I am analog to my core. I like vinyl records, manual transmissions, typewriters, paper books and cooking from scratch. And I love to shoot and process film. I enjoy the uncertainty of not having a histogram or preview image but relying on experience. I like the sound of a Nikon motor winder. I like to load 4x5 film holders and above all, I like the look of film. Film and traditional print photography rely on a thin gelatin emulsion which contains millions of tiny flakes of light sensitive silver. Albeit microscopic, these flakes have dimension, shape and depth, which translates in the final image. A well crafted silver print looks far thicker than the paper itself. Don't get me wrong, I really have made peace with digital photography. I even enjoy digital photography, but it is altogether different from film. It is an extremely useful tool for my commercial work, and has solved many of the impracticalities of my profession. I can't help but feel, however that some thing is being lost.
For me the process of shooting film is long and intensive. The cameras are heavy and cumbersome and require a lot of effort to get to the location. With my 4x5 inch Sinar, I routinely carry 4 lenses, a light meter, 6-20 film holders, focuser, massive tripod, filters and other accessories. It takes about 10 minutes to setup, frame and focus a basic shot, all done under a cloak for the sake of darkness. Next, I meter the scene, careful to place the lightest and darkest areas of the subject in the perfect exposure window. I double check all of my settings and focus before loading the film. After the shot is made, I pack up, carefully securing the freshly shot film, and move on. Working at same speed with smaller cameras, the process takes a fraction of the time.
The process of making images with a 4x5 camera is the perfect speed for me to fully engage my brain in the image. I become so focused on the process, that the rest of the world seems to drop away. Everything becomes quiet and still. I manipulate the film and lens planes relative to the subject and watch the results on a glowing piece of glass until one by one the elements click into place. I imagine the individual elements of the scene rendered in black and white (or color) as they will be in the final print. And yes, a print is necessary because I am working with negatives. I carry these previsualizations back home where the film is loaded into a Jobo Canister for processing. After twenty minutes with beakers of chemicals, I have a very real and tangible reward for my efforts, a negative.
When using film, I shoot in a very economical manner. Each image that I make gets two sheets of film, one with the optimal exposure and the other one stop overexposed. I have a good percentage of keepers. As the cameras get smaller, medium format and 35mm, the economy remains but the percentage drops. I generally believe that this is due to the relative speed in the process and the size of the viewing surface. I devote the same level thought to making an image with a 35mm camera as I do with a large format camera, but there is so much less time involved and so many fewer points of finesse that the image does not develop in my imagination the same way. Additionally, as the process gets longer and the equipment more complex, extra care must be given to every aspect of the process to ensure that the film has safe passage to becoming a usable negative.
Digital cameras have made the mechanics of photography so incredibly simple. In theory, I can accomplish in seconds what used to take minutes. The number of variables and mechanics have been whittled down until nothing remains but a few yes or no questions. So when I use a digital camera, I deliberately try to lengthen the process of making an image. I use the same tripod, tether to an iPad, shoot in manual mode and manually focus most of the time. The feedback, however is instantaneous. I know what the image looks like. I know if everything is in focus. I have seen the histogram, and I know that the exposure is perfect. I know all this, but I did not get there through the same process.
Finally, I am a better photographer when I am shooting lots of film. Photography is like playing music, it requires thought, practice and a constant desire for improvement. It also requires a heavy dose of self critique. When I review my film images, they start from a higher point of completeness. They are mostly made in the field, in camera. There are lots of variables involved in darkroom printing, but the character of the negative remains. Digital images, shot in RAW format, are computer code that describe how light was striking the sensor. They must be realized in the computer at a later time. Additionally, a digital file is only limited by the basic information captured in ones and zeros. Analog photography is very much like a musician's live performance; it has to be correct in the moment. Ansel Adams once said “The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”
When I started to study photography in 1990, digital technology was in its infancy. When I took my first digital imaging class, we were scanning film into Mac Quadra 700's running photoshop 2. I am very happy that I spent much more time learning to print in silver and platinum than in the computer lab. If I started today, I might not have taken the same path. I might have never used film at all. As I look back, I am so grateful of the experience and knowledge I have collected over the years and not as a curmudgeon lamenting the fact that a Coke doesn't still cost a nickel. As I look forward, however, it is with trepidation that the materials of the past will simply vanish.