The Bragging Rights of Photographing in Film
As kids, we all knew that any serious petrolhead had to drive a stick shift. But growing up in a suburban world where right turns on red is the norm, I was never given the benefit of formal instruction. That said, the want to drive a stick shift never diminished in me. So when the opportunity eventually presented itself during my first year studying in Paris, I was determined to teach myself. I mean seriously, how hard could it be? After all, I’ve been fantasizing about it since the first day I got behind the wheel.
Immediately, I went to the Avis across from my apartment to hire a car. With my rusty French, I was able to get myself a Renault Clio. That was the easy part. What came next was a little trickier. The agent inquired if I could drive a manual transmission car. Obviously, he had reservations, since people from the other side of the pond generally can’t drive a stick shift. But without missing a beat, I did what was necessary of me to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine. I lied through my teeth - or rather told him my version of the truth.
In my mind, I knew I could drive a manual transmission vehicle. All throughout my adolescence, I’ve prepared myself for this milestone. But at the moment of truth, as I turned the ignition key in the presence of the agent, I stalled the car. Yes, the car was left on first. How embarrassing. That said, I was not discouraged by my rookie mistake. I was only moments away from going toe to heel. And when at last I figured out how to get out of first gear, I did what any first time driver in Paris had to do. I made my way to Place de l’Étoile.
To be frank, knowing how to handle a stick shift really isn’t a big deal. It is neither mandatory nor uncommon in practice with regards to contemporary automotive norms. Still, knowing that I can operate a standard manual transmission vehicle warms my heart. Unlike the multitude of so-called motoring enthusiasts who are clueless beyond two pedals and a steering wheel, I can fully appreciate the driving experience with greater hands-on involvement - and not from just a heavy foot stepping hard on the accelerator.
In this world, is there any feeling more satisfying than doing something with your own hands and feet? To take the bull by the horns, and be in complete control of the task at hand. Unfortunately, technology has reared up its head by taking the fun out of most recreational pursuits to the extent that personal achievement is nothing more than just a figment of a computer assisted lie. In other words, anyone can do what the professionals can do when technology is working behind the scene. But, is that the same as doing it on your own?
Why does the journey matter, if the destination is reached? If mainstream technology eases the task, then all the better. But for some of us, we still want to know that our involvement matters - that our ability to rise up to the occasion is not dulled by some preprogrammed algorithm. Accordingly, we do the unthinkable and push aside technological aids - thereby bringing back the risk of human error into the mix. I mean, what is the point of performing a task if the prospect of imminent doom is unlikely to happen.
Admittedly, photography seldom involves a life and death situation, where making a mistake can be fatal. That would be overreaching (not to mention ridiculous) outside the context of a war zone or up a mountain without ropes. And with the creature comforts offered by modern digital cameras, taking picture perfect images have never been easier. Everyone can take photos like a professional with all the hard work performed by the ones and zeros scripted onto the camera’s central processing unit.
With technology, there’s no mountain too high for modern digital cameras to climb. Difficult light - no problem with high ISO. As for difficult focusing situations - that’s no problem too with dual pixel autofocus sensors. And if you don’t want any part of the photo taking process beyond just deciding what is included in the frame, then just set it on program - or better yet, use a smart phone to take the shot. The act of taking a photo has become so automated that the human factor is no longer a variable anymore.
Where is the fun in that? Where is the fun in letting your camera do the heavy lifting? When we relinquish each and every variable during the act of documentation to the camera, the resulting photos become the only goal of the task. The experience, the journey taken, and any prospects of personal achievement become irrelevant by default - as long as the photo isn’t botched by human error. When the means to reach the end is no longer consequential, does our involvement in the task even matter?
Over the last many weeks, I’ve stopped shooting in digital format. Frankly, it’s just no fun. Given the benefit of technological innovations, getting the photo opportunity right has become a cinch. There’s no uncertainty, no surprises, and definitely no lasting consequence to any error in documentation. Immediately on preview, one can easily find any mistakes and remedy them by retaking the shot again and again with increased precision - which personally, I find too convenient in practice and too empty in undertaking.
In dismissing the trees from the forest, we lose sight of why we first fell head over heels for photography. What attracted us was never the photos, but rather the experience. Photography is a process. It’s more than just the photos we take. It is the decisions we make in capturing every photo with intent. It is how we evaluate the light in setting the exposure, or how we scan the viewfinder in framing the composition. And most importantly, it is also the way the camera feels in hand when we feather the lens for focus.
Photography is a deeply intuitive experience. From start to finish, it’s a process that requires the photographer to feel the scene in-frame as evaluated through the eyes. And upon adjusting the exposure setting by turning the aperture ring and shutter dial, the photographer takes a leap of faith, and clicks the shutter - trusting skill and experience without hesitation that the image is taken properly. In the end, it’s that process that makes our heart skip a beat every time we take that shot on film - hoping it turns out as imagined.
There is a rush in film photography that is not felt in digital imaging. Not knowing with certainty that the image capture is taken properly can be exhilarating. But let us be honest. When one is proficient and experienced in film photography, the prospect of botching an image capture becomes increasingly remote. Still, the thought of not getting what you want is thrilling. It is the motivation that pushes us to go further and step up in making sure that the photos we take will be optimized in documentation.
In that way, film photography is a demonstration and declaration of photographic expertise. There is no room for error or second chances. You won’t know if the image capture on your roll of film is any good until you get it back from the lab, or until you develop the roll yourself. From that perspective, film photography is more-so flamboyant than digital photography. I mean, anybody can take a photo on a smart phone or a digital camera set on program mode. But can the same be said about an analog camera?
But, I digress. There is no reason compelling anyone to shoot in film anymore, given how much easier digital photography is. Then again, there is also no reason to climb any mountain, or solo the length of any ocean by compass and sexton, or even drive stick shift without traction control turned on. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t. For this reason, I choose to shoot in film. And in doing so, I can proudly say that the photos I take are all a result of my efforts, and not dependent on any automation typical of digital imaging.
PS - you know what… every time I get my film back from the lab, I’m still surprised by how good the results are. I’m always half expecting that every frame would come up empty. Fact is, my hit rate is well over 75%. And I’m only publishing 30% of what I shot on each roll of film. I can’t say the same about my rate of success on digital capture. But then again, I can afford to be much lazier in practice when the cost of each image capture saved on a memory card is negligible - which really is nothing to brag about.
If you truly love photography, do yourself a favor and give film a try. You never know. You might even surprise yourself and end up liking it. Then you will understand what I mean. But, if all you care about is just the photo, then I suppose you’re better off sticking with digital imaging.
Images have not been tweaked in Adobe Lightroom beyond a variance of one stop in exposure. All images digitized on the Pakon F135 scanner, and cropped in the digitization process. Incidentally, the images shot on Fujifilm Neopan did not encounter any issues in digitization on the Pakon F135 scanner this week. Weird?