151011 Why Film? - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto
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So. Why film. It’s a decent question.

I don't actually use film very much, and never used it until I was already established with digital cameras. So I don't have much personal history with it, and never needed to depend on its vagaries for my success or expression. Using it is entirely optional, a luxury, a frivolity.

Film has been almost absent from my repertoire since I bought my D800, but recently I've been missing it and the equipment that uses it. Here are a few examples of why.

This was taken during my first trip to New York City, in the fall of 2010, with Ilford XP2 Super loaded in my ZM Zeiss Ikon. I was also carrying my Panasonic GH1 for this trip, and frankly, I wouldn't have been able to get this shot with it. Its files are too brittle to play with the highlights like this unless exposure is exact, and it wasn't. These days I'm sure a bunch of cameras would be able to do handle this scene, including several that I own, but none can do it with the elegance of a manually-focused M-mount rangefinder.

There's still no escaping the fact that I'm a digital photographer. XP2 is a chromogenic film, developed in colour chemistry, and its grain characteristics have more in common with digital cameras than traditional silver films. It's also much easier to scan than silver, which is the invariable next step once the negatives come back from the lab.

I actually don't remember what camera I was using when I took this, but it may have been my Nikon F100, because the composition screams "accurate SLR viewfinder" to me. It's shot on Kodak Portra 400, and I had to artificially crush the shadows inside the building in post-production because there was far too much visible detail. I took the photo for the symmetry and alignment of the signs, but I also like it for the muted orange-blue colour palette that the film has captured. I might be able to create this look digitally, but that's not how I think. I know that a digital file would have come out harsher and more clinical. As mine always do.

Since this photo was taken the construction site was replaced by a 78-story condo tower, and my F100 was replaced by a Nikon F5.

Again I don't recall the camera, and again this building is gone now. The McDonalds was a long-term landmark that held out against encroaching development – not out of civic virtue, but because it was on land leased from the city for a trivial cost on the most expensive real estate in the country. McDonalds eventually bought out their lease for one third of what the land was worth, getting the discount specifically because their 99-year tenancy devalued the site. That was a six million dollar discount that the city could have used very badly – and as predicted McDonalds almost immediately sold the site to a condo developer, using a shell company to avoid paying the city any of the profits.

What does this have to do with film? Nothing, really, except that if I wasn't out experimenting with how it works at night I wouldn't have taken this photo, and a small moment of Toronto would have been lost to me.

From the colours the film is probably Kodak Ektar 100 – yes, I could go through my negs archive to check – which is something that I wish I could use more of. But it does its best in bright light with blue skies, and Toronto usually has Portra weather. And entire XP2 seasons, but that's something for another month.


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