Time has stopped still. Silence. I’m alone and bathed in feeling of complete calm. And yet I am poised. Just one more look. And.....click.
In December 2020 I fell out of love with my digital cameras! I found I was simply going through the motions - taking pictures but not making them. Everything was rushed and I was spending more time in front of the computer than outdoors shooting. I wanted to escape the digital world (or at least some of it). I wanted to be free of expectations and stop producing images that I think other people might like and not necessarily what I like. I also realised I had 'photographer's block' and had reached a point where I didn’t know what to do next. So, abandoning my digital kit (ok by that I mean organising it and storing it beautifully!), I decided to focus solely on film photography for the rest of the year – what was left of it!
To be honest the breakup with digital photography was a surprise – I wasn’t expecting it; I thought all was well - people were even complimenting my work! I’ve not been doing photography for a long time and it’s not how I earn my living – I am an enthusiastic enthusiast …. but seemingly one who was losing enthusiasm. I needed something to challenge me and I have found it! Film only photography.
Shooting with film is a totally different experience than that of digital and not just in terms of hardware but mentally; it’s very much a mindful experience. Film photography has become my meditation where I am totally in the moment, focused; my mind is clear of all other thoughts. But what is it about film photography that is so vastly different? I could write all day about beautiful tactile film cameras and different types of film but putting the hardware to one side it is the process that I love the most.
What is it about the process? Well first of all you have to understand that unlike digital there are limits, not creative limits - far from it, but practical limits. A 35mm film comes in a roll of 24 or 36 and the medium format film I use comes in rolls of 12: a roll of film can cost anywhere between £4 and £16. Basically, with that in mind you don’t want to waste a single shot! Unlike digital there's no deleting images and re-shooting numerous frames. Each frame requires much more thought about composition, lighting, contrast, and grain. You can’t really afford to take multiple shots hoping one will be right or make dramatic changes in Photoshop later. Film photography is less about the camera and much, much more about what you see through it, at that very moment in time.
Secondly, remember you can't take a look at the photographed image afterwards to make sure it’s just as you want; there’s no screen on the back of the camera. You’ve really got to try and get it spot on there and then.
In composing the image there are lots of checks to make, particularly if shooting in an unusual format such as square. Look at the edges of the frame - are there any sneaky objects photobombing the image? Do I really want that sky at the top causing a distraction? Is the image balanced? Is the focal point to be centred or traditionally positioned at two-thirds in? What’s in the foreground? Would the image be better from another angle? Yes, you think about all these things with digital but with digital if you’ve missed something it doesn't matter - you can keep shooting or have the option to erase an object completely from the frame later.
Next, I need to evaluate the light and for this I use a light meter. Digital cameras (and some film cameras) have these built in. When taking a meter reading, I look at the shadows of the image, the midtones and the highlights. I have to factor in the required aperture - do I want to let lots of light into the camera or limit it? I need to consider depth of field - do I want a nice blurry background or everything in focus? Do I want to freeze action? Then there is the film speed – should I shoot at the recommended speed on the box, i.e., 100, 200 or 400, or does the light or the desire to be more creative mean I need to shoot 400 film at say 200 to expose more shadow detail?
Contrast is about light, but it is also about the film. What film shall I use - black and white, or colour negative or positive? What speed do I want? Am I looking for a saturated or muted, soft or sharp image? And how much grain would make this image appealing – to give it the right mood and texture?
Just a quick word about grain – in the digital world this is known as 'noise' and in layman’s terms it’s probably considered as 'snow' or 'fuzziness'. For a really good article about grain do read The Beauty of Film Grain by Ken Ozuna https://medium.com/storiusmag/film-grain-8e3c885f0b21
In film photography there are so many decisions to make in the field that there is no room in my brain for thinking about work, the broken washing machine, politics, and pandemics. There’s just me, my camera and often or not of late the beautiful tree in front of me. There's no rushing the process - it's a tortoise and hare situation - slow and methodical.
A lot of people don’t like, or perhaps don’t understand, film images and wonder why one earth you would want a grainy ‘fuzzy’ picture when you can have a crystal clear (arguably sometimes clinical?!) image? Why lug around a camera the size of brick when you can put a Fujifilm 100V in the palm of your hand? Why pay for film when you can photograph as many pictures as you like for free? Why would you want to wait for the photos to be developed when you can have them instantly? Well, as I said, for me and indeed many film photographers, it’s about the process of shooting itself – and when all the decisions have been made – it’s that final moment when everything is ready – you’ve triple checked your settings and you’re waiting for stillness with shutter release in hand and …. click.
Yes, you have to wait for the results, but I enjoy the anticipation. I ask myself will the settings I used, as diligently noted in my little book, produce the outcome I was after? Where did I go wrong or how could I improve the image? I’ve tried developing film myself, but it is not something that interests me at this point in time. There’s no room in our house for a darkroom and I think my wife would have something to say if there were strips of film hanging up to dry all around our bathroom! Our cat might like it though .....
Many of my images I then print, by hand or by scanning. It’s so lovely to hold photographs in your fingers and not have everything simply on memory sticks, laptops and storage devices. Remember digital images are not real – they are in fact a collection of 'zeros and ones' and only exist if your technology works!
So now we are in the New Year the question is .… have I missed my digital cameras and the ease of use and the clarity of the image? The answer is no. In fact, my love for film has just got stronger. Much stronger. But don’t panic, I haven’t banished digital forever. Ironically though, for me the future is, at least for now, film and....pinhole photography (Camera Obscura) but that’s a whole new subject for another day and one which I am very enthused about!
I have published some of my film photographs in this month’s limited-edition zine entitled “Trees Trees Trees” which is now available from My Shop at www.joturchetphotography.com