"Film is back!" - that's what they say. In recent months, analog film has experienced a renaissance almost comparable to Vinyl records. Many photographers are switching "back", dusting off their old cameras or buying new, old ones at steeply increasing prices.
But what is that hype all about? (I call it a hype, although it might be one to stay, but hear me out.) With artificial intelligence (AI) on the rise creating photo-realistic images, and AI techniques assisting the auto-focus of cameras, many seem to long for something more... old-fashioned. It comes in handy that the mantra for happiness in fast-moving times is to "slow down", and there is something to film photography that can indeed help you to unwind (pun intended) and relax. But let us take a closer look at the different aspects of film photography and why the trending of it moved a lot of its appeal to the downside.
To me, there is definitely a "film look". It comes naturally, because of the fundamentally different way of capturing light, in contrast to digital sensors. On film, the exposure to light triggers a chemical reaction. Its behavior can differ dramatically, depending on the mixture of substances involved, particularly comparing color negative film vs. negative black-and-white and also vs. color slide film. But even among the same "basic film type", each manufacturer has his own secret recipe that produces an often distinctive look. It is not a coincidence that many photographers try to imitate the look of e.g. Portra 400.
With digital sensors however, we have only two main technologies that deliver a "digital negative" and that is CCD and CMOS sensors. CCD is not used widely anymore because of many downsides and the convenience that comes with CMOS sensors. Sure, the RAW data is then pre-processed in camera and the interpretation of the sensor data varies significantly over manufacturers, and even within product lines (such as the Sony A7 series).In the end, the image source of a digital camera is doomed to stay the same over its lifetime. And many people wish for a different look sometimes.
The longing for a different look is perhaps the starting point of developing a new understanding of "photographic consciousness", and film is perfect for that. Due to its limitations and characteristics, the photographer has to plan more of his shot. The photographer is involved in so many aspects of his photo, compared to digital imagery, also because the supporting mechanisms in older film cameras are very limited. With film, there is naturally no auto-ISO. Film has a fixed speed, which is determined by the chemical mixture used. Also, many old cameras lack auto-focus, and the aperture is set manually on the lens. For many people, that means stepping outside their comfort-zone. They have to learn, and get involved in the process, and discovering the vast field of possibilities can be fun.
Film always had downsides. Probably the biggest might be the delay between creation and delivery of an image. Now hear me out, because many claim that to be a good thing. To me it is not, because it can be extremely frustrating to return home from a trip, get the film processed and discover that the perfect shot of your favorite location is underexposed or out of focus. Lacking the capacity in a roll of 36 shots, you did not take a second picture. There you go. As romantic as the delayed gratification might appear to many people, it rapidly loses its appeal due to the unavoidable presence of mistakes made while shooting. No photographer is going to nail every shot, and that is okay. However, it is extremely frustrating to loose a shot because of simple deficiencies, detected easily on the back of the screen of a digital camera.
If I were to give any recommendation, it would be aiming to master a digital camera in manual mode first, and then switch to analog. The amount of frustration and the potential of wasted money will decrease drastically.
Another downside are the limitations of film. Aside fixed ISO for 24 or 36 frames, film is not really usable at high ISOs (for me). There is ISO 3200 black and white film, and it can be pushed to ISO 6400. But for color photography, the options are very limited. In a time where 35mm cameras are capable of 25000 ISO and more, film clearly falls short.
Additionally, the look of film gets unequally more busy as the ISO goes up. While film grain is an often desired look, it can grab too much attention. That said, also low ISO film images are not inherently clean. In the analog world, many things can ruin a picture even after it was taken. Scratches, dust and hitches during processing put their own, distracting mark on the negative. I can vividly remember getting back a roll from processing and all the slides had a disgusting, grey stripe throughout all of the images. I suppose that a transporting spool in the processor was dirty. Damage was done. Even if you did good while shooting, the lab can still ruin it.
Film has become expensive. The rapidly increasing demand and the lack of production and development capacity left are the perfect ingredients for steep prices. When film was "mainstream" the capacities were huge, and hence purchasing and developing film was cheap. Over the years, the demand decreased and capacities were reduced. The film industry has to revive long retired gear to produce film components, and that takes time. Until then, the prices will keep increasing.
Film photography also has a problem nowadays, and that is our main way of "consuming" images, and that is digitally. And online. So today, getting your images from film involves an additional step in most cases, and that is to scan them. This is the main difference to Vinyl Records, because there, your signal chain remains completely analog. In turn, we have to take tremendous efforts to accurately transform a digital signal into good analog audio. In turn, it is no surprise that getting a good digital representation of an analog film negative is a challenging task, and therefore expensive. You pay it in small amounts when get your film scanned in the lab, and you pay big money if you decide to do it yourself.
Also the point of getting into 35mm full-frame for cheap is not really valid anymore. Used full frame cameras are not that expensive anymore (look at the older Sony A7 models...). And these used cameras are still great! Now, with the increased demand, the price of analog cameras goes through the roof. The ongoing costs for film and processing included, film cameras are not really cheaper than their digital counterparts these days.
Despite all the drawbacks I don't want to discourage you from picking up a film camera. You should just be fully aware of what you are about to dig into. Analog photography can be fun, but it also requires dedication, initial financial investment and lots of patience. If you are willing to go on the journey despite its caveats, chances are you will like it in the end. But it is definitely not a path to be chosen lightly, and that is my whole point in this writing.
However, there might be a way out of many points, style-wise. Most people seem to forget what is in front of their sensor, i.e. film in this case: A lens. And these old lenses render significantly differently compared to modern lenses. Now, with digital mirrorless cameras, you can adapt those lenses on digital bodies and see what happens. The down- and upsides are part of this essay.