Photography as therapy

One thing that many of us have needed, especially over these past two years, is some form of therapy. It could come in the form of an actual professional therapist, or more likely from activities that make you feel good. While feeling good doesn’t negate all the problems in our life or the world at large, it does help us find balance and the strength to keep on going.

I’ve realized how much photography, specifically film photography, has become my therapy over the past two years. It’s rather lucky and convenient that I got my first film camera in almost two decades, my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, right before pandemic ground the world to a halt. Now plain ol’ digital photography could have also worked as therapy, but getting into old cameras and learning the process of film has added much more to my experience than just shooting with my iPhone would.

Since I got the Hi-Matic it is rare that I go somewhere without a film camera, sometimes two! I’ve amassed a well-rounded stable of cameras, so it makes it easy: If I need something small and unobtrusive, especially if I don’t think I might be shooting much, I’ll pull out my Olympus XA2, Olympus Pen EES-2, or maybe the Minolta Freedom Zoom 160. If I’m going to be more in the “photography” mode, I’ll grab that Hi-Matic, my Olympus 35 RD rangefinder or my big ol’ SLR, the Minolta SR-T 101.

Part of the therapy aspect for me is the act of shooting. I don’t go out with the mentality of “creating great art”. Art therapy is not about that, it’s about the meditative act of creating something, something that’s yours. I like getting on the bike or walking around, stopping, feeling the camera in my hands, the action of winding, adjusting focus and exposure, and releasing the shutter. I like trying to figure out what to shoot.

What I don’t like is getting hung up when it comes to film. Each exposure has a real and tangible price. I’ve read enough blogs where people talk about how film photography makes one more mindful of shooting, one can’t “pray and spray” and take hundreds to thousands of frames and then weed out the good shots later. This is true. There’s a maximum of 36-38 exposures to a roll of film, the cost of a roll (roll itself plus processing) will easily be $15-40 if you send it out, depending on what film you bought and what lab you send it to. There are often times I stop to take a photo and ask myself, “Is it worth it?” Sometimes this can be good, but sometimes not. There are many times I bring my camera along with me, walking or biking the same streets in the area that I feel like I’ve worn out. How can I find something new to capture?

It’s a hurdle, and I feel quite liberated when I finally take that first shot. The dam has been broken, and I’m happily in my zone, enjoying the outside world and interacting with it. And I’m constantly finding new subjects, or new angles to the same subjects I’ve taken again and again. I’ll probably take a few shots that I’ve taken before, so what? Then I’ll look at the frame counter and realize that I just shot 24 frames in the last hour and a half. Should I now feel self-conscious and guilty? No. I had fun. Yeah, it’s money. But I’m not broke.

I realized all this on a ride I did around NE Portland on Thursday December 16th. I hopped on the Brompton and loaded the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s with some Astrum 400 black and white film. At first I was a bit stressed, but when I finally found that first thing to capture, I felt the release. I happily spent an hour or so cruising around the Alameda Ridge, finding scenes to record. It was fun.

And you know what? The photographs were awful. No, it’s not that the subjects or the composition was bad, it was the film. Astrum 400 is a Russian film with a “unique” look. It’s also a film that doesn’t have a tolerance for underexposure. I realized after I shot the roll that I had the meter set at ASA/ISO 800 instead of 400, and most of the photos were a deep inky black mess. I managed to save a few in post-processing, but I probably won’t return to Astrum 400 again anytime soon.

But it doesn’t matter. In the end, it was fun and the bike ride and the act of taking pictures was just what I needed.

Alameda Ridge above Rose City Golf Course, 16 Dec 2021
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2 thoughts on “Photography as therapy

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  1. Hello! Happy New Year! Agree with your thoughts exactly, i often ask myself why i even take a film camera to some places I’ve been many times before. Then, when i think about it, i conclude like you, that ultimately it’s my hobby. I’m not into cars or expensive wines (budget wine will do !) so i enjoy a roll of film- guilt free! I intend to shoot even more this year too! Enjoy your blog and posts very much- great read. All best wishes, Andy

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