Digital cameras are easy. iPhones are easier. Consider either one 20 years ago and minds would inevitably be blown. Instant photo review, the ability to take thousands of photos without changing a card or battery, and then the option to instantly review and share each one.
But despite all these advances, sometimes technology sucks the fun out of photography.
My first run-in with a film camera was in grade 5. I was on a camping trip with my class and my parents had given me a disposable camera to document the trip with. I remember scenes from that trip – the foggy summit of Mount Carleton, the dark and sawdust-filled workshop of a canoe craftsman – and I remember contemplating each shot. Was this scene worth one of the 27 shots on my camera? And I remember the mystery of the process, too. I didn’t get my photos back until after my trip had ended. Even then, I had to wait the better part of a day to see what shots came out.
Those photos are tucked away in a closet somewhere, still. I can't entirely remember what each shot was, but I remember the feeling that little camera gave me. While I held a number of other cameras in the years after that trip, it would be a long time until I felt that way about a camera again.
That camera was a Nikon FM: all manual, no battery required. No auto setting, no autofocus. It was my last summer at home, I had just been hired as photo editor of the Brunswickan and through reading as much as I could about photography, I learned film was going through a bit of a renaissance. I was intrigued and wanted to try it out for myself.
I scoured local listings until I found it – a 70’s Nikon FM, all chrome with a 50mm lens. It would be a few days before I put any film in it, but the camera itself felt like nothing I’d held before. The weight of its all-metal body, the clack of the shutter and the way the image pulled into focus in the viewfinder. I took that Nikon with me every day to work and on weekend hikes, I’d never wanted to shoot so much in my life and I couldn't wait to see what shots came out.
The first roll I got back was mostly black.
Due to the age of the camera (and that it had sat unused) the shutter and mirror weren’t in sync, so it only worked about ¼ of the time. Some images even came out half-exposed. It was disappointing, but I’ve now learned this is part of film’s charm. Sometimes, things won’t go as planned, and sometimes, those shots are the most beautiful.
Since then, I’ve adopted a Pentax K1000 I found in the office of the Brunswickan. It wears a strap I found at my grandmother’s house, once attached to my grandfather’s camera. The body shows all the brassing of a well-used machine and is marked with dents from drops, falls and bumps it sustained before (and after) coming into my life.
This past spring, I decided to leave my digital camera at home and document a trip to Quebec City on film and iPhone. If none of my film pictures came out, at the very least I’d have some selfies and food pictures to show for it. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but when I finally began scanning the photos, months later, I was thrilled.
Delayed gratification is a big part of film photography. Especially today, as 1-hour labs are all but extinct, many photographers settle for mailing their photos out to bigger centers. For photographers like me, that means you may not see your photos for months after you’ve taken them (since you want to mail as much film at once as you can.)
It’s annoying to see dozens of photos sitting in metal cans on a desk, but I’ve come to see it like reopening a journal. You begin to forget about the images, the moments you were in and what you saw. But when scanning the images months later, each frame pulls you back to the snap of the shutter.
Despite the resurgence, film and film labs can still be hard to come by and aren't cheap by any means. But after seeing my camera sit on a shelf for months, I'm starting to feel the itch again. Until the next roll comes in, though, enjoy this film flashback with me.