As a kid, I enjoyed photography.
I loved using my parents’ Olympus SuperZoom 300, and after letting me take a few crappy shots with it, they eventually got me a camera of my own. Originally I had a little camera that was aimed at children (I assume). It was black, with a big green button to charge up the flash, and you had to advance the film manually.
I loved that camera.
But, at 7 years old or so, I had already fallen victim to lens lust. After a few years of using that first camera, and another slightly better one, my parents eventually got me a Pentax IQ Zoom 90MC.
I was thrilled.
I remember waking up the day after they bought it for me, rushing over to it, grabbing it and staring at it as if it were about to disappear. I remember mentioning to my parents that I was under the impression it might have been a dream.
I eventually lost that camera on a hiking trip in the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands in Tanzania (where we lived for 6 years).
My parents then left me their digital Canon PowerShot G2. They had moved on to more recent cameras. That’s when I first began to understand how photography works in a technical sense. Prior to that, I had just framed a shot and assumed everything would work out. The digital camera allowed me to explore: I remember that moment where I first played with aperture priority and realised I could control how much of my subject was in focus.
That totally blew my mind.
When I realised that depth of field was also affected by the distance to the subject? Also another mind-blowing moment. When I understood that the camera didn’t have to control the exposure, but that I could override it by going into Manual and specifying both the shutter speed and the aperture? The possibilities were endless. My 14 or 15 year old head almost exploded.
For beginners, digital has the distinct advantage of being easy to play with and see results on the fly.
I later got the opportunity to play with a friend’s Canon Digital Rebel. He let me take some shots at a few sporting events as well as a graduation ceremony. Until then, all the cameras I had used were compacts.
I knew it, then and there: I had to have an SLR.
My parents promised me that if I got good enough grades, they would buy me one. I was generally a good, serious student, but my grades hadn’t been quite up to my former standards in 10th grade. Fortunately things worked out. And my parents got me a Nikon D70s.
That camera got me into wildlife photography. I had always loved East Africa’s wildlife, but now I appreciated it on a whole new level. I could spend hours sitting in an open top Land Cruiser near a pride of lions, or on a path near some chimpanzees. I loved it. I dreamed of travelling the world capturing incredible moments for National Geographic.
Eventually, with the same promise of good grades, my parents bought me my glorious Nikon D300 as a graduation present. 8 years later, it feels more like an old friend than a camera.
Photography had, over time, grown to be one of my numerous passions. It is probably the one thing I have been most passionate about for the longest amount of time. Beyond photography as a whole, I also ended up loving my D300, its image quality and the collection of lenses I built around it.
I built a process around that camera that worked well for me. If I left home with it, I knew how to tune it exactly to my current needs. I usually ended up with a ton of images, because I have some pretty large memory cards and didn’t feel a need to pace myself.
Then I took a 6 credit photography class for my undergrad at Concordia University in Montréal. The class required the use of a film camera, and even though my degree was in Computation Arts, a degree primarily focused on the digital space, I was thrilled to finally learn how photography “traditionally” worked.
I loved film. Not just because the colour and tonal curves were more interesting pre-edit, and the grain was prettier than digital noise, but because it got me to slow down.
I love the digital space. I love the internet. I love building things quickly, and throwing them out there, and seeing how they work, and building more things on top of the first ones. I love trying “shiny” new stuff.
But film slowed me down.
And I realised that while I loved the speed and constant change that comes with with digital media, I also loved the time and consideration that came with traditional media.
Being forced by the price and the medium to limit the speed at which I shot, and the manner in which I composed felt fantastic.
Then I moved on. Did an MFA during which I didn’t touch film. And for the past year and a half or so, I was the co-founder and CTO of a startup (it didn’t work out; we shut it down), and I had the same kind of realisation. There’s a demand and expectation of speed that comes with a digital environment, and while it might feel right to work excessive hours for seven days a week, it feels much better to slow down. The quality of my work improved when, earlier this year, I forced myself to relax a bit more.
That’s also when I remembered a family friend had lent me an old Leica II. I had been dragging it around for a while as I moved from Montréal, to Burlington VT, to Halifax NS, to Vancouver BC. I kept hoping to test it a bit in the hopes that it was still functional (or get it repaired if not), but I never got around to it.
I finally tried it out about a month ago.
I took the camera on a trip to New Brunswick to visit my girlfriend’s family. And I almost didn’t touch my digital gear, even though I did bring it. I found myself in situations where I would normally shoot a dozen shots, taking just one.
I was being far more careful about what I was shooting, how I was composing, and the quality of the light. These aren’t things that I ignore, when I shoot digitally, but I feel like I have more leeway, and I won’t be wasting any money if it doesn’t work out.
Once I got the images back from that trip, I was a little bit disappointed. I had trouble loading the film into the Leica and had apparently managed to tear one roll of film in a way that created a weird artefact on most of the photos. I also managed to load another roll such that it… didn’t advance at all. And I hadn’t bothered to check. So I got no photos out of it.
Beyond all that, I may have misunderstood how to focus with the camera/lens, or it might be in desperate need of some maintenance. Everything was far out of focus. There were a few shots that were supposed to be focused on something close, but instead were focused on the background. The ones that were, in theory, focused at infinity were completely out of focus.
Finally, there were also bright white spots all over the images, leading me to believe that the shutter curtain has some small holes in it.
I was disappointed, but I was also excited. I had rediscovered film.
I used to own a Canon TX and a Nikon F65, but they seemed to have disappeared at some point during one of my moves. I promptly hopped onto craigslist and found a Nikon F90 in really nice condition for fifty bucks.
I have since been dragging it around everywhere. I can’t afford to shoot a ton of film, so I’ve been slowing down even more. Normally, I keep my Panasonic GX1 on me, and shoot thirty shots a day a lot of the time, but with the cost of film, I’ve been keeping that down to about a roll per 10 days.
I like slowing down.
In life, in productivity, and in art, slowing down feels good. It feels healthy, it (perhaps surprisingly) feels more productive, and it feels like a completely different kind of creativity: you really have to think about what you’re creating in the moment, rather than after the fact. When I shoot with digital I often think about what I can do later with a shot, which I think is also a creative mindset, but it’s focused on possibilities, rather than the current moment.
This might be a silly analogy, but I guess shooting digitally feels like buying or making paint, whereas shooting film feels like underpainting. With digital, I feel like I’m preparing my materials to create something later. It’s sort of the same with film, but further along in the process: what you’re doing with film, when you release the shutter, has a far greater impact on the final product.
Film is very different. Very interesting. Very fun.
I wouldn’t say that using film is some crazy, magical thing that will make everything more fun or interesting. But it’s certainly different, and worth giving a shot (hah!).
Even with film, I still keep a digital workflow to a certain extent: I shoot, get the film scanned, and do some very light post processing in Lightroom. While I would love to, I can’t afford to rent or setup a dark room, and there’s a convenience that comes with digital media that I probably will never let go of, especially from an organisational perspective.
That being said… Go shoot some film. It’s different. It’s fun. It’ll probably get you thinking about your photography in a way you haven’t recently if you’ve been shooting digital only.