My life in film photography: A March update

From The Dalles Ramble, 29 Feb 2020. Camera: Pentax IQ Zoom 170SL. Film: Fuji Superia Xtra 400.

It’s been just two months since I got my first film camera in over 15 years. Since the day I received my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s camera, I’ve been taking a lot of photos and re-educating myself with the world of 35 mm film. I’ve read scads of websites, started following several film-centric blogs, and checked out and/or purchased books on photography. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t think I can read any more technical info about photography, so that book about the Zone System is going to have to wait.

And yes, I have taken quite a bit of pictures. I’ve taken about a dozen rolls of film so far, trying out different film stocks. I think Kodak Ultramax 400 is my fave color stock right now, with Gold 200 second. I haven’t taken enough black and white rolls to have an opinion, but I did like the stuff I shot on Tri-X Pan. (How basic!)

I’ve also been getting to know my local film processor. As I mentioned before, I am lucky living in Portland as there are at least four places that still locally develop film. I go to Citizens Photo on NE Sandy, as it is the closest to my house (two miles) and close to the business mailbox. They do a good job, and are pretty inexpensive to boot.* For the most part, I’ve had them make prints, since I wanted to have something “real” if I was going to get back into film photography. (I’ve been scanning the prints at home.) Though I have gotten a few rolls just scanned. It’s probably going to be a mix for a bit, until I shell out some cash for a home negative scanner. And yes, I’d like to learn how to develop at some point, but for now, it’ll be Citizens Photo doing the work.

From the Slough Country Ramble, 22 Feb 2020. Camera: Olympus XA2. Film: Kodak Ultramax 400.

It’s been fun learning the nuts-and-bolts of photography. With the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, I can set aperture and shutter manually. I’ve been experimenting, figuring out what works. If I’m not sure, I may take two shots; one with manual exposure based on the meter reading, one using the “automatic” exposure setting. I can also set it for either aperture or shutter priority, too. And I’ve also played around with the “Sunny 16” rule too.

I was worried that I’d be just getting a bunch of blurry, badly exposed pics like I did with my last rangefinder, the Honeywell. But I am surprised that I’ve been getting out mostly good shots. Mind you, it’s not like everything is mind-blowing or something. But it works.

And I’ve been enraptured by the magic of film photography. It’s not the instant gratification of digital imaging. There’s that anticipation after I drop off a roll or two to get developed. Will I get good pictures? And then I do. There’s something about the character, the feel of shots I’ve done with film. It is noticeably different than what I get with my iPhone. And there’s also the wonder about film photography: It’s Physics and Chemistry. It’s Old Technology, but still does the job.

Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, 16 Feb 2020. Camera: Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. Film: Kodak Tri-X Pan 400.

And you probably realize, I like old and proven technology. After all, I’m the President of a club devoted to three speed bicycles, which is a kind of bicycle most people think is outdated. But they still work! I love the idea of keeping old and proven things alive and useful, not as cool things to line your shelves, and definitely not lining a landfill. It just seemed natural that this Retro-Grouch would get around to embracing film again.

Does this mean I now hate digital photography? No. The image is what really matters. It’s not the tools behind it. I still use my iPhone regularly, and will keep on using it, even though I take quite a few film pics. There is something about the convenience of digital. But there is also something about a picture made by using perfectly good old devices and waiting to see the results. A friend of mine compared it to the Slow Food Movement: Slow Photography.

And now I have three different film cameras! I didn’t realize how fast this was going to happen, but I guess there’s an air of inevitability to it. After all, I do own five different bicycles. Each bike is different, and like my bikes, each camera fulfills a different niche:

  • The Minolta Hi-Matic 7s is my “nice” camera with full manual controls. It’s when I want to be most mindful of the process of photography and learn the nuts and bolts of taking pictures. Right now, it’s mostly loaded with black and white film.
  • The Pentax IQZoom 170SL is my dorky compact with the zoom lens. It’ll be the one when I need that zoom, or need to use flash. It may be the one I bring on a bike tour.
  • The Olympus XA2 is the fun compact. It takes up the least space, and is the quickest to use do to its zone focusing system. It’ll be the camera I use when I want to be the most discreet (Smol! No noise!) or want to bring a no-fuss camera. It’ll also be the camera to bring along loaded with color film when I have the black and white film in the Minolta.

And the final question: Will I get more film cameras? Probably, at some point. I’m not on the hunt right now; I have three perfectly fine cameras. If anything, I want to learn more about the cameras I have rather than endlessly search out “the next thing”. But if another camera shows up and it’s cheap, I’ll welcome it. And I can see me having an SLR at some point. For now, I want to get the hang of my rangefinder.

Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, 16 Feb 2020. Camera: Pentax IQ Zoom 170SL. Film: Fuji Superia Xtra 400.

It’ll be interesting to see how my approach to photography changes. As it is, I’m taking less phone pics and more film. I don’t see me not taking digital. It is easy, it is (theoretically) free. There will be a need for the quick and easy of the phone camera. But I definitely will be doing way more in the way of film.

Of course, this all comes at a cost. Film costs money to buy, film costs money to develop. We didn’t think that much about it twenty years ago, when film was default. Then again, unless you were a pro or really liked photography, we didn’t take nearly as much film shots as we do digital. Looking back, I really only took pictures on trips, not much in day-to-day life. Even on those weeks-long trips, I might fill up two, maybe three rolls, and not much at all in between. Now, I’ve filled up about a roll or two a week. With my current financial situation, I don’t think I can go beyond that right now.

But I will still shoot film. Because it’s been fun for me. It’s the most fun I’ve had with photography in a long time. I don’t think I’ve been this excited since about ten years ago, when I got my first digital camera. The big difference between then and now is I’ve gotten much better at photography. But there’s still more to learn. And I’m eager and willing to educate myself.

*Plus, they removed a broken roll of film from the Minolta without complaint.

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