When I first started out working as a professional photographer at the tender age of 19, digital photography was in it’s infancy and every pro was shooting film. I was working 80% with Hasselblad combined with 120 slide film, 15% with the Sinar P2 large format camera and only 5% with 35mm Slr’s. Around the time of my move from commercial photography into the press world, camera manufacturers started embracing digital more seriously, with both Canon and Nikon partnering up with Kodak to produce professional 35mm digital pro cameras. For a while, we used to have a film body on one shoulder loaded with Fuji press 400 for all the important shots, whilst having the Canon Kodak DCS 520 on the other shoulder to capture a digital image for quick release to the papers. It was only with the introduction of the Canon EOS 1D that we started to seriously look at making the switch over full time to digital. That was quite a while back now, to the point where the majority of my career has been spent shooting digitally.
So recently I had the opportunity to purchase (very cheaply) an old 1979 Canon AE1p film camera. This camera brought back nostalgic memories of my first cameras, a Praktica hand-me down from my uncle which totally sucked, had a broken viewfinder, and never exposed correctly, and it’s replacement, a Soligor SR 300. Old film cameras can be picked up for next to nothing these days on ebay, so along with the camera, I also bought a couple of lenses to compliment it, a 50mm 1.8 and 28mm 2.8. Since then, I’ve added a 35mm, 100mm, 135mm, another AE1p, and most recently the famed Canon F1n workhorse which is now my go to camera.
Getting back into shooting film has reminded me of everything I loved about shooting film, and everything I hated. The inability to chimp is a good thing in my opinion, as is the necessity to slow down and decide if an image is worth taking as it costs money each time you press that shutter button. The tactile feel of the camera with it’s dials make for very deliberate settings changes, and the need to wait before getting to see what you shot adds a sense of gratification when you do finally hold the developed negatives in your hands. The look is very different to digital, and throwing a vintage filter over your digital photos is just not the same. I think part of the love is the fact that you had to actually work to create that look, something not achieved by purchasing presets over the internet.
The downside is the lack of good quality in low light situations. We’ve been spoilt by digital. I can currently walk into near complete darkness with my digital cameras and fast prime lenses, and be guaranteed to be able to nail a beautifully exposed image without the use of flash, due to the great high-iso quality of these cameras. Not so with film. Even shooting with the respected ilford Delta 3200 asa film, the images are very grainy and just don’t look to be of great quality. Let me be clear about something here – This is due to trying to shoot with film the way we’ve become so accustomed to shooting with digital. Back when I originally shot film, I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to shoot with the available light in these situations. It never entered my mind to attempt it. 100% of the time, there would be a big ass Metz flashgun attached to the camera. I watched an interesting short film recently by Canon where they gave Don McCullin a 5D mk3 to shoot with. After getting used to using it, he proclaimed that he would have loved to have had that technology back when he was shooting his most famous assignments, saying that his archive would be three times it’s size.
So why am I shooting film again? Probably because every time I pick up my bag of digital gear, I’m heading out to shoot a job. It’s work. I can’t screw up because there are clients involved. There’s money involved. There are deadlines, very tight deadlines. I shoot film for myself. I don’t ever encompass using it professionally on a job, unless the client requests it, and it’s in order to produce a certain look, or marketing appeal. In fact, if that were to happen, I would probably just buy a Canon 1V and use my professional L lenses. I shoot film for the pure relaxing nature of it, the fact that it forces you to slow down and contemplate what you are shooting and why you want to shoot that scene. It’s made me decide against pressing the shutter release after looking through the view finder rather than taking the shot, a shot I would have taken digitally because ‘why not’.
I recently submitted my bag to Japan Camera hunter, a website devoted the film photography, and the community that embraces it. It’s a fun website. It’s great to see what other people are shooting, and it’s kinda gear nerd centric. I can be a bit of a gear nerd at times, so it’s all good. You can see my submission here: Japan Camera hunter.
I like waiting to get the rolls of film developed, that sense of anticipation about whether I nailed that one frame or not. I don’t print my own images in a darkroom. I hate the darkroom. Always did. Spent a lot of time in one when I starting working professionally. That red light drove me crazy. Made me claustrophobic. Couldn’t spent more than 20 minutes at a time in there without needing fresh air. I don’t pine for the days of film, and bitch about the fact that everything’s gone digital. I love digital. Give me a big iMac screen over a darkroom any day. But the days when my head is fried from shooting jobs all week, but I still want to take a picture, I take out the film bag, and go wandering without any specific goal in mind. Just doing it for the love of it.