Does Film Still Matter to Street Photography?

The simple answer is “no”…

But why cling to the analogue aesthetic and process? I have noticed a few of my previous stalwart film buddies exiting the genre recently as well, leaving me both a little heartbroken and worried about film.

I am not going to prattle on about the dynamic range of film vs digital and the rest of the stuff that I don’t really understand.

The reasons I still shoot almost exclusively on black and white film are a bit silly as I read them back…

1. Chimping

I have written about chimping here before. Shooting film helps me focus on how I see the world rather than constantly checking each image on an LCD. It stretches your imagination and sharpens your ability to see composition. Not having an LCD encourages the photographer to think about the next shot rather than live in the instant past.

2. Delayed Gratification

Not being able to see the picture immediately and having to process the film from developing to scanned image gives me a mental break that helps me better curate. The first look at the negatives as the come out of the tank is kinda exciting, and then peaks with the scan coming through.

3. Fix a Car / Garden / Make a Table

The only thing I can do with my hands, that is special, is develop film. The process of developing film is extremely relaxing and rewarding. The whole analogue experience is akin to what I imagine it feels like to make your own dining room table or create a garden. Yeah, I could go down to Ikea to buy a table or call Jim’s Mowing, but there is pleasure and reward by creating something yourself.

4. Following in the Footsteps of the Masters

Most of my favourite photographers lived through the golden age of film. Using film makes me feel like I am seeing the world through their eyes in just a small way.

I have some very nice digital gear, but only use it when I need fast autofocus and want / need colour images. Usually a friend’s or family kids.


7 Responses to “Does Film Still Matter to Street Photography?”

  1. I think you answered the topic title question with the next sentence, no, film is not relevant to street photography, (in fact film is really only relevant to film photography, every effect film can do, digital can do better and quicker, you only need to know what effect you’re after)
    To address your points though….

    Chimping. chimping can save your shot, I’m in the process of scanning and editing 40 or so years of film over multiple formats and film types…man I would have had some killers if I’d just been able to see what I was getting and adjust accordingly (especially in edgy light)

    Delayed gratification……. hmm, mysterious ‘benefit’ this concept, if you want to delay your gratification, load them without looking at them….wait for a week or so, then open in Bridge, if you insist on seeing negatives, when loading, then invert again watching them transform into positive colour.

    Make a Table ?…I don’t equate developing and printing with the physicality of working with wood, sure, you’ve got to mix the chemicals, maintain the temps, load the film, provide the agitation, compute the time/temp/agit, stop bath, fix, wash, dry, proof, print before you’ve got a result. Digital allows you to get the result before you’ve left the shoot, leaving time enough to fix a car, garden, or make a table as well.

    Footsteps of the masters ?….ah yes, like you all of my photographic heroes lived through the age of film (some even before that), however, in all of their cases it’s the message that’s important, not the messenger, the fact that the image of that instant in time was recorded on light sensitive silver halides, or a cmos sensor is irrelevant, what’s important is, that that particular scene, in that particular composition, with that particular lighting, was recorded at that particular fraction of time… you want it to finally appear, is up to you.

    I have some very nice digital gear too, but only use it when I want to make photographs.


    • Thanks for taking the time to have a think through it all – your comment about film only being relevant to film photography now really highlights for me that film is an “end in itself”… Not sure if this makes sense, Brian? Anyway, I loved your response!


  2. I re-entered a darkroom yesterday after being away for 35 years. I was the guest of a young, film-only, street photographer who invited me to print a B+W negative I took in 1979. The emerging feeling of patient creation using the hands instead of a mouse, paper instead of a screen and intuition instead of software, was glorious.

    I do realize how practical digital photography is: the speed of learning; the ability to modify the settings and shoot again; the exposure bracketing…. etc… etc all the accepted, practical aspects of the digital capture process and the reproduction. This process is entirely suited to street photography and its scatter gun approach. But we must remember that street photography is 90% anticipation and you usually only get one chance. So “chimping” and re-adjusting and shooting again doesn’t help when the opportunity has gone – the moment is lost whether you shot it on film or digital.

    So film for me forces good anticipation and when using digital the same skills are needed if the street photograph is going to be a real winner.

    I like your reasoning and would not disagree much with all your points. In particular the idea that it slows us down. We do not jump on the computer as soon as we get home; rush through the digital images for the good ones and try to post up so our friends can see. After a tiring day in the city… we come home and relax and it may take a day or so before we can see our work.

    However, I do not really see the point in doing it by halves – shooting on film, developing the neg and then scanning and printing digitally. I think you need to enjoy the full process, right through to printing in the darkroom and watching the fruit of your manual efforts appear before your eyes – there is pleasure in that. Scanning helps us to review each negative on the screen and decide which is worth printing in the darkroom and that is far easier than peering at the negative image through a lupe.

    I started with film and loved the experience, I shoot now mainly digital, but have restored my Olympus OM1 and Rollei 35B recently and the rediscovery of film, so far is exciting. It won’t replace my digital work, but it will slow me down and allow me to enjoy the process in its unique way.

    Thank you for your article – I like it’s even handedness and its appreciation of both forms, without being purist for either.


  3. It is always interesting to read the debate about film vs digital. What is better, relevant, convenient and more affordable?

    At the end of the day, each person’s way of working is very personal. It’s neither right or wrong. It’s just what suits you. Both format’s use concept, subject, light, composition and a location to make a successful or unsuccessful street photograph. (There is more but lets not go there). Lets celebrate the successful result, not the process.

    I am a film shooter and for the same reasons as you Damian, I still choose this format. Yes, it’s obselete to a point; particularly when considered by people who are so busy or are into technology. But film suits my hands on nature and makes me feel more like a crafts person. I also understand the joy of delayed gratification when you finally see the results well after you have wandered along to the next shot. For sure with digital photos you could choose to not look at them till a later time, but what digital photographer would wait when the whole idea of digital is to not leave the spot without checking if the image is correctly composed or exposed?

    So, if the time consuming trade off is that I am less productive as a result of not seeing what I have immediately, then so be it. But does that make my end result in this technological age less relevant? I would hope the digital preferenced users, as many as there are, would say no, but answer that question with, “it’s just what I prefer”.



  1. Mr Xpan – Fotodudenz (Matthew Joseph) Interview | Inconspicuosity - March 14, 2015

    […] MSP – Matt’s purist approach to film is quite inspiring. For many of us who still stick with film, the theme of being more conscious and deliberate in taking each shot is common. To find out what I love about film, check this out.  […]


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