Shit we like:
Forgotten rolls of 35mm film
It’s expensive. It’s impractical. It makes everything photographed on it look like it took place in the 1970s. So why bother with film?
A few years ago I planned a solo road trip to Haida Gwaii. I drove up in my admittedly unequipped Toyota Echo (thankfully the weather cooperated on my 16-hour drive) and spent the days around my spring birthday staying with a friend in the village of Skidegate.
I took four cameras: two digital SLRs, an instant camera, and a Canon AE-1, circa 1976. It had been my dad’s, and was the first camera I’d ever used. I’d shot hundreds of rolls of black-and-white film with it in high school but for several years it had joined the other vintage cameras I’d collected on a shelf in my bedroom. I figured a trip which I intended to photograph heavily required a little bit of variety, so I dusted it off and shelled out $50 for five rolls of Fujicolor Pro 400H 35mm film for the first time since I’d studied photography in college.
After 10 days I returned home with five canisters of film ready to be processed. I shoved them in a drawer with the intention of taking them to a lab, excited to see the results after spending so much time away from an analogue camera.
That was over three years ago.
Last week, ($80 later) I finally invested in having the film processed and scanned, and it occurred to me why photographs created in this way have a different value attached to them.
Before I’d gone on this road trip, I’d spent a lot of time at work taking photographs for other people, and in this environment I almost always felt rushed. Rushing is an impossibility with film, unless you’re interested in creating some very expensive, very over- or under-exposed images. To make a visually pleasing photograph with a piece of machinery that won’t let you know how badly you might have fucked up in the process is humbling, but satisfying in a way one doesn’t experience with a digital camera. It’s a methodical process that takes more planning than that snap on your iPhone, or even your DSLR.
The variables—aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length, focus, and so on—are enough to manage on their own. Then add the potential for light leaks, faulty light metres, dusty mirrors, and other potential fuck-ups to the mix. Of course, for the film photographer all of this is dwarfed by the thought of accidentally opening the film compartment in broad daylight, thus ruining the precious frames you so looked forward to printing. (It is for this self-proclaimed klutz anyway.)
This is why using film can be disappointing. But things change when you learn to appreciate the flaws, the grain, the patience required for the shots that worked, and the ones that didn’t. Where the digital photo is so often taken and destined for the app, the filter, and the eyes of friends and followers, making an image on film reminds me of the way our parents used to take photographs—not because of the medium, but because of the intent. Without rapid-fire shutters and endless digital memory at their fingertips, individual frames were cherished, the best were printed, and the rest ended up in crusty albums that I’d excitedly pore over as a child, with the goal of one day filling my own. Some of my favourites were the flawed frames—the ones that were slightly overblown, or grainy, or by some magical mistake, double-exposed.
In revisiting the images of this trip so long after they were captured, I get a feeling similar to the one that was invoked by ogling family photo albums as a child. There’s a feeling in these speckled frames that just isn’t conveyed the same way when captured digitally, even when photographing the same subject matter.
Yes, film is expensive; yes, it is impractical; and yes, it’s got a bit of hipster baggage attached to it. But as life has forced us all to slow down substantially over the last several weeks, it’s a medium that has reminded me to do the same when I feel compelled to capture a moment I’ll want to remember a year from now (…or maybe three).