Last summer, after watching me shoot film for a year, my husband Richard picked up my camera and gave it a go. Here’s how he got on.
I’m not a photographer.
I have always taken photos, of course, first on a series of compact cameras, both film and digital, and then on an iPhone. But these were images rather than photographs – they captured something I thought should be captured, but without flair or joy.
What I lacked in technical ability or artistry I simply made up for with multiple shots of the same thing, hoping one might be OK. This ‘spray and pray’ approach has been encouraged and facilitated by technologies that prize quantity over quality, to the point that I pay an inordinate amount of money storing thousands of images of little value in a server farm somewhere.
I never had an SLR camera, or a DSLR. When I have used one of these they seemed to me so complex and unknowable that I simply defaulted to the automatic settings, rendering them little more sophisticated than a point and shoot.
I was so disengaged in the entire business that I ended up ‘outsourcing’ my photography to others, mostly partners, in the belief that their superior skills and knowledge would create better memories for me than I could fashion myself. It is for this reason that I have no record of my life from the early ‘90s to the turn of the last decade. And while the advent of the iPhone has meant that I do have a record of my children as they have grown, there is little that I might seek to print for posterity or to hang on a wall.
Like I said I am not a photographer.
But for some reason, I am now three rolls into a journey of shooting on film with a fifty-year old SLR camera (a Pentax K1000) and am utterly delighted with where it is taking me. A journey that isn’t simply about photographs or photography but a mess of motivations, desires, pleasures and rewards.
To be honest I’m not really sure why and how I started. I guess I began by picking up and playing with the cameras that Annabel had started to gather as part of her own analogue journey – some years ahead of me. She was beginning to create some truly amazing photographs and I think I started getting a little envious of the deliberate feeling to her image making. That she had to decide to take a camera with her if she wanted to shoot. That she had to have film. That she had to take care over what to shoot and when to shoot it. That the number of shots were finite and so could never be wasted. And that she had to wait to see the results. In short, I started to crave an escape form the indiscriminate nature of digital photography, of images taken without care that created results rarely, if ever, appreciated.
And so, I began.
I learnt to load a film, which is trickier than it seems, as by the time I first started taking photographs cameras automatically load the film for you. I leant that you can’t really know when the first exposure takes place and that you occasionally get half a photo at the beginning of the reel that always has a weird and wonderful quality to it.
I learnt the things I had never understood with an automatic camera of any description, like setting the aperture and the shutter speed to match the shot you are taking and the light conditions. The Pentax has a very simple light meter built in and so this is little more complicated than making sure it’s in the right place and adjusting the shutter and aperture to make sure it is.
I learnt to be patient as my films were sent off to the lab in Spain and the We-Transfer link arrived back a few days later, in a digital equivalent of the post-holiday pouch from Snappy Snaps. I learnt not to be disappointed at the first results, the overexposures, the underexposures, the poor compositions and blurred images. Each was a learning process and a chance to correct the mistake on the next roll.
I also learned to embrace the best mistakes, those images that aren’t technically right but have their own beauty. Overexposures that bleach the scene and given it a washed-out feel, underexposures that render the mucky brown water of a river jet black, and mysterious lens flare that seems deliciously deliberate.
Three rolls in and it’s been a rollercoaster ride. My first roll was weird and wonderful, my second hugely dispiriting and deathly dull, and my third, a modest triumph with at least two shots I’d love to enlarge and print. I’ll take those odds, two photographs, taken with attention and love, creating something I want to look at over and over, rather than lose in the iPhone image blizzard in the cloud.
I’m still not a photographer, but I am a convert to the thoughtfulness of shooting on film. I’m a convert to a world of discipline, limitation, patience and delight. And one of care. Shooting on film is the perfect antidote to the lives that we are all leading in which a handful of exceptional, if still a little amateurish, photographs are a wonderful bonus.
I shoot on a Pentax K1000 with Fuji Superia 400 film guided by Annabel’s patience and the first ‘shoot on film’ e-course that she created with Lauren.
If you are looking for a new creative adventure for 2020, you might like my e-course, Enchanting Analogue.
Shooting without a light meter is a great way to experiment with light, to boost your confidence and help you reduce the amount of kit you need to carry with you. Here’s how to do it.
As part of writing Enchanting Analogue, the film shooting course I’ve created with Lauren Keim, I have given a lot of thought to how film is kinder with our mistakes and how it throws us some magical surprises to encourage us and help us along our journey.