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The Heralded Veteran Who Still Reaches for Film

Photographer David Burnett For nearly 50 years, David Burnett has been traveling and documenting the world – much of it on film. While most of th...


Photographer David Burnett

For nearly 50 years, David Burnett has been traveling and documenting the world – much of it on film. While most of the photojournalism world has shifted to using digital photography exclusively, Burnett stubbornly continues to carry around a Speed Graphic camera and dozens of sheet film holders – making him instantly recognizable on the sidelines of events such as the Olympics.

After all these years working in photography and seeing so many technological developments, why do you still shoot film?

As wonderful as the new tech and digital is – and there are a few great elements: speed of confirmation, speed of dissemination of images, and I’m sure there are other “good things” – there is something about film which still attracts me. In a way, I think I still appreciate that sense of dread, that pit in your tummy when you have no idea whether or not you HAVE a picture or not. In the first 150 years of photography, that was standard practice. You might have shot a Polaroid to give you an idea, but you never really KNEW you had it until you saw the negative or slide after it was processed. That sometimes took days, or even weeks. So you had a lot of what you did on faith, on hope, that your personal technique could match the vagaries of whatever you were shooting. When it works, it’s very satisfying. When it doesn’t…well…that hasn’t changed in 150 years.

Campers at the swimming hole of Falling Creek Boys Camp. Tuxedo, North Carolina, July 7, 2007

Photo by David Burnett

What attracts you to 4×5?

I love forcing myself to slow down a little (though it’s true that I’ve become pretty good at shooting a fast 4×5 frame or two) because the combination of slowing down on the rear of the camera, and what is often perceived by your subject as “something special,” gives you a chance to occasionally make a picture that you wouldn’t have had with your 6 frames per second digital camera.  And I love looking at those 4×5 contact sheets. Four on a page (8×10).  THAT is photography!

Do you have clients asking you to specifically shoot large format or is that a personal choice per project?

I have had a few projects in the last year where we pitched 4×5 to the client, and in the end they loved it, and ran those pictures. I had a similar experience on stories I’ve shot for National Geographic the last decade. On each one I shot both digital and 4×5, and in almost every case, the film pictures were the ones that were used.

You’ve shot both color and black and white film in the past decade. What prompts you to pick one over the other?

Color is seductive, but black and white has a historic feeling to it (I guess I’m old enough to feel that way, huh?)  and maybe even a permanence. I love both, but in large format, black and white is my favorite.


Photo by David Burnett

Are you surprised at the resurgence of interest in film and alternative processes (e.g. tintype, the Impossible Project, New55)?  

I’m not surprised at all by the resurgence in film work which has developed. I think so many creative people are trying to find something to fill a void which the “complete” quality of digital represented. Photography isn’t simply aiming your camera. It’s something that combines what’s in your heart with what your eye sees. In a world where everyone with a phone is a photographer, I think a lot of photographers are looking for a little something more.

If large format digital existed, would you give up on film?  

Send me one with a Graflock back, and I’ll get back to ya!

For more on the photographers and companies who are still celebrating film, check out our guide, Film Photography in a Digital Age.


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