Farewell, Film

Photo by Nicole Cousins.

Load film, snap 24 or 36 photos, rewind film. Carefully wind it around a reel in the darkroom, add a lineup of chemicals, inverting the canister every 60 seconds, rinse in water, cross fingers and wait for an image to appear on the negative strip. This has been the process for students taking JO 305, Basic Photography, in the photojournalism program for about 60 years.

Starting next semester, it will go something like this: snap photo, instantly check result and connect camera to computer.

The Negatives of Film

The BU photojournalism program will no longer actively teach students how to shoot with and develop film, according to Program Director and Associate Professor of Journalism, Peter Southwick. About five or six years ago, all the advanced photojournalism classes went digital, Southwick said, but beginning next semester, the four remaining basic photo courses using film will be taught with a digital camera.

This change is arising as the use of film has becomes obsolete in the news industry, said Southwick, a former Director of Photography at the Boston Globe. Being taught with film is like learning Latin, he said. “While learning Latin makes it easier for you to learn French and Spanish, I always thought, why don’t I just start learning French and Spanish now? I would rather have people start with a practical skill right away.”

The digital transformation is also part of an effort to give more journalism students the opportunity to acquire skills in photojournalism, said Southwick. As jobs openings in the news industry grow increasingly competitive, being a competent digital photographer is becoming a crucial skill for journalism students.

There is also a proposal to update the film printing room in the basement of the College of Communication, he said. The print room would become a general purpose room for larger classes of Basic Photo and possibly for digital printing. All of the tools necessary to develop film and produce photos would remain, but on a smaller scale–the dark room and the current film developing room will combine with the printing room and six print enlargers would remain.

The essentials of how to take a photograph will remain unchanged, Southwick said. The syllabus and assignments will largely stay the same and like the SLR film cameras, digital cameras will be required to have manual settings.

“You learn how to shoot photos effectively no matter what medium you’re using,” he said. “It’s the content that matters.”

The price of a digital SLR camera, however, is significantly more than a film camera, and Southwick says they are still working on acquiring funding for more cameras.

The shift in focus to journalism students, combined with the increased camera expense, could decrease the enrollment of non-journalism students into the class, of students who are looking for an elective or hobby.  For these students, the College of Fine Arts will continue to offer its film Introduction to Photography and Photography courses, which are open to non-majors after freshmen registration, said Alana Silva, administrative coordinator at CFA.

“I still have a lot of affection for film but at this point we have to be teaching fundamentals for journalism students that they can use and not just enjoy,” said Southwick.

Goodbye Bolex

The Film and Television Department is also planning to eliminate the use of Bolex film cameras in the Production I course, but will continue to use film in Production II and III courses, said Paul Schneider, Chair of the department and associative professor of Television.

“The Bolex cameras are very old and rather primitive and difficult to teach with,” Schneider said.

The digital camera is a superior teaching tool, Schneider said. “You can plug the digital camera into a monitor and you can show a student framing, composition and lighting.” It is also more expensive to shoot film than to shoot high-definition, said Schneider.

However, unlike photojournalism, film is still widely used in television and movie industry. “There are an awful lot of directors and cinematographers, including myself, who think that the look of 35 mm or 70 mm film is very powerful, very effective, very rich, so we’re kind of reluctant to give it up,” he said.

Processing the Change

For BU students, the impact of the transition from film to digital is dependent on what they are looking to gain from a photo or film class.

Kristyn Ulanday is a senior photojournalism major who has worked in the photo lab for three semesters.

“Mostly people who come to the photo lab aren’t photojournalism majors yet,” she said.

Ulanday herself has not processed film since she was a senior in high school and petitioned out of Basic Photo because she was the Photo Editor of “The Daily Free Press” and had already taken a photo class in high school.

“I do see the need to switch over to digital and starting right off the bat with learning it. It is the new format for everything,” she said. “I think it means that more people will be able to learn faster.”

Shereen Samadzadeh, a junior majoring in Psychology and minoring in Public Relations, took a photo class in high school and wanted to take a more in-depth film class in college.

“Digital photography is definitely something I am interested in learning about, as I am looking into buying myself a digital camera soon, but it is not a replacement for the hands on learning that a film photo class gives,” she said.
“Many aspects of our lives are becoming digital, so it makes sense to teach a digital photography class, but I think the solution would be to offer both digital and basic photo classes, enabling students to choose which they find more valuable or useful for their own pursuits,” Samadzadeh said.

Heather Vandenengel

Heather Vandenengel (CAS '11) is a campus writer for the Quad.

8 thoughts on “Farewell, Film

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  • February 24, 2010 at 9:53 am

    When considering the film versus digital question:

    Yes, digital is easier to shoot and “more relevant” in today’s market.

    But there’s something to be said for the filmmaking process itself. Has anyone considered that the longer, more tedious process associated with shooting film produces a more intimate connection with one’s creative work? If I can snap off hundreds of photos at a location, all the while knowing I can upload them instantly to a computer, where’s the incentive to give each shot the attention it deserves?

    Perhaps this applies more to filmmaking rather than still photography, but I find that, because I know the cost of shooting on film, as well as the effort that goes into development and processing, each shot becomes absolutely essential. If know that I have 100 ft of film at a location, rather than the luxury of 60 GB’s worth of HD video, it provides additional motivation to “get it just right.” Consequently, I’ll spend thirty minutes setting a scene perfectly, and adjusting every detail appropriately, because I know how much goes on even after the film has been exposed. It seems, then, that the added awareness that comes with shooting film is often enough to bring about a more perfect and exciting image, and that cannot be overlooked.

  • February 24, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Adam, It’s that way with still photography as well, at least in my opinion. Only having 36 exposures forces a photographer to selectively shoot, make the best of his or her frame, and forces him or her to know how to set everything perfectly within their camera before shooting, which translates wonderfully into digital.

    Also, within the wet darkroom, you learn techniques that you would otherwise use in photoshop, but you learn to appreciate them for what’s actually being done and why. It’s essential to photography to understand burning and dodging and without film and light-sensitive paper, the process loses its tangibility when you’re looking at pixels.

    With all of the fancy settings and ease of digital, everyone is a photographer or a filmmaker and hey, maybe even a good one. But when you lose a physical aspect of the process, you also lose history, understanding, and some of the very creative process that makes photographers and filmmakers who they are.

    But maybe I’m just too passionate about “old-media”

  • February 26, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I learned photography on film, within the last few years, in fact, and I think there are still a lot of advantages to it. The dynamic range of film, particularly black and white film, is far better than practically any digital sensor, and the resolution of the best digital cameras is only in the last few years started to match that of even 35mm film. Even the highest megapixel cameras have yet to match medium format film. Also, for somebody new to photography, a $200 SLR and investment in film and development costs will get you a camera that will probably run more like $2000 for the equivalent digital SLR, albeit, with the one drawback of not being able to see one’s images instantaneously. Some areas, like long-exposure night photography or true infrared photography can only be done with film.

    Of course, the above article is talking about photojournalism rather than art photography, and for that, digital has carried the day for good reason.

  • February 27, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    it’s so interesting that this should happen now. over the summer i was talking to a friend of my father’s who works professionally as a photographer and he was saying that i shouldn’t bother to learn film anymore because the demand isn’t there. he built his darkroom from by hand and now he uses it to store drinks. he said the only reason he won’t dismantle the whole thing is because he worked so hard on it in the first place.

    i think that i do appreciate being able to go straight into learning digital photography because that is what i’d be using out in the world, but i agree w/Nicole about losing the history of photography when you don’t learn those skills. i personally still want to learn film, if only so that i can say i know how.

  • March 3, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    As a film major currently enrolled in Film Production I, and as a girl who took 3 years of darkroom, black and white photography in high school and is a member of the BU Photo Club, I find the switch to ONLY digital to be both frustrating and sad. I own a Canon Rebel xsi SLR camera, and while I love its 12 megapixels and all the features that come with a nice single-lens-release camera, I would not be able to shoot effective, beautiful photos without first learning how to use a 35mm SLR. As both Adam and Nicole have suggested, when shooting film, you’re very aware of the exact amount of film you have and you plan accordingly. Instead of just shooting nilly-willy and then discarding all the images/footage you don’t like, you actually have to–as Adam said–think about each and every shot with extreme detail. Also, it’s extremely important to understand how the shutter, aperture, and film stock work together to get the right mood you’re looking for with light. If the entire department switches to digital, not only will students not take the time to set everything up just right, but they will also just think, “oh well, I can fix this in photoshop later.” That’s not only cutting corners, but it undermines the very effectiveness of photography and film.

  • March 25, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    It’s a great subject and one that is discussed often in our house. Speaking of this, do any of you know of a course my husband can do to learn how to switch from digital to film. He was signed up for a course in Maine but it got cancelled and we are both looking for alternatives. He was a film photographer for years (prof) and was late to digital and is now wanting to catch up so he at least has it as a skill. We’re on the North Shore but he can travel anywhere in New England. Any ideas?


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