Why I shoot film: A reflection on photography (part 5).
So this here is the final instalment of my exploration of why I might choose to forego megapixels and the convenience of a versatile, capable, extremely fast and efficient digital camera and instead trek down the dusty, winding, half-overgrown path that is film photography in the 21st century. The cameras are old; the process takes a long time; it’s expensive to develop and scan; it’s limiting and the results have been surpassed long ago. These things are probably true; at least one of my Polaroid cameras has developed a rather nasty (and expensive) intermittent habit of spitting out frames so slowly that the developer paste doesn’t cover even half of the frame, and another spent several weeks producing at least three shots from every pack that were overexposed to the point of extreme frustration. So why would I do this to myself? Well, the fourth reason, and really the one that underpins most others, is simple – it’s because shooting film makes me more creative. Let me try to explain…
To my mind, the hardest creative challenge to work with would be if the instruction was simply “create something”. Where does one start with such a brief? No, far preferable for me is the brief that says “use only these 36 frames, and a monochromatic palette, to tell the story of the city as you experienced it that day”. There, I have plenty to work with. I know my limitations, I know the constraints within which I can create. And that’s where the resolution comes from – chipping away at those constraints. For me, complete freedom of creative expression is paralysing.
And if like me, you find yourself most able to create when that’s within a bounded system, film photography offers just so many delicious constraints. There are constraints in the choice of film. When one has 36 frames, one tends to make each one count. Yes, it’s possible to exercise this kind of discipline with digital as well (in fact I did exactly that some time ago on this very blog), but you don’t have to – and that’s the point. Maybe it’s my background in a small part of a small state in a small part of the world, but I find it easiest to find a creative response when there’s no other option but to solve the problem. When one has a low ISO film loaded from that sunny day last weekend and 10 frames still to shoot, one tends to find opportunities to exploit that.
There are also constraints in the choice of camera. Using a rangefinder opens up new ways of seeing, but it also means I can’t use my old ways of seeing – no through the lens focusing for me. Having to manually wind on from each shot slows down the process of taking and means fast-paced action shots are pretty much out of the question.
Then there are constraints around when I actually get to see the results. A roll of film will generally always last me longer than a day (although one amazing foggy morning this week meant I accelerated my usual pace), and then the turnaround time for processing varies from an hour (which almost feels like cheating), through to a week or more. I like the result to be somewhere in the middle; a day or so from dropping off the film to seeing the results is ideal. This gives me just that little bit of distance from the experience of taking the image, and allows just a small degree of objectivity in the selection process. However, it’s not so long after taking the image that I’ve lost the excitement of the roll, and I think that’s important too.
I relish these constraints. Yes, all could be done with digital cameras. But that almost seems like using that tool in the wrong way; like spending lots of money on a fancy new shovel, and then using it to bang nails into a fence. Yes, it can be done, but it would be easier and more effective to just get a hammer! Plus, if I’m honest, I suspect I lack the discipline to enable those artificial constraints to be effective for long enough for it to actually influence my creative process.
So, in a roundabout way, my point here is that film photography can be inflexible, time-consuming, slow, and nowhere near as sophisticated as digital. And that’s exactly why I like it.