Film…Remember that stuff?

10 Nov

I remember one of the first times I walked into the lab.  I paused while my eyes adjusted to the safe light and felt the warm air on my skin.  There were chemicals in the room that smelled sharp, but not unpleasant; it’s strange, but I swear I could taste the smell…metallic…on my tongue.  People were working quietly around the room, lost in their own projects and I felt a rush of excitement to join them.  Like the rest of the photographers laboring to bring their photos to life, I wanted to create something beautiful while the rest of the world, and all its problems, fell away for a while.  Everyone has his or her bliss…before long, the dark room became one of mine.

Many up-and-coming photographers work solely in digital now for a number of reasons – cost, flexibility and availability to name a few.  While I obviously understand the practical reasons for eschewing film, I can’t help but think it’s a shame that the next generation will not be exposed (yes, pun intended!) to the medium.  For me, processing my own black & white film and images has been not only been a therapeutic escape from the stresses of the day, it’s also been educational.

Film has taught me to be a better a photographer.  There is no LCD screen on a film camera to provide instant reference, which has forced me to become more thoughtful and proficient in the technical aspects of photography.  As a starving artist, I don’t have the money to waste costly frames of film, so I want to get the image right the first time.  I check and re-check the exposure, settings, and composition before pressing the button.  If I’m shooting black & white film, I also need to plan my subject matter carefully…monochrome relies heavily on texture, patterns and composition to engage the viewer, since there is no color to pull the audience into the scene.

Bike, B & W film - Provincetown, MA

Bike, B & W film - Provincetown, MA

Film has also shown me the artistic nature of photography.  Ansel Adams is quoted as saying, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”.  Based on my experiences in the dark room, it strikes me as an incredibly accurate statement.

Both the negative and the digital RAW are blue prints for a finished piece of art, but unlike digital images, a print hand-processed by the photographer is truly a one-of-a-kind piece of art.  A negative is fine-tuned in a darkroom through creative cropping, dodging/burning, filters, borders, etc. in order to bring a photographer’s vision of the finished product to life.  Generally, once a photographer has edited a print to their liking, they will write down instructions to replicate the print.  There is, however, a human element to processing film and prints – no matter how accurate the directions, no two prints will ever be identical.  Each piece is unique…art.

While expensive and archaic, film can still be a great learning tool for new photographers and time in the dark room can be a soothing break from the chaos of life.  Both are something I would recommend to any new photo enthusiast as one of the many building blocks of our craft.  Both are a means to expand one’s skill set, to become a thinking photographer, and to learn the frustration/reward of building something beautiful from concept to final product.


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