A Year of Shooting Film

On June 6, 2017 I started photographing with film again. The last time I was super serious about film photography was in high school, where we were blessed with unlimited chemicals and film. Sadly, all my negatives from high school got stolen from my apartment when I was living in Italy.

It was a relief to go analogue, and a respite from digital, especially social media. I could just shoot all day with either my Leica M-A, Pentax K1000, or Argus C3 and never worry about battery life. I could totally unplug and just focus on the real world, and work on producing decent images. I didn’t think about how an Internet audience would react to my photos. The goal was just a print.

I developed most of my film except for the first few months of shooting. For that I went to Photoworks SF. Once I got the hang of shooting film, I joined the local darkroom, The Harvey Milk Photo Center. I bought a bunch of tanks, a slew of chemicals, and a scanner (under $250) to develop and post-process my own film. The tanks, chemicals, darkroom membership, paper, and film come out to under $600 a year to develop and make my own prints. This is assuming I”m shooting 1 roll of film a week, and am just doing black and white. For the most part 90% of what I shot at this time was black and white. If you want to do color, tack on another $300 a year for chemicals and film.

The first trip I took with my film camera was to Oregon with Paul Wozniak and Dave Alcaraz. The familiar panic of film set in. Would the photos come out? With digital I would’ve known right away, but it was refreshing to just focus on my surroundings.

Samuel H. Boardman State Park

(Leica M-A, Portra 400, 28mm Elmarit f/2.8, f/8, 1/125)

My next trip was at the end of December to Yosemite. There was no snow, but I caught a beautiful moonrise.

Moonrise at Yosemite
Leica M-A, Velvia 50, 90mm Elmarit f/2.8, f/2.8, 1/60

After awhile, I soon grew tired of photographing landscapes. There was a feeling that it had all been done before. I devoted more of my efforts to street photography, since the same street was never the same on different days. I went to Cuba with my friends, Dan Fenstermacher and Harvey Castro. We were struck by the perpetual golden hour that suffused the city streets of Havana. I wish I had lots of great shots, but my technique still needed a ton of work. I would get anxious, and click before the shot was there. Dan got an award for 2 of his photos! But all wasn’t lost, I did get a few photos like this one:

Malecón Fisherman, 2018
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/11, 1/1000

Street photography is something you have to do everyday in order to grow. For me 5pm to 6pm is perfect for street photography since there are so many people in the streets. After Cuba, I went to LA with Dan (again) and Armand (@armand67gt on Instagram). My modicum of skill and luck finally hit a level where I was getting the shots I anticipated or previsualized.

Los Angeles, 2018
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/8, 1/1000

After LA, I was in New York for the Nor’easter snow blizzards, and even went out in that weather to photograph. I was very happy with this photo:

New York Snow Blizzard
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/8, 1/60

For client work, I’ve been stuck with digital. There have been opportunities to offer film, but nobody has taken me up on it. Now that I’m done with a year of shooting film, and look at social media again, I can’t help but be struck with the tyranny of an audience. To produce any lasting art, the masters of the past relied on solitude. Photographing with a film camera and leaving your phone at home has totally provided many hours of solitude these past 12 months.

Rush Hour, San Francisco, 2018
Leica M-A, Kodak TMax 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/11, 1/1000

The pull of the world towards digital is still very strong despite this current film renaissance. There’s such an emphasis on NOW that the expectations are high for getting an image right away. I know that the great photographers rarely dabbled with “old” technology in their own times. Joel Meyerowitz is an exception with his “Connecticut Light” work where he used a large format, view camera that took 8×10 film. As technology advances, a new way of telling a story opens up, and its important to note that potential of that. However, with innovation pushing a new camera 3 or so times a year in the case of Sony, or every 3 years in the case of Leica, and the rest somewhere in between… Is it really worth it to keep up? I would have to say, “No.”

For my own photography, I’ve let film be the thing I shoot for travel, street photography and portraits. The great thing about 35mm film photography is that I’ll never have to upgrade my camera. For landscapes and night time scenes, I know that with a really portable, digital mirrorless kit the photos can come out so clean. However, I know large format, film cameras still can beat digital in landscapes at day time, yet digital is so convenient. Also, every year, the sensors are heading towards 1/30th of a second Milky Way shots that are clean, and at currently, science fiction level ISOs. Will I still shoot film? Yes!

Images are basically free to produce these days. Video, however, has always been a production, especially if its high quality. Where does this leave us? Nostalgia for the past isn’t the way forward, nor is being prisoner to a tech company’s idea of what is art, and what people ought to see. At the end of the day, you have to have a story worth telling that’s so good that even if you’re just sitting by a campfire, people will love it. The same is true for our images. Regardless of what the post-modernists say, exciting photography still has to be about something. Epic images have to be about something you are passionate about.

Do you shoot film? Want to meet up? Let me know in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “A Year of Shooting Film

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  1. An epic story right here. Really enjoyed reading it. I can’t see myself getting into film anytime soon, but I dearly appreciate the art that is produced using it.

  2. Hi Paul, Thanks for reading. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I want to go back to digital. The issue though is I prefer manual focusing compared to auto-focus. I always miss a shot every now and then because auto-focus can’t find the subject even with cameras made in 2018. With the Leica, or any manual focus camera with an accurate focus patch, I never miss a shot. When I hit the button, I am always confident that the photo will be taken.

  3. Great read. I think there’s room for both digital and film in one’s personal work. The key is not to get caught up in the noise of social media. Shoot for self, because when you start shooting for likes…game over. While I enjoy shooting with my Fuji XPro-2 I love picking up my Leica M6 and making images. It all depends on my mood. Also, my photography has shifted greatly in the last year with a focus on documenting my family with some street photography thrown in to keep me sharp and for variety. I’ve begun to photograph with intent, with the sole purpose of the print in my mind as the final product.

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