The other day I was shooting at a cake-and-coffee get together for a guy's retirement. A young coworker was amazed that I was shooting film and asked how I knew if they were going to be any good without being able to digitally chimp. I was pretty much at a loss for words and ended up mumbling something about knowing how your equipment works. This little exchange really got in my head and a few days later I sent her this note. It's not a manifesto or anything like that, not deep nor profound, just a few thoughts on the theme may that entertain some of you. Or piss you off. It's worded to address somebody who knows nothing about this little alternative universe we live in here.
The other day you asked me how I knew that my pictures were going to be alright without being able to look at them on a screen right away. I have heard that younger people do ask that question of film shooters, but nobody ever asked me before. I was unable to give you any good answer because I’ve been shooting film for almost 50 years and it has never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be good, or at least I wouldn’t know what would be wrong with them. That got me to thinking about why older film shooters do know that and younger digital users don’t.
In my opinion you expect film photography to be unpredictable because you have been told 2 lies. The first lie is one that casual digital users tell themselves, that they have to chimp their shots (look at the screen after they shot) because what their camera captures is unpredictable. The real reason for this is that they just don’t know how their cameras work, so THEY can’t predict what their camera will capture. Even many self-proclaimed professionals fall into this category.
The second lie is told by, and to, people who have discovered cheap peiceofcrap plastic junk toy cameras and lousy cheap film, all from China and all made with virtually no quality control. What will come out of those camera with that film is highly unpredictable. They have embraced this and find some kind of wonderfulness in it that escapes me. And somehow these fools have convinced most of the rest of the world that this is what film photography is and always has been. The first camera and film my parents gave me for my 7th birthday was better than this junk.
You see, there is nothing unpredictable about what will happen to light passing through high-quality optical glass. The science and mathematics of optics goes back to the 1500’s with Copernicus and Galileo. There is also nothing unpredictable about what will happen when that light hits a high quality modern film. This films available today are the best ever made. The quality control involves using electron microscopes to examine the light-sensitive coatings at the molecular level. There is really nothing unpredictable about how development chemicals will act on those light-sensitive layers to bring the images into view. There is nothing unpredictable about what will happen when the images are projected onto light-sensitive paper and the passed through similar chemicals to be developed.
But when I say it is all predictable, I mean when using standard methods, techniques, temperatures, formulae, etc. At every step of the way there is possibility for variation away from the standard. These variations require skill and knowledge of how the equipment works in order to bring the best out of it. This knowledge comes from making mistakes and learning from them. This is also where a lot of the artistry comes in.
For an extreme example of skill and artistry, take Ansel Adams, the god-saint of American landscape photography. He used 8”x10” film, comparable to about 2000 megapixels. A friend of mine happened on him while hiking one time and stopped to chat. He had been at the spot for 3 days without taking a single picture, waiting for the light to be just right. When he would finally expose the film, he would already have in his mind just what he wanted the final print to look like. He knew the exact combination of chemicals, time, and temperature he would use to develop the film; the paper he would print it on; the ways he would enhance different parts of the picture; and the chemicals, time, and temperature he would use to develop the paper.
Anyway, this was long and rambling and probably a big surprise to you. You see, your question caused me to bring together a lot of uncoordinated thoughts that have been bouncing around inside my empty head for quite some time. I wrote this as much for myself as for you. I take this stuff way too seriously.
Thank you for your question,