Why I Love Analog Film Photography, Part Two

For the first part of this series, click here.

When people talk about why they love analog film, they often focus on the glorious look and feel of film images. And I talk about that, too! But it’s also true that high end digital cameras and post-production software can reproduce some of that film look.

I’d still argue that there’s a serendipity to shooting film that produces unpredictable but beautiful results that you’d never discover merely by adding a film look to a digital image. And of course there’s great value (and sometimes more efficiency) in using the original tools to achieve a certain look instead of cobbling it together after the fact.

But even beyond that, I love shooting analog film for multiple other huge reasons. Here are just a few.

Slowing Down by Choice

My Canon Demi, a little half-frame camera with a busted light meter. When I shoot with this, I REALLY slow down, in a great way. Shot with a Canon T60 on Arista EDU Ultra 400.

I’m prone to fury when companies or products or institutions waste my time. I’ll give you a good rant whenever you like about the way the attention economy is designed to monetize our time, so everything about the internet is designed to increase “stickiness,” slow us down, and keep us anxiously clicking and scrolling our lives away.

On the other hand, I’m a huge proponent of slowing down by choice. So the extra time and care involved with film photography feels great to me.

Before I started shooting 35mm film again, I’d constantly peer at my phone while running errands or taking walks around New York City. Since my phone is connected to the internet and the internet is designed to generate agitation and clicks, my walks would often increase instead of decrease my stress.

But when I’m walking around with a camera, I’m not looking at my phone. I’m slowing down in real life, looking at my surroundings. I’m observing color and light and frame. I’m thinking about visual storytelling. I’m noticing how the city operates, how things are put together, how people move through spaces. I’m living in space, seeing things, learning. And I end up feeling rejuvenated instead of exhausted.

A ghost or a cloud of steam? Shot with a Canon New F-1 on Ilford HP5 400.

All of these benefits are achievable with any kind of camera, digital or film. But my most convenient digital camera is my phone, which is connected to the internet, which likes to distract me, so using a film camera removes me from that temptation. And the extra focus that manual film shooting requires means I’m even more immersed in each moment in a very good way than I would be with a more automated system.

I also love the fact that when shooting film, I can’t immediately peer at the image I’ve shot. After I take a picture with a digital camera, I check the image immediately, because of course I do. But that breaks up the flow, pulls me out of the moment.  When I’m shooting film, I stay focused on the scene, looking through the lens, observing my environment. And that’s a beautiful thing in an age in which our ability to focus and pay attention has been destroyed through commodification.

The Comfort of Mechanical Objects

The steps involved in shooting film further ground and calm me by their connection to actual physical objects and reality. Manually focusing, turning the dials to set exposure, pressing the shutter release, and advancing the film are all physical actions with haptic feedback from actual machinery. It all feels so good.

I love the sound and reverberation of the mirror slap. I love the little solid clicks of the aperture ring. I love knowing how the camera actually works, imagining the aperture blades contracting and light going through the lens to hit the film inside the camera during the split second the mirror rises and the shutter opens. The whole thing makes sense, which seems tiny but is deeply comforting in an era full of existential threats that make no sense at all.

I also love the fact that when something goes wrong with an old camera or lens, there’s a decent chance I can figure it out and maybe even fix it myself. Without advanced training in microchips and circuitry, I’d have almost no chance of fixing a modern electronic camera. But when I got an old manual camera that wouldn’t advance, I opened the bottom of the camera, studied the mechanics, and reconnected a rod that had slipped off of its piston. Incredibly satisfying.

Good Cameras for Bad Eyes

I have terrible eyesight. So when I try to shoot with a digital camera like my 10 year old Panasonic DMC-GX1 that uses a screen instead of a viewfinder, I have to peer over the tops of my glasses to get close enough to the screen to focus, which feels awkward and throws me off. I can hold my 10 year old Canon Rebel T3i digital SLR up to my eye, which is more comfortable, but the viewfinder feels much, much smaller than the viewfinders of my old 35mm cameras, which is a bit of a strain on my old eyes.

So when I started shooting again this February with a Canon TLb and a Canon FTb, I felt like I could breathe again. The big, bright viewfinders let me focus in a split second without even thinking about it, so I can frame and capture fleeting moments on the fly much more easily.

New York City on a regular ol’ nifty fifty prime lens. Shot with a Nikon F20 with a 50mm f2 lens.

I also love working with standard prime lenses again. I grew up shooting thousands of images using my mom’s Canon FD breech mount lenses — a standard 50mm, a wide angle 28mm, and a telephoto 135mm. So the boundaries of those focal lengths are permanently etched on my brain and using those lenses feels immediately comfortable and comforting. Zoom lenses allow for a huge amount of flexibility in a small package. But when I use those standard primes, I’m simply at home. Everything looks right to me through those lenses; I instantly know how to frame the scene. When I started shooting with standard primes this year after a couple of decades of using zooms on digital cameras, I felt like I could finally see again.

The Glory of Manual Controls

I’m here talking about the joy of film, but I’m spoiled by my iPhone. I love its ability to take instant snapshots that are perfectly focussed and exposed. I use it almost every day to take practical photos of things I need to share immediately with family and friends and it was the perfect camera to shoot all the images of food that I used in my COOKING WILL BREAK YOUR HEART book. The predictability and speed and pleasant rendering of its automatic exposure and focus made shooting food prep on the fly incredibly easy.

Lush food images shot with a plain ol’ iPhone 7S. A fantastic tool for this specific job!

But when I pick up a film camera, I’m generally stretching my aesthetic muscles more and feel painfully constrained without full manual control of focus and exposure. With COOKING WILL BREAK YOUR HEART, I was shooting into pots and onto plates with uncomplicated overhead lighting. The automatic settings on the iPhone worked great for that. But when I’m out on the street shooting film, I constantly find myself interested in backlit scenes that require more thoughtful exposure or frames with distinct foreground, midground, and background that require specific focus choices and depth-of-field control. And the manual controls for focus, shutter speed, and aperture work incomparably better for me on my old 35mm cameras than my modern digital cameras.

When a shot like this involves a lot of bright sky, an automatic exposure system might expose for the sky and render the building too dark. Manual controls let you split the difference or pick what part of the frame you’re exposing for. I also used a yellow filter on this, which in black and white photography makes blues darker, so the sky ended up darkening to great dramatic effect.

My old Canon FD lenses were made for manual focus — it’s the only kind of focus they can do! So they’re nice and silky and smooth. The more modern Canon EF lens on my digital SLR feels wobbly and uncertain to me when used in manual focus mode.

I’m also a big fan of the needle-and-circle manual exposure indicators in the old Canon F-series of cameras. The needle indicates the shutter speed; the circle indicates the aperture. Line up the needle with the circle and you’ve got a good exposure. More modern systems with digital readouts feel like they provide too much information and too little information at the same time. In contrast, I don’t have to think when using an old camera with a needle-and-circle system; the viewfinder gives me all the information I need and nothing more, so I can set exposure and shoot with the least amount of friction.

I also prefer the analog needle-and-circle system because the needle floats freely and thus gives you a better sense of the actual light reading than digital readouts that can display maybe ten different positions. What if the best light actually is in between two of those positions? The camera’s giving you the LED that represents the closest aperture or shutter speed, but a floating needle would give you a better approximation of exactly how off you actually are. Full disclosure: I’ve grown to love the Canon T60, which uses LEDs, but I still prefer the needle-and-pin.

I Love a Good Bargain

It seems weird to talk about price as a selling point for analog film photography. You can shoot thousands of digital images for a few dollars of storage space on your computer. Shooting a thousand 35mm film images — approximately 28 rolls of 36 exposures — might cost you $500 or $600 for film and processing alone.

But used, vintage film equipment can be incredibly cheap compared to new, high end digital cameras and lenses. The Canon FD cameras and lenses I grew up with are particular bargains right now. If you know what you’re doing and are capable of a few simple home maintenance and repair procedures like replacing foam light seals, you can end up with a serviceable Canon FTb with a standard 50mm prime from eBay or ShopGoodwill for $40 or so. And because they’re not directly compatible with most of Canon’s EOS cameras, the old Canon FD lenses can be shockingly affordable. They’ve gone up in price recently after adapters came out to connect them to new full frame digital cameras, but they’re still vastly cheaper than modern primes.

I know there are brand new digital SLRs that would probably feel great to me to shoot. But brand new digital SLRs of that quality cost thousands of dollars, and a full set of primes would be thousands more.

In contrast, I recently picked up a Bell & Howell FD35 and a B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4 prime for less than $20. Both camera and lens cleaned up beautifully and are a joy to shoot. I also found an unlabeled Canon A-1 on an auction site that I nabbed for a little over $40. The camera had a sticky mirror, but I did some research, learned how to oil it, and now it works just fine.

Flowers in NYC shot on a Bell & Howell FD35 with a B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4 lens. The lens is exactly the same as a Canon FD 50mm f1.4, which is a much desired lens for its ability to get close to a subject and for its beautiful, narrow depth of field at low f-stops, both features showcased pretty nicely in this photo.

Part of the joy of resurrecting these old cameras is ethical and ecological. It feels good to keep old things working in a time of tremendous waste. And then there’s the emotional attachment we develop towards things we’ve put work into fixing. I get a thrill of pleasure every time I press the shutter release on that Canon A-1 and hear that mirror slap.

But yes, I also just love a bargain, and spending an hour poring over ShopGoodwill listings feels like a much better use of my time and emotional energy than scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day.

The funky logo of the Bell & Howell FD35, which I just love. That font alone makes me happy. Feels like something someone created for a movie instead of something that was actually manufactured and sold, and I love it. And yes, I shot this image with an iPhone — it’s still the best tool for certain jobs!

Thanks as always for reading! I’ll be back soon with more — including some thoughts on portrait photography!