Over the last few years I've grown rather disenchanted with digital camera's ability to capture natural light. It never quite does what I want it to do. Recently, I even went as far as to rent a medium format digital camera and I found it captures exactly what my Canon 5D Mark II captures, except with more pixels. I'm not looking for the retro Instagram or VSCO look, but rather I want to capture light more closely to how I see it and remember it.
In my quest for that perfect exposure, I've decided to try film. Why film? Let me first say I haven't turned my back on digital photography. For purposes of studio, events, photojournalism, and learning the basics of photography, you can't beat the digital advantage. But I think film is attractive for the following reasons:
- Better color rendering right out of the camera. Need I say more?
- Shooting film forces you to think about the shot before machine-gunning the shutter. It is expensive. You can't afford to take millions of shots.
- Wider latitude of tones (greater tonal range). I don't care what the new medium format cameras say they can do, I never had experienced great results.
- Most important is how film treats highlights. A blown out highlight is my number one enemy when shooting natural light. It's never right on digital.
I decided to buy a 35mm Contax G2 camera for relatively cheap on Ebay the other day. I also picked up a roll of Kodak Portra 400 film and loaded the camera. I then went out in the East Village of New York City in the harshest light of the day to see how film fared against the midday sun. I picked this time of the day because of its extreme tonal range. The suns at its brightest and the shadows are at their darkest. Digital cameras just can't keep it together in this scenario. It's depressing. I knew film would struggle, but just how much is what I wanted to test.
I also want to mention my post production process. Most professionals still shooting film send their photos to a pro labs such as Richard Photo Lab. These places take the time to truly develop and process your images (similar to what people do in photoshop). I decided to take it to a local drugstore and to see what I get. I did the bare minimum for this shoot to see how film held up. The results are below:
Even shooting into the sun, in the shot below, the highlights are preserved while blending well into the dark shadows. Amazing.
I've taken this particular shot before with my Canon and the lighter buildings are always blown out.
Look at how the shadows and sunlight are visible. Wow. The yellow is a little bright but nothing severe. It's still holding its contrast and color well.
That red and dark blue sky.... love it.
Another image I've taken over the years with my DSLR and it just doesn't have this soft transition between the darks and lights.
I ran into my photography friend, Jeremiah and told him what I was up to.
Being a photographer and knowing harsh light he ran over to the sun and said see how it handles in this light. I have to say very well. Look at how the highlights are preserved in his face. A DSLR shot of this scene would make your eyes hurt.
Below is the hardest shot to capture with regards to tonal range. A reflective surface in sunlight with a lot of strong shadows. The film did blow out in the hotdog topping, however, not in a way where it's not pleasing to the eye. It's incredible how well film deals with the highlights and shadows and produces a pleasing image - just like how our eyes work.
I'm shocked and impressed. Film, even on a simple 35mm, cheap camera produces an image that is superior to my go-to, expensive Canon 5D Mark II. This little experiment opened up a door to a new world. I'm once again excited to walk around during the day and capture life. It's not cheap and fast ($25.00 for developing, prints, and scanned + $8.00 for a roll of film + 2 days to shoot and develop), however it was worth it. Stay tuned for more thoughts and experiments with film.