Photographers said they want it, but will they use it?
For the past five years, photographers everywhere, especially us old guys, have lamented the loss of film. When Kodak filed for bankruptcy we saw the writing on the wall. Films began dropping one by one until the only films the once-dominant company still had on the market were Kodak Gold 200, Kodak Ultra Max 400 and a series of professional films. Kodak’s premier color film, Ektachrome, was killed off in 2012.
However, what was old is suddenly new again. Take music, for instance. Vinyl had been declared dead a long time ago, but in the past two years it has begun making a comeback and now accounts for eleven percent of the music market. Could the same thing happen in photography? Is it time to bring back film?
That’s the gamble Kodak is making in announcing that it’s bringing back the Ektachrome film line later this year. They’re hoping that the difference between a good film image and a digital image will be enough to spark a retro revolution that will produce an increased demand for film. The timing seems to be right. The film has been off the market just long enough for old-school photographers and photography school instructors to start missing it. This could be the next big thing in photography.
Maybe. Even if Ektachrome takes off in popularity, there are still some photographers face in using the film, and the first one comes with the cameras themselves. Anyone who has started in photography in the past 15 years without going to photography school hasn’t used a film camera. That’s going to be a problem because film cameras don’t have all the onboard tools that many digital photographers have come to rely upon. Want to change ISO? Have to change the film. Spot metering? Doesn’t exist except in hybrid cameras. Connectivity and GPS? Uhm, check your phone. There is no “landscape” mode, no “black and white” mode, and definitely no “art” mode. You have to know the film, know how it works, and adjust your settings manually to get the best shot.
The second issue, especially for photographers not in major metropolitan areas, is going to be finding someone who can actually process the film. While Ektachrome isn’t quite as challenging as Kodachrome was, it still takes a technician who knows what they’re doing with the chemicals or else it comes out looking like garbage. And if you need to modify the film, good luck. It is extremely challenging to work with as a slide film. While there are still several places that have the ability to process the film, almost all are in major metropolitan centers. That can be a major pain in the backside for anyone who lives and works in a rural area. And do we even want to start talking about turn around times?
Yeah, there are some problems. Yet, for those clients who really want film, this is quite possibly the film they want, especially if you’re shooting outdoors where Ektachrome does its best.
Now, I can hear digital shooters saying, “Yeah, but I can get the same effect with a Photoshop action.”
That produces two questions. First, if you’ve never shot the film then how do you know how the digital emulation should look? I’ve looked at four different popular emulation action sets and all four of them produce dramatically different results. How do you know which one is correct? The answer is: you don’t unless you have shot with the film. A lot.
The second question is WHY? Why would a digital photographer want to emulate a film look other than for the fun of it? Okay, maybe that’s enough reason for some people. But while there may be a market for film prints, the market for emulated digital prints doesn’t exist. Then, once again, there’s also that nasty problem of emulators not being especially accurate. Let me give you an example.
One of the most flexible film emulation filters is located within the Nik Collection, which happens to be free. The emulation within the Nik Collection is preferable to a Photoshop action because it actually gives the photographer the ability to make adjustments to allow for situations where the software misreads the photo in some way. Where actions require the photographer to compensate for a yellow/red saturation that is too high, the Nik Collection filters allow one to adjust those channels and bring them back into the range of something that’s actually usable.
Does the end result match what is achievable in film? I suppose it’s possible, but one has to be ready to work with the software on pretty much every image.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Below, we took five outdoor photographs and processed them using Nik’s Ektachrome 400 emulation. For the sake of comparison, we left the default settings in place. We’ll show the raw image first and then the emulation.
You’ll have to decide for yourself which version is preferable. You can see through the succession that the emulator tends to have some challenges with yellow and red. This is interesting given the actual film tends to push saturation on blue and green. Can it be adjusted within the filter? Yes, but one would have to know exactly which adjustments to make where, wouldn’t they?
I’m not against film emulators. They can be fun and interesting study tools, but they don’t take the place of actual film. One has to shoot differently with film than with a digital camera. There are no short cuts. “Fixing it in post,” becomes a matter of cost and skill, not convenience.
I’m excited about the return of Ektachrome and I may even dust off my old Canon F1 and shoot a roll or two if I come across some extra cash. Make no mistake, though. It’s not shooting with a digital. Don’t think you can just grab your grandfather’s camera and start shooting. Film is still for people who actually know what they’re doing behind a camera.