Shooting Film and Letting Go

A few months ago, I went on a long walk in the rain taking pictures. My camera is weather-sealed, but I apparently pushed it to the limit, and it’s been wonky ever since. I’ve been reluctant to send it in for repairs, because it still kind of works, and it would mean being without it for at least a few weeks.

My friend, Eugene, knew that I had an old film camera just lying around and suggested that I use this as an excuse to dust it off and start using it again.

The first real camera my parents bought for themselves was a Canon EXEE 35mm SLR. When I was in junior high school, I started getting interested in photography. My parents had upgraded to a fancier autofocus camera, so they let me use the Canon.

I was more interested in the chemistry of photography — the magic of pressing a button and somehow transferring what you had seen onto paper — than in the pictures themselves. I spent lots of time in our school’s darkroom developing and printing black and white photos. I’m not sure what made me lose interest over time, but I suspect it was the time investment and expense.

Four years ago, when I decided to get serious about photography, I found and rescued this old camera. I couldn’t get the light meter working, but fortunately, I could still meter manually. I also found an old roll of unused color film that was at least 15 years old, so I popped that into the camera. Then I let it sit in my desk drawer, unused.

This past month, inspired by Eugene’s suggestion, I took the camera for a spin. And I just loved it. I love the heft and feel of the camera. I love how it feels to advance the film for each frame and the loud, visceral click the camera makes when I press the shutter button.

I thought I would be frustrated by the manual metering and focus, but I’m finding it to be a revelation. Going slow allows me to think more about what I’m photographing. I think it’s even helping me take people photos. Folks know I can’t just point and shoot, so I feel like they’re more patient with me, which makes me feel more free to compose the shot.

Finally, there’s no chimping. You take a photo, you hope it turns out, then you move on, knowing that it’s entirely out of your control regardless.

I finished the roll after a few weeks, and I was excited to get it developed. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how to properly rewind the film, and I ended up ruining the roll!

I was surprisingly zen upon discovering this. I had been using an ancient roll of film that might have already been bad anyway. I was also just playing, and didn’t feel like there were critical moments on that roll. Even without those factors, I think simply shooting film shifted my expectations.

With film, you just never know… and you won’t until you try developing it, which might be days, weeks, months, even years later. There is something incredibly liberating, almost spiritual about making pictures under those circumstances.

Last week, I loaded the camera with a roll of Kodak T-MAX 400 black-and-white film. I’m halfway through the roll already, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. I’ll see if this roll turns out, then I’ll see what happens.

I’ve been enjoying the process so much, I could see myself trying my hand at developing my own photos again. My friend, Justin, has been pushing me to shoot Fuji Velvia, a thought that intimidates me, because slide film is notoriously unforgiving. You have to get your exposure settings perfect in camera, and my Canon doesn’t have precise exposure controls. Justin’s also been taunting me for my use of a light meter app in my phone, challenging me to rely on my eyes and my brain for metering. That might be more realistic as I get more practice.

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