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Film is Not Dead

This week is my sabbatical week. My plan is to write for Upstream and this blog, and to attend Craft and Commerce with Becky. It’s a conference held by ConvertKit, an email marketing software company . I use it to send these letters. It’s a conference bringing together online creators to teach them and for them to network together. It’s my first time going after hearing some great things about it. I’ve made some internet friends over the past year, and I’m excited to meet them in person at the conference. 

When I travel, I usually bring along my Fuji x100T to take photos, but recently I’ve been loving my Canon AE-1 film camera. I’ve had my share of mixed feelings with film photography. So much of its popularity had more to do with looking for a formula for success or as a status symbol. It seemed to be a distraction to what really matters: doing the hard work of creating great images. I love formulas and status as much as the next person, but film photography seemed like a trend. 

Man, I was so wrong.

A Vintage Formula

When I started out in wedding photography, one of the most influential photographers for me was Jose Villa. I learned a lot from his use of natural light, and how he posed his subjects. Back then, he was one of the first photographers to shoot weddings with a film camera. He knew the colors and textures that he wanted, and found that film was the best way for him to achieve it. 

His labeled his personal style as “fine art wedding photography” and it suited him well. The issue I saw was that a lot of other wedding photographers started to copy what he did. Once you bought the same camera, and follow what he did, your images looked similar enough that you could call yourself a fine art wedding photographer also. Jose’s art became a trend.

Outside of the wedding industry, there was this nostalgic, vintage aspect of film photography that photographers love to drool over. There is a lot of signaling you could do if you carry around a Leica film camera and did street photography, like Cartier-Bresson. There was this over indulgence to the gear, and a need to show off what camera(s) they were using that day. This constant obsession with gear and trend is a great distraction to what really matters—doing the hard work to better your craft and art.

If I sound like a hater, it’s because I am. I hate that I’ve been exactly that formula seeker and gear-head at different times of my photography career. Yes, there is a time and place for gear talk. I was deep into it when I was first learning about cameras and deciding what to invest in. And it’s important to know what advancements are being made in our industry. I also understand the vintage aspect to it. Sometimes vintage is better. Things are just not made like they used to be.

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When you start to think that all you need is the right gear to create the right picture, then you’ve given yourself an out to do the real work. Much of the noise in photography is made up of images that are technically perfect, but have nothing to say. And in the age of social media, if there are enough likes and followers, these images seem more important than they really are. It’s a trap that is so easy to get caught in, but ironically enough, shooting film this year has helped me avoid it.

Why I Love Film

The truth is, unless you spend five figures or more on a camera, digital sensors cannot compete with the resolution of a film negative. Also, the dynamic range (measure of light from the shadows to the highlights of an image) you can get from a film negative is much greater than even a professional digital camera. If all you care about is the best quality from your camera, a film camera is the best way to go, and larger the negative the better. 

Film photography also forces you to really learn about what goes into taking a photo. I learned how to shoot on a digital camera, and so when I started to shoot film it was frustrating. I was so dependent on the screen on the back of my camera to make sure my image was in focus and properly exposed. Learning how to use the camera and get the right photo, not only made me understand photography better, it made me think deeper about what I was photographing.

I remember Neil Gaiman saying that once writers started to write with a computer and keyboard, the word-count of books became much higher than when writers wrote with pen and paper or on a typewriter. When he writes, he makes it a point to write the first draft of his novel longhand, in a notebook so that he only uses the words that are necessary. One roll of 35mm film is 36 frames. With a digital camera, you can take 36 images very quickly depending on how you shoot. But if you are being intentional with each frame, 36 images is more than enough to make a quality photo. And once you put in that much intention and care into each image, there’s a reverence you feel for each photo you took. 

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Film photography for me is an allegory to being intentional in your art. It’s taught me to care just a bit more about the details, and to be fully present when I am shooting. There’s so many shortcuts being offered to us that promise success or fame, and most don’t live up to the hype. Self doubt, imposter syndrome, and overwhelm make those traps very attractive. But really the best advice I’ve heard to make this whole creative thing work is: 

Be Nice, Work Hard.

I’ll talk more about that next week.