Film is dead.
So is rock and roll, roller derby and the popped collar. While some of these things deserved their demise more than others, there will always be a fiercely dedicated group of individuals who refuse to face reality. If you’re thinking, “He isn’t talking about me, I only pop my collar for irony,” you’re one such individual. The loyalist groups are populated by only the most fervid of supporters, like in the Kiss Army, Brass Knuckle Betties and gentlemen of this university’s fraternities. Similarly, there are a dedicated number of photographers who will never switch from film to digital.
Film photographers cling to a dying era as old cameras turn into garage sale trinkets, processing centers board up and rolls of film tick idly toward their expiration dates. As a photojournalist with a digital publication, it would be hypocritical for me to say that I belong to this society, but I’ve always held a nostalgic respect for film.
For two weeks, I challenged myself to do my photography job as if it were twenty years earlier. I tossed my Nikon onto a shelf, dug my dad’s 1970s Ricoh out of the basement and buried half a dozen rolls of film into my backpack.
On the first day of the experiment, before I had fired off a single shot, I watched my friend Instagram her lunch. $600 and some of the most advanced technology in existence culminated in a square photo of a burrito that was edited with a filter to reduce the quality of the image. I understand the trend toward vintage and retro, but that’s like buying a Porsche, tearing out four doors and two wheels and calling it a motorcycle.
You know what’s even more hipster than a desaturated, half-eaten burrito? A classic film camera slung over your shoulder with a cracked leather strap. These days, they can be found in about every basement, attic or thrift shop. I highly recommend that you pull together $30 and stop by a garage sale to buy a film camera. You won’t regret it.
Two days later, I peered through the viewfinder and saw that my subject was farther away than I wanted. I instinctively reached for the familiar zoom of my 18-55mm lens, but quickly realized that it wasn’t there. My feet became my zoom.
Taking three steps forward, I readjusted the focus with a delicate twist of my fingers. How much do I want in focus? I twisted a second dial to an arbitrary number and hoped for the best. The light meter suggested 1/500 and a third input confirmed the shutter speed. I pressed my eye to the viewfinder once more and ran through a quick mental checklist. Film speed, rule of thirds, sharpness, dynamic range, focus, aperture, shutter speed. I held my breath and heard the tactile click of the shutter release. Did I get the picture?
It addition to the novelty of taking photos with film, there is no better way to learn about photography than with a film camera. These days, everything seems to be trending toward automatic, and while that usually satisfies the lazy bum within all of us, it leaves little room for revision. Photography is a creative medium. It is a fine art, after all. Don’t let a group of technicians and a series of algorithms tell you how to be creative. Grab your camera by the horns (or strap) and throw that sucker into manual.
Film may be dead, but it’s the imperfections of this medium that give it enormous character and separate it from the sweeping tide of digital photography.
Over the course of two weeks, I shot four rolls of Fujichrome Provia 100-speed film, 144 photos in all. On a typical assignment with my digital Nikon, I could take just as many photos in an hour. This project forced me to consider each shot as a unique composition rather than just a product of camera technology. As I reviewed the end result, I noticed that my negatives were generally much better than the photos found on my digital camera. Sure, there was the occasional frame of my confused face as I accidentally pressed the shutter, but the content had greatly improved. I had taken my rate of one in ten images being publishable to one in three.
There’s an indescribable sensation of holding a strip of film in your hand, a set of tangible memories, and knowing that it is the only copy in the world. You more literally create with film. It might be a worthless, over-exposed blur, but what if it’s not? What if you’re holding the only copy of your niece’s first steps or the time that you got lost in the back streets of Prague with your three best friends? There’s a sentimental power to film that everyone should experience before it’s lost in this digital age.
Contact CU Independent Staff Photographer Ryan Tibbitts at Ryan.firstname.lastname@example.org.