Why I Love Analog Photography, Part Three: Accepting Fuck Ups

A lovely shot of the Empire State Building — with a strange pattern along the left side created by a light leak streaming through sprocket holes in a bulk film loader. Canon T60, Canon nFD 50mm f1.8, Tri-X.

Earlier this year I walked past a person sitting on a park bench who was staring straight ahead, looking devastated, while their friend said, “Everyone fucks up sometimes. Everyone.

I think about that all the time, because it’s true, and as someone who tends to be brutally unforgiving of his own failures, I need those kinds of reminders.

So one of the things I love about analog film photography is that if you’re shooting film, you’re probably fucking something up. And that’s okay.

There are dozens of things you can screw up when you’re shooting analog film with manual controls on decades old mechanical cameras. Missing the moment you wanted to capture and goofing up focus and exposure are the most obvious mistakes. But maybe you mis-loaded the film, or opened the camera before you’d fully rewound it. Or your camera might have a shutter capping issue or a light leak or some quirk that’s scratching your negatives. Your lens might be hazy or dirty or just kind of crappy. And if you’re rolling your own bulk film and developing your own negatives, you could goof things up a thousand more ways.

Your mistakes might ruin your images. Or they might be something you can figure out how to work with or fix. Or they might even create something surprisingly gorgeous. Whichever way it goes, you’ll survive and learn and it’s okay…

…because everyone fucks up sometimes. Everyone.

So here are some of my fuck ups from this year of shooting film, some of which were agonizing, some of which were delightful, all of which I learned from.

Canon FTB, B&H/Canon 50mm f1.4, Hoya +4 filter, Arista EDU Ultra 400.

This is very basic. I missed the focus on this shot. I’m pretty new to macro photography — I never had the lenses or filters for it when I was younger. So I’m still figuring things out, and it’s a challenge to nail focus on tiny objects blowing in the breeze! But in this case, the near miss produced a pretty gorgeous image that feels dreamy and strange instead of just wrong. I actually think I’d have a lot of trouble nailing this look if I were going for it, so I should feel pretty lucky.

Canon AT-1, Canon nFD 24mm f2.8m, Tri-X.

I don’t have room for a darkroom for prints in my New York apartment, but I’ve been developing my own black and white negatives at home. I’ve been very happy with the results — the negatives I develop at home are generally much cleaner and scratch-free than negatives I get back from labs. But I screwed up here, using exhausted fixer that left those brownish vertical bars along the top of the frame. I knew my fix was a little old, but I was too eager to develop this new roll of film to replace the batch. Live and learn!

Canon AT-1, Canon FD 50mm f1.4, Hoya +4 filter, Arista EDU Ultra 400.

I still have no idea what happened here but I love it. The bottom of the frame here is fogged — hence the light haze. But in addition to the fogging, there’s a series of strange liquid droplet images underneath the clover. I assumed they were water marks from uneven film drying. Maybe I added too much or too little PhotoFlo to the final soak of the negatives before hanging them. But when I inspect the negatives closely, I can’t see any marks on the surface of the film that would indicate dried liquid residue. So I’m wondering if those droplets are some kind of double exposure, but I have zero idea where or how I could have made any kind of double exposure like that. This is bulk rolled Arista EDU Ultra 400 film, so there’s the possibility that through some manufacturing or packaging quirk, the film was fogged and imbued with these liquid images, but that feels like a stretch. An ongoing mystery! But the image is actually kind of beautiful!

Canon T60, Canon nFD 50mm f1.8, Tri-X.

This one nearly broke my heart. My friend and fellow STAR WARS comics writer Marc Guggenheim was in town a few months ago, and we met up for an outdoor, COVID-safe, adult playdate in the park. I brought along my camera and Marc was gracious enough to consent to sit for a few pictures. It was the first time I’d photographed a friend since I’d gotten back into 35mm film, and I think I’d subconsciously set some pretty high expectations for myself. So I was thrilled with the luminous look of the Tri-X film when I developed it, but horrified to see the thin horizontal scratch across the middle of the frame and the weird light leak on Marc’s chest at the bottom of the frame.

But all this just gave me the chance to hone my Photoshop skills. I used part of another shot to replace the spot blown out by the light leak, deployed the clone stamp to remove the scratches, and lightened the shadows over Marc’s eyes a bit. Marc liked the resulting image so much that he’s now using it as his official headshot in his big-time Variety announcements!

The scratches troubled me, though — I was using a new-to-me Canon T60, a Cosina-made, Canon-branded plastic fantastic that had immediately become my favorite walk-around camera because it’s got all manual controls, weighs just 361 grams, and uses all my great legacy Canon FD lenses. And this lovely camera was scratching negatives?

After several weeks of testing and pondering and re-testing, I finally figured out that the camera’s take-up reel was slipping, which was allowing the film to rub against the horizontal ridges that had inexplicably been built into the inside of the film door. I loved the camera so much I took the extreme risk of drilling a hole in the plastic take-up reel so I could glue it to the metal rod it encircled — and that seems to have taken care of the problem. So here’s an instance where an agonizing screw up led to a triumphant fix-‘er-up!

Canon FTb, Canon nFD 135mm f3.5, 2x teleconverter, Fujicolor Fujifilm 200.

My latest and greatest mistake! I shot a bunch of photos at the beach using an unbranded 2x teleconverter I got as a bonus in a camera auction. A 2x teleconverter doubles the magnification of your lens, so my 135mm lens worked like a 270mm lens, which is great for shooting wildlife. But… I did a crappy job of cleaning the lenses on the teleconverter. The smears on the glass led to the haze in the middle of the images. There’s a decent chance some of that haze comes from the crappy optics of the teleconverter itself, but my fingerprints on the glass sure didn’t help.

Film’s not cheap — a brand new 36 exposure roll of Tri-X, the classic black and white film I grew up shooting, costs about $11. But you can bring those costs down if you buy a bulk loader and 100 foot rolls of film that you can roll onto individual, reusable cartridges.

So pretty early in my re-introduction to 35mm, I started looking for bulk film loaders on auction sites and was delighted to find one with some old film still inside. I inspected the lead, decided it was probably Tri-X, shot a test roll, and developed it. I was right — it was Tri-X! But the film was deeply fogged, producing prints that were nearly black on the edges and pretty grainy throughout.

This doesn’t really qualify as a fuck up — I knew that film this old would probably have some issues and I (correctly) overexposed a couple of stops to accommodate. And I kind of love the results! Some day I’m going to dress up in a suit and take photos of myself against a fabric background using this film and pretend I’m a 19th Century time traveler.

So I suppose you could classify this last example as an experiment. And maybe that’s another way to think of everything I’m doing with 35mm film — or maybe even a good chunk of life itself. We’re experimenting, figuring out what works, and learning every day from our success and mistakes.

As a final example, I just hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” so this post is now live and I’ll gracefully exit stage left, laughing at myself.

All the best and more soon!