Posted by: 6x6pix | July 18, 2010

For the Love of Film

My building had a yard sale yesterday, and the woman at the table next to mine had an APS camera for sale. A kid of about 7 or 8 picked it up and asked her if it worked.

“It does work,” she explained, “but it’s not a digital camera.”
He asked what that meant.
“It’s a film camera, you have to wait to see the pictures you take.”
“On the computer?”
“You can’t see them on the computer, the pictures are on film and you have to send it to be developed.”
[Long pause, puzzled look from the boy]
“But you can see them right on the back of the camera!”
“No,” she laughed, “you can’t. It’s not that kind of camera.”

And with that the kid looked at her like she was crazy, and ran off. We chuckled that of course a child of that age probably wouldn’t know anything but the instant gratification of a digital camera, but inside, I felt a little sad about that. I remember the miracle of the big Polaroid camera my parents had when I was a kid; the excitement and delicious torture of waiting 60 seconds to see how the picture had come out. But mainly I remember waiting, later, for my own pictures — first the snapshots of my friends that I’d take with an endless string of instamatics and pocket cameras and wait for the drugstore to process; and later, images I’d make with my Canon AE1 that I’d develop and print myself in my school’s darkrooms. All that waiting and anticipation was a huge part of my early experience of photography (and not a bad part).

I did get into digital for a while — digital is what got me back into photography after a long time away from it. But it wasn’t long before I found the whole experience of making digital images to be lacking, and I lost interest in photography altogether. This was scary; when I’d been away from photography B.D. (Before Digital), it wasn’t because l’d lost interest, it was because I’d lost easy and cheap access to a darkroom.

In the digital age, I didn’t immediately clue in to the real reason I’d lost interest in photography. I thought I just needed to shake things up, change my perspective, reframe — literally — my image output. So I bought a Holga, a medium format toy camera. And then I remembered what I liked about photography. Soon enough I bought a YashicaMat, and then a Kowa/Six, a few Brownie Hawkeyes, and a bunch of assorted $1 or $2 vintage toy cameras, and I’ve been in love with photography (again) ever since. It’s really not about the gear, but there is just something about film.

And it’s more than the physical and visual qualities of the photo, the grain, the “feel” and the visual depth of photos made on film. All those things are real, and they’re important, but there’s more to it than that. As Nathan Jones notes in his excellent article “Why Film Matters,” the medium is the message. That’s part of it for me; like Jones, I just don’t believe digital images have much intrinsic value (by that I mean, value as objects, beyond whatever sentimental value a viewer may hold for the subject[s] pictured in the images). And like Jones, I want to work a bit for my images, to think about exposure, exercise some craft and skillz, without having to navigate around the endless technical options of a camera that’s perfectly capable of producing competent images with, without, or in spite of me.

But I also really enjoy the wait that comes with shooting film. Right now I’m sitting on a roll I shot at BPC’s East Boston shipyard shoot on Friday night; I loaded a Holga with tungsten film, engaged the bulb setting, popped on my new cable release attachment, and shot the roll in the dark after a quick thunderstorm had left everything all wet and extra sparkly. I didn’t bother to drop the roll off yesterday because my lab doesn’t run film on weekends; but I just can’t wait to see the results. Not “can’t wait” as in, “should have shot digital,” but “can’t wait” as in, “the mystery and anticipation are luscious!”

You just don’t get that with digital.



  1. This was really interesting to read. I got into photography only recently and it was with the help of a digital point and shoot, followed by a DSLR. However, the more I learned, the more interested I became in film photography. My mother-in-law gave me her old Minolta SLR and now I’m starting to lose all interest in my new Nikon.

    I feel bad because the DSLR camera was so expensive and took me a long time to save up for. And it was great to learn on a digital for all the trial and error. But I can’t help it – all I want to do now is shoot with my free Minolta and my $25 Holga. Even with my favorite digital shots, I always think about how much better it would look on film.

  2. too started with film. I had no built in light meter, and for a long while, no hand held light meter. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to use some of the best, as well as, some of the strangest film equipment, via Uncle Sam’s Navy. I stopped shooting film, when Kodak stopped making projectors. I presently have good digital equipment, and one Holga. When I use my Nikon, I too, can’t wait to see the results. If I get home long after my bedtime, I download my stuff before I settle in. I have a camera with a computer attached to it, and I mostly use it as a SLR, rather than a DSLR. I don’t trick out my images with Photoshop. My editing program is a free download called Faststone. I think most of my digital work is good. My recently acquired, Holga, has see little use. When I settle a bit, it will get some serious use, for some serious imaging

  3. I’m a photography student studying in Rochester. My original major was Biology, but I switched after falling in love with film and darkroom work during my freshman year… My new college doesn’t even use film in any of the required courses. As I verge upon my graduating year, I look back an realize that, although I still love photography, the magic of film that once inspired me just isn’t there. For now I have the resources to pursue my love of film through the following year, but after graduation I fear this will be limited. One can only hope (perhaps unrealistically) that this art will make a comeback.

  4. Hannah, that’s exactly what happened to me the first time around — no more free darkroom, no more film photography. I hope you’re able to find and afford a darkroom you can work in so you don’t have to give it up entirely after graduation! We’re lucky here in Boston in that we have a few labs where people can rent time (Bill LaPete’s lab, for b&w, is great:!

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