Why I Shoot Film
When I was in my late teens I discovered photography through the lens of a Pentax Spotmatic, with the help of my friend Bob and his Pentax K1000. I was always hanging with Bob back then. He rode a skateboard, had a sweet mullet and a tattoo, and knew everything about photography. The Spotmatic was a gift from my mom in my senior year of high school, my first real live grown-up camera, she thought I should have my own to shoot while Bob and I tromped through town on one photo walk or another. I lost that Spotmatic in a cross-country move, so I replaced it with an Olympus OM-10 that I used up until my first digital camera in the early 2000’s. Eventually I gave that camera away, put my darkroom equipment into a storage tote and shot digital exclusively until I had pangs of nostalgia 10 years later.
I missed shooting film. I liked the way the pictures look, the unique grain I would get depending upon which B&W film stock I choose, or the color profile presented with my choice of color film. I enjoyed the way the camera felt in my hands, the slap of the mirror when I snapped the shutter release, and you can’t deny that those classic cameras just look kickass. Metal bodies with chrome and steel and leather, like a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am playing the Scorpions’ “Blackout” in the tape deck – THAT level of classic kickass. So I went on eBay and got a Pentax Spotmatic for $40. It had been awhile since I lost my original Spotmatic, it seemed fitting that I should have one again. Come to think of it, while I’m here, I might wanna see what I can get a K1000 for, I always liked Bob’s. 60 bucks? Sold. Hmm, maybe a Canon AE-1 next, I mean I have real live grown up money now, not that $4/hr I earned when I first started shooting. This level of accessibility has my shelves stocked with more than 2 dozen working film cameras now plus lenses and accessories. Bags! I have so many fucking bags! Some of these cameras came with bags, some of my bags I bought thinking “this will be that one bag I go to” followed by six more “okay now THIS will be my main go-to bag.” Bags for one camera, bags for two, bags for a camera and two lenses, an enormous Canon-branded bag that I thought would carry everything back before I realized I would soon have 2 dozen cameras and 30 or so lenses. Oh and straps! So many camera straps. Eventually I found just the right bag and a fantastic strap, and gave away some of the bags and straps though I still have a stack of them in the back of my closet.
I’m what you would call a hybrid shooter. When I need to have good, immediate results with little guesswork or margin for error, I grab my DSLR. It makes fast, high-quality photos whether I’m setting up a shoot for a painting project, or pics for online application, or basically anything where the photo is of the utmost importance and can’t be left to chance. However, I never really “long” to grab my digital camera to go shooting with. That’s where my film cameras come in. I look for opportunities to take one out simply for the joy of communing with my surroundings and enjoying the act of photography. I almost don’t even care what the pictures look like, I derive pleasure from the way the camera feels in my hands, the way the controls feel as I dial in the right settings, the sound that the shutter makes and the feel of the mechanisms working inside as the mirror clunks up and back. I look for any excuse to bring these machines out, and will take a long all-day ride or drive around the region just for the opportunity to shoot something new with them.
I think of film photographers in the same way I think of mod kids on classic Lambretta scooters. Sure, you can get unparalleled performance on a Ducati or a Hayabusa (substitute for Nikon full-frame DSLR), but an old Lambretta (a film camera from the 70’s) is just classy and kinda punk, and I’m a bit old-school and slightly weird so this machine is an ideal accessory. Film photographers are people who have a hard time passing by a flea market or antique shop without stopping “just in case.” Film photographers have more rolls of film in their freezers than they have food. Film photographers will intrigue by telling you what’s so special about their medium of choice, but that intrigue wears off because they don’t know when to stop talking about that medium. While digital photographers will pack one camera and seven or eight lenses, film photographers will pack film, lenses, a flash, a notebook and a pen, and five cameras… “My main camera, my back-up camera, my medium format, my rangefinder, and a Holga because why not?” Is it no wonder why I have so many bags and straps? Oh and filters! I forgot about all the stacks of filters!
It can be a bit of an obsession. Just when I think “I really have enough cameras, too many in fact” I give one away, notice an empty space on the shelf the nest day and think “I really should fill that with something, like, I dunno, another camera maybe?” However one thing this obsession does for me is it gets me out of my routine. When you have all this gear and half a freezer full of film, you want to use it. Don’t wanna shoot in my neighborhood again, I have a hundred photos of that already. I should get on the bike and go somewhere! Where shall I go? Someplace new, I don’t wanna shoot Mallets Bay, I don’t wanna shoot downtown Montpelier, I don’t wanna shoot covered bridges, how about Saint Anne’s Shrine? How about that weird abandoned cemetery in the woods you can see from the interstate? Perhaps I should make a list of all the festivals in the area that I never go to and start making a plan for the summer, because how cool would Strolling of the Heifers look on Portra 400 film?
It’s worth mentioning the wanderlust that accompanies the motorcycling lifestyle is complimentary to that of a film photographer. That plus the shortness of Vermont summers (you blink and it’s snowing again already) creates a need to get out there and do all the things while you still can. Our summers are treasures not to be squandered. I’m in my middle years now, which creates another level of urgency to do all the things, and drink in as much life as I can because, much like summer in Vermont, you blink one time too many and it’s gone.
Shooting a roll of film gives you 36 opportunities to capture a moment, and you have no idea if you got it right until you get the negatives back from the lab, so you need to learn your stuff and take your time. On a DSLR you can set a setting, blast out 30 photos, change the setting, bang out 25 more, rinse, repeat, and out of the 300 photos you got it’s likely a dozen are going to be fantastic and the rest can be thrown away. Not so with film. A roll of Ektar cost ten bucks, another seven or eight bucks to get it processed in a week or so, and that roll yields only 36 exposures, so every one of them has to count. You learn to “zen” with your surroundings, actively looking for your next image in the wilds you walk through. While I might point my cell phone at something and pop off a few absent-minded pictures while walking, composition on film is a different beast. I’ll enter a scene and the first thing that happens is “Ooh! Neat!”
…I say out loud “Ooh! Neat!”
Once I’m done that part I squat down or lean forward or whatever it takes to find that right angle and I squish my camera up to my face and look through the viewfinder. Then I move again, back a little more, maybe stand in the street for this one. Turn the camera a different angle, change the view a little, and then decide “Nah, there’s nothing there” and continue onward. 30 seconds to a minute or two stopped in a place I hadn’t planned on stopping in, to take in my surroundings that I might have otherwise just walked through while looking down at my phone to see what my friends just posted on Facebook.
I may not even like the photos I get. I might like them but never do anything with them. At the end of the day the photos themselves don’t even really matter, the process of pursuing and capturing the images was my goal and so the photos themselves sometimes seem irrelevant. I slide the negatives into my binder, I can always retrieve them later – they will probably last forever, negatives don’t corrupt in storage like a binary file can, and photos I shot in 1988 look just as good as photos I shot last week with the same type of camera. I can’t say as much for digital photos I shot in 2002 on a 1 megapixel camera, and digital photos I shot last year can lose data or completely corrupt just by opening and closing them. Also, somehow digital photos don’t seem to have the same soul that analog photos do.
It’s my luck that this obsession is shared by a great deal of others. Film photography has experienced a resurgence in popularity, much like vinyl record albums, analog technologies are more attractive to a world overloaded with digital. Cell phones and iTunes and blue-screen special effects and digital art rendering and autotune and social media are pulling us from our humanity, pulling us from the things organic that connect us all as a species. As a result, many are returning to those organic experiences that give them comfort and pleasure. While this certainly drives up the prices on vintage film cameras and lenses, as the supply is finite, it also creates value on those cameras. 15 years ago that old film camera in the garage might have just been thrown away as a useless relic no one wants anymore, now they are more likely to be preserved. Film stocks are being sold in higher numbers, many new companies are even developing and producing all new filmstocks, so there will be plenty of films for us to load into our cameras that were saved from the landfill. More vintage camera shops are getting a resurgence in business, and finding a greater need for skilled technicians to repair and tune-up those old cameras.
Also, it creates a community of enthusiasts. Community is a good thing. This community is growing every year, you’re welcome to join us.