The digital age seems to be making photography less guided and purposeful. Competition is higher than ever and this competition in many cases serves as a distraction to quality. The pressure is on all photographers to produce at alarmingly unhealthy rates. But the real photographers amongst us are out there with their digital flickr accounts and many of them still use film. Some of them only use film.
In the past three years, out of necessity, I’ve begun working within the digital photographic realm. Honing my skills in Photoshop engulfed by the overwhelming amount of possibilities it offers (batch file processing being one unexpected option). Often I find there is too much to learn and time is eaten away much too easily. At this moment I return a longing gaze towards my Canon AE-1 sitting on its, all too often, dusty shelf.
$$$ makes me step back from my first love, but I know there is nothing like the breathtaking quality of film grain. As advanced as digital cameras have become in the past few years zeros and ones do not add up to the pop of a 35mm filmstrip.
A second hand Canon AE-1 was my first camera, received as a birthday gift during my early high school years. Its metal body has since been dropped on cement sidewalks but continues to click along as smooth as ever. Who knows where the value of this glorious relic will go in the next few decades. I know for sure there’s nothing that will break it down. No additional software needed to update insignificant file formats. Just a simple cleaning will do.
My father introduced me to photography and my first camera, having dabbled in it during his university days. My first few photographic expeditions included walks along the edge of Stuart Lake (located in central BC, Canada) recapturing the experience with light stains. Within a few years boxes containing darkroom equipment were pulled out and set up in a small triangle shaped room. Chemicals and a red light were paid for. Blankets were draped over the door and stuffed under it blocking out white light.
Darkrooms are missed. Embedded in a memory box labeled nostalgia and longing. Colour darkrooms are especially exciting with the added challenge of balancing colours through a box of light. It was the only place in which a sense of solitude and complete focus were given even with people milling about. One can choose community and connection amongst rows of enlargers and then retreat back into an individual world of light stains on paper.
Ruminating on the direction of photography I have often convinced myself that the demise of film is not too far away. Upon joining the popular online photo site flickr I am now convinced of the opposite. Many on this site are so dedicated to film that it is all they will use but then again most who take this approach to photography are in their 20s or older.
Am I among the last generation of film users? This notion seems all too romantic and strangely comforting. Still I think the charm of older cameras, especially large and medium format ones will draw in young artists interested in trinkets from the past (the typewriter is still kicking around amongst those communities).
A couple weeks ago I dropped off a stack of film to be scanned and converted into digital files. I had a long conversation with the owner of the photo processing shop. He helped me understand the different file types and how to best process RAW photo files. He also explained how lucky I was to learn on film because I could understand the basics. I could read light without having any tools telling me how to read it. I knew what f-stop, ISO and ASA stood for. I knew how aperture and film speed worked. Some recent photography graduates don’t even know some of these things. I was shocked when he told me of a young graduate of a photography diploma program. She had never worked with any medium other than digital and didn’t know what ISO stood for (film speed) what was worse was that using aperture controls was not even on her radar. She didn’t know what aperture was and was only using the shutter speed to control how much light was coming into the camera (this is a severely limiting way of capturing an image and can stop a camera from recording the necessary detail … unless that’s not what you’re going for).
Photoshop and Lightroom seem to be the cutting edge tools to be an expert of and cameras only a necessary aspect for framing the image. After all, lighting and colour balance can all be processed after the fact, in most instances without damaging the original digital file.
I am not reluctant to be joining the ranks of digital processing lovers, but I remain wary. Every once in a while I plan to slip in a roll of film, listening carefully for the satisfactory clickity-clack of film edges catching onto plastic teeth pulling inside the camera. I am even beginning to drool over the idea of purchasing a medium format film camera in a few years. For now the LCD screen I have become all too reliant upon will remain off as, once again, I read light and manipulate it to my advantage.