Response to Ken Rockwell’s ‘Why We Love Film’

I have read Ken Rockwell’s reviews of lenses for years before buying them, and aside from his necessary self-promotion at the end of each review, I’ve found his site quite informative and helpful. Last evening I ran across his post entitled ‘Why We Love Film’ ( and found myself approaching the post as a dual-medium shooter (film + digital) and feeling the need to pick apart some of his biases.

Overall the content of the article is interesting and would be very informative to someone who has never shot film before, but for the truly religious digital shooter, it is offensive and off-putting. Mr. Rockwell directly insults those individuals, so if he was hoping to convert a few people or at least encourage experimentation I think he may be having the opposite effect. The article comes across as a bit nostalgic at the beginning, referencing his 1956 Kodak that ‘does not need batteries’. This does not seem relevant as newer Nikon film cameras will run for a year or more on two batteries. The low power consumption is not universal to film though, as the F5 requires 8 AA batteries. Sure you can just throw them out and replace them, but ultimately in this age we are more likely to put them in a charger and plug them into the wall at night! Its the same thing, just a different medium. Again, Mr. Rockwell seems attached to the nostalgia of a camera that does not require batteries, but yet I fear that even if Nikon’s next Pro D-SLR ran on solar power, he would still not be satisfied on this option. It is not the film medium that Mr. Rockwell is advocating for, but rather a much simpler era in photographic history.

An area where Mr. Rockwell and I are in complete agreement is the lack of an LCD being a very positive for a photographer’s focus. It is easier to think about the next shot when you aren’t reviewing and in too many cases its too easy to look at the display and doubt yourself.  I think this is more of an issue for amateur photographers and for complete nerds (who would NEVER consider film as a viable medium). I think experienced photographers get over this need to check themselves, especially sports photographers who DO realize that there is no time to waste with image review. Also, Nikon’s D-SLRs have a great option for this – IMAGE REVIEW: OFF.  As for Mr. Rockwell’s safety jab, well, I don’t know what moron crosses the road looking at the screen of their SLR, but it seems today people are in much greater danger with crossing the street with cell phones.  In another article Mr. Rockwell mentions that since he was 10 years old he has been writing down the exposure settings of every frame. In his review of the F6 he mentions that this is taken care of by the camera itself and he can just download the data for storing with his frames, but wait, the Nikon F6 requires… BATTERIES! Mr. Rockwell seems off-put by computers and their ‘time wasting’ capabilities, but that feature of the F6 he loves so much does require a computer, whether you use a Nikon MV-1 adapter or a Meta35 USB device.

Mr. Rockwell addresses the color range of film. Yes, film range is natively awesome (assuming it is processed correctly and assuming your exposure was perfect), but the key problem with digital cameras is not their lack of range on the sensor, but instead the lack of range provided by the various compression formats. Shooting a Nikon D750 in RAW will give you a single file that is perfectly capable of expressing wide range, it just requires a little work to make it visible electronically (tone mapping primarily). What good is the range of film if the only way to share it with someone is in person? I suppose this calls back to what is the purpose of the medium in general. If photography is to be an intimate expression of lived moments with others who were there, then yes, this makes sense, but if the purpose of photography is to be archival and to be shared, then the limitations of range being expressed only in the original format is lacking in this goal.

One topic upon which I will not argue with Mr. Rockwell – film grain looks better than digital ‘grain’. Film in its multi-layered emulsion is an organic creation, there is no set pattern of how the grain falls. Film images are cleaner and feel less hazy because they don’t have an unnatural grain as a result of sensor noise. I think eventually digital technology will get there, especially with the improvements in high ISO performance, but will it ever meet the comforting feel of a film grain? I really don’t know.

Ironically,  despite my critique of Mr. Rockwell’s article, I decided to buy an F6 instead of an F5 because it requires less battery power and will keep details of my shots electronically, freeing me to focus more on the image.