Film photography is one of the greatest joys of my life.
But how much of this pleasure can be experienced and enjoyed equally via a digital sensor, rather than on 35mm film?
To explore this, let’s start with the five biggest reasons I love film, in reverse order.
5. The look of film.
4. Using vintage cameras.
3. Using vintage lenses.
2. The immersive experience.
1. The freedom.
So (how) can each of these be recreated with a digital camera?
Specifically, I’m going to be talking about the digital camera I have come to enjoy using most recently, the Sony a100 DSLR, launched around 2006. I picked mine up this year used for a shade under £60.
Let’s look at each reason in more depth, and see how much the digital experience fulfils the needs I’ve found film photography satisfies.
5. The look of film
Film is unique in its look, and the warmth, grain and vibrant colours of film cannot be equalled, in my eyes. Also the sometimes unpredictable results add an extra variable and delight. Shooting expired film, for example.
This being said, I’ve found a handful of film presets for LightRoom that, whilst they don’t recreate entirely the look of film, do give a softer and more endearing feel to my digital photographs. Often these have me smiling almost as much in the final image.
Plus, using the same vintage film lenses on digital bodies help get closer to the overall feel of shooting film. More on those later.
4. Using vintage cameras
No digital camera can compare to using an all metal and mechanical classic 35mm film camera like an Asahi Spotmatic F. Or the seductively smooth wind and shutter release of the wonderful Contax 139 Quartz. Not to mention its amazing, big bright viewfinder.
What I can say about my Sony a100 is it’s as close to a film camera as I have used, in that I enjoy the handling, plus everything is at hand.
The viewfinder is very usable – even with vintage, manual focus lenses, and its technology is intuitive and doesn’t get in the way of the experience of seeking and finding beautiful things to photograph.
3. Using vintage lenses
This reason has been absolutely pivotal in me learning to embrace and love digital photography. Discovering that adapters existed to shoot my old lenses on digital bodies was probably the biggest game-changer in my photography adventure.
My favourite vintage lenses (which are mostly M42 mount Takumar and Zeiss) can be used very easily on the a100, in the same Aperture Priority (Av) mode I use 90% of the time with my film bodies.
The delicious quality and handling of the Takumars, and the biting sharpness and close focus of the Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 and Flektogon 35/2.4 are just the same on the a100, meaning half of my pair of hands is just as happy as when using them on film.
Yes, there is the crop factor of 1.5x, meaning a 50mm lens for a 35mm film camera gives an equivalent field of view of around 75mm on the a100 with its APS-C sensor.
But I have a range of focal lengths that fits my needs with the 35mm Flektogon (52.5mm field of view on the a100), 50mm Pancolar (75mm), 55mm Takumar (82.5mm), 58mm Helios 44-2 (87mm), 105mm Takumar (157.5mm) and 135mm Zeiss Sonnar and Jupiter-37a (202.5mm).
Plus, because the digital sensor only uses the central part of the lenses, where they deliver their optimum performance, you’re eliminating all of the outer edge weaknesses the lenses may reveal on 35mm film.
Also, since exploring Sony Alpha cameras, I’ve also bought three mid-80’s vintage Minolta AF lenses.
These lenses share the same mount (which Sony inherited when they bought the photographic arm of Konica Minolta on the mid 2000s), so fit straight on and are usable with all exposure modes.
I’ve been blown away by their performance, colours and sharpness, something I would not have experienced had I not gone down the Sony route and stuck purely to M42 lenses.
2. The immersive experience
Using a film camera with a large bright viewfinder like the Contax 139 Quartz literally sucks one into the VF. Everything in the world except what’s in that rectangle is blocked out and forgotten.
Add the experience of focusing and adjusting depth of field (DOF) whilst using that larger than life VF immersion, it becomes a major highlight of my favourite film cameras.
The a100 can’t claim to have as big or bright a VF as the cream of my film cameras.
But it’s more than adequate to provide a very similarly immersive experience, and with a DOF preview button for native lenses (and of course the manual stop down of vintage M42 lenses which provides a constant DOF preview anyway), again it provides those same visual reward and engagement whilst shooting.
Or in other words, I still forget everything else but what’s in that little rectangle.
Which brings us on to the final, and most vital experience film photography brings me.
1. The freedom
Being able to grab a camera and head out to the sticks and wander around for an hour or two, hunting out beauty, gives me a huge sense of freedom and escape.
I’m very fortunate to have all I do have in my life, but this need for escape is still strong.
Packing a camera with me, with its immersive experience (see no4) via vintage lenses (no3), enhances that hunt for beauty further and deeper, and helps me see and appreciate things I might not otherwise notice.
And so, we come to the title of this post, and the revelation I had – that the top three of the five most important reasons I love film photography are almost (say 95%) as rewarding with my digital Sony a100.
No, when shooting with the Sony, I don’t have film, its emotive nostalgia, tactile experience and unique grain and feel, or the pleasure of using a smooth highly crafted mechanical machine like my Contax 139 Quartz.
But I’m not giving these up, just using them alternately, in conjunction with digital.
Plus digital, with its instant feedback and cheaper ongoing cost (as long as we don’t get caught up in forever chasing the latest and greatest digital wonder and its ever increasing cost – as I said my little a100 cost me £60 used, about the same as my Contax bodies) offers some benefits film can’t.
I’m still a die hard film lover.
But thanks to using the same vintage lenses on my Sony a100, I’m loving digital more than ever before too.
Combining the two is allowing me to create not only a consistent experience, but also, I hope, a coherent and congruous body of work, which transcends which camera I used to make the pictures.
What are your favourite reasons for shooting film and digital, and how much do they overlap?
Let us know in the comments below.
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