A little background:
I started photography near the tail end of high school. Of course, that’s not when I technically “started”, just when I started learning. My first camera was a Canon A520 with a groundbreaking 4MP and 4x zoom. After quite a bit of enjoyment with that little camera I decided to take the leap into photography, REAL photography, and got a Nikon D40 with a kit 18-55mm lens. At first I mostly hung around the “Program” setting, but I gradually got more adventurous once I learned the most basic implications of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. That summer while working at a local Boy Scout camp I had the opportunity to shoot thousands of photos of just as many interesting things. I suppose I developed over the summer because the local Council noticed, I got my photos published, and everything was all really exciting. It was time to move up in the world.
My next acquisition was the Nikon D90, which seemed like a good decision because hey, more megapixels, more customization, more efficient lens use, etc. Soon I became familiar with strobes and RAW files. It seemed like something new to learn was always around the corner until suddenly…it wasn’t.
Ok, NOW on film…
One tends to grow complacent in digital photography. The exposure settings are always just so convenient, automatically calculated, just push the shutter and you’ve got a picture. I tend to favor exaggerated depth of field, so I typically leave my lenses wide open. But they stay open for every…single…photo, because I had no thought of changing them. More light is good light after all! Also, as I photograph a subject I can visually see the little numbers in my viewfinder change. I can adjust for varying lighting conditions and subjects. While I always knew how to properly change the exposure, I never really KNEW exposure. There was no need. My camera knew, and I knew what I wanted from my camera. It was a good relationship.
Portraiture is an area of photography I’ve grown quite interested in during my later years of study. There’s an alluring aspect of capturing someone, an image true to the subject. It’s as much about personal interaction as technical photographic prowess. But here’s the other ugly truth: most people aren’t models. I don’t mean that in an appearance sense, I mean that in reference to charisma. You put most anyone in front of a camera and they’re going to freak. Not actually, or literally, but you’ll see it, you’ll know. Getting people to loosen up is the hardest part of portraiture, and I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t got the handle of it yet. It takes a certain level of confidence with people that I’ve not quite grasped.
I lied. That was the Prologue to Film. This is, for real, actually about film.
My first film camera was a Yashicaflex A. It’s kind of dinky, but I love it for it. After I realized how expensive film was going to get I decided to buy up and got a Mamiya C330 Professional. Both of these cameras are TLR and shoot 120 film, which gives 12 exposures to a roll, each exposure about 4x the area of a 35mm. Also worth note, each and every single exposure is at least $1. That hurts.
But really…that cost incentive helps more than one would realize. At $1 an exposure I began to SLOW DOWN. I can’t just take any photo, I have to take THE photo. One shot. That’s it. Any wasted shots hurt, not just the wallet, but the soul. I can usually feel it as soon as I pull the shutter. It sucks, but it’s a tremendous motivator.
Once one slows down to setup a scene, it’s hard not to consider every detail. Suddenly the aperture becomes a consideration. 4 years of photography and I never really understood “sharpness”, at least, not until film reminded me that yes, there are more F-stops than 2.8, AND THEY’RE USEFUL! I also never really understood exactly what a “stop” was. I knew it had to deal with exposure, but not to what extent. I came to this crushing realization when our local camera shop owner, John, started instructing me on “boost by 1 stop this” and “drop 2 stops that”. I had always been self-taught, those numbers meant NOTHING. Film forced me to learn. Now I actually have some sort of metric to associate with those little numbers in my viewfinder.
In terms of portraiture I’ve found this slowed rate to help the subjects relax, too. My typical camera setup time is probably about 5 minutes between framing, tripod leveling, light metering, scene examination, setting up remote shutter, precise focusing, etc. By the time I’m done my subject as forgotten I’m there. I did a shoot around my architecture studio at Virginia Tech, and while photographic people working I commonly heard something I had never heard in portraiture before: “Oh, that was all? I didn’t even know you took it.” Considering that I had told them prior I was taking their picture, this is a pretty good sign of comfort, as it lets you take the picture when YOU want without THEM knowing exactly when that moment will be. (Side note: Remote shutters are incredibly useful as they allow you to maintain direct interaction with the subject. It’s hard to have a personal relationship to them with your face stuck behind a camera.)
Now, I do not want to make claims that film is superior to digital. I would never take my film camera exclusively on any serious job or location. Not only is it expensive, but it’s risky and limited. My digital equipment will never leave my side. But film, in an ironic kind of twist, is fresh. It’s new. It has forced me into a renewed spirit of experimentation in my daily photography. It has exposed me to technical elements I never knew existed. But most importantly, I’ve learned to take a greater in the photos I take, and to keep an open mind to possibility.
Also, old cameras are a bitchin’ conversation piece. The ladies love them.