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]