My Road from Digital to Film (and Back Again)

The past couple of decades has overwhelmed us with tech innovations in almost every aspect of our lives. A new TV, a new phone, a new computer, and yes, a new camera: we had to experience them all. But digital doesn’t always mean ‘better’, and traditional doesn’t always mean ‘outdated’. Perhaps that’s the reason why film photography has been making a comeback for several years now. If you’ve experimented with film photography, you probably know that it’s not just about the outcome. The road to getting the perfect shot is just as invigorating. From planning carefully, to meticulously executing, then developing and waiting for the image to appear right in front of your eyes… Film photography is as much about the journey, as it is about the end result. That journey holds a romantic touch that is very hard to resist.

Then, there’s digital photography. Your most practical and feasible way of getting the photo you’ve always wanted. The option of image manipulation gives you the irresistible power to create literally anything. So what’s bringing photographers back to traditional ways of expensive film rolls, elaborate development procedures and the risk of not getting the perfect shot? We asked Ronen Goldman, who has achieved great results in both mediums, for his opinion and testimonial. What made a master of surreal photography “rewind” and fall in love with good old film? Here is the answer:

Stage 1: My first artistic romance

My first camera was a Canon Rebel 350d, and at the time I thought it was the most amazing piece of technology. I was just starting out and really wanted to learn the different technical aspects of photography. Since it was a digital camera, I had a relatively short learning curve. I simply could look at the back of the screen and see exactly how every setting would affect the final image. I quickly moved on to reading and learning about composition, light, law of thirds, contrasts, and everything else there is to know to get started with taking better photos.

Dawn, taken with a Canon 5d2 16-35L F8 @125th/s

I went out every day, clicking away: it cost nothing and I could experiment with different lighting scenarios, go places I have never been before, and simply try things out. As I was learning different post processing methods, I realized I could layer different photos on top of each other and later blend them in Photoshop.

One day I thought to myself: what if I could include a dimension of time in my photos? Add more and more elements into the photograph without moving the camera? I was not restricted by the number of photos I could take, just by my patience. That is how I started the Surrealistic Pillow project. The digital format enabled me to create dreamlike scenes that beforehand would only exist in my imagination. Using that 8-megapixel little camera, I created some of my favorite pieces of surreal photography.

The Lemon Farmer, taken with a Rebel 350D 17-85, F7.1 @400th/s

I wanted the images to look as real and believable as possible. That’s why I chose to shoot all the elements during the same photoshoot, in the same natural lighting. As the project progressed, I started exhibiting my work, printing the images larger and larger. That’s when I realized I needed a better camera. The images looked good on a computer screen, but practically fell apart when they were enlarged to the maximum.

I gradually upgraded my gear and got better and better cameras. Today I am using the 5D Mark 3, with Canon’s top of the line prime lenses.

Stage 2: Into the blues and the dark room

In the meantime, I kept growing my passion for two other types of photography I enjoyed the most – street photography and portraiture. Talking about the last, I’ve always been into blues music. So when I heard there was an amazing local producer bringing fantastic bluesmen from Mississippi to Israel to do shows, I immediately hopped on that boat. That’s how I started my Bluesman project – creating portraits of these fine gentlemen behind the scenes, as they were just about to take the stage.

Portrait of Cedric Burnside, taken with a 5d3 16-35L F4.5 @200th/s

During the first few years, I shot them using my digital camera. But the more I applied the methods I’ve learned over time, the more I felt that these old school gentlemen deserve a different “look”. Something more classic yet stunning in every format, even when enlarged and printed for photography exhibitions. That’s when I got my first Medium Format Film Camera.

Portrait of Jerron, taken with a Mamiya rz67, 110mm, Portra 400

It was a beast of a camera, the Mamiya Rz67ii. The hot shoe on the side would still allow me to use my off-camera lighting setups, but presented a whole new set of challenges. Focusing was very hard, and the men being photographed weren’t holding still. There were only ten frames on a roll, and changing the roll took up precious time. Also, for the first time, I couldn’t see if my shots were successful in real time. I would have to rely on my knowledge and hope for the best. This made me stop and realize: these musicians have come this far, for the first and probably last time. Am I really going to risk not getting any successful photos? What if I mess this up?

Portrait of Cedric Burnside, taken with a Mamiya rz67ii, 110mm, Ektar 100

As a safety net, at first I shot them on both digital and film cameras. Yet I was always more satisfied with the way the film shots looked. At some point, I was picking up my digital camera to take some backup shots of the bluesman in front of me, when I recalled that famous scene from Star Wars: Luke is lining up the shot that had the fate of the whole universe in the balance. Would he be able to destroy the Death Star? When suddenly he hears the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi saying softly “Use The Force Luke! Let go!”

Damn. I needed to let go, and just go for it.

Portrait of Bilbo, taken with a Mamiya rz67ii, 110mm, Portra 400

Stage 3: When yesterday meets tomorrow

Creating images in film is a long and challenging process. You need to shoot the picture without seeing the outcome, you’re limited to only 10 (or 36) shots, then you need to take the roll to a lab (or develop it yourself). And after the long wait to hear back from the lab, you’re dreading to find out that the whole thing was shot with the lens hood on! They can scan the film for you, or you can do it yourself to turn the negative into a positive image and fix all the weird coloring. But damn, that’s frustrating.

When that whole process actually works and you get that one epic photo, you realize it is worth it all. Film has such a distinct look to it. Some say it is because of the wider dynamic range, the way the tones blend into each other, or maybe the perceived sharpness and grain is what gives it that “Film” look. Whatever it is, every time I looked at different photographers’ websites and saw a truly astonishing image – it was often created using film.

Backstage at the Elizabeth Cotton Blues Tribute, taken with a Mamiya rz67ii, 110mm, Portra 400

I guess that nowadays a professional photographer cannot go completely digital-free: after getting the film roll back I needed to digitize it by taking pictures of it with a macro lens. Like with everything in photography, I still have a long way of learning and expanding ahead of me, and the next step is to create some more surreal images using medium format film.

Why Worry, taken with a Mamiya rz67ii, 110mm, Ektar 100

Do you use film? What kind? And with what camera? Share your experience with us in the comments!

Ronen Goldman is a commercial photographer based in Israel. For the past ten years, he has been taking pictures of a wide range of subjects: from shooting portraits of high-level CEOs to creating surreal art based on his dreams. Check out his website for some mind blowing photography art.

By Julia Ronen

Creative Content Developer for Wix Expert Communities

#digitalphotography #filmphotography #interview


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