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Shifting expectations - stepping into the world of film photography

I don't consider myself a Luddite at all, I am a big believer in technology and its potential to bring improvement to humans across the globe, despite its obvious challenges. And yet, in the world of photography, I find myself evolving in the opposite direction when looking at where photographic technology is heading. As I wrote in my post on the impact of AI on photography, we need to distinguish the experience of photography from the outcome. And for amateurs like myself, the experience is part of the outcome. I have been looking for a shooting experience that has more distance from two things that have been getting in the way of my enjoyment of photography. One is looking through screens. I know it's efficient. I know having that WYSIWYG view has benefits. But I find myself looking for a photography experience without screens every once in a while. My Leica M also qualifies here of course. But film is yet another step away from immediate feedback. It is this detachment of the process of taking a photo and the actual photo itself what appeals to me. No instant feedback of what you tried to capture. Again, I could have looked for an M-D or simply disabled the screen on my digital cameras. But somehow this is not the same.

Life is limited, just like the amount of frames on a roll of film. Good example of classic Cinestill red halation. [Bronica ETRSi 75mm]

The other thing is the impact of abundance. This has a funny influence on the creative process. I was never a high volume shooter, but effectively having a never-ending amount of storage these days is something that can trigger a mindset where you shoot everything that moves. And then shoot a few more times again, just to be sure. For professionals, this is great. There is no need to worry about getting that perfect pose and facial expression. Or that unique moment in sports, or in street photography as passersby line up for a great composition. But for an amateur, this can be quite tiring. Having to sort through endless amounts of photos doesn't make anyone happy. Lightroom and CaptureOne Pro are getting better at helping you sort and cull during the import process but still.

Shooting in fixed series because of film capacity is something that I really appreciate. The capacity of the amount of photos from a film role provide a natural break in comparison with digital where you have the possibility of an almost endless series of shots given the large storage options available today. For someone who made the film to digital switch, this might be obvious. But for me, who started to truly get into photography in the digital era, this is a welcome change. I used some film point and shoot cameras in my youth as a tourist but that was it. Then, the limitation of having only so many shots on a roll was annoying. Now, when I am in the mood for it, I quite like it. The ability to pick a digital camera or a film camera, depending on the photographic mood or setting, is a wonderful thing to have.

Table for one [Bronica ETRSi 75mm]

So far, I've only talked about the issue with abundance from the perspective of the photographer. We all know what is feels like as a spectator, having to sit through endless photos from someone's vacation. Less truly is more, in this case. Now, you don't need to shoot film to bring some much needed restraint to your photography. You can do that when shooting digital as well. It just takes a lot more discipline to do so. So far, I find the influence of shooting film on occasion very helpful in my digital work as well. It helps me assess the photographic potential of a scene with much more urgency. It is teaching me to raise the bar in terms of what I want to capture, digital or not. I enjoy this, but many people might not and think this as an odd limitation that is completely unnecessary. I have decided to shoot medium format, or 120 film, where this limitation is even stronger compared to 35mm film. Every roll in my current film camera (more on that below) holds a whopping amount of 12 photos. Talk about constraint.

Pick your poison. [Leica CL, Sigma 30mm F1.4]

The physical aspects of shooting and processing film are quite different compared to digital. There is something about taking a roll of film and getting your film camera ready to shoot. After taking a photo, the feedback from the lever to move the film forward is a very tactile experience, you've just completed the process of capturing light and are ready for the next one. Slow and conscious. Receiving your negatives is another happy moment in the journey of shooting with film. I don't develop film at home but have a lab do it for me. I will start to self-scan, but so far I have let the lab do that for me as well.

Insert roll please. [Leica CL, Sigma 30mm F1.4]

And then there is the look of film. It depends on which film stock you use obviously, but the ones that speak to me like Kodak's Portra 400 or 160 have this interesting mix of sharp softness. The lens you use will be of influence here, but the way light is captured chemically versus digitally does make a difference. It's not better, or worse, but simply different. I enjoy it. The colors, with the right film stock, are something else. Especially when shooting 120 film. It's hard to describe but there is a vividness without becoming over-saturated as some digital photos can quickly become. I picked medium format film over 35mm because of that color look. I will shoot black & white as well but the big appeal to me is the color.

Medium format colors in the south of France [Bronica ETRSi 75mm]

The elephant in the room when talking about film photography is of course how expensive it is. Twelve shots per 120 film roll against about 15 euro per roll and 7 euros for the development means it costs 1,80 euro per photo. And then you only have a negative. Printing costs more. Scanning can be done cheaper at home with some initial investment in a lightbox and a film holder. Shooting film is expensive, very expensive. This adds to the state of selected shooting that the lack of frames on a roll already introduces. Because, you could just load another roll, right? Well, yes, but that would add up.....

The Bronica ETRSi is not for me.

Finally, you need a camera. This is also not cheap. With many people getting into film, especially medium format, and no (or barely) new medium format film cameras being made anymore, getting your hands on a good camera can be expensive as well. I didn't want to break the bank when trying out film photography so I bought a Japanese Hasselblad 500 inspired 645 camera called the Bronica ETRSi. Long story short; I don't like it. It turns out that waste-level viewfinders are not my thing and the ergonomics of this boxy camera didn't work for me. I did like what came out of the camera, and the standard 75mm lens is great. Even though I didn't like the Bronica, I had seen enough. I wanted to continue with film. Days and nights were spent browsing the internet to learn about this new world of cameras that I was completely oblivious about. In the end, I decided to go for the Mamiya 6. It is a 6x6 square format, absolute beauty of a rangefinder, with a collapsible lens. It also has a 75mm lens, this comes down to an every so slightly wider 35mm equivalent of 41mm vs the 46mm of the Bronica. I love the 40-ish focal length for a single lens camera. I will write a separate post about this wonderful tank camera.

There is something about film [Mamiya 6]

Back to my expectations. What am I looking for by shooting film? For one, I will enjoy the process. It really is different from shooting digital. From the way my Mamiya lightmeter works compared to modern digital cameras, to the fact that composing in a square format will push me through a hard learning curve, I am enjoying the newness of it all. And I think I already know this is not just chasing novelty. I am seriously falling in love with this kind of photography, and the Mamiya 6 is living up to what I was hoping for. To be continued....


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