Going back to (or beginning with) film photography: part I

So you want to start learning photography on a deeper level than just taking photos with your phone and you don’t know where to begin. You are probably considering buying a “good” digital camera, since that seems to be a must, and see how it goes from there.

What you probably aren’t considering is starting with traditional 35mm film photography.

And why should you? Film photography seems to be and old thing, used in the time of our fathers and grandfathers . Depending on how old you are some of your childhood pictures may be in analog color (and on paper!), with a slight yellowish or pinkish overlay ; or you may have some old family pictures in black and white depicting people of another era, far far away.

Whatever the case you are not thinking of picking up an old-school film camera to start learning photography. Well here is why you should (from my own experience).

One of the main characteristics of the analog process is that is much slower than the digital process. This may seem as a handicap at first sight, but it’s actually the best way to learn.

In this day and age we are used to shooting hundreds of pictures a day without ever pausing to think much about it. It’ s almost a reflex. We take shots of the same thing over and over again until we like the result. But the “correct” picture is more a result of exhausting all the possibilities rather than “knowing” what we are doing. And this is because taking a picture with our phone is easy and it costs nothing. We don’t need to know how the technology works it just does, like magic.

But the thing is, if we don’t know what we are doing, we can’t control the result. And that is why sometimes it goes well and many others it doesn’t .

Analog photography “forces” the photographer to know what they’re doing. If not, they’ll just get a ruined negative.

The 36 frames of a traditional 35mm film make each frame special. This limited amount of opportunities makes us think long and hard before pressing the button. We check the exposure several times to make sure it’s right; we try several angles before settling for the right one… And finally when we do, that take is special. We’ll remember that moment and wait impatiently for the negative to be developed in order to see the result. This relatively slow process is essential in learning to think about the image in all it’s aspects: aesthetic, technical and conceptual. The photograph becomes the result of planning and effort, rather than chance.

On the more technical and pragmatic side of things, regular analog cameras are much cheaper than digital ones. We can have an average camera such as Olympus OM10 (a favourite of mine) for around 150€. Besides the price, choosing an analogue camera is fairly easy since the main thing we need to look for is that it has a full manual mode and that the lenses and the body are in good state of conservation. (There are many more details we can get into of course, but you don’t need to worry about that in the beginning. )

 I recommend you buy your first camera from a photography shop which offers you guarantee that the camera is checked and working. Once you become more of an expert you can risk it on the internet.

Another reason for using a film camera is that classic analog cameras use standard full f/stops. This means that is much easier to learn by heart all the classic shutter speeds and apertures so you can quickly change you’re exposure without having to depend on a lightmeter. The simplicity of the technology makes it much easier to really understand how photography works. You press a button, a tiny whole opens and lets light through, which burns the film and registers the image. That is the gist of it. We can get into a million details on this process, but really that is the essence. And following this logic you can take pictures with a shoebox (which I encourage you to do, you’ll find plenty of tutorials on the internet on pinhole cameras for every taste).

Lastly but not least important, is the feel of the camera. Everyone I know who shoots film agrees on this. Analog cameras, feel different. They are usually heavier than digital. Made of metal, glass and leather. And once you’ve held one in your hands, once you’ve looked through the visor, you’ll never feel the same about photography.

The sound of the shutter on each camera is different and believe it or not part of the pleasure of photography is hearing that shutter.

There are some other considerations on analog photography such as how to choose a film, how to store it and develop it and how to digitalise it, but I’ll leave that for next time.

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