Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why I Shoot Film

Most of what I know about photography I owe to Camp Susque. The same faded instructional posters and 30-minute lesson that hoards of Susque boys and girls have received was to my 12-year old self in the basement of Hemlock Hall what F = m(a) would later be to my teenage counterpart in high school Physics.

I had to look over my shoulder to be sure no grown-ups were in the room when the counselor took the lens completely off the body of the old Pentax and showed us how the shutter works. I had a hard time remembering how to say the word aperture, but it's function made perfect sense--it was just like an eye's iris! It was a blank-white-page-and-sharp-No. 2-pencil-kind of feeling when he said that we could take pictures in the dark if we just held the shutter open for a full minute. Finally, I almost uttered "Why didn't I think of that," when he taught us about the 1/3 rule for composition. There was treasure everywhere, and I only needed my eyesight and a roll of film to claim it as my own.

The statistician in me wonders how many rolls of film I have sent away for development in my life. The purist in me knows all the reasons why I still send film away for development and why I still don't own a digital camera. Below find a few:

- Film came first. Well, at least it's an older photographic process. I will never advocate a return to pinhole cameras, but I do generally impose a healthy sense of skepticism and hold my tongue whenever I hear someone try to convert me to anything new-er, quick-er, or more convenient. "Newer" is hardly ever "better" in my mind (this is probably related to at least one of the reasons that I never fully relax in a church with a "worship team").

- Film can be inconvenient. Shots can be destroyed and utterly lost if the back of the camera pops open. Prints can be ruined if someone walks into your darkroom. Granted, these things have never happened to me, but the danger is still ever-present and haunts my dreams.

- Shooting film is more difficult. There is far more pressure to capture a shot the first time when shooting with film. One can't delete and re-shoot a poor picture with film; the image permanently occupies a frame on a roll of 24 forever. No one with a digital camera is limited by the price of a roll of film. I consider it partially a matter of personal discipline to consciously engage in activities that are deliberately more difficult.

- Shooting film feels more artistic. Shooting color film feels kinda organic. Shooting black and white film makes one feel artsy. Shooting black and white film in Central Park makes one feel irresistible to really cute girls from dairy farms in Susquehanna County.

- Digital cameras have given otherwise poor photographers the illusion that they are good photographers. Even more pitiable, it has caused many people to believe that they enjoy taking pictures. Taking good pictures is not easy, nor should it be made easier for a mass of people whose only qualification is that they can afford to pay to remove another human element from their automated lives. New parents can take 72 pictures of their firstborn trying to walk, and come away with two interesting pictures of the event. This will not deter them from posting all 72 pictures on Facebook, however.

- Film produces better prints. Given two prints of an identical scene, I can always pick out which photograph was taken with a digital camera and which was film. I always prefer the film print.

- Empty film canisters make convenient cases for foam ear plugs.

- Waiting for film prints builds patience. I still love dropping a roll of film in the send-away bin at Walmart. I love writing "Wednesday after 10 a.m." on the slip and waiting until four days pass. I love stopping at Walmart on Wednesday after 10 a.m. to pick up my pictures. For the purposes of this essay, I will pretend that I don't mind how many times the clerk needs to check the same six drawers of picture envelopes before she finds my envelope (right where it should have been). I love paying for my pictures without knowing how they turned out. I love walking through the parking lot dying to know how they turned out. I love sitting in my truck for 15 minutes looking at every print at least three times and finally knowing how they turned out. I curse my mistakes and rejoice in my victories. I delight in Delayed Gratification.

- I liked Chemistry better than C++. I can't explain exactly how film exposed to light will produce an exact replica of an image (and with dead-on colors!), but I'm even farther from being able to understand how a computer can imitate the process.

I choose film because it's harder, it's less convenient, and it makes me wait. I reject digital because it's more automated, foolproof, and (I feel) sterile. The above does not necessarily sanctify me, but I do believe that it contributes to the process. Give film another try--it may make you a better person.