Shooting Film Again (Part 1)

Canon EOS 300 (Canon EOS Rebel 2000)

Lenses: Canon 28-90mm 1:4-5.6 (kit); Sigma 70-300mm 1:4-5.6 DL Macro

Film: AGFA Vista ISO 100 36 exposures Expired: 09/2006

About a week ago, I shot a roll of film for the first time since the 90’s.  Not only was it a cool, nostalgic experience, it forced me to really think about some (bad?) habits I’ve developed since digital photography became widely available to consumers.

I’ve written this post, divided into two parts, for a few reasons: I wanted to share my own experience and thoughts on shooting film, as well as to hopefully start a discussion with others and create a forum for anyone is who is interested in or is already shooting film that may want to share their own experiences. I also want to cover some of the technical aspects such as equipment, film, and development, which will be covered mostly in the second part of the post.

The Experience of Shooting Film Again After 15 years, Part 1:

A brief history: I got my first camera sometime in the late 1980’s. I don’t remember the brand, but it was a boxy, fully automatic 35mm camera with flash that I would bet was on the cheaper end, as I was pretty young then. I took pictures of everything, I’m sure there is box somewhere in my parents’ home with a bunch of grainy, poorly composed photos. I was obsessed for a brief time, but then only brought the camera out on occasion until I graduated high school in the late 1990’s.  In college, I mostly used disposable cameras until my senior year when the digital revolution stormed the market and I became equipped with a Canon PowerShot that boasted a “whopping” 3.2 megapixels. Before Meghan Trainor made it all about the bass, it was all about the megapixels, and my budget allowed for a camera with 3.2MP. Nobody really knew what a megapixel was back then, but the more them, the merrier. I would later upgrade (more megapixels) a few times, sticking with compact cameras until I finally decided to get my first DSLR, the Nikon D90. This changed the game (and my career) for me.  After a few years, I started getting jobs working as a photographer and eventually became freelance, which brings us to the present where now…

I have a kit full of professional camera bodies, lenses, and flashes, which I use for work. But this past Christmas, I was handed down an old film camera from a family member who was going to throw it out.  He hadn’t used this particular camera in years and now has a DSLR which is more accurate, more capable, and more importantly, instant. He had no need for film and figured I could give it a better home than the garbage or the very little money he would get for it by selling.  He was right.

I was thrilled to get my hands on this camera. Anyone over the age of 30 (more or less), can probably remember growing up shooting film, whether it was their parent’s expensive 35mm or the disposable one they bought from the drugstore. For me, there was a sense of awe, creating something tangible (a print, for most of those born in the 2000’s) out of nothing but what I saw in front of me with just one click of a button (per photo, obviously). Then there was the wait, which was a few days normally, but eventually one hour express developing became a thing. By today’s standards, one hour is forever to see the photos you’ve taken. Back then it was considered pretty quick. When you picked up your film, you were handed an envelope with prints and negatives and you would thumb through your prints, looking for a few in particular that you were anxious to see and sometimes being surprised by some you forgot you had taken (ex. the college years). It was a process. It was worth it…even if the photos weren’t that great.

Fast-forward several years, and the feeling is the same. The difference for me is that I now know much more about photography, both from a technical standpoint and as an art. The main thing I’ve learned it that photography is all about the basics.

If there is one thing that photographers hate hearing, it is that their camera makes the difference between a good and bad photo. We hear it all the time from friends, family, and clients. And while years of knowledge and experience go into making a good photograph, modern cameras have certainly eased the learning curve with technological advances such as (super accurate) autofocus, sensors with variable ISO, being able to instantly review your shot and retake it if you have to, and virtually unlimited shots at no cost.  But the fundamentals remain the same in order to get the right framing and exposure you desire. Sure, as professionals (especially those of us who specialize in events, weddings, and journalism), we have to be able to nail the timing of the shot as there are no second chances, but we do have some leeway with exposure, color balance, and being able to crop (a bit) without sacrificing too much on image quality. What we can do in post is just ridiculous.

Shooting film keeps you honest, at least in the moment. I took my “new” camera out for a spin where I live in Alcalá de Henares (Spain).  I had it loaded with a roll of film that was in the camera bag when it was given to me, AGFA Vista 100, 36 exposures. It had expired in 2006. Basically, whether it would develop properly was a crapshoot. I had read up on shooting expired film and with so many variables with how film degrades, the results could range from mild color degradation with some grain to completely wasting money on having it developed. I decided it was worth the risk.

On the topic of risks, the one I had more control over was actually taking the photos. Although I’m always wary of my camera settings as I generally shoot in manual mode anyway, I can usually review my shot and retake it if need be. This would not be the case that day. No second chances and no spray and pray (not that that’s a habit of mine), just cool, calculated shots. This would test my ability as photographer. Film is unforgiving. Had digital photography become a crutch for me? I would wrestle with that thought for a few moments. Fortunately, I’m good at wrestling and the thought succumbed to a technical fall in the second period.

Alcalá de Henares is well known for its large population of storks (Miguel de Cervantes who?!?!), with their large nests roosted upon rooftops, trees, and towers around the small city. They would make great subjects for testing out the Sigma 70-300mm. A 28-90mm kit lens would be used for landscape and architecture shots.

The first shot was blissful. After finding my subject perched on top of a tree, I composed my shot, checked the light meter in the view finder, realized the autofocus didn’t work well and switched to manual focusing, and then waited for just the right moment. The stork turned its head, giving me a profile view, and I gently rolled my finger over the shutter button. At that moment, the camera might as well have been a time machine. The sound of the shutter snapping and the immediate winding of the film advancing lasted less than a second, but it was real. I could feel the small vibration in my hands. In that small window of time, dozens of memories came rushing back and I was standing in the front yard of my uncle’s beach house in the Outer Banks getting the wild ponies that had wandered into the yard and were feasting on the grass in frame, I was at our friends’ lake house on Lake Burton trying to capture (unsuccessfully) the sun setting behind the mountains, and in my own backyard whistling at our new puppy Chelsea, in an attempt to get her to look at the camera. Had I looked down at that moment, I might have been sporting some Umbros and rocking a pair of Agassi’s, neon to the nth degree. It was satisfying. It would cost me about 37 cents. It was worth it.

Canon EOS Test011.jpg

I went on to take more shots with the goal of finishing the roll so I could take them to the film shop just below my office by the end of the day. The majority of the roll was spent on storks. Resting comfortably in their nests or standing on rooftops, the task was relatively easy. I had time to make my adjustments and take the shot. I decided a to risk it a few times and go for some shots of storks in flight. Fortunately, it was around 4pm and the weather was nice, the perfect time for storks to fly off to gather twigs and other material to patch up their nests. This, however, was decidedly more difficult to capture.

To get close enough to the birds, I had to rack out my long lens, which in this case was 300mm. At 300mm, and without vibration control/reduction, it gets pretty shaky looking through viewfinder. On top of that, I was focusing manually. I tracked a few birds without shooting, practicing keeping them in focus. Once I was comfortable and confident enough, I took four distinct shots of these birds flying overhead. I had no idea what to expect once the film was developed, but testing both the equipment and my own skills were what the exercise was about.

Taking advantage of the 70-300mm that was already on my camera, I wanted to try out the macro capability. Although spring has been colder than usual, there were already flowers in bloom that day and they were an obvious choice for testing out this feature. The biggest challenges were the wind and that I wasn’t using a tripod. But with a little patience, I was able to get my shots. The good thing about taking photos of flowers is that nature does all the work in making them pretty. A lot of times in commercial photography you need the combination of a talented make up artist and a photo retoucher, which of course costs money and time.

Canon EOS Test012.jpg

Flowers are also great because they look good in groups from afar, as well as close up. Plaza Cervantes, in the middle of the old part of Alcalá de Henares and right next to my office, happens to be adorned with nice flower beds which are surrounded by trees with intertwining limbs, a statue of Miguel de Cervantes, and a gazebo. This would be ideal for a wider angle shot.  So I switched to the 28-90 kit lens, lined up a post card style shot, a took a snap.

This scene was beautiful, but as it was a wide angle and the sun was behind me, it made for the easiest (technically) shot I could’ve taken and required only one attempt. Whether the expired film I was using would develop properly was a different story.

So I moved on and took shots of the courtyard of the University of Alcalá. This was a different challenge. The interior of the courtyard was in the shade, but the sky was bright. I know and trust the equipment I’ve been using for years, but how would this new-to-me camera handle metering higher contrast scenes? How would this old film handle that kind of dynamic range? In manual mode, this camera uses center weighted metering. The interior of the courtyard is composed of light colored cement walls with some wood décor. After composing my first shot to include an entire interior façade and the fountain in the foreground, I overexposed (according to the light meter) by about 1/3 stop. This would ultimately prove to be an adequate adjustment. Not perfect, but not too bad.

I took a few snaps of the courtyard and went back toward the plaza. At this point I only had a few shots left and decided to get some more stork shots, so I put the 70-300mm back on and began looking toward the rooftops.

Canon EOS Test017.jpg

After around two hours of wandering the city that day, I was down to my last shot. I found my mark, a stork atop city hall (it even has it’s own webcam up their), and took the shot. Like the first exposure, as soon as the photo was taken, the film began to wind, only this time for a few seconds and back into the film canister. And that was that. 36 carefully planned exposures were now ready to be taken to the photo shop.

And to the shop I went. The small photo shop below my office is one of the older, more traditional shops in the small town where I live. In other words, they send the film you drop off to a lab. I dropped off my roll on a Tuesday and was told it would be ready to be picked up on Saturday. I suppose if you’re going for nostalgia, you might as well go way back to a time before 1 hour developing. There are other, quicker options nearby, but it’s hard to trust a young person in a shop who has only taken photos on their mobile phone to handle your roll of film. They older guy at the shop asked me specifically about the when the film had expired and in what condition it had been stored so he could relay that info to the lab. I was able to leave knowing it was in good hands.

A few days later I was back in shop and being handed an envelope with negatives and photos. I thumbed through the photos, just as I had done many years ago, reviewing each one and remembering exact moment I took the shot. I can’t say I do the same when reviewing photos from my digital camera. Shooting film seemed to have touch a few more senses and pinned the experiences to my memory. I was pleased with the way the photos had come out. All things considered, the slightly faded/shifted colors and a bit of grain were not too bad. Several of the photos could have been sharper, but I’ll have to try nicer lenses and fresher film to see if I simply missed focus or the cheap lenses affected the sharpness.

In conclusion, I’m planning on shooting more film. In fact, I already a new roll of Kodak ColorPlus ISO 200 loaded in the camera. I’d also like to start developing my own film once I organize my studio a little better. The overall experience was liberating. I understand that a lot of hipster types shoot film because everyone else shoots digital or that there are purists who think film is only way to go. I just like it, and I think that for someone who shoots for clients with high-end digital cameras all the time, is so used to having to have everything perfect, and has the capabilities of high-end editing software, shooting film brings you back to reality. It grounds you. It makes you consider each shot you take, honing your skills. Mostly, at least for me, it brings joy back to taking photographs.

Now that you’ve (patiently) read about my experience, I would love to hear yours. Whether you’re someone like me who is rediscovering the process of shooting film, you’re completely new it, or an old pro who shot film for years before making the jump to digital, I’d like your input.

Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will focus on the technical aspects of the shoot, sort of a real world gear review.