Modern Life

The analog revival: Why photographers are returning to film

Photographers are rediscovering — and in some cases appreciating for the first time — the unique joy of shooting on film.

By Garage Staff — January 24, 2019

Since the first photograph taken with a camera wowed the world in the early 1800s, the medium has grown more powerful — and more accessible — as the tools of the trade have changed. From early daguerreotypes to tin types to Polaroids — what’s different about today’s digital tools is that they’ve enabled photography to become part of everyday life.

While digital photography offers instant gratification and the ability to bring pro tools to your fingertips, unlike other advances, it hasn’t made past techniques obsolete.

More photographers are putting down their smartphones or DSLR cameras in favor of shooting the old-fashioned way. (In fact, some never stopped shooting with film in the first place). Like vinyl, typewriters and other analog tech, film has an enduring, authentic appeal and is making a comeback among professionals and amateurs alike. The truly devoted are even hitting the darkroom themselves to develop their own prints.

Here’s a look at what’s galvanizing this 21st-century analog renaissance.

Olivia Crumm

Photographer Olivia Crumm loves shooting with film because it forces her to be more intentional about crafting and capturing the perfect shot.

Back to basics

If you wax nostalgic about holding printed photos in your hands, you might understand why photographers are eager to relive a time before the instant gratification of the smartphone selfie.

For people like Olivia Crumm, a photographer based in Mexico City, traditional photography never went out of style. “I don’t think film ever really died,” she says. “Analog photography has been around for over a century. Digital, on the other hand, is new and is still in the process of being perfected. I also think there’s a quality to film that really cannot be matched by a digital image.”

Crumm says the tangibility of processing film is also important to her.

“I enjoy working with film, looking at my negatives and taking the time to make prints,” Crumm says. “The labor of it is an important part of my process. When I shoot digital, sometimes it feels like my work doesn’t exist anywhere.”

“Once you see your negatives for the first time, and get your first prints back, you’ll see a little bit of that magic and you won’t want to stop.”

Micco Mazza, photographer

When limits are a good thing

Shooting with film isn’t that different from digital. Photographers still control their work by manipulating the holy trinity of exposure: shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity — they just do it manually instead of relying on digital tools to optimize these factors automatically. One big disparity? They can’t immediately check and adjust their work on the camera screen.

But while film might make the process a little slower, many photographers argue there’s something romantic about that. Abdul Dremali, an astrophotographer based in Boston who mainly shoots views of the night sky and the cosmos, says he actually prefers the slower pace that shooting in film demands.

“I choose film 99 percent of the time because of the lack of instant gratification,” he says. “I work in a strenuous field day-to-day and am a naturally very hasty and anxious person. Shooting film gives me no choice but to slow down, compose my shot, meter my light correctly and wait for the right moment.”

Because film has limited exposures, photographers are also forced to use every frame judiciously. And that’s a good thing, they say.

“It’s not like a memory card,” says Mico Mazza, who shoots with film in Ontario, Canada. “You can’t shoot 2,000 photos and hope that a couple of them turn out. Because you have to think about every shot beforehand, it activates your creativity.”

Abdul Dremali

Abdul Dremali photographs the natural world and says digital filters just can’t capture the authenticity he gets with film.

That authentic aesthetic

Along with the creative possibilities — and constraints — that come with film, its low-fi, real-world aesthetic also appeals to photographers. There’s surely something romantic about that dreamy vintage veneer you often associate with family photo albums and hand-scrawled captions.

These days, “film grain” is an aspirational look that you can apply to your digital photos via an Instagram or VSCO filter. (On the Instagram account called I Still Shoot Film, nostalgia seeps through in high-contrast colors, grainy sunbeams and tinges of sepia.)

But that doesn’t mean an app can approximate the real authenticity of film. Judith Walgren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and professor of photojournalism and new media at Michigan State University, says she tries to impart this message to her students. “It is critical for students to understand the aesthetic nature involved in the organic way that grain populates a piece of film or photographic paper, and how it differs from the ordered way that pixels work in a digital image,” she says. (Walgren practices what she preaches: In addition to her digital tech, she also shoots with four film cameras.)

Michael Fickes, a visual arts teacher at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says that while his students were born during the rise of digital cameras, they’re still attracted to the aesthetic of film. 

“They like the colors and the vintage look,” he says. “There are still people who would rather have the physical book than an e-book, and I think it’s the same sort of students who are attracted to using film.”

The photography site PetaPixel shot some identical wedding photos with both formats and did a side-by-side comparison to see if their team could tell the difference. They — with their trained eyes, of course — concluded that this particular film was easy to identify via its “film grain feel,” magenta skin tone and visible imperfections.

“I might just be a film snob, but I find that the vast majority of filters and presets never capture the true feel of film photos,” Dremali says. “Applying a filter isn't the same as carefully composing and taking the photo, then waiting for development and scanning. The beauty of film is, for the most part, what you see is what you get.”

Social media mimics analog tech

One of the interesting aspects of film’s resurgence is the way it is separate from and also part of our digital world. Photographer Mazzo says there’s an interesting correlation between social media filters and film’s resurgence.

“Many of the filters on Instagram are based on particular film stocks or photographers,” he says. “I think a lot of people, especially younger people who have gone through their middle and high school years using Instagram and other image-based social media, want to know where those filters come from.”

If you need proof that film is on the come-up, check out the #FilmIsNotDead hashtag on Instagram, which has over 10 million mentions. Most of them are stunning scans of images shot on film: everything from vivid schools of shimmying clownfish to powerful black-and-white portraits. Or perhaps you’ve encountered an update on the instant film camera at a wedding lately, where a current trend lets guests snap film selfies to create a modern guestbook. Other tech, like the HP Sprocket 2nd Edition, captures the tangibility of a film print by letting you print out your digital frames and share them on the spot.

Even analog technology is getting a makeover. The Reflex camera, billed as the first update on a manual 35mm SLR camera system in over 25 years, oversold its production goal on Kickstarter last year. It blends the classic appeal of an old-school film camera with new technology like an interchangeable lens mount and smartphone connectivity. And major players like Nikon and Leica still sell brand new 35-millimeter cameras.

Mico Mazza

“There’s a mystique and a meditative joy that comes from shooting film,” says photographer Mico Mazza.

Valued, and valuable

With more photographers getting into film, film sales are seeing small, but not insignificant spikes. The Harman Technology company reported a 5 percent year-on-year increase in sales in 2017. Fujifilm, the makers of the popular Instax instant camera, saw a big revenue spike in 2018 that it attributes not to its digital camera sales, but to sales of the film-based Instax camera. This year, Kodak also decided to bring back its Ektachrome 100 film, a professional-grade slide film that was used for years in National Geographic before being discontinued in 2012.

“There’s definitely been an uptick in interest,” says Henry Posner, director of corporate communications for B&H Photo Video and a photographer himself. “We see a lot of curiosity about cameras and shooting techniques — and whether film shooting techniques are applicable in digital."

Just as corporations are benefiting from the film boom, Michigan State's Walgren says that for photographers, paper prints are also smart business.

“If you shoot on film and print with chemistry and paper, the object you create is much more valuable in the marketplace,” she says. “There is an inherent respect for the handmade that is re-emerging after years of trying to replace the analog ways with the new and sexy methods.”

Karen Thurman, owner of the U.K.-based Thurmanovich Gallery, agrees. She says that film prints pack an extra-special punch for her business, which is increasingly moving toward photographers who specialize in analog photographic processes.

“We only sell in limited editions, so we’re looking for unique,” she says. “Even if two prints are printed one after the other, they’re never going to be exactly the same.”

Shoot your shot

If you want to try shooting with film , here are a few tips from the pros:

  1. Learn how to meter by eye. “This is something that really scared me at first,” Dremali says, “but it's really not so hard to guesstimate your exposure.” When in doubt, he says, you should err on the side of overexposing. “Film is very forgiving when you overexpose it, but gets very grainy and loses a ton of detail when you underexpose it.”

  2. Take it slow! “When you first start shooting, take your time, compose your shot as best you can, then fire the shutter,” Mazza says. “Film photography is equal parts meditation and art.”

  3. Lean into the constraints of the medium. “Not being able to take thousands and thousands of pictures and see them immediately can force someone to be more intentional in the way they photograph,” Crumm says.

  4. Consider developing your own prints. “It’s relatively easy,” Dremali says. “There are kits to get it all done in your own home, which makes the process a lot cheaper.”

  5. Don’t get discouraged. If you’ve never shot on film, the process can be a little daunting, but hang in there. “Once you see your negatives for the first time, and get your first prints back, you’ll see a little bit of that magic and you won’t want to stop,” Mazza says.