For those of us that have been around a while, the days of film seem like they weren’t all that long ago. But, once in a while, something happens that makes you realize that film is becoming something of a dinosaur to photography. For instance, when you are taking photos nowadays, chances are good that someone will ask, right then and there, to see your photographs, immediately after you’ve taken them.
Only 20 to 25 years ago, this feat simply wasn’t possible. When you took a photo with your film camera, you had to wait — hours, days, weeks — for the film to be developed. Back then, it simply would never have occurred to anyone to ask a photographer about the photos they had just taken because they hadn’t been developed yet. If anything, people might exchange contact information with you so that you can send them developed images later on, but that was it.
If you really want to feel old and dated, think about this: You may remember film fondly, but we have entered an era now where all of us older photographers can meet younger photographers who have never once shot a roll of film. To me, that seems almost incredible. And, in a way, I feel a bit sorry for those who have never really had to work with film. Certainly, digital photography is an easier, more efficient way to create art. There is less physical work standing in between the photographer and the prints that he or she desires.
But at the same time, film — and all of the things that you had to do to produce a photograph with that medium — was a long process that became almost ritualistic. So many photographers enjoyed, and still enjoy, the process of film photography. So, whether you are a photographer that started with film or one that has never had the pleasure, let’s take a moment to reminisce about some of the joys of this medium.
Film and Film Cameras
Of course, film comes in a whole lot more than just the 35mm format, but that is the format that most photographers are familiar with, so much so that the rolls of films that we once bought for our cameras have become something of an icon. When buying film, there was a lot to consider. You needed to select a film speed, or ASA, for whatever conditions that you thought you might be shooting in — no switching ISO settings as you drift between dark and bright settings! And, you had to be careful with the film. Excessive heat, age, moisture, light, general dust and dirt while you are traveling — there were so many things that could damage it.
Then there were the colors. Since you couldn’t simply convert a photo to black and white on a computer, you needed to buy black and white rolls of film to create these images. Or, you needed to buy films that would give you the color renditions that you wanted. Kodachrome, for instance, was known for its rich, saturated colors. Each brand and type of film had its own unique properties that today, we simply mimic with quick camera setting changes or easy Photoshop effects.
And that was only the first step of the process. Once the film was purchased, it needed to be manually loaded into the camera, much like we need to put memory cards in digital cameras today, only more complicated. Because you had a leader of film that stretched over the back of the camera to be wound on a spool as you cycled through exposures, the first couple of frames on every roll of film were always wasted. Once the film was loaded and the camera back secured, you had to take care to never open the back of the camera until you had re-spooled the film back onto the cassette, otherwise, the light would ruin whatever film was left exposed.
And your exposures were limited. Nowadays, we can have hundreds, even thousands of images on one memory card. The roll of film, the analog equivalent, gave you 24 to 36 exposures, maximum. Photographers were driven to take a photo the right way the first time, and to always bracket exposures just in case the first exposure didn’t turn out. Otherwise, you risked wasting lots of film and lots of money. If you wanted to take hundreds of photos, then you needed to carry around a very large and very costly pack filled with all different varieties of film — and maybe even an extra camera or two just in case you wanted to use a different kind of film before you had finished shooting the roll that was in your camera.
The Mysteries of Darkroom Development
To the average person, the darkroom was a mystery. Most people, for their snapshots, would drop their rolls of film off at a laboratory or a drugstore to have the film developed. Serious photographers, however, learned their way around chemistry and the darkroom. With few exceptions, such as Kodachrome, which had a patented development process, a photographer could take photos, and then later in the evening, retreat to the darkroom to develop his or her images.
The process was so complicated compared to today. The modern equivalent to development is probably loading images onto your computer, which can be accomplished simply by plugging your camera or memory card into the computer and clicking through a few things.
With film development, however, you had to work in complete darkness, or under a specialized safe light, unspooling the film, and then using chemical development agents at precise temperatures to start the process. After carefully monitoring and developing film in its tank of developer for several minutes, you then needed to place the film in a stop bath so that you didn’t over-develop the film, again, at a precise temperature and in darkness. Then came the fixer, which was a chemical that stabilized the film, ensuring that no part of the image could ever expose to light again. And finally, the bath — carefully cleaning the film in water without damaging it.
Once all of this was completed and the negatives were dry, it wasn’t simply a matter of printing the images. Instead, you used an enlarger, which was a device that you used to shine light through a negative, exposing photographic paper below, which created the print.
On top of all of this, there were ways for photographers to edit images in the darkroom, not dissimilar to some of the things we can do with Photoshop today, but much more difficult to accomplish and with no “Undo” button like we have now in modern photo editing software. There was little room for experimentation since at times, a technique done poorly could ruin an entire roll of film.
Of course, there is a lot more to reminisce about when it comes to film. However, these two larger aspects make me wistful for the days of film. Was it harder than digital photography? It certainly was, but the process was deeply enjoyable. And, there was something about all of the work that needed to be done that made a completed print feel that much more satisfying.