Why Film Photography Still Has Meaning

I recently heard a story of a young kid walking down the street taking photos when he came across an old gentleman walking into a café. He followed this gentleman into the café and asked to take a photo. The man agreed and the young kid sat down next to him. He adjusted his aperture and shutter speed and quickly snapped a photo. He then thanked the man and walked away, winding his camera and moving onto the next frame.

The old man sat in silence in shock of seeing a young kid wandering with a 35mm artifact. With this instrument, the old man’s history had been captured, not on some digital sensor but on a physical object. It was up to the young kid to make sure that history remained in the world — for no other record of that moment exists.

Is that the difference between film photography and digital? Does film exist in a way different from the digital? Does that make it more meaningful? Is that why photography students are usually asked to start on film before moving to digital?

“It’s trapped in a light proof box until development. There is no instant recall … and no hiding from mistakes.”

I recently began taking photos again for the first time since I was a child. I was impulsively drawn to the antiquated. I thought if those in the business of teaching photography force their students to start with a 35mm SLR, I should force myself to do the same. Admittedly, I also thought it was the untraditionally trendy thing to do. I wanted to do my best impression of a hipster, so I said no to those funny entry level DSLR cameras. Soon after I found a camera. The beautiful Nikon FE2 felt right in my hands. It has since been my companion in learning to read light, and its simplicity has kept me honest. My first instinct pulling me to film photography was not philosophical, but it quickly taught me to look at the world differently.

Like most photographers I am out to document the world, and I do so through stories. I am a storyteller, and storytellers often look at his or her work in a thematic fashion, especially ones who’s first medium was the written word. But looking through the 50mm lens of my FE2 has taught me to focus on only the present moment. I only get 36 exposures on a roll of film; no more, no less. I have to make each one count. Intention is paramount, and concentrating on exacting the moment the shutter snaps is key. After that shutter closes it’s all over. The physical light captured on film is all that is left, a history of light preserved in chemical form, and I have to move on to the next one.

“Looking through the 50mm lens of my FE2 has taught me to focus on only the present moment.”

The film photographer, unlike the digital one is forced into a forward-looking mentality with intention and curiosity. When I am taking photos I become keenly aware of the elements of restriction film imposes. Unlike the digital world where memory cards can store almost and infinite amount of photos, film is finite. I’m limited to only the amount of film I can carry. Scarcity provides a heightened sense of purpose because once that photo is exposed I’m done. It’s trapped in a light proof box until development. There is no instant recall…and thus no hiding from mistakes. I learn from my mistakes months later. But in the moment of shooting I’ve already forgotten about that photo; I’m looking, searching for the next striking face to come into view.

All this stems from the fact that film is tangible; it can be held, felt, and developed. As the young kid’s parable noticed act of photography is a record of history, but only in film is that history tangible. Only in film is a physical substance actually created. As such, the tangibility of film often forces the photographer to bring heightened intention to his work. He is a creator and a photographer not just another digital man. The man photographed by the young kid recognized this and for him it made all the difference.