Tuesday, October 16

Preferring film over digital

When taking pictures, using film marks you. I never really thought of this before, but a day-trip into the Alps with my study-abroad group a few weeks back made this absolutely clear. Everyone else, barring the one guy with a higher-class digital Nikon, was packing one of those pocket digital cameras, the type that challenge a pack of cards for ease of portability. In contrast, the body of my film camera alone probably weighed four times as much as any of theirs, and I was packing three lenses and three rolls of film beyond that. With everything in it, my camera bag was probably between five and ten pounds. It kind of sticks out, and the whole developing-my-own-black-and-white-film thing only sets me further apart from most people taking pictures.

Because of these choices, people may tend to think more of my skills and ambitions than I really have because, really, who is going to put that much effort into photography that they actually have to switch lenses rather than press the widen/tighten button. Still, photography, for me, remains purely a hobby. Were a single picture good enough for an exhibition or inquiries made as to a print's purchase, I would be pleased beyond imagination, but if neither happens, I will be fine. What then draws me to invest so much into film photography when digital is so much easier and more accessible?

There are a number of reasons for this. And here they are. Enjoy.

First, there is the developing process. I have alluded to this philosophy before in my rant on elliptical machines and fully plan to further develop it independently in a later post, but I believe that if you are going to do something, you ought to do it all out and take possession of it from beginning to end, not passing off the duties to someone else, because it is through that particular investment of time and energy that the ultimate result will have greater meaning to you. Performing the chemical washes, agitating the various liquids, moving the print from bath to bath, these take time and demand your attention. Of course one can accomplish much of the same through Photoshop or some similar program through a tweaking of the color saturation and levels and everything, but that brings me to the next point.

When the developing and printing is completed, you have something physical, something tangibly real. This too has become more meaningful to me as I grow used to it. Of course one can print their digital photos and make them physical in that way, but that really does not happen so often. Understandably, people are content to dump their pictures onto a CD or get a Flickr account or make an album on Facebook and load those up when someone wants to see their latest vacation to Mexico because the audience is not restrained by the normal physical limitations, but we do not look at these the same way we do even old snapshots. I have absolutely no data to back this coming assertion up, but I suspect that a great deal less time is spent perusing digital albums than shoe boxes full of 3x5's. Maybe this is a good thing when people can peruse 20 thumbnail images at once and only take a closer look at those which peak their interest, but I feel as though something is lost, some of the impact or the possibility for something to really surprise you. Besides, crowding a computer produces a much different interaction than sitting around the table and passing photos.

Then there are the economics of film. Film is expensive and, considering what I use, a pain to find at times. These costs of film acquisition, both financial and temporal, force me to be more considerate of my pictures. I do not simply take a shot and call it good, as I probably would when the cost of a digital picture is near nil. I try to find something original, something unique, and then capture it in the best possible way. Undoubtedly this has held me back from taking some risks and experimenting, but at this point, simple work on the basics is the best thing for me.

Finally, there is a simple structural fact of the camera. The viewscreen which immediately displays the picture just taken, a feature on every digital camera I have ever seen, simply does not exist on mine. As such, I cannot see the pictures I took and must sometimes wait weeks or, as the present case has been, months before seeing them. Though I have been making progress in loosening up on my perfectionism, I still fear that, given a digital camera, I would spend all of my time trying to make the picture just right and not just take it and move on.

What amuses me so much about this is that I have only reached these ideas recently. I certainly did not sit down and make out a list of pros and cons of each technology before choosing one. In fact, the camera and lenses were a gift from my dad last Christmas in anticipation of the fine art photography class I would have to take this summer for my Journalism major. If I had compared the two before making a camera purchase, I probably would have gone with the digital. Not needing to buy film appeals to my cheap side, and it is so much easier to share your pictures online with family and friends when they can be loaded directly on to the computer rather than needing to wait for the roll to be filled, the film developed, the pictures printed and a scanner found. Now I cannot imagine ever using a digital.

There is a moral in this and may be one clear to others and practiced by them for years now, but it is an important one for me. Sometimes the important thing is not so much making the right choice but simply making a choice. You cannot anticipate everything. All you can do is jump in and move out from there.

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