Failure but fun


I recently completed my brief experiment in shooting film. Here are the results:


Oh, you don’t see anything? Neither do I, because there is nothing to see. The film was very old and not stored properly, and I didn’t exactly have the right (or fresh) chemicals and equipment to process it with. In short there were too many variables working against me. The results were null.

But it doesn’t matter. I could have gotten the same results after buying a lot of expensive equipment – again (I’ve had it all and done it all in the past). Today it costs the better part of $20 (Ilford FP4 @ $17 +tax is the cheapest I’ve found, most other offers are much worse) just to get a roll of B&W film here, and I don’t miss the chemical experience much. In fact I found I don’t miss it at all. There was the familiar taint of the acrid aroma in the air that brought back memories, as did the time mixing powders and standing around in a pitch black room (because I don’t have a tank to develop in). Nostalgic to be sure, but not what I’d call “fun”. Not any more.

What was fun was using the ol’ Pentax Spotmatic again. Oh I hear people cry out against the weight of modern cameras these days, and I laugh. They would sag under the weight of this machine, never mind something that is really heavy – like a 4×5 Speed Graphic. I found comfort in the sensation of so much mass in my hands. It was just like old times.


This SLR is solid in a way the digital-only photographer will never know. Everything about its controls says so. There’s nothing small or flimsy or delicate about it; it was a masterpiece of form in its day. Cranking the wind lever, flipping the meter switch on, adjusting sensible (and straightforward) controls, pushing that mechanical release, and hearing the “thwap” of the mirror flipping up, the curtain zipping across the film plane, and the mirror returning. People should experience that: then they’d know what the bad design aspect of even the most expensive of DSLRs is; they don’t have the right ‘feel’.

It made me long for simpler digital devices. My mind reeled with ideas about taking out much of the technology the companies are so proud of having put in. If I were a youngster I’d probably gamble on a start-up to build low-tech digital cameras whose functions more closely resemble a film camera’s operation. Oh they wouldn’t sell in any quantity, but there would be a few artistic photographers who would appreciate the limited designs. Is not Lomography a thing now? They know what it’s about.

So I fantasized about The Black Box Camera Company, producing oddball artisan digital cameras with minimal functions. A small waste-level viewfinder unit with sun hood and a flip-up magnifier. A simple DSLR that isn’t full of options you never use. Even a video camera that was dedicated to video and not some sort of ‘duck trying to be an elephant’ – or vice-versa.

You see, sometimes trying to be all things to all people is the formula for failing to be anything to anyone. As it is now we have people trying to be photographers by adapting themselves to devices which have an overwhelming range of options, most of which never get used. How many times have you read a blog about setting arbitrary limitations on your shooting to force yourself to understand better how it should be? You’ve probably even done it yourself: “I will shoot only in B&W”, “I will use only this fixed focal length lens”, “I will not change the ISO”. Even selecting aperture or shutter preferred automation is a form of this. When there are too many choices, we can’t make any choice. The master control gets set to “Program” (or worse, “Scene”) and the camera makes all the choices for us. What do you learn from that? Where is the artistry in merely pointing and pressing the button? It might have been fine for the original Kodak, but you won’t advance in the fields of photography or art by it.

It doesn’t end there either. The inverse problem is availing yourself of too many choices: some people shoot RAW, bringing on the burden of mandatory post-shoot processing. Some people voluntarily submit themselves to this form of masochistic torture even with their JPEGS. Then they sit in the digital darkroom and fiddle numbers 1 digit at a time seeking unrealistic photographic perfection until their family and friends begin to wonder whatever became of them. (Helpful Household Hint: when adjusting digital parameters, don’t twiddle the controls one number at a time; be bold and do it by major steps, reducing or increasing the effect in ever declining size increments until you get what you’re after.)

Well I’m an old film-trained fool whom no one has to listen to. But I did enjoy working the Pentax again, even if it gave zero pictures in return. I now happily go back to my digital image making, even if I will sometimes be using the old Takumar lenses on the Canon DSLR with the control set on “Manual” and an exposure of “my best guess”. Maybe I’m some kind of hybrid photographer; using modern digital equipment in an ancient analog way.

Or maybe I’m just having fun.

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