April 05, 2012
Shooting with Film, Part 1
Now that digital has nearly entirely taken over for film photography, the variety of different types of cameras has rapidly diminished. This has probably to do with the increased burden of camera manufacturers to supply the incredibly complex technology of image capture and processing. In the days of film, as long as you had a lens, a shutter, and a mechanism to load film, you could develop your own camera system.
Now, that simple process of capturing an image on film has been replaced with digital sensors, image processors, buffers, not to mention the fully-fledged operating systems needed to control the camera functions. Unfortunately, I think this leads to camera manufacturers becoming more conservative in their designs. The time and money spent in research and development on digital cameras means that manufacturers design their cameras to appeal to the broadest audience possible. That audience is almost always the average consumer, not the enthusiast. This all means that the more specialized camera types (for example: medium format, and rangefinders) get more expensive and harder to acquire unless you’re a successful professional or independently wealthy.
As a photography nut I am always interested in trying out different types of cameras. However, my experience with photography has almost been entirely digital. I started photography well into the digital age and have never really experimented with film cameras. One format I have recently been interested in exploring is square, medium-format photography. Medium format has a unique and interesting look, and I have always felt that composing within a square format would be an interesting challenge.
I decided to see if I could find an older film camera to experiment with that wouldn’t cost me too much if I decided I didn’t like it. My first purchase was a vintage Rolleicord III circa 1954. I found one on eBay for around $200, purchased some film, and started shooting.
The actual experience of shooting with film in general and medium format in particular is quite different from how I shoot digitally. My experience was similar to other photographers: shooting with film really makes you slow down. Shooting a roll of 120 means you only have 12 exposures per roll. With digital, it doesn’t cost you anything to snap of another casual picture, but when you only have 12 exposures on a roll that you then have to pay to develop, you try to take your time and make sure that each click of the shutter is worth it.
Another thing that I’ve found is that I’m less anxious when I’m shooting film. Partly because film seems a bit more flexible about exposures than digital and partly because there’s no way for me to review what I’ve just shot. When shooting digital, there’s always that temptation to double-check the back of the camera and make sure you got what you intended. But because there’s no way to do that with film, you just have to let go, accept that you may have missed the shot and move on. There’s something kind of liberating shooting this way that, that I didn’t expect. Photography becomes a more Zen-like experience for me.
The biggest difference shooting with the Rolleicord, however, was learning to compose with a square. After years of shooting with 3:2 format cameras, I have become very used to visualizing my compositions in that format. When I started shooting square, I noticed that my brain quickly readjusted to looking for square compositions.
Of course, turning those visualizations into usable images can be a bit more complicated. The image on the ground glass of a TLR is really quite breathtaking. It looks like you’re looking down at a miniaturized scene of your subject within your camera. The light dancing across the glass can be mesmerizing sometimes. However, with a reversed image, learning to move in what appears to be the wrong direction to frame your composition can be frustrating. With practice, however, it can start to become second nature
The most surprising thing about the whole process was the image quality. In these days of ever-increasing megapixels, it’s refreshing to see that a 60-year-old camera is still capable of producing very high-quality images. Medium format film does an excellent job of producing a large dynamic range and rich colors. It’s been fun experimenting with different film types and speeds and it’s something that I believe will keep me coming back to this camera for a long time to come.