Recalling a dream: Why I like film

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I went to sleep last night thinking about the 120mm lens that’s coming on Monday for my Pentax 645, and apparently, my brain decided to latch onto the notion of film photography while I slumbered. I woke-up this morning in the midst of a dream where I was interviewed for a podcast about why I like film photography. Weird, I know, but it did get me thinking about the subject in a fully conscious state, and since I’d come-up with something interesting during the dream, it seemed to be something I should write down.

The internet is rife with blog posts and articles just like this, and the most common reason I hear for shooting film is that it forces you to slow down. It tops my list as well.

Reason 1: Slowing down

Life these days in the technology age is frenetic. Many people, me included, are essentially always on, always connected, always accessible, and in some ways, always working. Life feels like a hamster wheel. But it does tend to make appealing those activities that demand a slower pace.

When digital came around, I jumped at it like everyone else. I loved (and still love) the fact that there’s basically zero incremental cost to shooting as many images as you want or need. Shoot the picture. Don’t like it the lighting? Adjust the exposure and shoot another. Don’t like the framing? Zoom in or out and take another one. And you can do this in seconds… It’s not unusual for me to shoot 10 to 20 images to get “the” shot I want out of the scene I’m in (or try to), and it’s made me a lazy photographer that’s detached from the process. I could never remember what was needed to create bokeh, and I didn’t have to: Just put the DSLR on “portrait” mode and let the camera worry about it.

When smartphones came around, like everyone else, I enjoyed the convenience of shooting anything, anywhere, anytime. A good plate of food at a restaurant? Shoot it. A plane at the gate at the airport? Shoot it. Nice sunset? Shoot it. And if you want bokeh, there’s an algorithm designed to punch you in the face with it.

Between digital cameras and smartphones, I’ve turned into a person who takes snapshots, disposable visual records of daily life that don’t have much if anything in the way of artistic merit. Sometimes, of course, I get lucky, and I manage to snap something visually interesting, something that tells a story, something that stirs emotion. But it’s unusual, it’s accidental, and it’s not often. I’m too busy to do anything better — or I simply don’t care anymore, because the value of a photograph has become basically zero given the ease, and the low cost.

Film photographs are not free, and depending on what film you shoot, and how and where you get it developed and scanned, they can actually be quite expensive. I can afford to shoot film; I cannot, however, afford to waste it.

As a result, I purposely work to break bad habits, and to not take snapshots; I have a DSLR and a smartphone for that. Instead, I refer to this as “photography with intent.” I try my best to think about aesthetics when I compose a shot. I try to think about lighting and shadow. I try to think about composition: Where the subject is positioned, and how the elements are arranged. I try to make conscious decisions about what I want to achieve from the shot. I try to pick things that make you think, or say something, or have interesting visuals that are intriguing the eye in some way.

A Rack of Thyme Saves Nine © Wesley King

With each and every shot, I at least have to make an effort. I don’t get it right very often, but I try. And I have succeeded in getting a pretty good number of photographs of which I’m truly proud. They may not say anything, they may not make you think, but the aesthetics and art are there, and I learn something from every image that succeeds — and every one that does not.

Reason 2: It’s technical

As a guy who likes to learn things, photography in general and film photography specifically offers a massive and virtually endless array of things to learn. Getting the basics down like aperture, shutter speed, focal lengths, etc. is pretty straightforward, although there is indeed a lot to learn and apply about it, and it can be pretty technical. It also takes time to learn; just the delay between taking a shot and seeing the result means you have to be on your game to record (mentally or otherwise) what you did so you can get a sense of what to change in the future.

But while the basics might be straightforward, film photography in particular is chock-full of rocks to turn, and each one provides endless new opportunities to explore and learn. Want to process your film at home? Wow; get ready. Want to master flash or strobe photography? Get your notebook out. Want to learn your film choices? It takes awhile to shoot every one to know how they perform and what results they provide. Want to dig into black and white? Want to get into portraits? Want to get into street photography? Night photography? I could go on and on, and each one is broad and deep with learning opportunities.

As you dig more deeply, you start to stretch and test yourself and your ability to remember all the rest of it, and it does get technical — not just with f-stops and shutter speeds and EV and crop factors and ISO, but esoteric stuff like reciprocity failure rates.

Back panel of the Pentax AF280T. Looks intimidating; really isn’t.

As a geek, I like that it’s technical. I like that I have to remember stuff, and read manuals, and make notes, and Google things, and watch YouTube videos. I know more about photography today than I ever even began to understand back in high school photography class.

And the best part? I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Reason 3: The gear

This is the one reason I hadn’t considered until I came-up in my dream: The gear itself.

Back in the 1990s, or even the early 2000s, there was absolutely no financial way I could shoot with the camera I’m shooting with today. I lusted after medium format back then, but it was fully and completely out of reach. From what I’ve read, the Pentax 645 and a 75mm stock lens in 1997 (around the time mine was made) cost $2,025. That’s $3,231 in today’s money, and I can tell you this much: There’s no way in hell I’d shell-out over $3,000 for a camera — any camera — at this point in my life. And yet, I can afford to own and shoot with this camera today, and enjoy it every bit as much as I would have in 1997. Better still? I can afford to buy additional lenses whose contemporary versions, brand new, sell for $1,000 a pop — and up. Way up.

Depreciation and the simple passage of time has made some amazing gear very accessible, and it’s a joy to say — if 20+ years late — that I shoot medium format on pro-grade gear.

Better yet, it’s not just my Pentax 645; I’m still considering a TLR, the type of camera I was shopping for when I found the Pentax. My local camera shop has a Yashica A in good condition for $125, and I might just snag it. And should my fascination with film continue, the idea of a Hasselblad is still swirling around in brain, and that truly would be a time machine sort of experience as well.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that I’m loving my film journey. It’s nice to see I’m not alone, with a sort of mini-resurgence of interest in analog seeming to continue as it has in recent years.

Who knows what the future of film might bring, but for the moment, I’m going to slow down, geek out, and enjoy some fantastic classic gear.