Film Is Racist!

by Harrison Galgut about a year ago in film

Or it used to be.

Film Is Racist!
Self Portrait

So you are probably thinking that I am talking rubbish, but there is history to it. The way in which film was developed was greatly influenced by the early users.

History Lesson: In the 1800s, America was a very new nation and well slavery wasn't quite gone and this made a difference in economic status. Due to photography equipment being expensive only the very wealthy could afford it. This then led to the people who made film creating it to work with those who bought it... which happened to be landowners... which happened to be white people.

Shirley Card Circa 1966

This is a Shirley Card. It was used to check you have the correct colour balance for your picture. Most Shirley Cards were of light skinned people, and the film didn't differentiate browns and dark reds very well either.

This problem continued until the 1970s where a furniture company found that Kodak Film didn't show the difference between dark grain and light grain wood.

The shame is that we don't have to look that far to see how the history affects the present. If you look at Oprah in the beginning of her career you can see how bad the film is at picking up her skin tone. Same with other dark skinned people like Will Smith. Where as if you look at Will Smith's films from the modern times and the digital age the difference is truly noticeable.

Shirley Card Circa 1990s

As Film and TV diversified it became easier to see the issues that film had with differentiating different skin tones, and in the 1990s a team of engineers tackled this problem. It also saw the creation of Shirley Cards of people form all races.

Once the Kodak Gold 100 film came out that was the start to the change in dynamic which allowed for darker colours and the reds and browns had better dynamics within them. This then gave better colour and dynamics to darker colours where those tones were more present.


Digital! The great equaliser!

By the time digital started to become the norm, they had solved the whole film not showing all tones accurately, but by then we had better dynamic range from digital cameras. We could easily move and play with the images with programmes like Lightroom and Photoshop to gain the correct exposure and have more accurate colour.

The battle to make film more inclusive started with trying to photograph furniture, and therefore increasing the dynamic range available in film. This also started a trend in photography about wanting more range in images and more detail in pictures. This is also why HDR grew into existence, and also fell out of fashion. Dynamic range is photographers best friend and the pictures worst nightmare.

Film by no means is a racist item, I just find it interesting how an item which photographers were so heavily dependent (and now becoming more popular again) was so greatly influenced by its beginnings. As the world changed, film became less expensive to produce and then more people could gain access to it. It changed how companies approached the production of film, and then digital changed the photography game.

If you enjoy photographing on film for nostalgia, or because that is how you have always photographed. Please, don't let this little piece of history stop you. The dynamic range of film is fine and nothing is wrong with it. The days of it not collecting the right information to expose darker skin tones is gone—just everything has history and we can only accept it.

This video was the inspiration for the article and has a little more detail on how the film developed into what we know it for today.

Harrison Galgut
Harrison Galgut
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Harrison Galgut

Professional Wedding, Events and Portrait Photographer. Always looking for new experiences and people to meet. Have a look at my work:

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