Digital to Darkroom: Why Some Photographers Are Going Back To Film

Story and photos by Elliott Natz

Pulling out his camera, Tom Robertson prepared for the next biker to come around the corner. He only had one shot to capture his image. He had to get it right the first time.

A Missoula-based photographer who has worked for publications such as Bicycling, Trail Runner, and Road, Robertson used to primarily shoot digital. These days, he packs a medium-format Mamiya 7.

He struggled to put into words how reverting to an old tool has changed his work. “The thing with film, it’s just so easy,” he said. “It just comes out looking so good.”

Robertson’s shift from digital to film was prompted by fellow photographer Chris Milliman, whom he watched using a medium-format camera in Missoula.

“Just seeing his images I was like, ‘that’s what I want mine to look like. How do I do that?’”

Once he’d put his first roll through his Mamiya, Robertson had his answer. “There wasn’t a shot I didn’t like,” he said.

Theories abound on why images produced on film seem to have a special appeal. There’s no scientific evidence for claims of superior technology. The opposite might well be true. For example, digital cameras offer users the ability to change tonal ranges in-camera, making it easier to match different tones to different lighting conditions. And with computer display technologies such as Apple’s Retina Display, viewers might not be able to tell the difference between a digital image and a scanned film image on a screen.

A diptych of two photos. One is shot with film, the other with digital.
“These two photos were shot within minutes of each other, one in film and one in digital. Can you tell which is which?”

So perhaps more than in technology, the difference lies in the photographer’s approach. Ami Vitale, a documentary photographer who uses film to shoot personal work, said it adds value to each image. “It slows you down, makes you think about each shot.”

Shane McMillan, a freelance photographer and instructor at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, believes one reason why people like film may be found in its history. “The thing about film is it’s our heritage as photographers,” he said. “It’s pleasing to the eye.”

McMillan still shoots film regularly. “There’s a skill that’s lost on digital,” he said. “There’s a different sense of what’s going on inside your camera when you can’t see [the image].”

That said, McMillan stressed how digital actually offers advantages compared to film in improving photography. He cited advances in sports photography, which he said has improved in strides since the dawn of digital. This is in part because of the speed of modern cameras and the ability to shoot thousands of images without the need to switch out film.

Picture of Robertson fiddling with his Canon 1DX while his Mamiyas dangle at his side.
Robertson fiddles with his Canon 1DX while his Mamiyas dangle at his side. He carries two Mamiyas with two different film speeds because different film speeds offer varying sensitivities to light. Higher numbers like 800 and 3200 indicate a higher sensitivity, which means the photographer can shoot in lower light, but the photos come out more grainy.

It is for the same reason that commercial photography with film remains a niche.

“Many clients won’t allow for it in their timeline and budget,” Vitale said. “It’s really tough to get people to agree to use it if they are used to working with digital photographers.”

At National Geographic, Chief Content Officer Chris Johns said it’s up to the photographer to choose the medium. “It’s about how they express what they see and what they feel,” he said. “I don’t care what medium they choose. It’s about how the photographer sees the image.”

Robertson is aware that digital is the better medium to quickly edit and post images online. On the other hand, sifting through thousands of images requires more computer time. He finds waiting for the shot more exciting. Plus, he’s able to go home and relax after a shoot.

Winding down an evening of photographing a cyclocross race in Missoula, Robertson pulled out his digital camera. He shot 30 frames in five seconds, catching a group of bikers mid-race. He edited the images the same night and sent them to the organizers to post online.

Even if film is seeing a comeback, commercial photographers need to be well practiced with digital cameras to survive. In today’s competitive market, it’s more about the quality of images than the medium used.