why not just say “Why Everyone Should Own a Film Camera”? For a site like this, I don’t see any reason to target one gender over another. I’m sure your intention was not to be divisive here, but it’s worth looking at how the end result comes across for readers.

  • James, I really like the gist of your article, that film cameras are beautiful objects to own and hold and use. I would disagree about comparing them with DSLRs and how you assume people use DSLRs, as well as the cost.

    I use a 12 year old Pentax K10D (their flagship model at the time I believe) which cost me about £90. I had a virtually identical Samsung (they basically rebadged the Pentax) which cost £50.

    My favourite film SLRs, and the only two I still have, are an Asahi Spotmatic F (£50) and Contax 139 Quartz (£60ish, and bought after your article here a while back). So in my experience the DSLR does not cost ten times the amount, the prices are fairly comparable.

    I don’t use my K10D in a very different way to the film SLRs. I use the same K mount and M42 lenses I used and still use on film cameras. I don’t take 200 shots of the same subject. I sometimes retake a shot if the exposure wasn’t quite right, but generally I take one shot, same as I do with film, because I don’t like spending hours sifting through and processing images afterwards, that’s not my thing. The actual process of going out shooting with my Spotmatic is not radically different to going out shooting with my K10D.

    with regard to negative, yeh I like the physical feel of them too, and I really enjoyed the recent post on CP about slides and slide projectors. But I would imagine most casual photographers who have prints made, get them from the digital scans of the negatives. In the same way you can, if you want, get prints made of digital images. This is nothing to do with the camera, but a person’s preference to view mostly prints, or digitally on screens.

    So yes, I applaud the praise of film cameras and shooting film, but some of us (if you check out Pentax Forums, quite a lot are still using old(er) Pentax DSLRs!) have taken some of the best parts of shooting film, and used that for our digital photography too.

    Oh and I know it’s been mentioned, but I would have rather seen a title more like “Why we should all own a film camera”, rather than specifically reference “guys”. This is a personal view – I think I’m just bored of reading blog posts full of guys talking about the technical details of cameras and losing sight of the passion and enjoyment of photography – film or otherwise. Just like your paragraph preceding “god that’s lame” described, in fact!

  • Loved the article James. For me, shooting with film slows everything down, forcing me to be more careful about how I compose images and think about what I’m trying to convey visually. It’s a nice chance of pace.

  • Great article! all the reasons I switched back to film almost ten years ago! As a professional artist and part time teacher there is not comparison to film. Digital is great I see the use. Its also great when learning photography but that being said I think digital pictures biggest downfall is the loss of flaws and the magic of the negative. also I am the kind of person that likes having the physical negatives vs having an image on a hard drive. have had too many hard drive failures. thanks for keeping the magic alive and keep up the great articles and reviews!

  • I can’t imagine anyone reading your blog who isn’t already knee deep in film cameras. I check it every day, by the way, ’cause you write interesting-er than most other film blogs.
    I snort that you caved on the title, but funny that a significant number of dorks commented on the gender of the article rather than the content. They must have not been able to find any spelling or grammar mistakes.
    Only one correction: cameras really don’t have a soul, I think fountain pens might.

    • The idea was that we might be able to pull some outsiders in, people who might not be camera geeks already. The hope is that this post gets some syndication outside of the usual photography channels. Thanks for visiting the site and the kind words regarding the content here. Please keep coming back.

      • Way to go, James. Keep at it — the content here is too good to not be noticed by other sites.

      • James, following your thoughts about attracting new readers outside “the usual photography channels”, I wonder if you might consider some ideas for posts that might bring more female readers? I can’t recall the last time I read and post or a comment here that wasn’t written by a man.

        I know from elsewhere online there are plenty of women who enjoy shooting film, it would be good to try to reach out to that wider and more diverse community. And your blog with the quality of writing here, is in a better position than most photo blogs to be a platform for the kind of photography community that better reflects the fact that there are an abundance of film lovers across both genders.

        I wasn’t offended by your original title, it just seemed to be pushing the site in the wrong way and trying to make it appeal even more to just men. You have no shortage of male readers! I think you’re potentially missing out on a far more diverse audience.

        (I come from an angle where I was almost at the polar opposite a few years back – I ran an online artists community that was about 95% female, and was always trying to encourage more men to balance it out more!)

  • I am a big fan of Casual Photophile and have enjoyed many, MANY of your posts. I have an issue with this post however, and it’s even after the wise choice of renaming the post…

    The idea that a camera is an accessory or to quote you, “If you care about style, class, substance, or what you’re doing with your life, you should shoot a film camera”, bothers me.

    A camera is a tool, something used to make photographs. It has nothing to do with class, substance, or style. If you like film, then shoot it, but if you prefer digital, then that’s cool too. Many film enthusiasts, myself included, happily shoot both film and digital cameras and it has nothing to do with style or substance.

    You should buy a film camera because you want to, not because it’s stylish or “hip”. The idea that somehow shooting film puts you in a different class or even that film is somehow superior is a naive and foolish way to think. Film is not better than digital or any other art form. It’s just different. I’ve read many of these types of posts online about how it’s more pure, or analog, or some other rubbish way of suggesting an elitist way of thinking.

    I love analog cameras because of their history and their quirks. I often wonder who owned this camera before me, and where has it been? The thought that a bunch of metal levers, springs, and gears can fire a shutter and capture an image just like a modern silicon and microprocessor controlled smartphone can. I love the challenge of getting a good photograph and the “happy accidents” that you can get unintentionally when something goes wrong. When I send off several rolls of film to a lab that I shot weeks, sometimes even months ago, the excitement of getting that package back in the mail not remember whats on those rolls is like Christmas for me! Not every image I shoot is great, or worthy of sharing online (very few actually as I think I’m a terrible photographer), but when I do manage to get something special, there’s a sense of accomplishment that I simply can’t get from a digital camera.

    It’s those reasons that I think someone should try out a film camera. Sorry for the rant, but I think you wrote this article for the wrong crowd. Again, normally I love your posts, but not this time.

  • This piece suffers from “affluenza.” The list of cameras “everyone” should own seem overwhelmingly skewed towards the deeply pocketed. For a writer who has often crafted pieces admonishing elitism, there is plenty here to be had.

    That aside, I’m not sure who would read this piece and have an epiphany that they have been convinced to start shooting with a film camera. And while The hobby/field could benefit from more who want to partake of it, those who indulge in it should be genuinely interested and engaged by it, and a camera should be more of a tool than an accessory like a wrist watch.

  • A film camera is a tool to make photos, like a Ferrari is a utility vehicle to get from point A to point B. Who are you trying to kid?
    A film camera is a needless contrivance, pointing back to a time when gears ruled the world, a time when mechanical precision and beauty met, now used mostly by those who are seeking a hobby for enjoyment, and the higher on the precision / price / beauty ratio the better.
    Sure, all film camera users want the world to “come back” to film, so the cameras will have a nice rise. Get your Leica now, before the bubble.

  • Frankly I’m appalled that the original title of this write up offended people to the extent it did. I would’ve kept the original, though I’m aware why it was changed. Anyways, great write up as usual James keep up the fantastic work. Can’t wait for the next article.
    PS: I see how that CLE made its way in the cover photo, nice.

  • This is a great post! Enjoyed reading it however…the one thing you forgot to mention is that owning ONE film camera sometimes turns into two, or three. Or in my case, 32. 32? My goodness!

  • Film or Digital is not the question they are only mediums to “keep images” for longer than a heartbeat
    The question is why we make them and what they mean to us we do that way we do
    For me Digital will be my first pick when I need to realize a exact defined style or picture
    If I am free and without any task Film and old analoge cameras are a joy to use and “catch memories”

  • “WHY EVERYONE SHOULD OWN A FILM CAMERA” Profound wisdom and a most compelling case. Thanks James.

  • Definitely a good read – and you had no reason to be vexed about your original title.

    A camera is a tool – a box that captures light. A film camera is a mechanical tool, rather than an electronic one. I can take photos with my Minolta XD-11 without any batteries, as long as I can meter my film speed for 1/100s. Buy a Fuji GW690III medium format camera, among hundreds of other film cameras, and you don’t need any batteries.

    Would we really advocate that every woman should own a film camera, a mechanical tool? Why? Should every woman own a set of hand tools? Should every woman own a grill? Think of items that every woman should own – how many of those would I really want, let alone need?

    Noticing and/or noting differences between the sexes is not inherently sexist. In fact, one could argue it would be sexist if I assumed that every woman should own a set of screwdrivers. Why would I force my traits as a man carte blanche upon a woman? Isn’t that sexist? Or misogynist? Or simply impolite mansplaining? As a man, it wouldn’t be sexist if you wrote an article explaining why every woman should own something?

    And any woman who didn’t read this article because of the original title doesn’t think much of the man in her life. If this site had an article titled “Why every woman should own a blah-blah-blah”, I’d still read it to see if my wife would benefit from owning a blah-blah-blah. Why would that be sexist, especially if it were written by a woman?

    My wife has no interest whatsoever in carrying around either of my DSLRs on holiday, only with a 50mm prime attached, because they’re too heavy. I didn’t even try her with good glass, nor longer glass. That’s perfectly fine. I bought her a Sony RX100IV to shoot with, and her daughter shoots with an iPhone 8X. Neither of them can understand why I’ll sometimes break out my Maxxum 7, let alone the XD-11. But they accept the fact that they won’t see the photos for a few weeks, just as they admire how I can see the photos in my head as I take them. And I accept that my wife will sooner let me watch her change a tire than shoot with a film camera.

    Every guy should own a film camera. As a guy, I can’t imagine why every woman should own one, let alone would want to. I’ll leave it to a woman to write that article. Does that make me sexist?

    • Per Kristoffersson March 10, 2018 at 6:58 am

      Well, everyone should have access to hand tools, cooking apparel and whatnot. Regardless of gender.

      And everyone should have a film camera for if/when the shit hits the fan and digital cameras get to be useless due to shortage of electricity. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem as unlikely as it did 15 years ago, there’s a lot going in the wrong direction

    • Quote: “Does that make me sexist?”

      No. In my opinion all that gender or PC stuff sucks hell !
      There must be a reason why man and woman are “different”
      otherwise nature and evolution wouldnt done it.

      PC wants us to be one faceless gender but why should anybody want that ?

      In greek mythology the gods once fought against one powerful being and divided it
      because it was a treat to them – it could give “life” like them – into “man” and woman”
      and thats why we always need and search for the other part to be “complete” !

      Think about it……

  • Interesting read… I’ve just spent the last three weeks using a film camera for the first time, and it was a rocky relationship to say the least (see my latest blog post). But this article seems to capture a lot of my findings with analogue photography. The patience that comes with it encourages a more thorough thought process, and gives a better sense of appreciation for the field. Yes, DSLRs are quick and convenient, but there’s something special about using a film camera in this digital era. Thanks for sharing!

  • I am new to this forum and have been enjoying most everything I have read thus far. I have been a film shooter for 35 years and have a certain reverence for the cameras and the feel of film. But I just recently purchased a mirrorless digital camera. The major reason for the addition has been that I have not been pleased with the film processing and printing results I have been getting from all but a few higher end (cost prohibitive) labs for a hobbyist like me, which makes any mistake or wasted shot sting that much more. I love the feel of my film cameras, and agree that shooting film is uniquely rewarding. The tactile nature of actual prints in hand vs on my phone or even computer screen is my preference. I usually do print the better images I take and up on the wall or refrigerator or bulletin board they go!

    I have to say, though, I am sort of put off by this piece’s trashing of digital photography as a foundation for purporting the virtue of film. Like a politician who’s campaign speech is rich on their foe’s faults vs their own virtues, it rings hollow. Statements like “It’s a matter of taste, and whether or not you have it.” are on the verge of offensive, unless possibly it was meant to be tongue in cheek and I missed the joke?

    Film or digital, whatever your choice, I believe the art created and the joy in creating it are more important than the method it was created by. You can turn off IS, auto focus, and run full manual on most digital cameras of any substance. You can shoot 1 picture, or 10, or 100. You have the choice. I don’t use burst mode unless I’m trying to capture action, just like I have occasionally used the autowinder on my film camera. The digital camera I chose still has dials for setting shutter speed and has aperture rings on most lenses so it yields a very tactile experience. Digital photography does not have to be a glorified zoom in from a mile away, point and shoot, take 100 pictures to get 1, who cares I can compose it in Photoshop later sort of experience. That may be someone’s choice, but we all have free will and can choose to shoot as slowly and carefully and manually and artfully as we wish with either a digital or a film camera in hand. You can store your digital images anywhere you like (the cloud is not the only option), and with some small degree of care and redundancy, you can guarantee the likelihood of their existence at least as long as boxes full of prints and negatives stowed away in an office, closet, basement, or storage unit.

    I guess my point is that yes, there is a magic to film photography that every photographer deserves to experience. It is intoxicating and many, once exposed, will be hooked! I also think the experience of developing and printing in a darkroom adds even more magic to the mix. So go ahead and extol the virtue of film photography… it surely deserves it! But if you want to convince a new generation of photographer or hobbyist to have an open mind and give film a shot, start with an open mind and do not offend by demeaning the only type of photography they have likely experienced thus far. There is nothing that says the choice to use a digital camera means that you are any less of an artist or your work is of any lower quality or taste… just an artist with a different medium.

  • Interesting article.
    I started off in film and agree there is a Magic about it, especially when one does ones own darkroom work.
    And there is charm in working with far less sophisticated equipment and getting results one can love.
    I love working with fairly humble gear; a folding Voigtlander Perkeo II 6X6cm folding roll-film camera and a tiny Minox 35GL.
    When finally I went to digital my favorite camera was my Ricoh GRD, it gave gritty images reminiscent of pushed Tri-X.
    it even gave me, incredibly, for digital, direct control over everything including focus.
    Sadly it finally passed and is irreparable, while my 60+ year-old Perkeo keeps on going strong.
    As does the Minox, though they have a less-than-stellar reputation for reliability.
    I do not feel though that digital lacks “Soul”.
    True one does not emerge from darkness have wrought Magic.
    And it is easy to shoot tons in hopes of getting one good shot.
    But that can dealt with through discipline and care.
    Using such I have made satisfying images even using my Android Phablet.
    But the experience is not quite the same.
    BTW thank you for changing the title.
    It makes one feel welcome 🙂

  • Very interesting article and no, I don’t think it’s sexist :), and I am a woman. I have come to accept that there are more men interested in photography than women (which I do feel sad about at times), but it’s not closed to women because if it were I would shouting my head off LOL!

    I also find a lot of people say to me, shooting film must be expensive, and of course I disagree because for myself it’s not expensive and expensive is relative to an individual’s personal feelings about how they like to spend their money etc., I have loads of other hobbies that cost way more to engage in. For me, it’s all about what film photography does for me that matters most, not how much it costs. Digital is not my thing, film is and that’s that.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio