From Film to Digital, and Back Again

10 min read by raphaeltm.
Published on .
I remember waking up the day after they bought it [the camera] for me, rushing over to it, grabbing it and staring at it as if it were about to disappear. I remember mentioning to my parents that I was under the impression it might have been a dream.

As a kid, I enjoyed photography.

I loved using my parents’ Olympus SuperZoom 300. After letting me take a few crappy shots with it, they eventually got me a camera of my own. Originally I had a little camera that was made for children (I assume). It was black, with a big green button to charge up the flash, and you had to advance the film manually.

I loved that camera.

As a kid, somewhere in Gaspésie, QC, with my first camera.

But once I turned seven-years-old, I had already fallen a victim to the lens lust. After a few years of using that first camera, and another slightly better one, my parents eventually got me a Pentax IQ Zoom 90MC.

I was thrilled.

I remember waking up the day after they bought it for me, rushing over to it, grabbing it and staring at it as if it were about to disappear. I remember mentioning to my parents that I was under the impression it might have been a dream.

Me and my trusty Pentax by the Yangtze in China.

Eventually, I lost that camera on a hiking trip in the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands in Tanzania (where we lived for six years).

My parents then left me their digital Canon PowerShot G2. They had moved on to more recent cameras. That’s when I first began to understand how photography works in a technical sense. Prior to that, I had just framed a shot and assumed everything would work out. The digital camera allowed me to explore:

I remember that moment where I first played with aperture priority and realized I could control how much of my subject was in focus.

That totally blew my mind.

Somewhere in India, post the mind-explosion.

When I realized that depth of field was also affected by the distance to the subject? Also another mind-blowing moment.

When I understood that the camera didn’t have to control the exposure, but that I could override it by going into Manual and specifying both the shutter speed and the aperture? The possibilities became endlessMy twelve-year-old head almost exploded.

For the beginners to photography, digital cameras have a distinct advantage of being easy to play with and seeing results on the fly. Not too long after my introduction to digital photography, I got to play with a friend’s Canon Digital Rebel. He let me take some shots at a few sporting events and at a graduation ceremony. Until then, all the cameras I used were compacts. That’s when I realized that I had to have an SLR.

My parents promised me that if I got good enough grades, they would buy me one. I was generally a good, serious student, but my grades hadn’t been quite up to my former standards in the tenth grade. Fortunately, things worked out, my parents got me a Nikon D70s.

That camera got me into wildlife photography. I had always loved East Africa’s fauna, but now I got to appreciate it on a whole new level. I could spend hours sitting in an open-top Land Cruiser near a pride of lions, or on a path near some chimpanzees. I loved it. I dreamed of travelling the world capturing incredible moments for National Geographic.

Me and the D70s at a school event.

Eventually, with the same promise of good grades, my parents bought me my glorious Nikon D300 as a graduation present. Eight years later, it feels more like an old friend than a camera.

Photography had, over time, grown to be one of my numerous obsessions. It is probably the one thing I have been most passionate about for the longest time. Beyond photography as a whole, I also ended up loving my D300, its image quality, and the collection of lenses I built around it.

I built a process around that camera that worked well for me. If I left home with it, I knew how to tune it exactly to my current needs. But I also had a ton of images stored on my large memory cards; I didn’t feel the need to pace myself…

Then I took a six-credit photography class for my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montréal. The class required the use of a film camera, and even though my degree was in Computation Arts, a curriculum primarily focused on the digital space, I was thrilled to finally learn how photography “traditionally” worked.

I loved film. Not just because the colour and tonal curves were more interesting pre-edit, and the grain was prettier than digital noise — but because it got me to slow down.

I dragged a Canon TX with a 50mm around, thinking and expressing what I saw in the city around me.

I love the digital space. I love the internet. I love building things quickly, and throwing them out there, and seeing how they work, and building more things on top of the first ones. I love trying “shiny” new stuff.

But film slowed me down.

When I first started using film at Concordia, I found myself looking for shots, rather than happening to find them, as I did with a digital camera. I had to force myself to be more intentional than reactive.

As I was shooting film, I realized that while I loved the speed and constant change that comes with digital media, I also loved the time and consideration that came with traditional media.

Being forced by the price of the medium to limit the speed at which I shot, and the manner in which I composed felt fantastic, until I moved on.

After the course ended, I did an MFA during which I didn’t touch film.

Note: this article was originally published on July 16ᵗʰ, 2016.

For the past year-and-a-half, I worked as the co-founder and CTO of a startup (it didn’t work out; we shut it down) during which I came upon a familiar realization. There’s a demand and expectation of speed, which is a part of a digital innovation environment. Long, yet inefficient working hours tend to be the norm. But slowing down, as I again understood, felt better. The quality of my work improved once, earlier this year, I forced myself to relax more.

That’s also when I remembered that a family friend had lent me an old Leica II. I had been dragging it around for a while as I moved from Montréal to Burlington VT, to Halifax NS, to Vancouver BC. I kept wishing to test it in the hopes that it was still functional until I finally got to it last month.

My Leica needs some maintenance, it seems.

I took the camera on a trip to New Brunswick, where I went to visit my girlfriend’s family.

On that trip I found myself forgetting about my digital gear as I deliberately took a single shot in situations where I would normally click the shutter at least a dozen times.

I was being far more careful about what I was shooting, how I was composing, and the quality of the light. These aren’t the things that I would ignore when I shoot digitally, but a fixed cost per frame of film certainly added a push to be extra careful.

My images turned out to be disappointing. I had trouble loading the film into the Leica and had apparently managed to tear one roll in a way that created a weird artefact on most of the photos. My next roll didn’t advance at all. And I hadn’t bothered to check.

I may have misunderstood how to focus the lens, or it could have been in a desperate need of some maintenance. Everything was far out of focus. A few shots had their focus on the background as the subject stood blurry. And the images which were supposed to be focused on infinity were a complete blur.

There were also bright white spots all over the images. Most likely the result of the shutter curtain deteriorating.

I was disappointed, sure, but I was also excited. I had rediscovered film.

Another image from my Leica in need of repair. It’s not what I was hoping for, but there’s something weird and wonderful about those white spots, the light trails behind them, and the fibres and black spots around the edge of the image.

I used to own a Canon TX and a Nikon F65, but they seemed to have disappeared at some point during one of my moves. Determined to shoot film, I promptly hopped onto craigslist and found a Nikon F90 in really nice condition for fifty bucks. I have since been dragging it around everywhere.

Before film, I used to shoot thirty photos a day on my Panasonic GX1, but now it’s down to three rolls a month with my Nikon.

Slowing down felt good.

Capturing motion with film is particularly interesting. When you’re trying to catch a split second with digital, you might use a drive mode, or try to perfectly time a capture, and check immediately after to see if you caught it or need to try again. No such thing with film. You have no idea if you caught the moment until you get the film developed. In my case, that’s a week or so later, and then I’ve got to wait another few days to get the image back (I get this all done by the wonderful folks at ABC Photo in Vancouver). In this case, I caught precisely the kind of motion wanted but had no idea if it worked until about ten days after the fact.

In life, productivity, and art slowing down is a good thing. It feels healthy, more productive, requiring a fresh new approach.

With film, instead of adjusting for results, one must react to the action in the moment, as opposed to digital workflow where a lot of focus falls onto post-production.

There is, however, one thing that film isn’t: magic. Film can’t make bad photography good, it’s just a different, worthy way to take images.

For me, film isn’t exclusive from digital workflow. I shoot, get it scanned, and do post-processing in Lightroom. Although I would love to go through the entire process of getting an image printed using just chemistry, I can’t afford to rent or set up a dark room. The convenience of digital media, specifically when it comes to organization is invaluable for my analogue art.

That’s all for my story of a lifelong photographic passion and the insights on the different ways of doing it. If you love photography and have never shot film, give it a try. It’ll probably get you thinking about your images in an entirely new way.

Vancouver general hospital, on Ilford FP4 Plus 125 shot with my “new” Nikon F90 and a Nikkor 50mm 1.4D.
Vancouver. Nikon F90. Nikkor 50mm 1.4D. Kodak Portra 160.