I remember the first time I picked up a digital camera. It was 2003 and I got this little Canon G5, a good point-and-shoot, and it was 5 megapixels.
Before that, I used film. It had to be scanned into a computer, then manipulated digitally. That was alright—but when I picked up this Canon, I thought it was amazing. It’s instant feedback. You see exactly what you’re going to get. You adjust your lighting as you go, you’re thinking on your feet.
What you can learn on digital in one year is probably five to ten times what you can learn on film in the same time. Film is a very slow feedback loop.
When I was shooting for publications like Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel, I was using slide film. It has zero latitude. You might have half a stop on either side, and if you’re over that, it’s too underexposed and you don’t have anything usable. People who shoot negative film maybe have two stops above and one and a half stops below, so you can fix it in the lab. I used slide film because the rendition is beautiful and I knew my exposures well.
For film shoots, I’d have a messenger service literally waiting there for the first shot of the day. He’d get on his scooter, ride to the lab, and do a clip test. They would pull out three or four shots from the roll of film and test it.
If my lab guy was good, he’s call me and say, “Kanarek, you’re under by a third.” Then I’d shoot Polaroids for interpretation. They don’t look anything like slide film, but they can tell you if you’re above or below. People who learned with analog photography can blink their eyes and feel the exposure. They can feel the light.
The trend of young photographers going back to film is confusing to me. They know the new technology. They were born into it. What they don’t know is the older technology that used to be my only option.
I mean, I can replicate the look of film in post-production. If people really think they have an edge by using film, well, okay. If the client has the budget to pay for film and the whole process, which is incredibly expensive today, fine. But it’s really counterproductive. Film for me is horrible. It’s slow, it’s cumbersome.
I understand that people think digital looks flat, but it doesn’t look flat anymore. I use a Nikon 36MP—just amazing rendition. You bring the digital image into Photoshop, play with your curves, contrast, luminosity and add grain if you want to. Art directors ask me, “Are you still shooting film?” but it’s not, it’s digital.
One of the arguments against digital is that you can shoot and shoot and shoot like crazy without being discerning. I agree with that—it is a problem. Do you know what I do to overcome that? I only use 4GB memory cards, because I don’t want to edit. Listen, editing is a pain in the ass. You don’t want to edit 3,000 images. On a 4GB card, you’ll get about 100 shots, which is the equivalent of three rolls of film. That’s a great way to make you more discerning.
Instead of going backwards, I want to use new technology that makes photography. Those Lytro Illum cameras? You can change your focus in post-production. It will literally bring your background into focus after the photo’s been taken. If I could get a camera like that, but with a 300mm f/2.8 lens, that would be so sweet.
I started doing fashion photography in the 1980’s using every analog medium out there. I evolved into digital reluctantly. It’s just another tool of expression—like the difference between oil and acrylic paint. An artist is an artist regardless of their medium. For now, I will stay with digital until they install a holographic projector into my frontal lobe.
P.S. For this season, I will mix it up by shooting primarily digitally and perhaps a half a roll per clothing change of film to present a mixed media story for the magazines I shoot with. Of course that will depend on the theme of the shoot.
Update: The title of this post has been changed from “Why I Think Film Photography is Terrible” to “Why Film Photography No Longer Works for Me.”
About the author: Benjamin Kanarek is a Paris-based fashion photographer who has been working in the industry since the 1980s. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work has been featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Glamour, Elle, New York Times Magazine and W Magazine, among others. Visit his online portfolio here. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Header illustration based on photo by Ashley Pomeroy and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. All other photos by Benjamin Kanarek