You Can't Go Back

Posted on August 17, 2009 by psu

A couple of months ago Kodak announced that they would stop manufacturing Kodachrome slide film. Given that this is a product that has been continually available for longer than most current photographers have been alive, you would think that this was a pretty big deal. But no. The end result of the digital vs. film battle was so predetermined that even that bastion of irrational nostalgia: the Leica Users Group mailing list barely made a peep about it. The truth is that Kodachrome died in 1990 when Fuji introduced Velvia.

So what did I do to mark this historic event? In a fit of irrational nostalgia, I bought five of the last rolls of Kodachrome from B&H and cracked open a couple of my film cameras to get busy.

I shot one roll in my trusty Konica Hexar. I shot the another roll in my old Nikon 8008s SLR. Using the Hexar is a lot like using a larger fixed lens digital point and shoot except:

  1. The viewfinder does not suck.

  2. It doesn’t have 59 useless modes.

  3. It’s quiet, simple, ergonomic and fast enough frame to frame.

It’s too bad there still isn’t a digital version of this camera.

But, I’m not here to bitch about digital cameras, I’m here to bitch about film. Here is what shooting film is like after years and years of shooting digital:

First, 36 frames at a time is just not that many. I am not as experimental with film. I certainly don’t do hip shooting or shooting without framing, since I’m not that good at it and I can’t tolerate the hit/miss ratio.

Second, you are stuck with one film speed. This sucks. This sucks a lot. This is possibly the very worst thing in the entire world. To make it worse, the film speed you are stuck with is 2 to 3 stops slower than what is routinely usable in even the cheapest DSLR. Did you just load that Kodachrome 64 into your camera? No inside shots next to the window for you. In fact, it’s hard to find a good shutter speed until you get outside in the full sun. And then the contrast is too high. No wonder everyone used to carry tripods.

Third, my old film cameras are all slow and primitive compared to the D200. I hadn’t thought that the ergonomics of a modern digital SLR were all that different from the late generation automatic film cameras, but I was wrong. Many little things are different and a lot nicer on the DSLR. Not to mention the new autofocus actually works.

Finally, the migration away from film has brought about huge inflationary pressures on processing costs. Never mind that there is only one place in the entire world to process Kodachrome. Get ready to spend more than the unit cost of the film to have someone turn that blank black plastic into little pieces of reality in a slide mount. It’s true that what you get out of the back end of this is a much more permanent record of your world than bits on a disk. But it’s no wonder amateurs don’t shoot film anymore: it’s just too expensive. It’s also not so useful for our modern communications applications, like Facebook. No one cares about pictures you took 3 weeks ago. It’s all about now now now.

So, while I’m having fun with my little nostalgia kick, the reality is that no one is going back. Digital is how pictures are made and delivered in this century. While certain kinds of film will hold on in certain circles just like other historically or artistically interesting photographic media have held out over the years, the mass market has moved on and is not coming back. My last few vacations to Paris are the best illustration of this. The density of digital cameras was maybe 50% at most in 2003. In 2009, I could count the film cameras that I saw on one hand.

I’ll post images from my little exercise in a few weeks when the film comes back. If there was anything good. After all, I only took 72 pictures.