The End of Film (for me)

10.12.11 | 2 Comments

I took a serious interest in photography in 1971 when I bought my first 35mm film camera, a Miranda Sensorex.  I can still remember being amazed that I could actually adjust the shutter speed and aperture to suit the conditions — a whole new world of taking pictures was opening up to me.

I took that camera to the Philippines in 1972 when I joined the Peace Corps.  During my service there, I switched to a Konica AutoReflex camera that had the option to automatically set the exposure (a feature that I used exactly once).  Film was sent to Australia for developing, and I received a box of slides back in about two weeks.

My best adventure with 35mm film began when I returned to the U.S. in 1974 and got into Nikon cameras, first with a Nikkormat.  That camera still remains one of my favorite cameras, in memory at least, simply because I got to know it so well, especially how the meter was reading the scene.  Of course, there was no instant feedback regarding exposure, so one had to learn how to make good exposures simply by knowing how to best operate the camera.  Even though exposure bracketing was often recommended, 95% of the time my first exposure turned out to be the correct one, and I threw away the exposures that were 1-stop under and 1-stop over.

I continued with a variety of Nikon cameras and lenses over the years.  The culmination came with one of the best values I’ve ever had in a camera, that being the Nikon F100.  It was a strong, reliable camera with many of the features of Nikon’s top cameras but at a much more reasonable price.  My favorite lens was the Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D zoom lens.  While the range of the zoom was limited, the image quality was outstanding, and it was my best walk-around lens.  The 24mm focal length was another favorite, as was the 80-200mm.

When film was to be developed, I drove to Seattle and dropped the rolls off at Ivey-Seright for their 3-hour processing.  I then drove up to REI, parked for free in the garage, went to the book section to select several trail guides or photo books, and settled in a comfortable chair by the fireplace to read and get inspired while my film was being developed. That was heaven.

But heaven didn’t last forever.  Ivey-Searight, like a lot of other local photo processors, went out of business when digital became well established.  REI started charging for parking, and they turned their comfortable “reading room” into the children’s play area.  Life was no longer the same.

For several years I shot film as well as digital.  As film cameras dropped in price, I was able to move up to medium format.  A Pentax 67 was my favorite camera for some time, but the weight of the system became an issue, especially out on mountain trails.  I switched to the Pentax 645NII and a range of zoom lenses, and it was a much-loved camera for many years. Like the Nikon F100, I’ve felt it was one of the best values in film photography:  great quality at a relatively low price.  Along the way, I also tried large format (4×5) photography, and while I liked the quality, the process of getting several images along a trail was slower than I wanted.  In addition, I couldn’t afford $50 to $100 for a drum scan of a single transparency, and scanning on a consumer flatbed scanner seemed to be a terribly weak link that detracted from one of the most significant advantages of large format: image quality.  I gave up large format, tried a medium format rangerfinder in a Mamiya 7II (superb optics, undesirable handling characteristics for me), enjoyed a Hasselblad 501cm and some superb optics for about a year (the square format challenged my vision, something I enjoyed immensely), but finally settled back with the Pentax 645NII.

During this time digital technology evolved at a tremendous rate, and I moved through a series of digital cameras, eventually switching to Canon for their wider array of lenses and somewhat better prices.  Even though digital technology was improving, I still preferred film, especially Fujichrome Velvia (strong colors) and Astia (more neutral colors, wider exposure latitude).

I scanned my film on a Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 scanner.  I had purchased one of the first Nikon 8000 scanners when they were introduced, and it was a great scanner for 35mm and medium format that I enjoyed immensely.

But a ball had started to roll down the hill, and new advances in digital technology seemed to come at the expense of the world of film.  Some films were discontinued, but most important to me was the decline and essential disappearance of 220 format with only 120 remaining.  I have never understood why photographers would want to put in a new roll of film twice as often while out shooting, but 120 was the only format that could be found for the films I liked to use.

While film had a decided advantage over digital for some time when it came to image quality, the evolution of digital technology began to blur the distinction, at least for my eyes. The nail in the coffin came when Nikon ceased the manufacturing of their medium format scanner (which by now had been upgraded to the Super Coolscan 9000).  With this news, I managed to purchase one of the very last 9000 scanners available in the country, thinking at the time that my use of film would continue for many years.

Shortly after I purchased the Nikon 9000 scanner, the reality of film really hit me:  no local labs, 2-week turnaround in getting film developed, no 220 film available for the brands I liked to use, and questionable image-quality superiority to digital.  I also appreciated some of the distinct advantages of digital, which for me included immediate histogram feedback, very rapid “developing” and image availability, and ability to change ISO on the fly.  Another nail in the coffin came when I had the rare chance to purchase a superb medium format digital camera in the form of a Hasselblad H4D-40 and the new 35-90mm zoom lens for much less than the market price at the time.  While the cost was still shockingly high, I felt that if any digital camera could come close to replacing what I had enjoyed in film, it would be this camera.

With the nail firmly driven into the coffin, I sold all of my film cameras and lenses, scanned my remaining transparencies and sold the Nikon 9000 scanner, and acquired a few more Hasselblad H lenses to round out the H4D system.

Today I use primarily the H4D-40 for my landscape photography.  While I haven’t had the camera for very long (at this writing), I’m impressed with its dynamic range as well as the integrated software, Phocus, that is an important part of the system.  I’ll write more on that in the future.  I also continue to use the Canon 1DsMkIII which can take advantage of a much wider range of focal lengths in the lenses, and I’ve acquired a back-up body with a Canon 1DMkIV which I really look forward to using to photograph birds in flight and other fast action.

Film still has a future, and I know I could have used film for the rest of my life if I had really wanted.  The Nikon 9000 scanner would have served me well for the rest of my life. However, I just came to appreciate the image quality and workflow of digital cameras more than that of film cameras.  Despite the popular perception, I have found digital photography to be exceedingly expensive, simply because the technology is changing and improving so rapidly.  It was a cash outlay I was willing to make because of the importance of photography in my life.  I think I’ve reached a plateau in digital photography where I’m going to be satisfied with my current cameras for many years to come (any photographer who reads that last line will certainly smile).

As a tribute to my decades of involvement with film, here is the last transparency I scanned before parting with the scanner.  It’s a photo of a marvelous sunrise near the Sweetgrass Hills in north-central Montana.  The composition is nothing to write home about, but I intend to stitch several photos to make a panorama that I hope will hold more interest.

Sweetgrass Hills Sunrise, Montana — Nikon F100, Fujichrome Velvia 100

Also attached is one of the last photographs I made with film, taken during my last photography trip to the southwest during January-March, 2011.  It was one of my favorite photographs of the entire trip.

Joshua Tree Granite (near Jumbo Rocks Campground) — Hasselblad 501cm, 120mm makro lens, Fujichrome Astia

Thus ends my love affair with film.


  • On 10.12.11 Jeff Grant wrote these words:

    That’s a nice parting shot, Steve. Astia was good as far as film goes, but I don’t miss the grain or scanning one little bit.

  • On 10.13.11 Chris Harris wrote these words:

    Stephen, a very nice ‘ode to film’ and I love the parting shots appended to the end of the posting. Ain’t technology a slightly weird and amazing thing. Who’d have figured that we’d have these powerful cell phones, laptop PCs, Photoshop, and digital cameras 20+ years ago? Nice to see a new posting from you too, Amigo! Have a great weekend, and I’ll pop you an email next week. Cheers! Chris