Pretension Has No Place in Film Photography
Finding Your Perfect Camera is Like a Marriage
Every couple of months, my wife and I find ourselves in the same place: a hall filled with newly engaged couples, for whom we are about to describe our marriage. We talk about the highs, we talk about the lows, we talk about what we’re doing to keep it faithful, make it fruitful, and last forever. During this marriage preparation course at which we assist, we say quite a few things. One of the points that we make is that before your wedding (and after as well), you’re going to get a lot of advice. The thing is, while there are certainly things that remain true for every marriage, a lot of this advice is very subjective. What works for one couple, doesn’t necessarily work for others. We always come back to the point that every couple needs to figure out what works for them in their journey to keep their marriage faithful, fruitful, and lasting forever.
While I never thought I’d be writing a piece that combined marriage advice with film photography, here we are…because I believe this advice rings true for film photographers as well. Let me explain. With the resurgence of film photography, a huge divide has begun between those who shot film when it was the normal thing to do, and those who are experiencing it for the first time. With increasingly large numbers of film photographers just beginning their foray into the medium, there’s obviously a lot of research involved in beginning the process. No longer are cameras passed down from father to son and mother to daughter in the way they were before. Now, our experience comes from the internet…and oh what an experience it can give us.
On the bright side, it’s never been a better time to be a film photographer. Film producers are recovering from the sharp drop in film sales, and thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of film cameras can be found on the cheap just about anywhere. Fancy a pro-level camera? You no longer need to be a professional to afford them. And while this has certainly opened up a great many doors for a great many people, there are downsides to this as well: camera snobbery. Now camera snobbery is something that I’m quite familiar with on the digital level. With digital camera companies constantly trying to outdo each other and even themselves, as well as technology progressing faster than a bullet train, photographers have come to pride themselves on having the latest and the greatest. If you aren’t shooting with the latest 1000mp, large format, 28 stops of dynamic range behemoth released from one of the big three (Canon, Nikon, Sony), you’re probably not a professional. Not only that, but you’re certainly not capable of producing great photographs. On top of that, even if you do own said camera, as soon as the next model comes out, yours is most certainly trash…probably won’t even take a picture anymore. It’s obsolete!
Do You Really Need the Best to Make the Best?
While there is certainly something to be said about owning the best equipment, people forget the reasons to do so, and they forget spirit of photography in the mean time. As a professional photographer and cinematographer, I understand that having the latest equipment can give you an edge. When you gain a new camera that has a higher dynamic range and a lower noise ratio, you DO gain more flexibility to create that perfect shot (aside from my increased skill level, there’s a reason that my current videos look much better than they did five years ago). Sometimes that flexibility is large, and sometimes it’s small. Sometimes the latest equipment can be a game changer in your industry, but most often it’s simply overblown. All of that said, while the latest and greatest equipment can increase your chances of getting the perfect result, they don’t usually increase your ability to get the perfect result.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at a particular situation: a high contrast portrait. Say your old camera’s dynamic range isn’t strong enough to handle the light on the model’s face as well as retain detail in the shadows. Perhaps the new Behemoth X57000 has the dynamic range to handle the scene, so you get the shot. Could you get the shot with your old camera? Of course! You just needed to adjust the scene. The new camera may have given you more flexibility to get “the shot” in a variety of situations, but that doesn’t make it impossible to get with your old camera. It just requires more care, more forethought, and more practice. This is one of the reasons all of this camera snobbery is so ridiculous! Having an expensive camera doesn’t make you a better photographer, and in many cases, it can make you a worse one. You come to rely on the equipment so much that you forget technique. When before, cinematographers would have lit a scene, now they just grab a camera that can handle the lack or wide range of available light.
Now am I saying you shouldn’t get the latest equipment? Possibly, but I don’t see a problem with it. As a professional, sometimes having the right equipment is the difference between getting the shot for the client and not. My point is simply that looking down upon someone with “lesser” equipment is no better than saying “You poor person, you obviously couldn’t afford the best.” While I’m used to this ridiculousness in the world of digital photography and cinematography, my first experiences with film were nothing of the sort.
Film Photography Has Always Been Different
Now since I began my journey, I have been thrilled with my experiences in the realm of film (heck, it’s why I started this website). My good friend Tim Porter (who I credit with introducing me to film photography), is the epitome of selfless in his photography, and set the tone from the beginning. I was honestly shocked from the beginning that film photography wasn’t like digital in so many ways. People are more collaborative, equipment envy is much more tame, and photographers seem much more likely to build up than tear down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked down the street and someone has inquired about the camera I’m using, only to begin a genuine conversation about the art. I’ve never had someone ask about the Canon 5D or D850 I’m shooting with. So many times these conversations are a breath of fresh air. Usually, we exchange information (usually Instagrams or website names) and go on our way with kind words. Other times, I’ve heard the invitation “next time you’re in town, shoot me an email…we could go out shooting together” or “I’m part of a group of film photographers that run a local darkroom…stop by and we’ll set you up!” There has not once been pretension, never once have I been looked down upon or looked down upon others. It’s really difficult to explain how genuine these encounters have been, but they’ve always brightened my day and given me hope. This is what photography should be about.
Unfortunately, with film photography becoming ever more a medium of the masses (that’s a good thing, btw), some of the gear snobs have infiltrated our ranks. Oddly enough, it seems as though some never left. Now with dozens of sites reviewing cameras and lenses (what do you know, you’re on one now!) people are constantly flocking toward the best film photography equipment. Nikon F3’s, Canon AE-1’s, and the choicest gear of the film era fly off shelves, and rise rapidly in value. Sites reading “The Top Five Film Photography *insert item here*” can be found everywhere. And yet while this information is a great thing (I read many of these reviews myself when determining my next purchase), it often leads to unsavory results. Sometimes these popular cameras are selling so fast because they’re just great pieces of gear (I mean, there’s something to be said about a well-designed and well-made camera). But other times, they sell because people think these high-end beasts are the only path toward photographic perfection. “If you don’t have a Leica M-whatever, you just aren’t going to get that beautiful shot,” so many have been convinced. People forget that the camera doesn’t make the photographer…something that is even more true in the film world.
Even some die-hard film photo fans have fallen into this trap. One of our contributors, Andy, recounted recently to me that during a recent visit to a Chicago Photorama photography convention, old-school film photographers berated his choice of lenses as “trash”. Are we really going to fall into the digital culture that so many join film photography to flee?
Here’s the Point
So here’s my point. I’m not against gear acquisition if you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you genuinely love the feel of vintage cameras, love using the different offerings, and love the feeling of exploration that it can bring? By all means, by that new camera! It’s cheap enough for Pete’s sake! Even I find myself with a larger than necessary camera collection, mostly due to the fact that I love the historical nature of the cameras, and using each one makes me feel like I’m shooting in that era. For me, cameras are like a book. Each unique way they shoot, each feature, each flub, and each flaw, give me a unique challenge, and a unique photographic mindset. I love experiencing the different cultures and the different techniques present in each camera.
However, if you’re purchasing the next camera with the idea that it will up your game, or that the Leica you have in your shopping cart will mean you’ve “finally made it,” take a step back and evaluate why you’re here in the first place. Are you here because you are in love with film photography? Or are you here because you want to one-up your neighbor and prove that your equipment makes you a better photographer? Let’s keep film photography the land of the pure, where photographers photograph because they love the art, they love the feel of the camera in their hands, and they love the characteristics of their particular tool of choice. Keep the pretension at home, keep the one-upmanship at home, and let’s work together, people! Film photography is such a personal and collaborative art form. Let’s keep it that way.
So how does the marriage-prep class fit into all of this? Well, like a marriage, film photography is a relationship. It may not be anywhere near as serious, but bear with me here. People get into film photography not to have a fling, but to form something lasting. They buy mechanical cameras designed to last the test of time, they craft techniques that are unique and central to this particular field, and they invest in the craft. Just like a marriage, people will be all lined up to give you advice. “This is the lens you need,” “this is the camera you need,” “You can’t get that shot without this setup.” What it comes down to is how to make it work best for you. What do you need to make the relationship work and flourish? Perhaps you find the most joy from using a Leica with the most expensive lenses, or maybe you get the most joy from experiencing the forgotten Russian cameras of the 70’s that cost pennies on the dollar. Never let anyone tell you that you’re doing film photography wrong because you don’t have the equipment they think you should have.
In the end, a film camera is a light box with a lens attached, and the “perfect lens” is incredibly subjective. So what are you waiting for? Jump in and start shooting. You don’t need the best equipment to produce the greatest results. Always remember, when the mechanical shark in Jaws repeatedly malfunctioned, Spielberg changed the shots to avoid showing it, creating one of the most iconic and suspenseful moments in cinema. Never let your limitations define your art, and never let anyone convince you that your abilities are limited by what you own.