In the early days of Instagram it was common to put a heavy, nostalgic filter over your snaps. However while that trend has dissipated, photographers are increasingly going back to film photography. There are a number of reasons for this trend – certainly there is a general trend towards a kind of digital detox which is reviving analog media formats like vinyl records, and dare I say, printed books.
For me personally, I have always liked applying old stock photo presets to my digital images and then tweaking them. It seemed like a natural step to go back to “the basics” and try taking pictures with 35mm film – Kodak Gold 100 surprisingly still regularly stocked at the local drug store. Speciality camera shops will surely have a wider selection and generally you can get a lot by ordering online. Generally speaking film is becoming more readily available and old cameras are easy to find, both of which making the barriers to entry quite low. Given these circumstances, the driving factors for the resurgence of analog photography are: simplicity, low costs, aesthetics and the surprise factor.
Despite cell phones cutting into the sales figures of camera manufacturers, there is a competitive pressure to keep packing more features and functionality into digital cameras. I would argue, that while some improvements are certainly helpful and relevant to some photographers and their particular use cases, for the vast majority the additional features will not immediately lead to better photographs. Often times the camera menu seems like a maze. New features mean more options, more options means more settings, and more settings means more time spent getting to know your camera – and potentially more fiddling while the opportune moment passes you by.
While there are certainly a number of film cameras with extra bells and whistles, generally they have less features and are easier to use. It is often said that photography is about getting the camera out of the way, thusly film cameras offer greater simplicity and a shorter route to this goal. It’s often liberating to have a set of limitations and to work within them than to have endless possibilities – a frequent example of this is the movie Jaws which used music and simpler forms of suggestion to instill fear and dread, instead of endless underwater scenes and endless, and expensive, animatronic chomping of boats. Can you imagine Jaws with a massive budget? Sharknado, that’s right, but I digress.
Depending on the camera, you may not even have a light meter. In that case you may rely on an external light meter or simply the sunny 16 rule for the right exposure. Since your ISO is set by the film you have loaded, you can only adjust the aperture, focus and shutter speed, and… That’s all. No white balance, no metering mode, no facial or eye recognition, bupkis.
This is me looking pensive while framing a shot – more likely struggling with the waist level viewfinder, which is inverted. This picture was taken by wedding photographer Kai Pohlkamp.
While a used Leica M6 will cost you a pretty penny, most people are happy not to have to throw away an old film camera, and most can be bought on the cheap. A fairly new digital camera with a few extra lenses will easily run you 4 figures. But what about the film? Sure, in theory the cost of each roll of film and the development grows exponentially, but storage media costs money as well. Memory cards, external hard drives, backup systems, cloud space, etc. all cost money as well.
To embark on my analog journey I purchased a simplistic camera, built in the 60’s in East Germany: the Exa Ia – recommended to me by a fellow photo enthusiast, it cost only 35 Euros. The camera doesn’t have a lot of dials or buttons: manual focus, shutter speed, aperture setting, done. Nothing is automatic, even rewinding the film is done by hand. That’s also the beauty of it, though. There is something very satisfying about hearing the sound of an actual shutter and winding the film forward. The camera is very simple but also well made. It took me a couple trips, but I managed to find one very well maintained and in great working order.
Despite being so simplistic and working with ISO 100 the camera and the film together are very forgiving – I was expecting shots either entirely black or white – over- or under-exposed – since you can’t review a shot until you’ve taken 35 others and had them all developed.
A friend’s wedding, complete with an old locomotive train as transport from the church to the reception seemed liked an ideal place to test things out, below are few of the excerpts, one photo less forgiving in low light situations.
There are any number of ways to mimic stock photography and retain the benefits of digital editing. These options range from presets on your desktop computer to apps on your phone. Additionally it is possible to add the typical film imperfections such as light leaks, dust, scratches, etc. If I am being completely honest, I find that these after effects look just like that, after effects. I don’t know if it is due to the glass, the natural film grain or consistency of the colours, but I find the analog “look” is hard to reproduce. On the other hand maybe I have seen digital images I mistook for analog ones, but I like to think I can spot the difference. There is simply no comparison to creating a double exposure in your camera and blending two images in Photoshop.
In any case, the aesthetics of film stock are unique and various. You can take more control and up your film game to the next level, namely into the darkroom, and use techniques like push and pull processing to get the most out of your 36 frames. However I have not taken on the task of developing my own film yet – I still take mine to local labs.
Instant film has a unique aesthetic and is also making a comeback. It is a hot topic of late, for the reasons mentioned in the beginning of this article. There is something more precious and interesting about holding a physical image in your hand. Perhaps it is due to the limited number of prints versus the thousands of images and videos on your phone.
The Surprise Factor
In the same vein of giving up some control to focus more on the creative aspect of photography, the surprise factor is currently unique to film photography. Lomography immediately comes to mind, their cameras eschew settings in favour of what are normally considered imperfections. The resulting images are often oversaturated, blurry and out of focus, among other possibly jarring qualities. If you’re into the potential of serendipity you can also buy pre-expose film, to consciously lights leaks and unusual colors in your photos. In general, the absence of an immediate feedback loop, the ability to review and analyze previous exposures, leads to great anticipation and a surprise factor when viewing the results.
I don’t see a necessity for defining myself as a film or digital photographer. At the end of the day, the finished product is what I am interested in – the choice of camera will depend what I want to capture and what I want to say. Having said that, I can’t wait to test some more new (old) film types and share the results here.