Even though I am old enough to have experienced the tail-end of film photography, I really hadn’t gotten into film despite the fact that one of my favorite Christmas presents was a Kodak Ektralite that used 110 film cartridges. I remember taking pictures as a little boy with it, as well as the excitement and anticipation of getting the negatives and prints back, just to see what I had captured and how the photos had turned out. This was really cool – except for the wait, it always seemed to take forever to get the photos back from the little photo shop where I used to drop off the film. After my encounter with the Kodak Ektralite I became too busy being a teenager and photography got put on hold and with that I missed “growing up” with film. Then in 1988, the first digital cameras started to grab a foothold in the photography-world. For most of us this was a blessing and today digital has become the dominant medium for creating images.
It would really suck not having a camera on your iPhone or Backberry, wouldn’t it? Images can be downloaded immediately and sent via email or posted on the internet instantaneously. With the advent of digital cameras came convenience, immediate gratification and automation. One can take a digital SLR and snap an exposure and immediately know whether you have a good exposure or not by looking at the screen on the back of the camera.
Like many photographers I have rediscovered photography after the glory-days of film and the most logical choice of camera when I bought mine of course was digital. Why bother with manual settings when digital cameras can figure out most everything for you? Only one thing left to do is to frame the shot and keep pressing the shutter button. Well, it was not quite that simple, but digital cameras have made creating images much easier. Easy is better, at least that is what I thought until I got my hands on a minty 1970’s Nikon FTn, a camera older than me and good enough to fly to the moon with Apollo 15. Wow, it was revolutionary back then, a camera with a light-meter right in the viewfinder with through the lens (TTL) metering, imagine that! A camera so simple with an instruction manual 35 pages long (not counting the separate instruction manual of the Photomic FTn Finder which is 25 pages). To put this in prospective, the instruction manual of my digital Nikon D300 is 421 pages long. I really had to wrap my mind around this fact, a camera so revolutionary back then, yet so basic and simple by today’s standards.
Shooting the first roll of film following a long hiatus, it became clear to me, again, how different the analog world is to the digital – in a good way. Yes, shooting film with an old camera can make things become less convenient, but the absence of the digital convenience makes you so much more mindful about the picture you are about to take. Just the fact that I had to remind myself to manually advance the film in the camera taught me the importance of paying attention and highlighted how lazy I have become. Being limited to one film speed, 11 shutter-speed-increments between 1 second to 1/1000 of a second and 8 f-stops on the lens combined with having to manually focus and having to be aware of changing light conditions while trying to capture moving subject matters forces one to think creatively and make quick decisions. In other words, my brain was forced to go through a complex syncratic process. Perhaps it can be called “Putting yourself in the analog state of mind”; making decisions based on your experience and knowledge, the condition and situation you are facing, processed between your ears with intuition, all without the help of a computer chip just before squeezing the shutter release button.
Since I did not really grow up using film I am unable to say that I missed it, however, I can say that I really enjoyed going backwards. I can also tell that shooting film is changing the way I see through the viewfinder. Compared to a digital camera you simply cannot be complacent, with film and an old camera you have to be alert, you have to focus, concentrate and anticipate, you simply cannot relax and rely on digital technology to do your job… which is why shooting film will help me become a better photographer.