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My 69 Mistakes With Film

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The first mistake I made was hate on film photography when I knew nothing about it. My earliest experience with 35mm was on my 10th birthday. I got a point and shoot camera from my family overseas as a present. Went on a day trip with my school and shot half a roll before I opened the back and ruined whatever was on there.

I shot a second roll and all the photos came out blurry, some of which were double exposed. I never used that camera again and didn’t fully get back into photography for over a decade.

Meanwhile, film has been replaced with megapixels and a person who’s obsessed with futurism such as myself could not be more stoked. Who needs film anyway, right? That’s for nerds and hipsters. We are in the future now, we don’t need to waste time and money on something so primitive.

That mentality was also a way of thinking that didn’t get me far in other areas of life.

The first three years of my personal work was shot on a Panasonic Lumix G2 with the infamous 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

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That camera has seen it all, been through it all. Eventually the screen broke and I found myself shooting less, becoming overall bored with photography (a scariest feeling). This pushed me to not only start using film but also to start shooting different subject matters, and it forced me to educate myself on photo history in general. Overall, it has made me a better person and a better photographer.

There is currently a sort of film photography renaissance happening and before I would have hated it, but to be honest, I could not be happier. For those who are just jumping onto the bandwagon, this post may be helpful to you. Those of you who have been shooting for a while, you may be able to relate.

Here are some of my many mistakes as well as some reflections on what I’ve learned by making them.

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My second mistake: jumping into it without doing my research.

I went to a pawn shop and got a Contax 135 quartz, with a 50mm f/2 lens and a flash for about $100. I had no clue what Contax was or if this brand was at all significant in the film world, I just ran with it. I threw in a roll of film I had lying in my house for years and went off shooting. Here are a few photos I took with that camera.

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As you can see, not only the roll was old and damaged, this camera had some major light leaks. Another mistake I did was shoot rolls on a camera that had not been tested. Nowadays, I always go through a cheap roll when I buy a camera to see if everything is kosher. If it is, I keep using it.

If I see there are problems on the test rolls, I don’t waste any more rolls or development funds on the camera. It’s all common sense but I guess sometimes you have to fail to get it right.

On my third roll, the Contax jammed while rewinding and that was the end of that camera… A real shame. The lens on it was so wonderful and crispy. Oh well, time to see what else is out there.

Still oblivious to the possibilities, I bought a camera from Rake. It was a Mamiya ZE-X with a 50mm f/1.7 and a 28mm f/2.8 along with a flash and a winder (absolutely useless) for about $150. During this learning curve with a manual camera, I made all the rookie mistakes you can think of: I forgot to reset the ISO when I would switch film. I would often forget to readjust the exposure compensation dial after I was done using it. I shot entire rolls with the aperture fully open in harsh sunlight or at F/16 during a dark overcast day.

After being spoiled with digital for so many years, it was normal to fail miserably and a lot of times I was so frustrated that I wanted to stop using film altogether.

The worst was when I would open the camera back by accident and expose the whole roll, ruining pretty much everything on it. This time I was shooting for an article I did to promote some clothing and this is how most of it came out, because I popped the back for no good reason.

I started shooting film as a challenge and I can’t say that it hasn’t been one, because I still make stupid mistakes three years later. I’m constantly learning, hundreds of rolls down the line. For every mess-up there are also those times I nailed the shot and I did it with a manual camera with limited functions and no screen on the back. Those shots are rewarding and the reason why I kept shooting despite the frustrations.

Just as I was getting into the groove with my beloved Mamiya, she started breaking down on me. First, I got some light leaks. Then, the shutter would stall every 10 or so exposures, which would give me some spooky-looking photos like these:

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It was hard to let go of this camera. I was in love. It had everything I wanted but I was acting like there was no other camera like it. I spent a lot of money and time looking for another Mamiya ZE-2 but all of them came faulty or broke within weeks of purchasing. These cameras are old — so old that they had some of the first auto exposure correction modes to ever be put inside of SLRs, so it was normal that after all these years things would start to break down and short-circuit.

I began to inform myself on every sort of cameras you could imagine. The beauty of analog is that there is a century’s worth of cameras to chose from. It’s a curse and a blessing. You can make some money same as you can also lose a lot of it. It’s a dangerous habit that can leave you broke really fast.

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In less than a year, my hands went through a couple dozen of different cameras. Many mistakes have been made along the way. Like this one time I got super-stoned and went on an eBay binge, looking for a Contax T3 when I fell on a Contax Tix for $150. I got overzealous and overlooked the fact that it’s an APS format camera (this film format is no longer supported and film for these cameras is rare and expensive). I thought that I got a killer deal on a “rare” T3ish type Contax but I was all wrong. The following are some photos taken with that camera on expired APS film I got at the flea market for a dollar.

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Although this super-cool hipster effect might be appealing to some Tumblr dwellers, I honestly would’ve much rather have had true tone images without the funky light leaks. I sold this camera on eBay for the same price I got it and though it was fun to test it out, it was also a huge waste of time. This mistake has taught me a couple of things: When something is too good to be true, it probably is. The day I will find a mint T3 for $150, I will make sure the whole world knows about it because that never happens.

Also, I learned to do my research before committing to a purchase. There is so much info out there about so many cameras that it’s purely your fault if you get something dumb without checking. I don’t want to get hung up on cameras in this post because I’m currently working on a film camera buyer’s guide for mooks where I will share a lot of what I’ve learned from buying and selling cameras.

Your time spent running after cameras could be used for better things like working on your photography or learning about photography (not just the cameras). Collecting them is a hobby in and of itself and I see a lot of people online with killer collections but really weak work to show for all these expensive cameras and lenses they post on IG.

As much as I LOVE the gear, I respect the work more than anything, no matter what it was shot with. Most people are not able to tell the difference between a $20 point & shoot and a $2,000 Leica. Keep that in perspective.

What is important in the beginning is to overcome that steep learning curve when you first start shooting film. Get a feel for how film reacts to different settings and situations. It’s a lot different than digital and way more fun.

I strongly suggest starting up with something modest and reliable and once you get a hold of what film photography is about and you settle on your favorite type of film, you can start thinking about which tool is best suited for your style of shooting. Jumping in to the gear early can be a huge mistake and a big waste of time with no actual photographic progress.

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Because film ain’t cheap, we tend to do the opposite of what we do with digital in terms of shots taken per scene. With digital, you can easily blast through 69 shots and then pick the best one after. With film, we have a tendency to shoot way less in order not to waste money and we don’t get to see what we shot instantaneously. This fear can be very damaging to your hit ratio.

Take this shot, for example: I only took one shot and was sure to be in focus but later found out I was not. I could have taken one or two more shots and nailed it instead. I had to teach myself to not be scared and take the amount of shots necessary if the scene is worth it. Nothing more frustrating than missing a good shot because you cheaped out on your film.

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Here is another example of being scared to waste shots and failing. I took two shots of this scene. One was kind of blurry and the other has this car in it, which pisses me off. I hesitated and now I regret it. These days, if I find a good scene, I can easily blast through a whole roll and I rarely regret it. Don’t be scared to shoot. The money saved is not worth it.

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While we are on the money topic, another mistake I did was trying to cut corners. I had a sweet deal with a friend for developing but, unfortunately, it didn’t last for that long. I quickly found out that one roll costs me about $20 in total if I only wanted decent sized scans. That’s roughly 50 cents a shot. It seems like nothing but when you shoot a lot, it adds up quick.

So I started looking for alternatives, trying out bad film scanners and wasting my time and money on junk again. These last three shots were scanned on a flat bed Epson V500 and they look horrible. I can always re-scan them with a better scanner but it’s a huge pain. Not only that, it was all so very time-consuming…

This was very discouraging. At the time there was no alternatives. You either pay good money for good scans, or pay good money for a good scanner. You can also go to places like Walmart and get acceptable scans for $5. There is a right way of making film more affordable but I had not figured it out yet.

Developing color negs at home is complicated and getting good scans is expensive. If you are not ready to invest a little, don’t expect much. You might as well shoot digital and use VSCO filters, seriously. Spending all this time on film and development to get really bad scans at the end is simply not worth it.

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But… the solution was heaven-sent. Recently one of my IG followers put me on to the Pakon F-135 scanner. When I bought it, the word had just gone out and they were $250 apiece. After I ran sixteen rolls through the Pacman, it was pretty much paid for. These days they seem to be rarer and a bit more expensive. I’m not going to get into details about the scanner, all I will say is that it does the job fairly well and very quickly without any hassle. Just install, throw your roll in it and wait about four minutes.

Max resolution is the same as I would get from the lab and although the scans themselves are not as good as the lab’s pro scanner, they are very close. Each scanner has a different look which adds to the general consistency of your shots. You can get a pro level scanner from anywhere between $500 to $10K+, depending on the brand and specs. In the long run, scanning your own stuff will save you tons of money if you are committed to shooting film.

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Here is a photo of Walla P shot on a modest Ricoh AF5 on 400 ISO Kodak UltraMax and scanned with the Pakon. Raw file, no edits. As you can see, it’s really good scans for a fraction of what you would normally pay. Also it gives you that Jean-Coutu pharmacy scan look, which I personally love. It’s not as HD but it’s a swag in its own right.

This knowledge took years of failure to acquire and I hope this nerdish article will help some of you avoid these pitfalls. I can keep going but I think it’s enough for one post.


About the author: Stanislav Troitsky is a photographer based out of Montreal and the founder of Mook-Life. You can find his work on his website, Flickr, Tumblr, and Instagram. This article originally appeared here.

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