I started shooting 35mm still film again this year after a hiatus of two decades, and it’s rapidly become one my greatest joys, filling voids, exercising muscles, stretching my heart, and reminding me how to use my eyes again.
I’ve been posting about this journey back into film in a long Twitter thread you can read here and I’ve been sharing photos on Instagram and Grainery. But given the ephemeral nature of social media, I figured it’s time to create a space here on my own site where interested folks can read a bit more. This post and any related posts should be findable by clicking on the “Photography” link in the menu of this site or by visiting gregpak.com/category/photography/.
Where It Started
My mother, Jane Ellen Riechers Pak, was a brilliant photographer who took thousands of luminous black and white pictures of her family throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, my mother taught me how to use her Canon FTb and sent me off to summer camp with a 50mm lens and a dozen rolls of color film. A few months later, she taught me how to develop black and white film and make prints in her little darkroom. Over the next few decades, I’d shoot thousands of my own photos for high school and college publications and for myself, my family, and my friends. But in the early 2000s, both of my 35mm cameras developed shutter issues right around the time digital started to take over. So for the next two decades, I put serious photography on the backburner while paradoxically shooting thousands of images with a series of digital cameras that never quite satisfied me.
But after my mom died last August, my sisters and I spent hours poring over her old photographs, and I dug up my own high school and college negatives. And I fell in love all over again with the textures and latitude and grain and memory of shooting 35mm film.
This is probably the image that hit me the hardest during those days. I found an old roll of film that I shot in 2000 or so but never got developed. I vaguely remembered taking photos of my mom on that roll. So I took it to a lab and got it developed… and there she was. The film had gotten foggier and grainier with age, but that maybe makes the image even more beautiful and I couldn’t be more grateful to have it now.
I found a repair shop that specialized in the old Canon cameras my mom gave me in high school and sent them off to be fixed. In the meantime, I picked up an old, used Canon TLb camera body very similar to the FTb my mom originally taught me to use, attached one of my old high school lenses, and shot my first roll of film in two decades.
And I haven’t stopped since.
Why I Love It – Part One
On a sheer aesthetic level, I just can’t get enough of the latitude and texture and feel of photos shot on film. Yes, digital cameras are tremendous and camera phones in particular allow for instant recording of moments that are incredibly precious, sometimes for deeply personal and sometimes for incredibly important political and historical reasons. And great artists create great art with all kinds of tools, including digital cameras. But my eye and heart have been trained to respond to film images with a kind of visceral hunger and joy that’s hard to explain. But let’s try!
First, here’s a perfectly fine image shot with an iPhone 7S on Canal Street in New York City.
This simple photo represents decades of incredible technological and aesthetic achievement. The first digital cameras I tried back in the 1990s drove me up the wall with their shutter lag, terrible handling of highlights, and low resolution. Now I get a tremendous, high resolution image from my phone. My phone! I know, it’s so mundane, but it’s still astounding.
But for me, it’s not enough.
Here’s the same scene shot in 2022 with a Canon FTb with a standard 50mm f1.8 prime lens on 20 year old Kodak High Definition 400 ASA 35mm film.
On one level, it’s basically the same image with much of the same information as the iPhone photo. But to my eye, everything is different.
First, the framing of the second image just feels so much more right to my eye. I’ve shot thousands of images over the decades with a standard 50mm film photography lens. So I instinctively know how to arrange things in that frame when I look through that lens. Everything about the frame in the second image feels more intentional, more aesthetically pleasing, and more like a story I want to keep hearing.
My iPhone has the equivalent of a 28mm lens, which is a wider angle than a 50mm lens. I love 28mm lenses in film photography. But it feels too wide for me for certain kinds of shots, and this is one of them. As a result, the iPhone image ends up feeling more removed to me, less a part of the moment than the film image.
Second, the film image handles light in a very different way from the iPhone image. Look at the light glancing off the side of the building in the middle of the frame. In the iPhone image, it’s just… side light on the building? I don’t really notice it or linger on it. But in the film image, that light feels so fresh and crispy I can practically taste it. I keep falling back on food metaphors when I think about it — I drink that light up, I eat it up, it inspires a deep pang of hunger and satisfies it all at once. I just love it, and I don’t generally get those kinds of feelings from the iPhone photos I shoot.
Third, color takes on an entirely different feel in the film image. The iPhone image looks a bit like nice, standard news footage of a city street. Good color and resolution and information! But every different color feels like it gets equal attention, which ends up distracting my eye a bit. The green of the cop’s vest and the umbrella jockey for attention with the red of the sign and the medallion hanging from the streetlight. It doesn’t quite feel like a whole; it feels like just a random snapshot of random stuff.
In contrast, the film image feels to me like a still from a movie, with a kind of built in art direction and intention that comes from the film’s grain and color rendition. In this example, there’s a kind of coolness to the sky and buildings that helps the red elements pop in a really satisfying way. The greens don’t distract the same way here; everything feels like part of a whole.
One way to describe all this is atmosphere. To my eye, the film image has it in droves. The iPhone image doesn’t really have much at all.
Of course, some of this comes down to the specific moment captured — the film image is just a better composed photo with more depth and interesting balance. The truck on the right and the line of people crossing the street towards us just fill the frame and tell more of a story than the much less active iPhone photo.
But I personally tend to find those better frames with a film camera much more consistently than I do with an iPhone. When I’m shooting with a film camera, my eye is up to the camera, looking through the lens. That image fills my entire field of vision and takes all my attention. When I’m shooting with an iPhone, I’m peering at a screen a few feet from my face. The image I’m trying to frame takes up just a fraction of my field of vision and I’m consciously or subconsciously distracted by whatever else is happening around me. I’m not as focused and I don’t find the frame I’m hungry for as often.
This is a very specific and personal thing, of course. But given my background and eye, I feel like I’m really seeing when I look through a film camera. No digital camera has ever quite given me that seamless sensation.
Well, it’s past midnight and tomorrow’s a big work day, so I’ll stop here for now. But this is fun, so I’ll be back later with more.
I’ll leave you with a photo of the Empire State Building that remains one of my favorite images from my first month shooting film again in February 2022.
Thanks much and more soon!