Why Film: Bob Shepherd

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

From Film to Pixels and Back Again

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, my curiosity about digital photography reached its peak and in 2006 I hung up my Nikon N80 SLR film camera and purchased a Sony a350 DSLR. (Author’s note: SLR or Single Lens Reflex generally refers to a film camera; DSLR refers to a Digital SLR.) For the next four years, I fell under the spell of digitalmania and I dedicated myself to all things digital. I coined the phrase digitalmania to describe an impulsive and insatiable desire to suddenly switch from film photography to digital photography without considering the pros and cons and the subsequent consequences that may follow.


For example, in my case, I not only switched to digital photography to satisfy my curiosity, but went on a buying binge to ensure a digital photography ‘experience’. I purchased a high-end, high-storage capacity Hewlett Packard computer with a wide screen HD monitor; a professional-level inkjet photo printer from Epson; and the latest full-blown version of Photoshop for image-editing purposes. My overall investment was a couple thousand dollars (a hefty investment in 2006 dollars), excluding the cost of my Sony DSLR. In contrast, my Nikon N80 SLR cost $350 (new) and my only expenses were for film and film processing services.


In 2009, I purchased a Canon EOS Rebel T1i 15.1 MP CMOS DSLR with EF-S, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens and EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III telephoto zoom lens. I used this camera exclusively until the end of 2010. It produced excellent images—within certain parameters. No one can argue that while I was dedicating myself to nursing my digitalmania that I didn’t immerse myself totally and completely in digital photography. While my film camera literally collected dust in my bedroom closet, I shot thousands of digital images; edited far too many photo files to the point of experiencing brain freeze; spent hundreds of dollars on batteries; exhaustively manipulated menus and sub-menus and yes-no prompts; calibrated my computer monitor; calibrated my photo printers; and mastered all the electronic bells, whistles, and buttons on my digital cameras. In early 2011, I purchased a Sony a77 24-megapixel DSLR and used it exclusively to late 2014. And at the end of those four years, I experienced a troubling revelation.


The photographic prints from my high-resolution digital files that were cranking out of my finely calibrated high-end professional photo printer were no more qualitative than the prints I had developed from film negatives. I had invested thousands of dollars in digital imaging with no appreciable improvements over film. The experience was quite disheartening, but my digitalmania was cured. I retrieved my film camera from the back of the closet, dusted it off, and began anew as a film photographer—and never looked back. I’m producing higher quality images, I love the feel and operation of a film camera in my hands, and my creative juices are flowing again. Today, I shoot with the Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii medium-format film camera. In the war of film photography versus digital photography, it seems to be a love it or hate it proposition. Either you love digital photography and hate film photography, or you hate digital photography and love film photography.


I love film photography, but I don’t hate digital photography. I just think that digital photography has not—as some pundits like to argue—surpassed film photography as evidenced by dynamic range, resolution, and contrast. Some of my preferences for film photography are technical, like the fact that prints from film negatives are more qualitative overall than prints from digital files. Some of my preferences for film photography are influenced by prejudices, like the feel and operation of a film camera in my hands.


I developed my interests in photography when film was the only light-sensitive medium for capturing images; even when I began my serious quest for photographic excellence in the early 1980s, the first commercially available digital camera for consumers and professionals didn’t appear on the market until the early 1990s. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that digital photography advanced to the point of seriously competing against film photography in image quality. So my experiences, for the better part of my life, revolved around film.


Most film photographers will appreciate my reasons and justifications for returning to the film medium; digital photographers, however, may develop digitalphobia—the complete opposite of digitalmania—a repulsion to digital photography and an impulsive and insatiable desire to suddenly switch to film.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: BOB SHEPHERD

I recall receiving my first camera when I was twelve. It was a simple Brownie box camera by Kodak, and one had to carefully load the camera with paper-backed film on a plastic spool. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea that a moment in time could be recorded forever on a piece of acetate film. That was the moment, maybe at some subconscious level, when I knew photography would play a major role in my life. It was not until 1983, however, that I began my quest for photographic excellence, and I have since worn many hats within the photography and publishing industry: fine art photographer, publications manager, photo illustrator, Portfolio magazine executive editor, photography book author, photography instructor, and professional photo critic.

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Washington, D.C., USA 

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©2019 by Taylor Mackay