Is Traditional Best?
When I was a kid I had a fascination with photo negatives, which has grown into a lifelong love for photography and storytelling. I was the kid begging for a ‘shot of the camera’ and the one that everyone cursed for putting fingerprints all over their photos. “Who’s that?” I’d ask as I searched through old family albums—it didn’t really matter who it was in the photo, I was just fascinated at this fleeting moment of time in my hands. I wanted to hear the story.
My photographs are my most cherished possessions but those that are most precious to me are the ones that have no value to the outside world. The photos that take place at a family meal or a holiday with friends—the ones that have zero value to anyone but me and those pictured. Sure, I can sell a landscape that I’ve photographed in the dramatic mountain ranges of Scotland, but so can the next person. Those photos that hoard my drawers and memory boxes, of the faces that have filled my life with love and laughs, those are the priceless ones.
I bought myself an Instax camera over 2 years ago for a vacation I was taking. The 46mm x 62mm instant photos that I took on that vacation began an ongoing obsession to take as many ‘instant’ moments with my loved ones. Why? Because it means I have an instant print and, if we’re honest, we’ve all gotten a little lazy at printing our digital photos. I worry that, when the day comes that my kids look through my photos as I did my parents’, there won’t be much for them to look at. I don’t want to diminish their experience of sitting around old family albums and marking their own little fingerprints on the family albums. There’s some things that the digital age just can’t replace, and, for me, this is one of them.
So that begs a question: Is film photography more important now than it was before digital photography made us a little too comfortable?
I have an old Minolta X300 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens that cost me around 30 quid on eBay a handful of years ago. It’s cheap, scratched, but it’s solid and the lens is immaculate. If film rolls were a little cheaper and I was a little less reliant on digital, it would be my forever go to camera.
Every so often I get a little lost with photography. Instagram, Twitter, and all that other white noise, can often leave me feeling uninspired. HDR, composites and such like, plague my newsfeeds, and, while I do admire a lot of that style of photography, it’s not really my style and I find it hard to remain inspired when that’s the ‘trendy’ way to take photos. I learnt photography with a film camera and spent days in darkrooms and I think that ‘authentic style’ carries over into my digital work—or so I’ve been told. I’m currently stuck in an ‘uninspired’ rut. So what’s my plan? Pick up that good ol’ Minolta.
I can often lose what my story is in the images I take digitally--I think that's one of the burdens of shooting digitally. Something that looks 'okay' may be worth a shot on digital but when I’m shooting on film my mindset totally changes.
The joy of digital is that you can put a memory card in the camera and shoot 10 shots or 100 shots for the same cost. The downside to that is that you can get a bit too comfortable with what you're photographing, and photos can start to look 'samey'. Does that make sense? Or is it just me?
When I find myself in a digital rut I pick up that bashed up Minolta and throw in a roll of film. My film preferences vary but I tend to use Kodak Ektar 100 or Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 400 film for my colour photos, and Ilford FP4 or HP5 for my black and white photos. I’ve gotta say though, I do prefer the grainier of those options. I want the images I take on film to scream: "I was shot with film". One of my favourite things in photography is film grain and there’s no digitaI camera that has yet come close to replicating it; Fuji is close with their X-Trans sensor but it’s still an obvious digital replication.
36 shots on a roll of Superia X-Tra 400 film costs around £4 - around 11p per shot. Plus, the £30 to get the roll developed and scanned full res from DS Colour Labs (I used to develop my own film, but we live in a convenient world now, right?). So that 11p becomes around 94p per shot. Needless to say, I slow things down when I’m shooting film. I become more mindful of what I’m photographing—whether it’s a landscape or a photo of my Mum with the light hitting her just right at dinner. There’s also something quite beautiful about manually focusing a lens.
I’m never open about this, but I’ve suffered in the past with anxiety and depression, and whilst my digital photography was a massive savior for me, it was my film photography that really allowed me to ‘escape’—it’s unpublished work but it’s the most mindful photography I have ever taken. Photography (or any creative art/storytelling) is the best source of expression and I challenge anyone to argue with me on that.
The digital age is as much a curse as it is a blessing. We have instant access to the world thanks to digital technology, but it has brought with it a fast-paced life where speed is a necessity. When was the last time you just stopped, stood for 20 minutes, and thought about the photo you wanted to take? Has it been a while? Go do it. Don’t forget to be present in the moment.
On a professional level, I do urge anyone doing pro photography to understand it's true art form by picking up a manual film camera and exploring it. I don't think you can understand the importance of the exposure components until you're paying good money for a roll of film and realising that you don't have the same freedom to under/over expose. Plus, what a joy it is to have those photos ‘revealed’ to you after the film is developed. It’s all a process. Sometimes it’s nice to just slow down a little, right?
There’s an ongoing battle between analogue and digital just now: vinyls vs digital downloads; books vs e-readers; film cameras vs digital cameras. Who will prevail? Digital always will. It’s too convenient, too easily accessed, and a whole lot cheaper. But who should we secretly root for? Analogue. Don’t give up on it just yet.
I touched on this a little at the beginning of this post, but the real beauty of film photography – besides the slowing down and thoughtfulness of it – is that it’s tangible. History becomes tangible with film photography, isn’t that wonderful?