In this article, we are going to look at the merits and pitfalls of shooting on the streets with film cameras. From my perspective, the world moved on to the realm of digital, despite the odd number of film shooters out there. My question is not just about whether film is still relevant or capable, but does it still have a place at all?
We will look at the technology aspect of the camera before moving on to the film itself and providing some examples. Hopefully, this work will allow you to appreciate the quality, the stigma and cult following film can bring out in people.
We are not concerning ourselves with authenticity of street and saying all images should be black and shot on the same camera as Henri Cartier-Bresson. Photographers use whatever tools they have available, what works for them and is within their budgets. I have tried sincerely not to focus on the G.A.S. syndrome that is ablaze in the world of photography. My evidence and thoughts are based solely upon the equipment I’ve owned and tried.
Technology in Street Photography
We should not waste our time too much trying to label what street photography is, that is for another time. But we will work on the assumption it’s from a street and the picture was taken without the subject knowing.
Where street differs from other genres of photography is the element of surprise, speed and luck. You don’t always have time to plan a shot or spend time adjusting your settings for the best picture. Scenes on the street can unfold in front of you by chance or it could be a daily occurrence.
You can talk about the greats in photography and those you admire all you like. You can research what they used and buy similar tools yourself but that doesn’t and will not make the image. The photographers of yesteryear used what technology they had at the time, just like we do now.
Before the 1980s, there was one type of camera available – film. The majority of street work was taken on a 35mm camera (medium and large format were used more in landscape and portraiture).
Of course technology has changed all aspects of photography, which has aided us street photographers. You can focus on subjects without even trying now due to eye autofocus! Lenses can focus so quickly and silently, that they improve your chances of getting that shot.
Why a Film Camera?
The short answer is why not? Why do people use analogue watches or buy antiques and vintage motor cars? Sure for some people its a collecting thing and the items will stay in a cabinet somewhere. But for the rest of us, analogue is from a different era and makes us work differently. It’s not a discussion about which is better, so let’s consider this in more detail.
It’s now 2019 and film is still around and people talk about the revival. For someone like myself it’s all irrelevant as I have only been around photography for a few years anyway.
Last year, I posted a question in a Facebook street photography forum asking what type of camera do they use (I never specified digital or film). The majority of people were digital Fuji shooters. It was interesting to see the trend for this manufacturer and how far they’ve come in our genre of photography. It would have been interesting to see the results over the last few decades!
Let’s narrow this down to selection of reasons why film is still relevant:
- Image quality
Reason 1: Image Quality
Film and digital are just different ways of getting the same thing, they use apertures, a shutter and rely on light. The easiest way with image quality is not just to look at my examples, but look at the forums, the web, books and galleries. Do you ever look at a photo and think wow, that must have been shot on a Sony mirrorless? No of course not, but I do understand you still want high quality images.
I have taken lots of pictures using a Olympus OM-D E-M10 mirrorless DSLR and love the quality. But when I shoot on an Olympus film camera I’m just as impressed and when I break out the big one (my Bronica) the images are even more beautiful (especially if you print or look on a larger screen). I would ask anyone to try medium format if you can – you can shoot at ISO 400/800 and there is hardly any grain, it’s stunning.
One of the great aspects of film photography is that the quality of the lenses. They lenses were so well made, many mirrorless users are still buying these (causing prices to rise). Having such a variety around is useful as they are very low cost too, so it’s easy to get started. They are so many different films to choose from too, so if you have a working camera with a good quality film and optics you will still get a quality image.
Just remember if you are unhappy with small negatives of a 35mm camera, then there are other formats like medium, large and ultra large format to try. Each jump in format increases the quality you can obtain (the negatives are larger). So just remember a 35mm film camera maybe called “full frame” in the digital world but its a baby in film terms.
The quality of the images you can obtain is also down to other elements like development and scanning. This can have a huge affect on your work and morale. One of the ways around this is to send off your films to a lab and have them developed and scanned for you (yes, they are still around). These companies have much better equipment than the home user and I do recommend you trying this initially at least. Of course if you invest in the correct equipment you can get great results too.
For those who want the ultimate quality and cost is not a barrier or may need large files for printing digitally then you have options too! You can have your negatives scanned in a TIFF format on a drum scanner. One company in the UK charges £12 per image, but the files would be 300mb in size and 8500 x 5500 pixels! Amazing detail but a high price and compare that to your DSLR!
Anyone shooting with a standard medium format like myself (called 6.x4.5) the files would be 850mb and 13400 x 10200 pixels and only £14 compared! The biggest issue would be storing the files and opening these on your computer for editing purposes!
So there you can achieve quality, its just down to cost and how you quantify it.
Reason 2: Choice
If you thought there was choice in the digital world, like micro 4/3, crop and full frame, well, it’s time to be shocked, there is a huge choice in the film world. There were so many big brands and small family manufacturers, it’s impossible to list them all. Each photographer will prefer a type,whether it’s mechanical 35mm or something more modern auto focus variant. For those who love larger negatives and may print their work, you really should look at medium format. The entry cost is not high (£200 for camera + lens) but the jump in quality is simply amazing.
Of course choice doesn’t stop there, you now have to think about the emulsion – the film too. Each film is designed for different conditions, so you might want to stick with a standard film for street shooting. A very common example is HP5 by Ilford. People love it because it’s 2 stops more light than a standard 100 ISO film and provides consistent results. Personally, colour in street is nice too so my current favourite is Porta 400 but there is a jump in the price of this compared (1.5 to 2 times as much). Each brand has a product out there for you and there are street friendly ones like “street candy” too to help you get all those lovely tones.
One of the best parts of film photography is simply the choice, cameras, lenses, films, accessories, filters. The actual film is very forgiving so if you mess up your exposure there is a good chance you will still get a good picture with some editing.
Reason 3: Usability
If you have shot both analogue and digital from different decades you might say there isn’t much in it. But use something from the 70s and you won’t believe how simple it is!
There are so few buttons or options on a film camera like an Olympus OM2n, you can’t go wrong. In this generation of cameras, the loading film, the winding, rewinding and advance were all very similar so you could pick up any camera and just shoot.
If you like that pro and modern feel try a Canon EOS 1 or 3, Nikon F100, you have all the exposure and metering controls you could ever want!
Using the Bronica medium format is even more simple, it doesn’t have a meter, so you can only adjust the shutter speed and aperture!
Many people talk about the advantages of film is that it allows you to slow down, which is true. Because you are paying for each shot you can’t be wasteful. You might not have any metering options (you might use your eyes to judge it) so you know you have to adjust either your aperture or speed to get the shot!
Reason 4: Cost
When you are talking about analogue, the camera is a box that lets light on to the emulsion (film). In the film world you can pick up a usable camera from £10 – £35 quite easily (I started with an Olympus OM10 at £30 with lens). I just don’t think you can compare the cost of getting started, because even the OM10 came with a decent f1.8 lens.
Once you want to increase in quality, you can start looking at medium format (my Bronica was £200 with lens). Medium format in the digital world is a different world, the cost is incredible and not for the budget conscious. You can even look at large format (my entry point was £200) if you wanted, as some of the old press cameras could be used for street but are much slower to operate (film in this size is expensive too).
The True Cost of Film Photography
We have already discussed the price of cameras above, but as a reminder here are examples of what I paid:
Olmpus OM10 (very common- millions sold) £30 with lens
Olympus OM2n (top of the range) £50 with lens (broken self timer)
Bronica ETRS medium format £200 with lens
MPP vii large format camera £200 with lens (well worn)
I’ll give you an idea of lenses prices too, as I do have a small number of lenses. For the Olympus cameras I shoot the standard kit (50mm) 99.9% of the time. If you wanted a 35mm lens in Olympus variety that would set you back £230 (Ebay at time of writing) as 50mm was the normal viewpoint in this era and 35mm was rare. Every lens (50mm + 150mm) purchased for the Bronica were under a £100 (and they are either f2.8 or f3.5)!
Let us look at costs, as this was why many people left the industry. Prices will only ever go up, just be realistic and bear that in mind (the market is smaller now). Therefore anyone choosing film has to realise there is a cost per click and here’s a rough estimate:
Ilford HP5 costs approx £5 / 24 exposures = approx 20p pence per exposure
Development + Scanning
It’s all down to cost and what pixel size you are happy with. Here is an example cost for colouring developing and scanning from a lab I use:
Develop + scan £5 (small res files) / 24 exposures = 40p per exposure
If you’re an ardent street shooter who loves black and white, well the costs only go up! A lab will charge nearly double for development as it’s manual and processed by hand.
Develop + scan £8 (small files) / 24 exposures = 33p per exposure
There are ways to lower these costs like learning to develop, scan and print yourself, but then you will need to buy equipment, have space, find time and practise, practise, practise.
Questions, Questions, Questions
Of course, many digital users may have already moved away from film in the past and that is understandable, as there are benefits to shooting digitally. But some people will have never used film at all for their street work, so let’s answer a few questions you may have:
- Can I adjust ISO or use shoot in low light?
- Are the cameras noisy?
- What about weather sealing?
- Where do you buy film?
- Would a film camera be quick enough?
- Are they bigger and heavier than digital cameras?
Can I Adjust ISO or Shoot in Low Light?
There is no such thing as the exposure triangle, increase the ISO and you decrease quality. This was the same in film, the higher the ISO/ASA the more grain in the image.
The main difference here, is once your film is loaded you can’t change the iso, you would have to change to a different film. With digital you’re able to shoot in all conditions by adjusting this.
There are choices of film from low ISOs like 25 all the way up to 3200, so there is something from every occasion. Remember film can be extended (pushed) to shoot at a higher ISO. As an example Ilford Delta 3200 can be shot at 6400 (you have to alter your development time to counteract this). So you cannot say at 3200, film is not capable of low light!
Are the Cameras Noisy?
The noise from a shutter on a film camera is definitely more pronounced than a digital one, it has a mechanical feel and sound to it. For us film shooters this is both rewarding and comforting as you know the camera is working (well the shutter anyway). If noise is a problem to you then I would advise NOT to use analogue technology at all. Some film cameras are quieter than others though, for me it’s not an important issue.
Now there are mirrorless cameras that have the ability to have a silent shutter, which can aid any street shooter. You can’t imagine the noise difference when I’m shooting medium format compared!
What About Weather Sealing?
Of course there are real weather sealed film cameras (Pentax Lx, Olympus OM4) but this feature was rare in most film camera bodies. The point here will depend on the era of film camera you are using. Anyone using something mechanical will have very few parts to worry about that could be affected by water. Cameras with meters will have batteries so water and rust is a worry, so leave them to dry and clean off where necessary.
If you are using something from the 1980s or newer then you would have to be very careful – like any digital SLR, as they are full of electronics. Some manufacturers, like the top of the range Canon, had weather sealing, but remember these cameras are now old so it could be compromised.
Weather sealing is still not on a common digital SLR anyway, it’s on more pro cameras and lenses, so you need to really consider how important this is if shooting film. You can always go out with a plastic bag around it!
Depending on where you live and how bright the sun/weather conditions are, shutter speed maybe a debate for you. On a sunny day you may need to shoot at high speeds like 4-8000 of a second to get your shot.
Older cameras from the 1940s to the 1980s won’t handle anything like this obviously and you may find 500 or 1000th of a second the fastest shutter speed. My advice would be to choose a very low ISO film and work with what shutter you have.
The more modern film cameras like the Canon EOS1 can easily cope with 8000th so will give you that flexibility.
If weight and size of a camera is an issue then film and digital still offer choices. Let us consider four of my cameras I’ve used for street work.
Olympus OM-D E-M10 = approx 520g (with 28-84mm lens)
Olympus OM2n = approx 700g (with 50mm lens)
Bronica ETRS = approx 1300g (with 75mm lens)
Nikon D200 = approx 1100g (with 50mm lens)
These cameras are all very different in ability and size. The EM10 is mirrorless and thus quite small. The Olympus OM2n film camera is only a couple of hundred grams more, but has a very capable lens compared (f1.8) and is full frame, compared to micro 4/3.
The Bronica is thrown in there for those who use larger DSLR cameras, because it’s not much more weight than a pro camera. Just remember it’s medium format too, so ergonomically it’s a box, with a nice handle!
There are many options with film, so they are much lighter plastic or rangefinder cameras, which have cult followings that shoot street (Olympus Trip is an example). You can’t grasp how many options you have, even after years of shooting film, you still come across other camera manufacturers.
So there we have it, a little summary and comparison of film and digital. For me both are just tools, each one has its own abilities and adds something to the shoot.
I love the compact nature of my little Olympus OM-D E-M10, its screen and small zoom lens, but it has no soul. You may not understand and just see analogue as inferior, but there is room for film in 2019 and indeed the future.
Film offers those with limited budgets the ability to get started, embrace the past and simplify the process of shooting. With digital it is easier to be lazy and take more shots because you have the option and can see the exposure. Does this make you a poorer photographer? I’m not sure, but if you shoot more than you keep, it gives you something to think about.
I still love digital due to the convenience and safety, but without a doubt I concentrate more on composition with film. Maybe it’s the cost per click or the slower process, I’m not sure, but I do know film cameras can work on the street and hope my images help prove that.
Fancy shooting with me? Then get in touch, let’s go for a walk and I will lend you my medium format camera. I’m warning you, you may get hooked – long live the analogue revolution!