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I used film to shoot the future of photography

Who needs digital cameras anyway?

“You’re crazy,” a senior manager at a major camera company told me today. We were talking at CP+, Japan’s biggest photo event, and I’d just shown him the camera gear that I was using for the day's coverage. It all used film — not a digital sensor in sight.

If this were my first day at CP+, and if I’d been expecting any breaking news, I’d have had to agree with him. But I got all that out of the way yesterday — I took a lot of digital pictures of the camera world's new digital products, but I was struck by the lack of film presence even at a Japanese show. Today, I wanted to see what it’d be like covering the event with the technology that it’s abandoned. My goal was to take enough images for a photo essay and publish them on The Verge the same day, in the spirit of timely photojournalism.

I own a lot of film cameras, but the ones I brought along today were a Nikon F80, known as the N80 in the US, and a Fujifilm Natura Classica. The F80 is an awesome camera that handles more or less like a modern Nikon DSLR with all the useless buttons and convoluted menus removed. The Natura Classica is a compact camera the size of a cigarette packet that was released in the mid-2000s. Since CP+ is indoors, I shot both these cameras using ISO 800 film, which tends to be grainier than I’d like but lets me use faster shutter speeds in low light. I used a bright 50mm f/1.8 D lens with the F80 to better my chances and hoped that the 28mm f/2.8 wide end of the Natura Classica’s zoom lens would prove sufficient.

Once I’d finished my two rolls, I walked about 25 minutes to the nearest Camera no Kitamura, a ubiquitous photo store chain that I figured would be my best bet for speedy development. Roughly 90 minutes, 2,080 yen (about $17), and one drawn-out iced coffee later, I had a CD filled with scans of the photos I’d taken just a few hours earlier. It's always exciting when you get film photos back; you remember moments seen through the viewfinder and hope they turn out the way you'd imagined. The image at the top of this story is one I thought would work on at least some level as soon as I pressed the shutter, but I had to wait for hours to be sure — it's a world away from instant Instagram gratification.

So, how did they turn out? Well, you can judge for yourself below, but it’s safe to say the results were mixed. The F80 performed better than the Natura Classica, which isn’t too surprising given the faster lens and accurate viewfinder. The Natura Classica is actually designed for Natura 1600 film, a unique Fujifilm emulsion that works with the camera and gives amazing, ultra-clean results in low light. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any on hand today — things would’ve gone a lot better if I had. As it happened, the results from the Superia 800 film I used were too grainy at best and unusable at worst. But some of the F80 shots I took had great, smooth tones and a much more attractive grain.

I don’t know if I’d recommend shooting film for fast-paced work in 2015, but there’s something to it. It forces you to slow down and think about each shot, and the result is that you end up with a lot less digital detritus to wade through when it comes to post-processing. And speaking of post-processing, I didn’t do any on these shots beyond some simple crops on a few; not having to worry about white balance, ISO, and other settings is another weight off the photographer’s shoulders. The photos I took yesterday are technically better, sure. But I had to take a lot more to get there, and it wasn't as much fun. The 90-minute waits and 25-minute walks notwithstanding, shooting film feels purer and more efficient.

While I’ll no doubt save the $17 next time I go to a trade show with actual news to report, this was a fun experiment with one of the most enduring technologies ever created. Photography has been around for the best part of two centuries, but it’s easy to forget that digital imaging has only existed for a tiny sliver of that.

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