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Essay: One Year of Film Photography

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As you might have gathered, a large part of my living is made by shooting photos. I shoot digital for all of my commercial work because of the post-production flexibility and immediate access to the images because when you're shooting commercial work you really have to know you nailed it before you move on. I mainly shoot with Nikon cameras and about once a year I'll pull out a Hasselblad or a Phase One for a special project.

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I've been shooting a ton over the past year and while inarguably any day shooting is better than a day spent behind a desk, eventually you do get a little...stuck. The shoots start to blend together in your mind and you're on a delirium induced auto-pilot, clicking away at your subject and looking at flaws thinking quietly to yourself, "I can fix this in post. I can fix that in post". Some Enlightenment Era notion starts to rise in your mind, quiet at first, but louder the longer it carries on: "is this what I'm supposed to be doing? Why does this all feel the same?".

I don't remember when it struck me but there was a finite moment in which I knew it was time for a change up. All of the forums out there teeming with old heads and hip kids tell you that film/analog is the way to go and, desperate as I was for a "commercial break" so to speak, I took the plunge head first. I started renting a Mamiya 7ii which lead to a my love affair with medium format and also a mild addiction to purchasing 35mm cameras on the cheap.

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Film photography has taught me a lot of things. First, it's taught me that my Dad was right all along and patience is a God damned virtue. This is two-fold. First, you shoot your roll and you're chomping at the bit to get that thing shipped off and developed and scanned so you can see your photos. But I've learned that tossing that roll into my desk drawer and waiting until I've got 5+ rolls to develop really makes those pictures mean more to me. I've forgotten taking them by that point and I can look back more objectively and judge the photos based upon my creative eye rather than my emotions. Second, and frankly more importantly, you need to time your shots. You don't want to waste money on taking another one and you're not going to motor drive that camera so it better be a pretty worthwhile photo otherwise you're out actual cash. You sit, you wait, you time your moment to pull that trigger a little more than you need to with digital. 

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Second, it's taught me that if I get a bad photo it's 100% my own fault. We have inarguably better tools today than any of the photo juggernauts of yesteryear. I'm shooting a ton of 35mm film on a Nikon F100 that feels nearly identical to my old D7000 and even close enough to my modern-day D850. They even take the same lenses! There's practically no difference. If I were out in the wild with no meter, no batteries, and no autofocus, I'd be totally fucked. Granted, shooting film has made me understand this and get better at it over time but that little bit of knowledge was incredibly humbling.

Third, it's taught me that my personal time vs. savings I'd receive if I were to develop and scan my own film is not a tradeoff I'm willing to make. I've shot 83 rolls of film in the past year which isn't an astonishing number but definitely higher than I had anticipated. My free time is extremely valuable to me and I don't want to spend it meticulously scanning negatives. Therefore, I'm happy to send it out to be developed and scanned.

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Lastly, it's just plain fun. It really made photography fun for me again. It took away the monotony and replaced it with a newfound sense of wonder and excitement about something I already love but made it feel new again.

To all of you photographers who may be toying with the idea of film: think about that choice long and hard. You don't have to try it. You'll undoubtedly be frustrated and lose money and have shots that you thought were great turn out like total duds but I promise you that if you take the time, if you do your research, if you breathe for a second and understand that it's you and this archaic piece of technology working in harmony to capture photon rays on plastic, gelatin, and silver halide, and you just need to wait for the right moment to click that shutter, you're going to find a special, physical, real thing in this digital age that just might help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

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