One of my favorite encounters, when out in the world taking pictures, is to hand a 1980s film camera to a stranger and ask them to photograph me. At first, they’re quite obliging. But then confusion sets in when they can’t find an LCD screen or button to tap.
“The shutter release is on the top,” I remark, “and you can look through the viewfinder just to the left of it.”
There’s a puzzled expression for a moment, then success. The first picture is recorded.
“Can you take one more, just to be sure?” I ask.
They confidently push the shutter button again, but this time no click. The bewilderment returns.
“You have to advance the film first,” I add. “Use that lever with your right thumb.”
Snap! A second frame is captured. Usually what happens next is the camera is handed back to me and the good samaritan hurries away. It will be days before I know how the pictures turned out.
You’d think, by my telling this story, that I am some kind of throwback to the analog days when rotary phones roamed the earth and televisions magically pulled transmissions from thin air with rabbit ear antennas.
But I’m not that unique.
In fact, there are thousands of active film photographers all over the world, and their numbers are anything but decreasing. They buy film fresh from the factory, carry 35mm cameras designed decades ago, and can send their exposed rolls to commercial labs for processing, or do it themselves at home.
There’s an entire industry built around this craft.
I know this because I interact with these artists on a daily basis through an online film camera shop that I run.
These folks are not old codgers trying to recapture the glory of their youth. Quite the opposite, they are often young adult women and men truly excited about the prospects of owning a restored vintage camera and creating unique images with it.
“Why bother?” you might ask. “Analog photography is difficult and unpredictable.”
To appreciate the attraction to analog, you need to understand the reaction to digital. Smartphone photography is easy. It’s reliable. And to be honest, anyone can take a great picture by merely pointing the device in the right direction and tapping the screen.
Digital is wonderful for people who want fast, fun, hassle-free documentation. Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are perfect for professional photographers who need to deliver the goods. Digital files have a built-in safety net to protect your pictures no matter how horribly you screw up the exposure. You can recover just about anything from a RAW file.
What digital photography doesn’t have is a soul.
The spiritual connection with analog photography begins the moment you hold a 1970s or 80s Pentax, Olympus, or Nikon SLR. It’s like putting your arms around an ancient redwood and absorbing its life story.
One of my favorite cameras is the Pentax Program Plus released in 1984. I like using it with a 50mm f/1.4 manual focus lens. It’s a metal camera that feels good in the hands. It has substance, but isn’t too heavy. You can hear its gears turning as you advance the film. When you press the shutter button, the mirror slaps upward, the shutter opens, and the film is exposed.
Then there’s the anticipation that follows when you’ve taken the last picture and rewound the roll into its cassette. It feels like an eternity before your processed film returns from the lab. You become a 10-year-old anxiously waiting by the mailbox. And when the pictures finally arrive: elation.
Typically, for a 36-exposure roll of film, there will be 4 or 5 shots that I really like. Another dozen or so are decent. Then there are a handful with which I don’t know what the hell happened. They look like the cat dragged off my camera and used it as a play toy.
But those 5 great images… My god. They could not have been captured with an iPhone, nor born of the loins of any modern DSLR.
Instead, with the press of a chrome shutter button on a 36-year-old analog camera, I have created something truly unique and magical.
Those feelings — from capture, through anticipation, to realization — are why film photography just won’t go away. It’s the difference between a passionate kiss with your lover and a perfume-laced hug from your great aunt.