How I Got Started With Film Photography (And Why You Should Learn to Love Your Errors)

matthew alexander
Nov 7, 2018 · 6 min read
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Bo, my old roommate’s wonderful cat

I’ve always had a serious attention problem. For every year of my adult life, I’ve found myself taking on new hobbies, starting new projects, even switching my career a few times.

A few months in to any new project or career, I’d feel the dread. My internal dialogue would scream: “You’ll never be good enough at this. Why are you trying? This is so expensive. You don’t even like it. Give up.” It was nearly impossible to do anything. I couldn’t find a hobby that felt good. Educating myself on how to do whatever my newest hobby was made me feel tangible pain.

After a big decision to just give up on everything in Charlotte, quit my job and move back home, my friends in Never I decided to bring me on tour. They handed me a crappy old Nikon D50 and told me to play with it. I loved it. I felt the urge again. I felt the desire to learn how to use this little box of plastic, glass, and metal and start learning photography.

I started teaching myself digital photography for a few months, bought my own equipment, and started trying to shoot anywhere I could — paid or not. But I still wasn’t in love with it. I feared for the worst; was this the dread again? Had the dread come to take my new interest and photography and burn it to the ground? I had started feeling the pinch of the lack of features on my cheap Nikon D5300, but the investment to upgrade to a full frame camera and serious gear was… hefty.

What if I hated it? What if I spent $5,000 on a nice camera and I never recovered it? What if every other photographer is better than me? I’ll never get work? Why should I invest in it? I’m no good at this. It’s not the camera, it’s me. I’m the worst.

Oh no. Yep. It’s here.

The dread.

The Dread Took My Love for Digital Photography

The fact that I wasn’t ready to get into a really expensive camera was sign enough — the dread was here to take my new interest and ruin it. I didn’t love my digital photos, and even though I was still getting booked and shooting bands, I’d come home thinking, “Man, that one went REALLY well!”, until I loaded the images into Lightroom and started catching all my errors.

Underexposed. Blurry. Out of focus. Messy. Bad framing. Too much noise. Errors. Errors. Errors. Errors. Errors.

I’d get so frustrated.

“I’m going try to sell my camera.” Okay, that’s too extreme, tone it down a bit.

“I’ll read an article about how to shoot shows.” Okay, that wasn’t informative. That didn’t help at all. I knew all these things already and my shots aren’t where I want them.

“I’ll watch a video on SkillShare to shoot in low-light.” Okay, I got a few helpful tips, maybe I’ll use them next time.

I was finding myself wishing I hadn’t gotten into photography. It was the dread here to tell me I’d ruined another hobby. What a bummer.

At the time, I was working part-time at an antique store. We’d get tons of cameras coming in and out. I’d always keep my eye out, just in case the right one came along, but I didn’t know anything about film photography. I never took courses on it, and I only ever used those disposable cameras when I was a kid. It wasn’t high on my priority list.

One day, a Minolta 3000i came in to the store. It wasn’t old enough to be an antique, so they wouldn’t sell it in the store, but the dealer offered me it for $30 — complete with three lenses, two flashes, and a nice bag that smelled like twenty-year old cigarettes.

At the time, my girlfriend was living in Washington Heights. I was so excited to play with the camera that I couldn’t wait to get to NYC to start my first roll. I took a few test shots to make sure everything worked fine in the camera, and then finished the drive. I parked in Jersey, took the train in, took the subway up to Washington Heights, walked to my girlfriend’s apartment, knocked on the door and waited.

She opened the door — “Click!” and then a loud buzzing sound from the camera. I still have the photo hanging up in our bedroom. It’s one of my favorites. It’s a little blurry, the lighting is bad, and it’s perfect.

Finding Beauty in the Imperfections

Maybe it’s my nature, or maybe it was taught to me, but imperfection was something that just never sat right with me. It felt bad. I’m by no means a perfect person, I was never too determined to win things, never practiced hard enough to be an MVP in High School sports, never top of my class — but it always felt bad to under-perform.

When I was an adult, it was no different. If I spent more than 500 hours doing something, and I still was bad at it, I was determined to hate myself for it. Photography was no different. Sometimes I would shoot a whole show, get back, sync my camera and be left with nothing but blurry, underexposed shots. It felt so bad.

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But with film, there was something different. There was never a perfect shot. It was always going to be a little wrong. But each shot was a memory, with its grain, its discoloration, and its imperfect framing. There’s something beautiful about the whole process. I’d take a week or so to use up an entire roll, send it in, and in a month, I’d get a little envelope with a bunch of the smiles I’d seen and the places I was. Sure, there would be a couple of duds in the batch, but that was okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be. And that’s okay.

For every one of a professional photographer’s Instagram posts, there were probably 7,613 duds. Not everything can be perfect. Especially when you’ve only been doing something for a year. With any art form, there’s always something to learn. There’s always new tricks, new techniques you learn, and new ways to improve your ability to create. Skill isn’t an a linear scale of bad art to good art. It’s just how many things you’ve learned about something.

Any art platform is a tool to expression. You don’t need to make the most stunning paintings, you don’t need to write beautiful poems. You just need to create. Learning new ways to create, whether it’s photographing different situations, singing new styles, learning new drawing techniques — it all just diversifies your ability to create.

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Sometimes you make things that are imperfect. Perfection doesn’t need to be the goal. I don’t try to make perfect photos anymore. I just try to capture moments. I try to make photos that make people happy. They don’t need to convey a feeling, they don’t need to “speak a thousand words”. They’re my photos. I took them because I wanted to. Yes, learning framing helps me capture those moments, and yes, getting those moments to have the proper lighting helps me bring more clarity to the scene, but it’s not always important. I create because I want to, not to be perfect.

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It’s easier to love your errors when you do something for the love of doing it. Being the guy with the camera makes me happy. I’ve met my fair share of photographers that are way more talented than me. They’ve learned so much and created so many cool things. Some of them have even taught me new tricks. I try not to hesitate to ask. I just like creating. Even when I get bad shots back, or when I waste a roll of film, or when an Instax Mini shot comes out totally black — it’s okay. Errors happen. Sometimes they’re beautiful. Other times, they’re not. At the end of the day, I just like creating. The dread is gone.

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