I have a very large plastic bin in my freezer containing hundreds of rolls of film — leftovers from my days at art school when I studied photography. During my first year there in 2005, I shot film or chrome every day for one year. Not most days but every single day. A couple of times a week I would go into the labs and process the rolls myself. This way of working (shooting then self-processing) became such a habit that I thought it would always be like that.
But after graduation in 2007, I discovered all my professional work required digital. So I slipped into the routine of also using digital instead of film for my personal work. Economics also played a roll in that change (I no longer had free use of a film lab for processing or printing). I rationalized this was OK since I had finely tuned my digital darkroom skills to where I could achieve most of what I wanted to see in my photographs.
This year I’ve taken inventory of my film cameras and considered parting with them as they mostly collect dust and take up space. I can’t say that I am a photographer who developed a “personal” relationship with his cameras like some do. None of mine have nicknames nor are they adorned with initials or notches. Any personal working relationships I have occurred with the lenses. I had a 110mm medium format lens that produced the most exquisite light fall-off from a subject I’ve ever seen. No 35mm lens could even come close. But that’s like comparing apples and oranges in the camera world.
Before parting with my 35mm film cameras I thought I should use the expired film from the fridge. But where to cheaply process expired film? Target — $0.95 per roll. Perfect!
A good friend of mine and former photography classmate asked if I wanted to accompany him to the Joshua Tree National Park one recent Sunday. As this is one of my favorite places where I’ve been photographing since 2003, I eagerly accepted. So I packed my camera bag with a Leica M7, five different lenses and 15 rolls of expired (6/2007) Fuji Superia film.
I am embarrassed to say that quickly loading a roll of film for the first (or second) time was not successful. Five years had passed since I was able to load a roll of film without even looking down at the camera. But by the third roll all was hitting the right grooves and rails. Then I had to remember to cock the quick wind lever to the next frame. No auto-advance with this camera. Fortunately, landscapes don’t require rapid fire sequences.
Not having an LCD for instant review on my camera completely changed my shooting rhythm. At first, I felt disoriented. Then I became a bit paranoid and began double-checking my camera settings to make sure I wasn’t under- or over-exposing — especially in a bright desert at Noon. I finally decided it best to work in complete manual mode. A rangefinder camera (like the Leica M7) requires the photographer to manually focus and pre-visualize a shot for depth-of-field. So adding another decision element, like exposure, was not a significant burden. Eventually, I found myself contemplating these variables while viewing the object through my viewfinder. With one aperture or shutter speed click, slightly turning back the focus ring, I was really aware of putting my own imprint on a negative frame.
I have tried to evolve in the way I approach landscapes through a viewfinder. Until I began my photography studies, I was like a child, jumping out of the car and quickly raising the camera to my eye and pressing the shutter. Snap. Turn left. Snap. Turn right. Snap. But during my photography studies I became much more aware of light. One of the pleasures of photography school is I could spend hours, laying on the ground in a forest, watching how the light moved across the sky and through the trees. Last year I continued my landscape photography education by attending a workshop with the renowned photographer Kenro Izu. His workshop “The Sacred Landscape” implored us to meditate and explore a landscape before unpacking our cameras. Spend time to understand the atmosphere of the location: winds, sounds, light and the speed at which the clouds move across the sky.
When I compare landscape images shot with film versus digital, I immediately become aware that atmosphere is the element missing in digital photography. We try to capture it with our digital cameras. Yet, endless hours of digital processing achieves exactly the opposite effect. Instead of adding reality to a photograph, we remove the few elements of life the digital file had in the beginning. In essence, we photoshop life out of the image.
Regardless of photoshop skills, there are film elements that simply can’t be reproduced with a digital sensor or a computer. The way the sun burns out in a photograph or highlights fall off an object or person. These film elements help create the atmosphere of a photograph. In film, the over-exposure rolls off into a creamy warmth of white space. In digital there is no roll off. There is actually nothing. There is data or there is no data.
In a perfect world, I would shoot film for everything. And each night the film faeries would collect my film, process and return them to me each morning accompanied with a disc of high-resolution drum scans of my negatives. The mention of coin would never be discussed.
I like digital cameras. I like the immediacy of a digital file. That “immediacy” is in sync with how I usually work and think. But sometimes I want to relax. I don’t want to know I can review each image after it’s taken. I want to actually look at what’s around me instead of an LCD telling me what’s around me. I want an element of mystery in my photographs.