Exploring True Analog Photography

Tessy, Dia de los Muertos 2018 - Austin, Texas

Tessy, Dia de los Muertos 2018 – Austin, Texas

For being middle-aged and growing up in the era of film, I never experienced developing film. I became serious about photography with digital. I know many people, a lot younger than me, who worked the darkroom in either high school or college. Not me. Back in the day, I shot snapshots with a film point and shoot and got my film developed at one hour shops and later at Costco.

However, as I grew more serious about photography, I wanted to broaden my knowledge. I wanted to know what it was like in the old days, before everything got clean and simple with digital. I just finished a class through Precision Camera with instructor Anthony Maddaloni. I met Anthony a few years ago and I always wanted to take his film development class. Finally, our schedules synched up.

During the Dia de los Muertos celebration last week, in addition to all the colorful digital photographs I shot with the Olympus PEN-F, I carried another, much more humble camera. While I have a choice of a number of wonderful film cameras, I decided to use a 90s era Canon Sure Shot Owl with a fixed 35mm f4.5 lens. I found this camera at Goodwill for $5 and loaded a roll of Ilford HP5+ 400 black and white film. Despite its bargain basement price, I already shot a roll with it and knew it gave good exposures. Plus, it’s a super simple and fun camera to use.

During the class, I experienced unrolling my exposed role on to the development spool in the dark. Anthony showed us how to develop the film and make contact sheets. The camera worked great but I made beginner mistakes in my film rolling which damaged several frames. I had vague notions of film development but the process was messier and more tactile than I ever imagined. So different from the clean and virtual world of digital.

The class was running long and Anthony picked one of my frames to show what it’s like to make a print. This portrait of Tessy is the result. While I still have not created an actual print from start to finish, I finally got a good idea of the process. I learned why it takes years of practice to make good prints. This is not Photoshop. There is no undo.

If you load film into a vintage camera, shoot the roll and send it to a lab, most people don’t experience a pure analog workflow. Typically, machines will develop the film and scan it to digital. The print you get is actually printed from a digital scan. In my case, I get Precision to do high-resolution scans of my film, not even bothering with prints. So in these modern times, even when I start with film, I still get a digital picture.

Nowadays, to do true analog film photography, you need to either shoot instant film (Instax or Polaroid) or go through a darkroom process, usually with black and white. It’s tedious, time-consuming, costly and totally anachronistic. And that’s why it’s fun for some people. I’m both curious and unsure about it, especially in the age of digital. However, while I may never make lots of prints, the process is fascinating to experience.

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13 thoughts on “Exploring True Analog Photography

  1. I remember the days when we would load the film roll into the camera and after taking the pictures would push a button to finish the re-rolling or backwards rolling the film. Praying that there would be some good pictures when developed. That used to be a wait and see thing, how the final pictures would look like.

      1. Done with that for so long that I don’t even know where those cameras are. Phones now take care of all the pictures we want to take. But I think about those days where it was nice to wait for the results of our efforts.

  2. No undo. But there is a do-it-again. And again.

    It gets stinky over time, but there is nothing quite like the magic of watching that print slowly emerge from blank paper.

    If you want really good photos and don’t feel a need to dive into used Nikon or Canon SLRs (that temptation may prove too great) be true to Olympus and find one of the old Stylus series pocket cameras. They’re cheap as dirt and produce marvelous pictures.

    1. You are right, Mike. It’s a very time consuming process, to make prints and to become good enough to do it well.

      I have some really good camera that I can use for film, Including a Leica M3. For that outing, I concentrated on shooting a roll quickly.

      I’m hoping to shoot more slowly with my collection of cameras, in the future.

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