some thoughts on film

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The first thing I ever saved up to buy was a camera. I spent the whole summer mowing my parents’ lawn and doing odd jobs, and managed to save up a couple hundred dollars to buy a Canon Sure Shot WP-1. It was a thing of beauty, and a source of tremendous personal pride to have earned it myself. Over the rest of the summer, I took and developed so many pictures that my parents quickly rescinded their offer to pay for film processing, in the hopes that it would curb my incessant desire to photograph anything and everything.  It didn’t, and I still have the huge box of prints (almost always in duplicate, just in case…), to show for it.

I stopped using film for a while when I got my first digital camera for Christmas, but my interest was rekindled when I found and borrowed (“appropriated” may be a more suitable word) my dad’s Canon AT-1. The pictures it produces are grainy, golden, and gorgeous – despite (or maybe because of?) my inexperience and uncertainty of how, exactly, photography works. It’s easily my most prized (not-quite-actually-mine) possession.

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Film photography is fundamentally inconvenient – it takes time to load film, to set up a shot without autofocus, and most of all to process the film – and that may just be its greatest virtue in a digital age. Eric Kim has a great blog post outlining some of the reasons that he continues to shoot on film, despite the costs, and his reasons emphasize what I take to be some of the best advantages of older (read: non-digital) media: they force the user to be more conscious of their use, to slow down, etc. In essence: they take time.

I’ve been trying to figure out how that simple fact – the inconvenience of film – can change my relationship to each frame. The truth is that I love most every picture that I take on film – even some of the objectively bad ones. How? Why? What is the rationale, if any, for liking something that I nevertheless recognize to be objectively imperfect? Is this feeling pure sentimentality (and if so does that make it wrong)?

I’m inclined to think that the value lies in the demand of attentiveness to each shot – that the lengthy set up, and the time spent adjusting the various variables and then winding the film, and the impossibility of taking several at a time, in quick succession, mean that each picture is a small investment. Getting a half-decent picture turns out to be a somewhat fortuitous coincidence of being in the moment, and being prepared for the moment – of being both attentive to and invested in. It’s a strange hybrid of the anticipitory patience of waiting for the right moment, and the activity of preparing oneself to seize it when it happens. Much of this is true for digital photography as well, but the stakes for each digital frame are lower, which means (though perhaps doesn’t necessarily imply) that there’s less of a reason to be invested in the outcome. Perhaps it’s just that investment that makes the result feel like a payoff (whether film or digital): like so many things, takeaway is proportional to the effort put in.

Whatever the reason, there’s something undeniably beautiful about film, and it worries me that it’s increasingly difficult to find places to develop it affordably. In case the ability to do so disappears soon (not likely, but why risk it?), I’ve decided to make it a personal goal to take more pictures on film. I’m by no means a skilled photographer – the relationship between shutter speed and aperture is a source of constant confusion, and despite researching it several times I still can’t seem to ever remember what film ISO is/means… – but I’m optmistic that practice (and a bit of learning) makes perfect.

In case you’d like to join me, here are some great resources I’ve found for beginner photographers (most are useful for both film & digital).  Let’s learn how to take better photographs together!

A great overview of photography basics (terminology, etc.) from Tutorial9
Understanding aperture- and shutter priority from Photo.net
Camille Styles has a great set of resources in her Photography School series
IStillShootFilm has a great introduction for film photography beginners
Rachel (Elephantine) makes it look so easy with her “life on film” shots…

Do you have a different relationship to film than to digital media? Let me know in the comments.
And please feel encouraged to share photography tips with me – I’d love to learn your secrets to taking great pictures.

(All pictures taken using Canon AT-1 with 50mm lens)

 

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