Even as a kid in single digit ages, I had a fascination with photography. In high school, I took one semester. I wish I had gotten more out of it but I was in that stage where I was smoking a lot before school (if you know what I mean) and it was not conducive to getting the most out of anything. But I did get to take a lot of shots around Rochester, NY and spend time in a darkroom developing film. Still, I remember seeing cameras like the Canon AE-1 in magazines and, to me, it was the equivalent of porn. I was a half-wasted teenager and didn’t have money so that was as far as that went. That was a very long time ago.
Skip ahead and I’m working on becoming the best headshot photographer in the region. I’m a published motorsports photographer. I’m delving into fashion photography with as much focus. I have pretty really sophisticated gear and decent editing skills. I am “in the game”. So when I ran across a Canon AE-1 on the cheap, I went for it. I acquired a Canon A-1 shortly after and set out to find my favorite films.
My experience with the film cameras in general has been fun. But there’s always some level of uncertainty. Is the exposure right? Is the depth of field where I want it? IS there any depth of field? Is the focus right and can I trust my eyes? Are the pictures coming out? I’ve realized just how much I rely upon the electronics of modern cameras. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, given the level of even the cheapest modern camera, there’s no excuse for bad photos. You have SO many tools at your fingertips! It’s nice to get back to more basics though. Since you can’t shoot until the memory card fills up, you have to pick and choose your shots. Since you can’t see the results right away, you have to do your best to get it right. In many ways, it makes you focus on the basics. Part of the reason I like shooting film is because of that challenge. Because I can.
I wouldn’t use the film cameras for a serious shoot. People do it and my hat’s off to them. Many of the photographers that I admire and study did all their work in film. So it CAN be done. Sure, film has it’s own character but when I’m shooting, I need to get the shot. Period. I don’t have room for uncertainty. Maybe that would come with experience on those cameras. I don’t know but I’m not willing to gamble. So my film shoots have been a lot of “miscellaneous” stuff. Most of the pictures are “meh” throwaways but I’ve gotten a few I really like. And there’s something very analog about them. Of course, there’s no instant picture. I’m not sure Instagram would have been a thing without digital photography. Since I’m not developing my own film (I just have more than enough things on my plate), I need to send it out and I’m still trying different places. That’s no more cumbersome than it used to be.
I recently went to help another photographer on one of his shoots and, since it was his shoot, I didn’t take my good camera. I was there to help him not get my own pictures. But I grabbed one of the film cameras because…. who knows? We showed up at this beautiful location before the models and I whipped out my film camera… took 3 pictures and reached the end of the roll. What? Three pictures? And I ran out of film? When was the last decade that happened? Of course, had it been important, I would have made sure I had plenty of film, extra rolls, backup gear.. the whole enchilada. So it was no big deal. But I ran OUT of FILM! That’s just too funny.
And then we get to film. Every film has it’s own look with various differences of how black the blacks are or how bright the whites are. Some films are warmer. Some tend toward cooler tones. The famed Kodachrome had these beautiful reds and magentas. It was also extremely toxic to develop. It’s unlikely Kodachrome will ever return. The good news is that there are a number of software programs that can emulate various films. For my black and white work, I LOVE Silver Efex Pro from the Nik Collection. For color, there are numerous other options. I can take photos with my modern magic-like gadgetry and apply software changes to emulate the film look. But is that cheating?
So then.. why film?
It’s actually a good question. I can’t say I have a good answer. Some people shoot film because it’s “retro” and “hip”. I don’t care about that. It’s a deeper and more personal issue for me. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of it. Maybe because it’s not as easy as modern digital. Maybe because it’s just different. I could ask why people bake bread instead of conveniently buying it at the store. Fresh bread tastes better. I can’t say the same about film pictures. Not mine anyway.
I’m at this crossroad in my relationship with film. Do I keep shooting it and work to get to the level of people like Avedon and Bailey? Will that also translate to my digital photography? Or do I admit to myself that it’s all about the nostalgia of it and relegate my film cameras to shelf art? These are questions I haven’t answered yet but I’m finally getting around to asking them and that’s a start.