Keep calm and shoot film: all about film photography
This is from a sticker I received when I purchased some film equipment from the film photography project, a company focused on providing equipment for film photographers.
I love the sticker as it reminds me of one of the reasons why I love shooting film. It does slow me down, not so much because I have to learn it (although there are a few learning curves for sure, in particular processing film). But given the nature of the medium, you are more deliberate of your shots, and hence only take one when you are sure that it will be something usable. At least that’s how I have been shooting.
Getting back into shooting “film”
The beginnings of my photography journey
My dad was a documentary journalist and is still a photographer. He always took pictures of us kids (my brother and I) and our family. Thanks to him, my younger life (from 0 to about 12 years of age, and even to some extent my teenage years) is very well documented. I think professionally he was shooting Leica (when he was a journalist), but I mostly remember seeing his Minolta SLR.
When I was a teenager, my parents bought me a photography book, and also got me into a photography course. Back then, this was all non-digital. I learned how to develop film, and how to work in a dark room (although never had my own dark room). I got my first SLR, a Yashica, and used it quite a bit in my teenage years. I did not develop my own film, and just send it it to a local lab.
Years of digital photography
Fast forward many years, and after several years of immersing myself into digital photography, and also after completing a major personal project (project 365, a picture a day for 365 days), I decided to get back into film photography.
Closing the loop: back to analog photography!
I have been documenting my journey into film using a traditional analog notebook. Getting back into analog closes to circle to what I originally learned.
Learning film photography
There is a lot to learn in film photography. For example, film choice, camera choice, film format choice, lens choice, metering/exposure, to name a few.
So, in a way, much of this is not unlike what we do with digital cameras and in that sense, the learning aspect is probably more around the technical and process and processing aspects of film photography. Everything else still holds true: importance of subject/story/emotion, of light/lighting and composition. I still love to pre-visualize my shots, probably even more so with film. And I can, if I choose so, play with color, or with small things, or big things like landscapes!
Operating a film camera can be as easy or as hard as any digital camera. Many say that digital are more complicated because they have so many (too many?) features (and endless menu options). And I would not disagree with that latter, although some of these features are fantastic.
For example, operating a film camera like the Hasselblad is definitely different. Not only does it look very different from most of the cameras we see today, it also feels different. Very mechanical, very big, but also very solid and modular. The film is very different, and even loading film is different.
Some of the youtube channels I have watched and enjoyed on film photography are Pushing Film (Australian photographer , Nick Exposed (American creative / photographer Nick Mayo), Advancing your photography (mostly the David Milnor episodes, a great documentary photographer). There are quite a few other great channels as well.
I own and use a vintage Nikon FE SLR (single lens reflex camera). The camera cost $120 dollars on eBay. This is a highly recommended all manual 35mm classic film camera, and I have been using this camera alongside my medium format Hasselblad camera (pictured above).
Ultimately for either medium, the camera is not that important: lighting, subject/composition and technical execution are paramount. The camera is still important, but is just a tool. It’s a tool I love, and I focus my camera choices very much on usability.
Unlike digital cameras, where the sensor is a core feature of the camera, with film cameras, it is really the film. So in theory, you can equip a point and shoot film camera with the best sensor (= film) in the world!
So the sensor of the film camera is the film. And choosing the film does affect the image quality and look. For example, you can choose a relatively contrasty grainy black and white film, or a less contrasty smooth color film. There are professional grade films (e.g. Kodak Ektar), and more consumer grade films (Kodak Gold).
While I am still learning, I do love the look of certain black and white films (Kodak TriX 400 and Ultrafine Xtreme 400). The latter can be had in bulk, and I started to bulk load my own film rolls, hence significantly reducing my costs (for 35mm film). So, black and white 35mm film is cheap, easy to develop and thus will likely be my primary medium.
Color 35mm film is still expensive (relatively) and I am not aware of many discount/bulk loading options. A way around this is to use expired film, but I haven’t ventured into this yet, although I might!
120mm film and even larger format films are more expensive than 35mm. For those films, getting the shot right is even more important. Due to economical reasons, I tend to not shoot much medium format film, but I do love the larger format and medium.
The shooting experience is in a way similar to digital and yet very different. For example, often I shoot without a light meter (as the camera doesn’t have one). This means it’s a fully manual process and I pay very close attention to exposure, tonalities of a scene and so forth. I also tend to expose for the shadows which is almost the opposite to digital (exposing for the highlights) … more on that perhaps at a later time.
The film development process can be expensive as well, especially at professional labs. While I had a couple of rolls developed at a local lab in Minneapolis (total cost $12), I started to develop my black and white film, and now also my own color film. Experience does help, and my film processing technique is getting better and more consistent already and I am very comfortable developing both. My sense is that I’ll focus more on black and white as it is still al little more forgiving and I love the film look of black and white.
Developing a roll of film is very gratifying: it’s so fun to open up the development tank and see the negatives (it’s horrifying if something went wrong!).
Again, this is where things can get expensive. Of course, this holds true for digital as well. I personally do not enlarge my negatives in the darkroom (yet?). I scan the negatives, and then convert them in a Photo editing software (in my case, Adobe Lightroom). This process gives me control and as I tend to share the majority of my images digitally anyway, it makes sense. It’s also a way to prepare the images for printing. But printing out ones work is very satisfying. I recently printed out a small portfolio sample in magazine style and was very pleased to get the actual copy in the mail and thumb through the pages.
Of course, light is key to all photography. I do not envision it to be any different from digital photography. But I do look forward to seeing how different film responds to different lighting conditions. A major difference between film and digital is the way those two technologies handle very strong light (highlights) and lower / less light (shadows). This is something that will affect how to expose film versus digital, at least to some extent. Again, I view all the things I learned getting ready for and during my professional photography pursuits as a huge asset in my film photography endeavors. Hopefully this will hold true!
A limitation that can be liberating
So, one thing I already learned about film shooting is to be even more deliberate and careful with regards to pressing the shutter. Such limitations however can actually increase creativity and I do not view this as a major negative. And, I can always capture snapshots or “non-artistic” images with my digital cameras.
The project film
I plan to journal and document my journey in film. And to share what I learn along the way. Not only the end-result, but also much of the behind the scenes, both the good and the bad. I am excited about this project, and I look forward to sharing the work.
All those examples are from early October 2019. I hope you like them! Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts below!