Here's How Film Actually Works and Why It's Still Incredible

Ever wonder how film works? A recent video from SmarterEveryDay covers this topic in great detail describing how film works. 

Over the last few years, the popularity of film has been increasing quite dramatically. For instance, Kodak has had to increase its production by more than double over the last few years. The younger generation of photographers that missed out on the film era seem to have rediscovered it. And it seems the tactile and tangible nature of film photography has enticed a wide range of photographers back to it. 

Some people describe film photography as being more authentic and having more life to it. Of course this is a subjective matter, however, there may be something to the claim. The light photons from any given scene are in a sense physically captured on film. In essence you are literally taking a piece of the moment and storing it on film. Once you develop the film you reveal the image you captured. 

With digital, there are lots of interpolations and clever tricks to mimic the scene, but it's simply not the same. This could be one of the reasons why some describe images taken on film to have a beating heart, or a certain lifelike warmth to it. 

Whatever the case, it's definitely interesting to see how film actually works. The video linked above from SmarterEveryDay covers this topic with a surprising degree detail. I highly recommend you check out this incredible video. 

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22 Comments

Erpillar Bendy's picture

Speak for yourself. When I make a digital photo, I do think about it. Film is not more authentic, not more deep. There's no beating heart, no magic. It's just chemistry.

Jan Holler's picture

I agree, it's all just meaningless blah blah. These guys talk about the genre as if they invented it. In reality, they are all more or less clueless and project some weird esoteric aspects into photography.

Ken James's picture

Oh no, I started in photography in the early 80's. I did B+W developing and printing, then went into colour printing. Not developing colour as the shelf life of developer was pretty short. Did quite a bit of both for money as a sideline job. Did it up to 1996 when we sold up and moved house. I had had enough of it by then so didn't set up a darkroom in our new property.

When I look back on it all, my main thoughts are "Thank heavens for digital" which I am still doing at nearly 80 yrs. I believe that the film fans of these days scan their negs and work on them on computers. What a cop out! Nothing quite like working in a wet darkroom and seeing the image coming to life in the developing bath under a red light. Aaah, the smell of the chemicals! Colour printing, I did in a roll tank in a water bath to a temperature tolerance of 1/2 degree, all done in complete darkness until the exposure was done and the paper placed in the roll tank. Took real skill I tell you. Then, the horror of finding a dust spot on the print due to a moments carelessness when exposing the paper in the enlarger. "Bugger" was the mildest expression. No quick fix like Lightroom or similar. There were certainly highs and lows to it.

Anyway, sorry about this rant. I do go off about the difference between film and digital. You really have to do it the old way to understand what I mean!

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Exactly that!
I shoot mainly film, but it for sure is not for the tones and or quality of the pictures. I just like mechanical tools, and i like the process.
No one that collects old-timer cars would suggest that heshe does because they are better and safer cars, or collect mechanical watches because the are better time keepers than quartz watches.

Usman Dawood's picture

I wouldn’t say better. It’s similar to comparing digital music to vinyl. Some could argue that digital music is better in quality however analog music still seems to have a certain warmth which doesn’t seem to be experienced when listening to digital.

It’s not about safer or better quality or even being better in any regard.

However some people do make claims about film and some people make claims about analog music.

People are allowed to like what they enjoy and describe how it makes them feel.

J.d. Davis's picture

IF you have to try that hard to convince yourself - your argument is faulty!

Usman Dawood's picture

Huh?

It's a discussion, not a argument, they're distinctly different.

J.d. Davis's picture

ANSWER:

What is an argument? In academic writing, an argument is usually a main idea, often called a “claim” or “thesis statement,” backed up with evidence that supports the idea.

Usman Dawood's picture

Yes and that's why this is a discussion.

J.d. Davis's picture

have it your way...

Erpillar Bendy's picture

Film is fun, and mechanical tools are fun. Having learned photography in the 1970's, I definitely appreciate that. I had a darkroom in my parents' house, and later in my own house, and made many b+w prints and had fun doing it. Despite its frustrations (dust, etc.), film provided a lot of joy. And when digital came along, it kind of sucked for a long time. But at this point, digital (for me) is the best "film" in the world. The sensors and the software have improved radically. Digital can "be" any film, including films that never existed, and it's almost infinitely malleable, providing endless opportunities for creativity and expression.

Ken James's picture

Aaah, I have a soulmate! 👍😁

Marc F's picture

"Digital can "be" any film, including films that never existed"

I wish that were true. Unfortunately until now no digital camera can do Kodak EIR (color infrared) like results. If only they started to remove that filter in front of their sensors...

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

jup thats what i wanted to say, i still just like the medium and the cameras and the process of developing though

Marc F's picture

" When I make a digital photo, I do think about it."

That's good. Unfortunately, a lot of photographers only shot thousands of pictures to then only choose a few of them that look good, because with digital, there is no risks of wasting expensive film. It's the same thing with video vs movie film: instead of planning with strict rules the scenes like when a 30 feet roll of 16mm film costed $$$ they now shot continuously all the garbage (and most of the time don't even cut it)

Ben Coyte's picture

An article that brings up the usual film vs digital thing. Horses for courses really. Film is just another medium with which to practice your art. Just as some painters use oils and others water colours, it is a means to an end. I can understand how for some film can make a photographer slow down, think about the comp and take the shot. They put the technical part of the process up front more because even if all they do is scan the neg and then play in post, the data they have to play with is already baked in. Digital photographers have the benefit, if they understand their gear, of shooting with the knowledge of what can be done with all the data in post. For me, I do both. I love shooting film for all the reasons above, but also love to shoot digital for what I can do with the file. When I find myself firing off a ton of digital shots of the same thing, chimping along the way, then I'll shoot film for a bit. My method. Works for me, may not for others. Just enjoy your photography.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

No, that's the direction the author is partially taking, but the video has nothing to do with that debate. It's really about film itself and it's processing. This lab for the chemical part looks exactly like a custom lab would look like in the 80's-90's,

Ken James's picture

My photography habits are still based on film. My camera is always set on single shot and I try to get the best shot that I can. Bearing in mind the old film mantra about thinking of the shot to save a hassle in the darkroom!
I follow a forum where someone was worried about shutter life with the shutter count reading 110,000 in 14 months. Talk about "spray and pray" That's averaging around 250 every day. Not my style at all.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Loved the video, very retro in some ways to me, but that’s how labs looked like and operated back pre-digital.
That chemical room is unconventional space wise. All the places I have worked at separated chemicals storage from processing room as the mixing tanks are outside and the mix pumped up to the replenishing tanks. In the dark you want just enough space around you to load film rolls or sheets and cut clips. Anything else is a clutter. For E6, you also need a shelf for your rolls, 4x5 and 8x10s. When we clipped 120 front or back, the rolls were left, entirely re-rolled with paper sleeve held with rubber bands in the dark until further instructions. We never used the spring on top of the rack and I’m not sure we had them at most places. Problem is if you miss and the roll drops from that high you don’t know where it is. Instead, we used little boxes and transferred the rolls to the dark that way, then put the box on the shelf.
For 35mm, after un-canning the roll, the two ends should also be held at all time or you get the twisty thing like in the video (I know they were just explaining the process). Raise your hands to the top and loop the front roll tip over the roller, hold and pull down with two fingers. At the same time the spool end gets unrolled down using two fingers like a guiding track (between index and middle fingers). If you do it right , you never touch the emulsion side while going down because of the emulsion curve(s). At the bottom, you skeeze and grab/ join the front end with your sane hand using your thumb. With the free hand, grab scissors, snip roll’s tab and spool. Grab clip, clip back then front, let go. One lab we had our own nitrogen generating machine so we never ran out and had a back up bottle just in case. I see the tech unrolls with the end of the roll toward him. Either way works I guess, just never did it in that order anywhere. Personally, I would have liked to see their E6 room.
Fuji Frontier were the top machines for their time, totally crushing the competition. All Walmarts had one which really surprised me at first but the tech people and maintenance tech were clueless resulting in poor service. Definitely not the machine’s fault.
C41 is pretty much stupid proof and requires little chemical adjustments, but I have seen unqualified people use the wrong developer. Luckily it was C41 in an RA4 machine (Agfa) and all I had to do is go count the boxes we had in storage to figure out what happened. Took us down about two hours that day.
One of the places I worked at had b&w dip and dunk but it was manual with four square tanks next to each other. Loaded the rolls on rack then turned, dropped the rolls in the deep tanks and started the timer. The tiny room was elevated a little so anyone could bring up the racks and transfer to the next bath with no issue. Tanks had automatic burst agitation.
While I don’t shoot film and haven’t for 20 years, that C41 dip and dunk is perfect for your XP2 push and pull, assuming it has that function which it most likely does.
This video brings back lots of memories.

J.d. Davis's picture

Dick & Jane in the darkroom?

Andrew Almeida's picture

I really miss Seattle Filmworks.