Shooting film is undoubtedly a risky business. Ask anyone who shoots it, and they’ll recount at least five horror stories about getting ‘the shot’, only to later receive a blank, blurry or plain boring set of photos or scans back from their lab.
I myself can think of many more of that, ranging from a thumb over the lens ruining that edgy house party snapshot, to developing errors leading to totally blank rolls of film.
I once even unloaded the film in the dark bag with my watch still on, only to realise too late that the glow-in-the-dark hands on the watch had ruined the film before I’d even developed it!
And yet, as I plan and scheme ahead of my travels around the world, I’ve never once considered taking anything other than a film camera (or two) along with me to document the adventure.
It’s all about the jeopardy of using film, and the delayed gratification you get when the stars line up for that perfect shot.
As disheartening as failed photos can be (especially if you’re waiting a long time to see them), the jubilation of visualising a picture, snapping the shot, developing it in chemicals weeks later and discovering that you’ve successfully realised your vision is undoubtedly worth the occasional disappointment.
I snapped this frame in Lake Como during last summer. The man on the diving board had been standing on the platform reluctantly for ages, and I almost gave up and turned back to my beer when he finally moved the the edge of the board. I only had a couple of second to get the photo, as his friend was climbing up to join him, which would have spoilt the sense of solitude in the image.
I waited three months before I developed the negatives. I had been having a few problems which had led to some wasted rolls in my last couple of attempts, so you could imagine my joy when I saw this emerge from the tank!
Here’s another example
I travelled around Vietnam for a fortnight just before the Tet festival in 2017. We went along the Mekong Delta, and as we were travelling through the sleepy town of Can Tho, I came across this father holding his son. He was really friendly, and allowed me to take their portrait.
I was excited to see the final image from the moment that I took the photo, and waited for over 7 months before I got round to developing these negatives. If anything, the wait made me even happier to see that I’d managed to capture the care and pride of the father towards his little boy. Carrying the finished rolls with me across the country and then across thousands of miles of ocean probably added to that feeling of accomplishment.
It’s these shots and the exhilaration that they give me that keeps me motivated and makes me want to keep on learning and improving my skills.
But back to those pesky rubbish photos, because they’re important as well
It can be really tempting when you’re starting out with film to be discouraged when you see the inevitable errors and mistakes. This is compounded by the ever rising fees of developing photos in shops and labs. In this sense film photography can be very unforgiving.
On the flipside, these harsh lessons help you to improve as a photographer at a much greater rate than is possible with a digital camera.
With film, the name of the game is slowing down and taking the time to nail each composition, carefully evaluate the light and make sure that you nail focus. Each bad shot reinforces these lessons, until you take them to heart and they become muscle memory. Your photographic eye starts to sharpen, and you naturally begin to understand how to take better photos.
This can be much harder with a digital camera. Ironically, the ability to take unlimited photos means that digital can be confusing for a beginner. With so much space on the memory card to play with, it’s easy to end up taking hundreds of virtually identical photos with a digital camera, making it hard to evaluate the quality of your work. A roll of film contains only 36 frames, meaning you are forced to take a more measured approach. With this approach comes quick improvement.
Shooting film is a journey, and all journeys have their highs and lows. And though the highs are what live longest in the memory, the lows help us develop and appreciate the good times that bit more.