Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Justin Lowery - 5 things I love about Film

Southern California-based fine-art landscape photographer Justin Lowery had his work featuring on Shooting Film last month, now coming back to share his thoughts about 'why he love shooting film' with us.

1. Archivability / Legacy.

Imagine for a minute that Leonardo Da Vinci had access to a primitive computer of his day, and had created the Mona Lisa in a software program made by some company that existed in 1503. Within 20 short years or so, the company would've gone under, been bought out, or sold the software off to some other company who then neglected it after shareholders decried its lack of profitability. Before long, the remaining copies would be no longer supported by the computers of the day, and the files created would be no longer accessible. Don't even imagine trying to open any of this a hundred years later, let alone a thousand years later.

A couple of years ago, a box of unprinted Ansel Adams negatives was discovered in a box at a yard sale. They were able to make brand new prints from them, of an entire body of work never before seen. Can you imagine if that had been a hard drive of files, had he shot digitally in a hypothetical world where he could have? Undoubtedly the drive would have been useless, having failed and broken years ago, and even if the files could be recovered, they'd be unopenable.

A few different independent studies have been conducted recently, to investigate the most probable lifespan of today's digital image files. Today, we are uploading more images to the internet each day than had ever been made in all of human history combined before today. Yet, each study concluded thus: that of all the digital images being uploaded to the internet today, 90% of them will be permanently inaccessible, and for all practical intents and purposes, no longer exist, just 10 years from now. This is due to a variety of coordinating factors, such as bankruptcies, hardware failures, software obsolescence, buyouts, selloffs, etc. 10 years ago Facebook & Instagram didn't exist. 10 years from now, they may not exist, or they may be unrecognizable or owned by different owners with different motives and a different business model. Flickr is owned by Yahoo!, which is in dire straits right now financially, has been terminating properties by the dozen, and is looking to sell themselves to anyone who will pay. They just published a list of priority/salvageable properties to investors, and Flickr was not one of them. Think about these things for a minute. This is our photographic legacy as a generation. The studies each concluded separately that this generation will be at once the most documented and the most quickly forgotten generation in human history.

Film has staying power, both emotionally and physically. When we expose a frame of film, we create a lasting artifact that can be physically stored in a sealed, climate controlled environment for many decades and then retrieved and reprinted with relative ease. In the case of medium and large format slides, the slide itself serves as an image and can be viewed by simply holding up to any light source. Think of all the technological wizardry that all has to be in place and working in perfect harmony just to open a digital file. If the power goes out, you're out of luck. If lightning strikes, out of luck again. If you can't afford your Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for a month, you're locked out of your images, your legacy. Most digital shooters are using RAW, which is great… until we consider that most RAW files can only be opened by one or two versions of one or two software programs in existence and that those software programs add and drop support for different cameras almost weekly! This is insane. Film scanners get better as technology gets better, and a good drum scan from medium or large format film even today leaves the quality of even the best digital cameras severely wanting. Even without scanners, with access to an enlarger, we can print directly onto paper whenever we want. The film is not proprietary or virtual. It is ownable and tangible.

I'm sure you've told yourself that your multiple hard drive all-jpeg redundancy plans will work! I tried that too and had both my primary and backup hard drives fail simultaneously and catastrophically, losing over 1 million of my carefully backed-up non-proprietary JPEG images instantly and irretrievably. Years of blood, sweat and tears, gone in seconds. I'm sure you laugh and say, haha! You sucker! You should have had an online backup in place! But this was before affordable online backups for that quantity of files existed, only a few short years ago. Even today, if you have an online backup, try forgetting to update your credit card when it expires. They'll happily delete your million images without batting an eye. Oh, and those emails they sent you? Yeah, you stopped using that address years ago, back when you signed up for that credit card you used. I've seen it happen, again and again. The vast majority of digital photographers I know either have no good backup plan, have outdated backups or have a backup plan with holes in it. Nobody's infallible. At least film gives you a physical collection of negatives or slides to fall back on.

2. Soul / Emotional feel.

This one is admittedly subjective, of course! But I have to see an obvious correlation in the fact that if I name all of the photographers in the world history of photography who have made the biggest impact on me as an artist, and whose images I feel leave the most lasting emotional impact, every last one of them shoots or shot on film. The ones working today all have access to and can easily afford the latest and greatest in digital technology, and yet they all choose to continue shooting on film. This is true of the motion picture industry as well. Film images have an emotional depth, a sort of soul, if you will, that the sterile, generic, artificial looking digital files seem to consistently lack. Millions of dollars are being made selling digital photographers all manner of ever-increasingly complicated means of imitating film, of tricking art viewers and clients into thinking they are looking at a "real" film image. All in the name of convenience. I don't deny the commercial necessity of digital for most professional photographers, but for me as a small-scale fine art photographer, I'll choose the real thing every day of the week over a cheap imitation. Cheapness, artificiality, haste, imitation, gimmickry, and convenience are not attributes I wish to include in my work or that make it better, and so I'm working to eliminate them in any way I can. Shooting film is one of those ways, and for me, it works.

3. Scalability and organic look when printing large.

If I enlarge a film image to make a huge gallery print, I end up with an image which exhibits random, non-linear grain structure and has a beautiful organic feel. If I enlarge a digital image by the same factor, I end up with predictable blurriness, haloing, and pixelation upon closer inspection. The bigger you print a digital image, the more "digital" it looks. The bigger you print a film image, the more "film" it looks. And I know which look I like best by far! Many will claim that digital is "catching up" with film, or that high-megapixel medium format digital backs can print to these sizes, and they do look great, but they still look "digital." They still feel hollow and fake to me. The look of a film print is just more satisfying to me.

4. Freedom, flexibility, and quality of film gear and formats.

I love that with film, you can shoot a Holga and get one look and experience, a pinhole and get another, a Hasselblad and get another, a 6x7 and get another, and a large format view camera and get another. I love that you can shoot with a camera that's a hundred years old, or one that is almost brand new and use the same film in each and get two vastly different results. I love that film cameras and lenses tend to be so affordable for such high quality. I love that so many of them are built like tanks or Rolls-Royces. I love the fine craftsmanship and attention to design details I see in good classic film gear, and I regret just how low digital cameras have fallen in comparison. My very expensive modern DSLR feels like a fragile, ugly, and poorly designed plastic toy compared to any of my film cameras. It's also becoming obsolete at an alarming rate, and will be completely obsolete in a few short years. Meanwhile, I shoot regularly with a medium format film camera made a half-century ago that still works and looks as good as it did when new, cost 1/10th the price of my DSLR, and produces better and more appealing images than it does!

5. Aesthetic variety and quality of film stocks, and the tactile experience of shooting film.

I know everyone mentions this, but I'd be lying if I didn't mention film. Yes, the film itself is my favorite thing about shooting film. I love the punchy reds and blues and rich contrast and fine grain of Fuji Velvia RVP 50. I adore the silky blacks and creamy whites of Fuji Neopan Acros 100. I love the dreamy moods of Kodak Portra. I love the skin tones and creamy pastels of Fuji 400H. I love the grainy and contrasty atmosphere of Ilford HP5 Plus 400. I love the look of pushed black and white films. There are so many more examples! I love the surprise and anticipation of getting my first exposed batch of a new film stock back from the lab and seeing how it renders a familiar subject or scene in a new light. I love getting a new sensor for a few bucks in a roll of film. I love the crinkle of removing a roll of 120 film from its plastic sleeve, threading it through the take-up spool, the click of the magazine back onto the camera, and finally licking the paper tab and wrapping it up like a present when it's done and ready for to be whisked off for development.

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  1. It is a wonderful information and also get good knowledge and ideas from this article. The author is giving good thoughts and suggestions to each and every readers through this article. Looking forward to another article.
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  2. Thanks for your detailed and inspiring post Justin. Many share your passion for the analog image and it's great reading how film works for you and seeing your sublime images alongside your wisdom. I take on board and agree everything you say about what makes film special and enduring. I've spent the last few years using digital photography in my work (www.jjdoyle.com) but increasingly my deeper interest is in film photography. Articles here (and elsewhere) from photographers like you encourage me to believe in my decision to make the transition work and I see my future strongly with film. Thanks again, very best, Jonathan Doyle

  3. Justin, last time I've checked color negatives and slides is anything but archival, unless you keep them below 40 degrees fahrenheit. http://www.wilhelm-research.com/pdf/HW_Book_19_of_20_HiRes_v1c.pdf I've got negatives from 15 years ago that have faded to almost nothing.

  4. "At least film gives you a physical collection of negatives or slides to fall back on" ...That can also be destroyed by fire, flood, fungus, and(in the case of color film) light and heat.

  5. I've started my professional carrier as a film photographer in Paris, France. Paris is the capital of photography, at least in Europe. There you can find everything you need: gear and labor as well.
    From early 2000 everybody rushed on digital gears. Down by Boulevard Beaumarchais, near Bastille, The street for photography, all the stores sold out all the classic middle, large, small format camera for almost nothing (or very attractive price). Labs did the same, they changed their enlargers for new digital stuff. They just followed the big change from the distance. Ten years later, I was still working with film. But... the films price was higher, the developing film was higher... the quality has vanished!
    All my middle format slide, developed in one of the best lab, were dirty, over or under developed...
    What happened? Of course it was always possible to buy Provia, Velvia, some Kodak... nothing if compared to the choice we had in the Golden Age. It was possible to keep on working with color slide, but... Agencies started to grim at my slides, they had to scan them... it was a cost to kill...
    They started to tell me: "Can't you work in digital? It will be easier!"
    Then, looking at my pocket, I realised that working with film, in color, was too expensive. Damm, I was out!
    In 2008 my latest black and white photographic work entered a museum collection, my color film line of work died.

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