Learning to shoot film—it's never too late

Learning to shoot film—it's never too late

I'm a child of the digital age, and I never did care to take a photography class in high school (regret). As a result, film photography using rangefinders and SLRs has been hard for me to break into.

I've always used digital cameras and invested in a full frame Canon several years ago. I got caught up in making images look beautiful, sharp, bright; making images that looked like everyone else's because it was a challenge to do so. There's a learning curve to good photography—it's technical, requires observation and judgement. In my case imitation taught me how things worked. I did this for a few years.

Eventually I wanted more mobility with my camera. I found I was taking less photos than I wanted to because of the burden of my huge Canon 6d. I'd be out driving or walking or with friends and see something that needed to be photographed, only I couldn't because I didn't have a camera stowed in my bag. So I got a mirrorless digital and fell in love with the smallness of it.

My Fujifilm XT-1 was a godsend. It lifted a burden I didn't know I had and now I carry the camera with me everywhere. (That's a win. More mobility = shooting more often.) The technical makeup Fujifilm cameras is different than others, which means that Fuji images have a style straight off the SD card that make them kind of recognizable as Fuji. I found I do a lot less editing to my Fuji images, sometimes doing nothing at all. Another perk of my Fuji is the silent shutter. Since it's mirrorless, there's no flapping of glass on the inside, making stealth my friend. I can steal shots of someone sleeping or of a stranger at a nearby table without announcing "Hey! I'm taking your picture!"

Well, now I'm sliding further down into the dark—going analog. To be frank, digital photography is high maintenance. Sure it's accessible and "free" to shoot a thousand images, but it's also a needy, high maintenance endeavor. The editing possibilities are endless, and sifting through 50 of the same image to find the one you like is a game I don't enjoy. I don't want to remove every ill-placed speck and edit out the strands of hair gone awry.

I won't ever stop shooting digital because, well, it's 2018 and I do love my Fujifilm. But I think the best way to explain it is that I've become comfortable enough with the technical aspects of photography—light, shadows, shutter speed, depth of field, composition—that I am ready to let the forgiving nature of digital photography slide in favor of a more rigid, artful challenge.

Learning to shoot film will ultimately strengthen my knowledge of digital, too. Symbiotic happiness.

Taken on a Canonet with 35mm Kodak Portra 800 film

This week, for instance, I'm finally getting used to the cost of a roll of 35mm film—what's a good deal, what's not. I've learned the hard way how not to rewind film, and how to remove film from my camera by hand without ruining it because the film got pulled straight out of the canister (oye). I'm learning to be patient and triple check for focus on a manual lens. I'm learning I'd better set my ISO before I take the first shot. I'm taking more time to consider whether to under or overexpose an image based on what I think the camera and film will do to the shadows and highlights.

The investment in time transitions to taking the photo rather than processing it later. I love that.

I'm still learning and have so many questions about developing film, scanning film, printing film. I'm noticing differences in the quality of color and texture in film vs. digital. I'm noticing that the relationship of a sharp edge to blurred depth of field is different, too. Can't put my finger on explaining that yet but I'll get there.

I'm considering the narrative value of film over digital, and how film has the ability to create a feeling, different than the documentary-like precision of digital.

The biggest favor I did myself as I decided to take on analog photography was to get a well-reviewed, recently-tuned SLR with a lens in a range I knew I would like. I had a handful of difficult-to-use cameras but they were clunky, cheap, and unreliable. Film cameras can get really expensive (I am totally prey to wanting a Hasselblad, a Leica, a Contax—I mean, who wouldn't??). But I couldn't justify the cost knowing I would for sure screw up a lot of images for a period of time. I needed a first-step film camera that would be easy enough to learn, but quality enough to keep my interest.

I settled on the Canon AE-1 program and was able to pick one up that had recently been serviced, along with two lenses (24mm and 50mm).

Last week I sent my first rolls off the Canon AE-1p to be developed and I am totally satisfied. More than, actually! I did zero editing on these and they were shot in manual. Film photography is the definition of managing light and shadow.

Hyacinth - Canon AE-1p on Ektar 100

Fog on the river in northern Minnesota - Canon AE-1p on Ektar 100

Spring melt - Canon AE-1p on Ektar 100

Mike at the cabin - Canon AE-1p on Ektar 100

Grasses in the snow - Canon AE-1p on Ektar 100

Ferdinand - Canon AE-1p on Ektar 100

I am so pleased! Enough to stick with it, which is exactly why I needed the Canon AE-1p. There's capability to harness at an affordable price.

I wanted to share all this not only for my own sake, documenting another phase in my love of photography, but for you, too. Learning a skill doesn't come for free, and certainly no one is born an expert. I often have to repeat to myself that perfection is not my goal. Photography has been a way for me to relate to the world around me and show affection. In this way, film is heightening the stakes.

Single images

Single images

Snowy night haiku

Snowy night haiku

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