For too long in the early days of our marriage, my husband and I were without a camera. We have no photographs of our long drive from New York State to the Deep South a few days after our wedding, and none from our honeymoon in Portland, Oregon. I sold my 35mm SLR, a Pentax ZX-M, to my father before my wedding for two hundred bucks. As far as I know, he never used it. I had never used it much either.
I bought the camera in the autumn of my junior year of college. I had enrolled in a photography class, partly because I wanted to give it a try and partly because I was toying with the idea of studio art as a minor. This was before digital photography as we know it now, when digital cameras were still bulky and could hold a floppy disk. My photography class was all 35mm. What I remember from that class is vague: always scratching the negatives when I developed them, spending hours in the dark room, self-portraits of my feet, and shots of an ex-boyfriend. I don’t remember learning technique or how to see creatively. I shot photos for one semester and only shot one more roll the following summer before putting my camera away.
A year ago I asked my father if I could have the camera back. It wasn’t until this summer that it finally made its way to me with one roll of expired film. My husband, daughter, and I were in upstate New York for an extended vacation to see family, and I shot through the roll in three days. After each photograph I pulled the camera away from me to see what it looked like, a habit I’ve acquired with my DSLR, only to be reminded that this type of photography was not immediate. I had to wait. I had to take my time, adjust the camera and the focus carefully, and wait until the entire roll was exposed to take it to be developed.
I can’t say exactly what made me want to shoot film again, except that I knew I wanted to be a better photographer. In the duration of my marriage I had accumulated a hand-me-down point-and-shoot and eventually upgraded to a DSLR. I had committed to completing Project 365 and was shooting photos every day. Eventually I got brave enough to put my DSLR in manual mode and learned how to compose a creative photograph, mostly by trial and error. My photos were improving merely by the daily habit, but I still hungered to get better. Shooting digital had given me the skills and the passion, but I wanted to shoot film because I knew I couldn’t cheat. Instead of the limitless frames I could shoot with my digital camera, I would have to carefully consider each shot with my film camera.
I thought I knew what I was in for when I started shooting film, but I had no idea. Every roll I shoot fills me with excitement, anticipation, and often a bit of doubt. It’s an exercise in patience but also in self-kindness, since I tend to be a perfectionist and set unreasonably high standards for myself. Photography helps me capture that sense of wonder and experimentation that small children find commonplace. They try new things just to see what will happen; I do the same with my camera. What would happen if I point my camera at the sun? What would this brilliant red look like? Or blue or green? What if I focus on the background when my inclination is to focus on the foreground?
Of course, these are questions I ask myself when shooting my digital camera too, though the sense of play is different for one critical reason: delayed gratification. When I shoot my digital camera, I end up taking the same shot twenty times or more, making small adjustments with each frame. Often the best shot is the first, but because I have the opportunity for a do-over, I take it. Film gives me a chance to play with the knowledge that each photo is a risk, and all I can do is trust what I know and go for it. Sometimes it feels like a guessing game, but because I can’t see the photo the camera just produced, I have to make a decision and trust it was the right one. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. That shooting film enhances my sense of play enables me to find joy even in my mistakes, even in the questions I cannot answer, even in an entire roll that may have to be thrown away.
What I love most about film is how gritty it is. The prints can sometimes be a bit grainy — especially if, like me, you don’t have a lot of money to spend on fancy, good-quality film — or they can be soft like a watercolor painting. Colors are vibrant and sometimes unexpectedly so. In an age where we can not only take digital photos but can then manipulate them with photo editing software, film is pure and raw. A film print simply is what it is.
Marilyn Chandler McIntyre, in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, writes, "Beauty and peace are things to be learned and protected, because we see all too much evidence around us that they can be lost." Photography, in whatever capacity, is a way to preserve that beauty and peace in the moments of our lives. To pick up a camera and shoot a photograph is among the sacred tasks we can perform. For me, film photography is the best way to delight in beauty and creation and experience moments of gratitude for this life. I will never stop shooting my digital camera, but I don’t expect to ever put down my film camera either. Instead, I expect to marvel at every newly developed roll of film, because this is the world as I see it.
Lindsay Crandall spends her days writing, teaching, photographing, and (mostly) chasing after her toddler daughter, Lily. She lives with Lily and her husband, Adam, in the Deep South, though they secretly hope to return to their northern roots one day. Lindsay blogs at A Condition of the Heart and frequently posts her photographs on Flickr.