Why I’m leaving Film Photography… (for now)

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I usually don’t write on a Sunday. But I had a strong realization. One of those Epiphany, Eureka moments. bear with me.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not off my rockers, or anything. I’ve learnt my share of lessons from film photography. In fact, film photography has changed me in several different ways, and I’ve taken numerous habits from it. This might be something as simple as allowing myself a 3~8 second window to compose, rather than just flailing my arms up in the air and hoping for the auto-focus (AF) to work a miracle. This way, I feel more “attuned” the scene, and allow the subject or scene to develop into a more complex, layered message and juxtaposition. Another significant change: I no longer chimp. And I don’t intend to. By no longer caring about whether the photo came out alright, I leave it to my focusing to truly master the scene rather than worrying about whether my settings are correct.

Film photography is vibrant and alive as ever—in the popular rally of film photographers, “FILM PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT DEAD.” But neither is it throbbing and pulsating—most people will agree. The fall of Kodak symbolized the end of an era that once was the standard. A glorious era which I was too young to take part of, but now am too old to participate in and can only be enamored by. Although professional work is dominated by DSLRs (look at Canon, who released specific models for astrophotography, and cinematics), and beginners turn to cameraphones or Micro Four-thirds, there is no real “niche” for film. But then again, it doesn’t have to occupy one. Rather, the camera is a tool as many photographers will agree—this just doesn’t seem to be the one for my street photography.

I began my “real” photography escapades with my Canon Rebel XS (1000D), but realized that, in spite of its excellent APS-C quality, I needed something with better image quality. I turned to the 17-55mm f/2.8 for that, but realized that the quality came with high costs and a hefty weight added to my aching hands. Then I craved something smaller.

That’s where I turned to my Fuji X100, my savior—at first glance. I tried really hard to love it, despite its “quirks,” or unusable MF and dodgy AF. For some reason I could cooperate, seeing it had an excellent sensor and stunning image quality. The dynamic range on this thing was unbelievable, despite being almost half the weight and 2/3 the size of my DSLR. But again and again, I was frustrated by the subjects that it missed. In darkness, it would hunt, and eventually miss the shot. Even in plain well-lit scenes, it would hunt due to a large minimal focal distance (a separate Macro mode? You kidding me? I don’t have time to switch modes when the subject is already moving away). That’s when I realized that maybe current cameras on the market weren’t the answer. Micro four-thirds by then hadn’t been developed enough to provide an adequate solution to my needs, so the only remaining answer, and at that time—seemingly obvious—was film.

After reading many glowing opinions about the Leica, I consulted Bellamy Hunt about the go-to camera, and turned to the M6. My grandfather had left me a beautiful (yet dysfunctional) M3, which had a functioning pre-ASPH Summilux 50mm f/1.4 on it. This was it.

The many ups-and-downs of my learning curve led to interesting results. Soul may be a banal word, but it’s the only way I can describe the experience. But with that soul came a steep learning curve which I’m only starting to learn. I was thrilled to experiment with different film and notice their subtle differences, and to push up ISO to my demand was a pleasure.

But after having used it couple times, I began to miss two things.

The first is autofocus. I know that the greatest street photographers used their respective techniques (zone focusing, for example), and countless instances of practice. But in reality the pre-ASPH summilux has too long a focus ring that I often miss the shots before I can get to it, and I have no cash to invest in a 35mm ASPH (nor do I have the intention of selling my grandfather’s legacy). It’s also heavy enough that I hesitate to take it out on my casual outings. Although my mistakes resulted in beautiful results, more often was it completely off focus (the meter lying to me? The back-hand rule backfiring?) or blotched in black (that’s funny, I thought I overexposed, not underexposed). Long story short, while the process allows me to stay in control, sometimes my ability to manual focus isn’t fast enough for the “decisive moment”; I don’t blame any of the equipment, just me. But this is not even half the story.

The more significant reason, and the nail on the coffin, is processing costs. A roll of film, on average, costs $5. Here in northern California, processing one roll costs $5 on average. To get it scanned is $7, putting it up to a total of $17/roll. I shoot about 2 rolls per week on average, so over a course of a month that’s about $140. But I can put up with that cost, and even buy a second-hand scanner. But the nearest photo shop is about 30 minutes away. I simply don’t have that time, especially during the weekdays when they’re actually open. Even if they were open on the weekends, I don’t want to burn an hour going to and fro to drop off the film and another to pick it up. Maybe it’s just me, or the job putting stress on me, but I just don’t have the energy to do that.

But who knows. The sum of the two reasons doesn’t add up to a whole, and I’m not sold on selling my M6 quite yet.

My next steps? After finishing my last roll of Tri-X 400, I might sell in my Leica M6 for an Olympus OM-D and a Leica/Panny lens. Or if Fuji can get around to fixing the horrible low-light AF, I might give the X-Pro 1 a run for the money.

&&Phil

As usual, leave a comment below, like my Facebook page to keep up with updates, follow and talk to me on Twitter (I do love tweet marathons). Let me know what you think.

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