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New, Used, Favourites and Film Photography

I prefer film, I love film, I’m addicted. Film photography is one of the few vices I have that I’m open about and even slightly proud of. Take the two hands you were given – load, wind, set and adjust, focus, click and capture. It’s manual, it’s unpredictable, there’s the imperfections, the trial and error, there’s a greater dimension in film with more than enough variables; it’s a creative process and even if you think you can, you probably can’t learn it all.

I’m camera shy, but not in the sense that I don’t want to be photographed myself but apprehensive to point a camera. When people see you holding a camera that’s anything other than an iPhone, there’s an instant expectation that you must know what you’re doing. We live in a world where people see a camera and expect to see an instant return of results, that alone frustrates me; I don’t want to see other people going through the repetitive ‘snap-and-review an LCD screen’ process, much less do it myself. It’s not conducive to anything with a pointy end of creativity. I want to see people with their lens cap off and in a pants pocket, shooting a few rolls continuously with their preferred camera and film combination, pausing to reflect much after the fact, long after the creative burst has subsided. I also find people react differently to a film camera compared to digital when pointed in their direction. A few days ago in Mexico City I met a man over breakfast and asked to take his portrait. He saw the film camera and relaxed, encouraging me to take more and more photos, never once asking to see the outcome.

Notice the light leaks from posts past? I opened the back of the Canon AE-1 to change a film and watched the ageing rubber seals crumble and fall to the timber floor of the lounge room. Specks of black dust sprinkled at my feet maybe marking a sad end for an ever-faithful companion. Maybe not though, even thinking about it now, I’ll probably keep it as a ‘B camera’ for black and white, low light, textures or contrasts.

So, as an amateur knowing what I know, for forty-odd dollars including postage from Japan, I replaced the AE-1 with an AE-1. That’s how film is; I haven’t learnt all there is to know about the thirty-five-year-old workhorse. I haven’t outgrown it either, after two years of continuous use I’ve almost learnt its curves; the muscles in my hands able to change a film, an ASA or lens in the dark. Therefore, to keep the learning curve curvy I have a new-used friend that looks a lot like the old one.

The replacement arrived on our island via USPS with a slight glass upgrade, a (sharp as hell) 50mm S.S.C 1.4f lens rather than the standard 1.8f. This might be my favourite prime lens to date; whether you’re documenting travel or just carrying it in the every day, it speaks volumes to an audience with a single snap. The 50mm focal length on a 35mm body captures a frame roughly the same as the human eye sees. I don’t have a need for an expensive zoom lens; I have time and means of movement (legs) to capture most scenes. Save weight in the backpack and money on expensive glass and use your own energy to create a frame. A prime lens is a great way to learn to compose an image without distraction. If you’re not happy with the results of a recent film I can only recommend you get closer, fill your frame to a point. Don’t let the eyes wander and a picture of x become a picture of x + x + x. For example, you’re shooting a boat in a harbour, don’t let a moored boat become moored boat + people waterskiing + lighthouse lingering in the background. If there’s this much to see and shoot consider yourself lucky, but I’d say they’re generally separate photographs.

While we’re talking film photography, let’s talk film choice. There’s a feeling of reassurance in a film you like, a little extra confidence you can call on. I think for anyone that’s taken the time to think about it, they probably have a particular roll they prefer to partner with their camera. Of course there’s everything Portra, but my personal 35mm ‘go to’ so far for everyday outdoors is Fujicolor Pro 400H, or for black and white it’s currently Ilford HP5 400. I recently found a roll of Fujifilm Xtra 400 in my mother in law’s desk drawer, and although grossly expired, loaded it anyway. I’d not used anything similar prior but had seen other people’s results and colours; as well as the feeling of something new and untried, I like the uncertainty of an outcome. That’s film, that’s an enjoyable process for me. Below is a welcome example of the imperfections of film; underexposed, jammed and complete with light leaks.

Split / Jam

Split / Jam

On the topic of things that amateurs should know, and something that no one really talks about, is that you’re not going to get a film back and have all photos be usable, especially as an amateur. Let’s look at the numbers; even professionals are probably looking at one or two shots in a roll of twenty-four, maybe less, let’s say 5% of a roll being anything usable. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the other twenty-two pictures that are the practice, the learning curve.

Remember, there are always photos where you are. Pursue, capture and produce what YOU like. To learn more, read what you can and above all take more photographs. For more information on film and where it’s headed, here’s some links to my favourite film photography sites: –





3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love the older breech-lock FD lenses. I used to have the 50mm 1.4 SSC and currently own the 100mm 2.8 SSC. Large, but wonderful, and I prefer the 55mm filter thread to the 52mm.

    Personally, I get 50-75% keeper rate myself. Of course, maybe I’m just not as picky. Definitely there will be 1 (or at most 2) stellar shots per roll at most, but the most important thing is to slow down and thing before you snap. Also, with color negative film, the absolute Number One Rule is: When in doubt, overexpose. Especially with expired film. The film can handle it!


    August 5, 2014
    • Exactly Joe! Especially in the use of film, overexposing is the best solution. It’s far easier to recover blacks than whites in an image, should you choose or need to post-process. Underexposure can result in excess and unwanted grain. Keep shooting film!


      August 5, 2014

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