When asked, most analog photographers say they shoot film for the look. I’m obviously one of them. I really enjoy the so called film look and, even though I can’t really substantiate what it actually means, because there are so many different films and formats to begin with. I don’t have the answer. I’m legitimately asking what it is. Is it subjective? For me it might be completely different than for everybody else, but since so many film shooters mention it, there has to be some common ground.

Ilford published recently the results of their film photography survey. It revealed that 76% of the participants stated the “film look” to be what appealed most in film photography.

I think the film look doesn’t boil down to anything simple like just graininess or similar colours that you’d find on Instagram filters. Now that I think about it, many Instagram filters look nothing like actual film, even though that is what they’re trying to emulate. Film look is much more complicated than that.

If you’re trying to make digital image to look like film, it is much harder than adding just some grain and slapping in a filter. Film and a digital sensor have very different dynamic ranges and the principle of how the image is formed, is very different. These things, in my opinion, has much greater impact on the film look. Film gets exposed naturally by photons (light particles) hitting the emulsion and the image is created chemically. There’s no electronic interference or computer’s interpretation of the data it’s receiving from the sensor. 

Some digital cameras have really nice sensors and software. I’ve been enjoying very much my Fujifilm digital cameras, because they have somewhat natural look and feel. Not every camera manufacturer does this though and sometimes a digital camera is clearly trying to think on your behalf by trying to make any scene to look like it was shot in the middle of the day. 

Does film always look like film?

No, some films don’t even look like film. How it is possible? You’d imagine that film is what makes the photo look like film. Do you remember the background image for Windows XP? It was shot on Fuji Velvia even though you really can’t say it to have any kind of film look.

I tend so shy away from films like Kodak Gold, which for some very unintuitive reason, doesn’t have the film look. I think some films look too too sharp and realistic. I guess I’m after more definitive characteristics, imperfections and sort of low-fi look. It all depends of course the other factors as well, such as your lens. Some lens and film combinations simply doesn’t seem to give a very filmy look.

Kodak Gold shot with Olympus OM-1 and Zuiko 50mm f1.8 — lacking the film look almost completely, even though shot on film.

Same film but with different gear

When I first tried Kodak Ektar, I though it looked really filmy, even though it is know for it’s non-existent grain. Back then I was shooting with Canonet QL17 GIII. That was a great combo! The optics and lens coating created a really nice colour palette with Ektar.

Kodak Ektar shot with Canonet QL17 GIII. Developed in a crappy lab and scanned at home with a shit scanner. Film look? You bet
Kodak Ektar shot with Olympus OM-1 and Zuiko 50mm f1.8. Lab dev with professional scan. For some reason this film/lens combo doesn’t provide the film look, in my opinion.

When I later shot Ektar with my Olympus OM-1, equipped with Zuiko 50mm f1.8 lens, I thought the colours and rendering looked horrible. There was just too much saturation and it looked almost too sharp. If I want that kind of look, I’ll shoot digital, thank you very much. To be honest, I really haven’t found the 50mm Zuiko good for any colour shooting. If I’d be a resolution junkie, running after a technical perfection, it would be a good combination. I usually want to find a sophisticated balance between good image quality and nostalgic low-fi look. I’d like film photos to look like what old jazz records sound like.

Can digital photo have a film look?

Sure it can. Camera, optical design, lens coating, film type, developer, scanner, shooting style and of course editing are just some of the things that will have an effect on photo’s aesthetics. I’d even go as far to claim that even your subject can play a critical role.

Fujifilm X-E2 with Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8
Fujifilm X-E2 with Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8

The images above of the red Volvo, are digital photos, shot with Fujifilm X-E2 (digital camera). The lens how ever is 1960 Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8. Are the optical qualities of an old lens sometimes perhaps mistaken for a film look? I think true vintage image rendering has a huge impact. I added some artificial grain and colour edits done in Snapseed, but the photos looked quite filmy even without them. And how does the timeless subject affect on the film look? Does the aesthetics of an old car amplify the film look?

And what about that exposure latitude?

Let me get back to the matter of dynamic range. I can live without grain and retro colours, but when I’m shooting digital, I instantly start to miss my film cameras when I realise just how easily digital images generally will blow out highlights. I love shooting backlit subjects. Black and white film, which is my favourite, can handle that easily, retaining a huge amount of different highlight tones. I don’t know what kind of digital camera I’d have to acquire to get a similar ability on digital. I currently shoot with Fujifilm X-E2, which doesn’t like to get over exposed one bit. Shooting RAW format doesn’t help much.

So I guess tonality and exposure latitude are one of the major factors that define the film look for me. At least in black and white photography. Maybe I like Tri-x and HP5+ for that reason. They are both films that are known for their amazing latitude, and if you ask me, they have the quintessential film look. Coincidence? I think not.

Backlit subject, shot on professional black and white film.

The photo above is a good example of the amazing latitude of a good black and white film. It’s metered from the subjects face but the sky isn’t blown out almost at all, retaining the subtle tones, even though it is much brighter than the subject.

Delicious tones.

This shot displays also some delicious tonality. It was taken inside an old train car in broad daylight. The EV values couldn’t have been any more different on the other side of the window, but there’s practically no overblown highlights. The entire tonal scale is pretty much perfect. Who needs histrograms when you have Tri-x? I’m not saying this is impossible with digital, but tones like these seem to come very naturally with film and is one of the underlying key factors in the film look.

Level of film look = strong. Thanks to amazing latitude and tonality.

All I know that I really desire the film look, even though I’m having a hard time pinpointing what it actually is, because it can mean so many things. Just think about how many types of films and formats there are and the whole idea of a single definition of a film look starts to feel somewhat absurd. I think I’m actually more after an old camera look sometimes, rather than film look, because I’m after timelessness and nostalgia, that can be summoned with many different types of films. Some say film has soul. Even though that is sort of weird thing to say, it think it bears some truth.