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Why Shoot Documentary Photography on Film?


Shooting a long term project, whether personal or professional, is a wonderful way to explore areas of photography you might not have previously considered. I know of photographers who have experimented with different types of filters, post-processing techniques, actual shooting methods (long exposure, panning, unfamiliar/conventional focal lengths), and so on, as their projects evolve.

The amount of time that can go into a long-term project is really worth taking advantage of, using early experimentation to set up a consistent aesthetic that can dominate the rest of the project.

In my work, I have found that shooting my long-term projects on film has been incredibly rewarding and a really different experience from shooting my more immediate assignments digitally. It was something of a revelation to me that not all reportage work must necessarily be instant. My early work and the majority of my client based work requires a very short turnaround time – fashion, news reportage, weddings – all of these benefit from being shot digitally and be delivered for publication within a few days.

However, enough of my work revolves around situations that can be treated with a little more calm and consideration. My long term BTS projects in production and fashion, my exploration of festival culture in the UK, and my street photography especially are now all mostly being shot on film. Other projects like my work at conventions I will have both a digital and film camera, as certain images require faster publication whereas others can be set aside and reviewed in the future. 

For deep dives like these into specific topics and projects, I think that film is a wonderful decision, both for the finished aesthetic and the workflow while shooting. 

The nature of film keeps me concentrated on what’s happening now and what could happen next. I can’t worry about the image I just shot, I have to continuously focus on the image I’m about to take. I can’t review them in the moment, and at the end of the day I’m not overwhelmed with post-processing, and can thus concentrate on other areas of the project as well as my other work.

When it comes to scanning and reviewing I’m able to dedicate an entire day to the process, really giving the images the time they deserve, rather than relegating editing to an evening activity as it usually is for my digital files.

For projects involving travel, I find that my film setup is far less limiting than my digital cameras, which require that I be tethered by electricity to charge batteries, and hard drives to back up, which I may not always have access to in remote areas.

Without the requirement for a fast turnaround, the benefits of film really do offer a lot to a long term project. If it’s a personal undertaking then film can help your mindset, to take things more seriously and develop a better understanding of the process on top of whatever story you are telling in the images. 

The “process” also becomes more linear which is conducive to a better sequence of work – research, shoot, develop, curate, publish. When working with digital it feels like my process looks more like – research, shoot, edit, research some more, shoot more, edit, etc. It is more disparate and messy; less focused and with more room for distraction.

Film has a nicer workflow when it comes to archiving, and the process of reviewing negatives through contact sheets and scans can help develop the direction of a project. The physicality of the medium is a great asset when it comes to final stages such as printing and collating.

Film offers a consistency in the results, which for a long term project can be essential for bringing together potentially disconnected images. Selecting a singular film stock/look to shoot a project is worthwhile, and this can mean experimenting to begin with before finding something that fits the subject matter. 

There are many options within film to cover an ISO range while maintaining the same aesthetic. For example, Portra can currently be had as 160, 400, and 800, and the capacity to push/pull means you can cover essentially any color scenarios with it. Tri-X is known as being incredibly versatile on it’s own and can be pushed and pulled to suit almost any need. Personally, if I’m looking to cover a range of options in black and white I’m enjoying Delta 100/400/3200 at the moment, and find my results to be consistent across these different emulsions as long as my exposure methods are equally consistent.

I think these reasons are one of the best arguments for using film for street photography, which is arguably one of the longest-term projects most photographers will undertake. There is rarely a rush with street photography both in creating and in publishing content. Without that urgency, you have the freedom to concentrate on what matters in terms of the work, the scene, and your understanding of the experience you are participating in.

As with any methodology in photography, this is a subjective topic, and although I hope I can encourage a few of you to try film for the first time or to incorporate it in a way you hadn’t previously considered, I know that the film approach will not work out for everyone. Although I try and encourage people to try a little bit of everything, as you never know what you may discover, no one knows your photography better than you.

So when it comes to making a decision as significant as this you should almost always go with your own experience, and do whatever is right for what you have the best knowledge and understanding of, and perhaps more importantly, what you enjoy.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.