Choosing Film in a Digital Age

The Kentucky Derby. Photo by Chip Litherland

By Katelyn Umholtz

Photographers have been living in a digital world for quite some time, but for some journalists, getting out their old film cameras can serve as a nostalgic personal project or can even be published work.

For a year now, Chip Litherland has been using expired film he found in his trunk and basement and putting it to a creative use.

“I was covering the Daytona 500, and I was following around Danica Patrick,” Litherland said. “I wanted to take a risk, so I thought I would use the old film cameras I had laying around.”

After word got out, friends and colleagues started sending old film to his home base in Denver. He would even find boxes of it on his doorstep. He collected film from several decades, from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. Some film would work out just the way he wanted it to. Other times, it would fail on him.

“I've had some major disasters,” Litherland said. “Film from the ‘70s is just fried, and there's nothing on it. The film that is the oldest I use at less important times.”

The Daytona 500. Photo by Chip Litherland

“Unfortunately, I used it once at the Kentucky Derby during the race, so I literally only have one picture of the actual race,” Literhalnd said.

He said he loves getting different varieties of film because each has a different look, which surprises him when he gets the pictures developed. Sometimes they give the picture a magenta cast. He also has several pictures with light leaks coming from the corners of the photo.

He’s taken his old film cameras to well-known sporting events, like the Daytona 500 and Kentucky Derby, and he said it presented him with a new way to look at the race.

“I don't think it was so much the final results, as it was the process of holding my pictures again and handling the film,” Litherland said. “The process of scanning and rubbing nose grease … to get rid of scratches was awesome.”

Now with a currently large container full of film, Litherland said he has plans to hit up other major sporting events to continue the project. Though it would be nice if the project made money, that’s not Litherland’s goal.

“It's exciting for me, even if it's just a personal project that never makes any money,” Litherland said. “It's been cathartic.”

David Burnett with his 4x5 camera at the Rio Olympics. Photo by Eric Seals, USA Today Sports

Sometimes, visual journalists do the daring, like take an old 4x5 camera to the Olympics into a sea of digital shooters. That would be David Burnett, co-founder of Contact Press Images.

“I never really stopped shooting film,” Burnett said. “I did slowly segue into having a digital outfit. Since that happened 15 years ago, I've still been shooting mainly 4x5 and a little bit of 120.”

For many years now, Burnett has been seen carrying around his 4x5 to presidential campaigns and Olympic events. It all started because he wanted pictures that looked different from how everyone else was taking them.

It has been challenging, he said, but it has become the thing he is known for.

“The combination of camera, lens and film that I shoot with just has a look to it, which is something you don't get when shooting digital,” Burnett said. “It just looks cool. That's what I love about it.”

Even when he’s sitting among other fellow visual journalists who shoot digital, he said he hasn’t gotten criticism. Burnett said younger photographers are so fascinated with the camera that they even ask to take selfies with it. Older photographers have told him they appreciate what he’s doing.

Much of the challenge with working with this particular film camera is the process required just to work the camera and film. This process has failed him a few times, Burnett said.

“I shot 101 sheets of film,” Burnett said. “If I get 10 good pictures, I'll feel like it was all worth it.”

The wait for the pictures can be difficult, but also exciting. He won’t see the pictures he took at the Rio Olympics for another week, but after years and years of using this camera, that’s something he is used to.