Thursday, March 17, 2016

Shooting Film

I've been reminded a couple times lately that there is a whole new generation of photographers who have never made images with anything but digital cameras.  There are some clear advantages to that, but also some disadvantages that are not so easily apprehended.  The big problem with any of the digital technologies these days is that it is all contained in a black box in which the underlying fundamentals of operation are obscured.  That is an important issue in photography because fundamental concepts like focus, depth of field and exposure play such an important role in the creative process of making images.  Digital cameras generally do a good job of guessing right on the settings needed to record a scene, but they don't really provide a good substitute for an artist's judgment.  And, even when sophisticated digital cameras may offer the possibility of manually selecting fundamental settings, there must be some awareness on the part of the user about the nature and value of manipulating the basic parameters of picture making.

Trying to be helpful to someone new to film photography is full of pitfalls.  People with long experience in film photography easily lose sight of how deeply embedded are the fundamentals in their thinking, and explanations tend to skip past the all-important basic concepts.  I know this to be true because, even though I was completely entranced with the whole idea of photography from as long as I can remember, I was also totally intimidated for years by the thought of ever dealing effectively with the arcane equipment and concepts embodied in film camera technology.  If I had stumbled on a good mentor in my early years, I think my development as a photographer would have followed a much different course.

With film and film processing having become generally inaccessible in retail outlets, acquiring an old camera from a relative or through a lucky yard sale find is likely to lead quickly to many more questions than answers.  Fortunately, there is no lack of information about getting started with film photography if one looks in the right places.  While I have related my experiences with getting pictures from old cameras often on this blog, I can see in looking over the posts that little of what I've provided here would be of much help to someone just getting started with the art and practice of film photography.  So, rather than trying to recapitulate what others have done well, I'm going to just pass along a few ideas and links to on line sources.

I'll hazard the guess than no camera maker ever sent a product to a retailer without a user's manual.  It is also equally accurate to say that a camera and its manual are very likely to part company soon after purchase.  Fortunately, this fact of nature is balanced by another fact of nature named Mike Butkus who for years has accumulated mountains of old manuals, scanned them and made them available on line free for the taking.  His site is the first place I always look when I want to understand the fine points of using any old new-to-me camera.  Some of the manuals are cursory or confusing, but many provide an excellent guide to the basics of picture making. Kodak manuals are often particularly helpful; one of their classics in a pdf from another site which provides all the essentials of good photography is the manual for the ubiquitous Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash.

In thinking about the topic of this post I did a quick Google search on the phrase, Film Photography Basics.  The first item on the rendered list was The Beginner's Guide To Film Photography - I Still Shoot Film.  As it says on page 1:  "Here you will find the basics of film photography in plain, simple, understandable English to help get you on your way. Updated Regularly."  There are many more sites with a similar aim which can be explored.

On line blogs, web sites and forums are full of photographers who are always willing to provide answers to finding, fixing and using old cameras.  It is really amazing what expertise can be found in such places about even the rarest of film cameras, their accessories and their history.  Some of the sites worth visiting include Photo.Net, Rangefinderforum, Filmwasters, and PhotographyToday.  One thing to watch out for at these kind of sites is that many of us old guys get pretty opinionated about equipment and techniques, and the back and forth about old cameras sometimes yield more heat than light.


Jim Grey said...

Thanks for the link to the I Still Shoot Film resources. Sometimes people find one of my old camera reviews and leave a comment asking for advice. I'll send them there.

Mike said...

I think it is useful to suggest that people new to the process look at such sites. It is easy to make yourself believe that you understand what a distant correspondent is thinking and experiencing, but that is often an illusion.