Monday, September 01, 2008

Homage to Analogue #1 - film photography

A photography course I took earlier this year reacquainted me with the joys and tribulations of shooting photographs on 135 mm photographic film and using old manual SLR cameras.

Reflecting on my experiences, I came to see waiting as one of the defining aspects of film photography and how it is different from digital photography. It is a slow process, and a slow technology.

And so I was inspired to write a series of posts in homage to ‘analogue’ technologies, with this, the first, a homage to 35 mm film photography.

I learned that taking photographs on film is an exercise in patience – each roll had to be finished and developed before I could see the results. However much I wanted to know immediately if my tinkering with framing, composition and exposure had worked out, I was forced to wait.

After collecting the developed roll, I would flick through the envelope of prints and flinch at each debacle of composition, focus, exposure, or colour. Many were just silly errors. It was frustrating.

When things went well, amongst the wasted shots would be a few gems where the right confluence of light, composition and subject would emerge from the emulsion. And with that would come a great sense of accomplishment – made all the sweeter by the waiting and the length of the process.

I wouldn’t discount how much of it was pure luck, though.

With film, there is none of the instant gratification of digital photography. There’s no seeing if you got the photo right on the tiny LCD screen. And there’s certainly no opportunity to plug the camera into your computer to download and view the image files, tinker with them in photo editing software, delete the duds, file the rest away on your hard drive or burn them onto CD, and, if you’re lucky, print off a few on your home inkjet printer.

Using film also requires more deliberate, intentional activity. Some of this relates to using a manual SLR film camera, where one has to turn dials to set exposures (and wind on film), turn the lens barrel to focus and pressing the button to release the shutter.

But most of it stems from the high cost of buying and developing rolls of film. With each frame costing money, I was less inclined to snap away over and over again at the same subject to try out different approaches in the hopes of getting the perfect shot – or just getting it right.

This is certainly different from digital photography, where you can take however many images as your memory card – or batteries – will allow. And where you can view and delete files and reshoot the photo to hopefully get it right. After all, a digital image is only a series of 1s and 0s, rather than dollars and cents.

Instead, when shooting on film, each frame has to count, each exposure worked out, and each framing and composition planned, often with fingers crossed. Sure, while doing the course the deliberate technical learning played a big part in slowing me down, but cost was never far from my mind. More often than not, I would not take the shot – especially if the elements didn’t come together.

I’m sure many of you would have stories to share about the photographs you didn’t take, rather than ones you didn’t. It would be interesting to compare which instances are most remembered.

Film photography is well-suited to the ethos of the Slow Movement, which encourages us to ease up our frantic, frenetic lives, and embrace slowing down and forging more meaningful connections with other people and with what what we are doing. The patience-teaching, deliberate activity of taking photographs on film, having them developed and sorting, storing and admiring the prints can still be enriching – even if all it does is get us to slow down.

For all the frustration and enforced patience of film photography, it is a beautiful form. It can be like a meditation, and for every two or three duds, the good shots shine brighter. It requires time. And effort.

What are your favourite film photography moments, memories and photographs?

Update: now cross-posted at Sarsaparilla, where I have been invited to to be a contributor! Cool! Thanks,
Sarsaparilla! [Updated 3 September 6.30 pm]

[Photograph is one of mine, taken of my older son at Collingwood Children's Farm, on 400 ISO 35 mm film, on an old Minolta 100 ST manual SLR. Not one of my best, but illustrative]

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At September 01, 2008 1:51 pm, Blogger djfoobarmatt said...

I'm really excited about your idea of exploring analogue technology. There is something so ingenius about the way problems have been solved in the pre-digital age - it's as if having the freedom of digital has somehow made us less imaginative! That could be an illusion. I think the keywords that will come up in these posts are that in general digital is faster, cheaper, flexible, less noisy but disposable, transient and harsh. Where as analogue is slower, expensive, fiddly, noisy but more lasting, connected and organic.

At September 01, 2008 2:39 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Couldn't have said it better myself (though was thinking along those lines). And I wish I had... ;)

At September 01, 2008 2:49 pm, Blogger Tim said...

This is a great idea, Mark. I might put up a post with some tenuously related thoughts later today.

At September 02, 2008 8:55 pm, Blogger phil said...

Mark - well this takes me back to when I first got interested in photography at about age 9, with first of all an old folding camera and then a Brownie. In my late teens and early 20s I got right into it, developing and printing also. Now that is a real thrill, seeing the images appear in the tray.

But you're right about analogue SLRs - it gets you thinking about composition and the mental aritheitc involved in the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and film speed is good mental exercise, first of all to get it right and then to strat fiddling for particular effects.

Of course it all used to be done this way and for a regulkar photographer it was second nature. If I have to pick up my old SLR now I would have to think much, much longer about it.

That said, Mrs VVB bought herself a nice analogue Nikon a few years ago and I really should strat to explore its potential as it has such sophisticated metering and so forth.

Look forward to reading more of your series.

At September 03, 2008 9:55 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Hey, phil, good to see you back on my blog. Developing and printing? That's seriously old school! Heh. But I would love to get into the dark room as well. My partner did B&W photography at art school, and I was quite envious. One day.

Lately, I've been toying with the idea of whacking a roll of Ilford black and white in the old Minolta, taping down the seams to seal the slow light leak and take some black and whites.

What's stopping me is not knowing where to take it to be developed, and the prohibitive costs in developing B&W, from what I've heard. (I don't have access to a darkroom, and can't develop...)

And you're very right about the mental gymnastics of calculating apertures and shutter speeds for the right exposures and DOF. It was one of the things I enjoyed – you actually had to wait, think, set up the shot, and then shoot. Which also explains why I let so many shots go – I'm too slow.

I reckon you should do it, phil. I''m sure Mrs VVB won't mind if you borrow her old Nikon (hmm, sounds like a nice camera, that).

Looking forward to seeing the results on VVB.

At September 05, 2008 8:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations Mark!
Last time we took our boychild to the CCF (it was the solstice bonfire before last) there were no horses in the horse arena but there were a bunch of 44-gallon drums. All the kids were teaching themselves to stand on them rolling around. Mucho fun.

At February 24, 2012 4:36 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

congratulations mark good job

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