Taking a Leap ~ with Film

It’s always intimidating and at the same time exciting to try something new and unknown, taking on a personal challenge that we’ve never attempted before.  We don’t normally venture from the norm due to the fear and potential consequence of failure.  With photography, it’s somewhat easier to take on a challenge and overcome the fear if we shoot for ourselves rather than being under pressure to deliver to a client.  The consequences of not meeting expectations or of failure are limited.

Moving to film photography was like that for me, a promising challenge with enormous opportunity for personal growth with few long term consequences if at first I failed.  I was and continue to be very comfortable with digital.  Not necessarily great as a photographer but I understand the fundamentals of creating technically correct images with my digital camera.  Digital also made it clear that while I can expose correctly, my images lacked something less definable.  If you’ll allow, they were missing a uniqueness, character and soul that I seek.  I didn’t feel my images truly reflected my emotions and what I want to communicate.

I need to make clear that I still shoot with a Fujifilm X100s, a digital camera I really love using.  This camera is rather unique for me in that it gives me the control to create images I’ve never been able to make using any other digital camera.  I am completely in tune with my X100s.  These days however, I primarily shoot using film, both 35mm and 120 medium format.

I also understand that film won’t provide all that I’m looking for just through use of the medium itself.  However, I thought film might work better for me and give me the new freedom to convey what I felt was lacking.  I was searching for something more while knowing what was possible from my experience with slides in the good old days.  At least, knowing what was possible by looking back at my slides from the past, the ones that actually worked.

Using film creates a new tension as I photograph.  For some reason, I’m no longer content to just shoot just everything and anything.  With my film camera I tend to look at potential subjects in a much deeper, more emotional way.  Sometimes I realize the hesitation and taking time to think more about my subject isn’t always a better thing.  I could miss some moments that pass quickly.  As with any photographer, there are always shots I regret not taking.  The hesitation to fully consider the merit of a shutter press might be relatively short but most of the time, not always, the forethought results in images that have deeper meaning and more of the story and soul I’m looking for in my photographs.  By allowing myself the freedom to miss (and regret) some decisive moments I get what I think are more thoughtful moments when I shoot film.  In my experience, the thoughtful moments are more meaningful than the happy accidents.  It’s a strange phenomena that I can’t explain and it may not be entirely attributable to the medium but it seems to be more the case when I’m shooting film.

Moving to film as a primary medium was both a leap backwards for me and a new forward looking challenge.  I’m now going back to those old slides to scan them.  To be honest, it’s very obvious that back in the day I had no clue about how to properly expose slide film.  There are some happy accidents but nothing consistently good.  I can’t remember actually paying any attention to ISO, shutter speed and aperture when I used to shoot film many years ago.

So moving from digital back to film is a new venture that I expect will continue to shake up my photography.  In fact it has been a significant challenge that I’m glad to have accepted.   I’m still exploring the possibilities with film and learning all the time from my personal experience shooting both black & white and color.

I have to say though, that shooting black & white film is a much more immersive experience.  I not only continually strive to master the challenge of shooting with it but also have learned that much can be gained in the character of the film through both the shooting and development process.  There’s a significant and satisfying experience testing film latitude and varying the development process to find the results that resonate.  I’ve used several different developers that can each give different results by varying dilutions, development times or agitation methods.  It’s still all very much an experiment in process that I relish.

For the most part, the initial fear and anxiety I felt after first moving to film a few years ago is gone.  I’ve not ruined a roll of black & white film in quite a while.  The last unfortunate incident was when I tried to develop a roll of Tri-X without adding any developer to the water in the process.  Obviously, that doesn’t work well.

In fact, I have to say that pulling out the stuff from the small closet space for my gear that I’ve been “assigned” by my tolerant better half in order to process a couple of rolls of film is much less intimidating than it used to be.  I pull out my plastic tub of tools and chemicals which include my dark bag, film canister opener, scissors and developing tank and developing reels.  I fill up my measuring beakers, mix developer, stop bath and fixer and get to work.  From beginning to end, the process now only takes about 30 minutes and most of that time is taken by the developing time.  When I first started it took about twice as long but the anxiety levels were much higher through the whole experience.  I was extra cautious and leery of making a stupid mistake by overlooking a key step.  Now, the anxiety is gone which makes it much more fun and also makes me much more receptive to experimentation.

The great part of all this is that while I’m more satisfied with my film images, I know there is so much more to be learned and gained from continuing to experiment and to explore the potential of film.  The horizon of possibilities seems limitless.  It’s what makes using film an exciting medium and challenge that keeps me excited about what’s ultimately achievable in my photography.

As alway, thanks for reading.

2 comments On Taking a Leap ~ with Film

  • Fantastic post Bill. Well written as always! Thoughtful words that hit me where I also am in my own process with film photography. I learn so much from you and others. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Thanks so much Atle, the same goes for me. My film friends teach and inspire me tremendously, such a great group to share with.

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