A love letter to film photography

Arenike Adebajo 21 May 2016

Film – the “35mm in the back of a camera” type – is finally having a well-earned renaissance. The use of film declined steadily since digital cameras, and then smartphones, became increasingly popular. Last year the first ever movie shot on iPhone premiered; meanwhile, sales of 35mm film dropped to under 1% of what they were in the peak years. But just as some cynics predicted the Kindle eclipsing the good old-fashioned book, the romance of antiquity in both cases seems to be winning out. There is an important case to be made for shooting film.

For the most part, I grew up with digital cameras. As kitschy as it may be, to me film offers something novel and unique. It makes my photographs distinctive, and I like that. My camera (a Ricoh XR7 for anyone interested) is from the late 1970s. It’s basically only a little bit younger than my parents, and its original owner probably wore flared jeans and round sunglasses in an unironic capacity.  There are few things so old that are still functional, let alone culturally relevant.

Perhaps what a lot of people don’t realise is that the filters they love so much are deliberately imitating the gorgeously warm and grainy effect that you can get straight up when you use a film camera. Because of this, I rarely have to edit any of my photos, which is something that certainly cannot be said of digital shots. The problem is, now that these effects are so easily available, film is becoming massively expensive and nothing short of a nightmare to access. In 2010, the most iconic film ever sold, Kodachrome, was discontinued. You might not recognize the name, but you’ll recognize the images – some of the most iconic shots of the 20th century were taken on that film, like the incredible “Afghan Girl” that covered National Geographic.

The price of film photography is enough to put a lot of people off. I first took it up in China, when my boyfriend gifted me an old camera to document our trip with. Film (and indeed everything) is much cheaper there – it’s about £2 to get a roll of film developed in Beijing, and you can pay more than £10 for some high-quality scans in the UK. Sadly, like a junkie on gateway drugs, I am now hooked and the price is one I must pay. I still maintain it’s worth it: I’m certainly envious of other people’s ability to take the perfect street shot without even having to use the viewfinder, but if you want a high quality digital camera you’re probably looking at a price tag at around the £500 mark. A quick eBay shows my model coming up at around £30.

I think having to really learn your art by using a film camera makes you a better photographer regardless of whether you progress to digital or not. Film photography is a protracted process, and learning it is like learning to drive with a manual car instead of an automatic. The “point-and-click” mentality can’t exist – it just won’t work. It may be complex, but it can be learnt quickly and that’s also incredibly gratifying.  You start unsure how and when to even open the back of a camera, and within weeks you can work instinctively with the light levels to correctly guess the shutter speed or pick the best angle. I’m so in tune with my camera I know when the shutter speed is wrong because I can hear it. It’s really easy to make mistakes- I once messed up a whole roll of black and white because I had left the camera on the wrong ISO setting for the film (messing up the light sensitivity), but you feel much more accomplished when you don’t. You really have to work and consider the photographs you take. I quickly got out of the 2010 hipster habit of pointing at my converse and clicking away with merry abandon when I realised each shot was costing me about seventy pence. With few shots, you work hardest to find the most beautiful ones.

It is also true there’s no instant gratification. I can’t take what I believe to be an excellent photograph and then check right away. This is a blessing in disguise. For a start, when your images come though you can bore everyone in the immediate vicinity by making them look though all of them back-to-back with you. It’s really pleasurable to get print outs, too. It’s so often neglected with digital photography, but one of my favourite experiences is putting all the best ones together in an album and hearing the satisfying click-clack of the pages as you look through them and get to relive the moments. Even with a Polaroid you get the joy of holding up a photograph and watching it clear from bright blue to monochrome before your eyes. It’s a different experience, the photo takes on a lot more meaning, especially because there will only ever be one of it in the world. Some of the best photographs I’ve ever taken have been happy accidents: one’s I’d forgotten I’d taken, or thought I had missed the focus on. It’s lovely to surprise myself.

The future of film photography seems mostly concentrated around two camps: pretentious hipsters (that’s me), and pubescent girls tightly clutching pastel-coloured Kodak Instaxes (the “new polaroid”). But I’m not here to judge. For a start, those cameras are super cute and I would have bought one if I wasn’t already bankrupted by film costs. Sure, I get a smug superiority from shooting film, but I will always promote anything that encourages diversification and engagement. There’s a really supportive (and suitably hipster-esque) film community on Instagram, and Flickr too. It’s fun, low commitment, and you get to feel like a tortured 1960’s poet type. Ditch the digital – you can’t mimic the blurry, smudgy and universally flattering romanticism of film photography.

All Images: Bea Hannay-Young