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Film Photography Speeds Me Up


It’s been around a year since I switched to photographing on 35mm film for the majority of my work. Beyond a couple of false starts and some misconceptions, I think I’ve adjusted well, and I’m really happy to have made the change. Now that I have a good amount of work to reference, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the adjustments I needed to make in order to adapt to a film mindset.

One of the things that surprised me was the way that film affected, or rather didn’t affect, the pace at which I shoot photographs moment-to-moment. The nature of my work is normally fast-paced. I don’t work in slower genres like studio or landscape, but rather situations where fast reactions were necessary in order to capture what’s in front of me — mainly documentary photography and street photography.

The sentiment “film slows me down” is one I’ve seen echoed by many different film photographers who use the medium for many different genres. I can understand an interpretation of this idea to mean that because of the ongoing expense or limitations in the length of a roll, the photographer shoots fewer images as a result.

However, this isn’t something I necessarily agree with, as it’s a pretty arbitrary restriction to enforce. I don’t see why shooting fewer images would make any other element of the workflow slower. I also don’t see why any “extra” care and consideration they feel they may put into a frame of film can’t be put into a digital photograph.

I find the measurement of speed such an odd one when comparing between two mediums, especially as the speed being spoken about rarely actually has anything to do with the inherent technical capability of the camera (focusing speed, burst rate, boot-up, etc) but rather something in the mental capacity or capability of the user.

Sometimes the speed being spoken about is the time it takes to operate their camera; for a while, I assumed that this was the main occurrence, and then when someone said that film photography slows them down, what they’re really saying is “I don’t know how to use my camera.” This isn’t exactly something to be proud of, and I don’t see how this kind of person would expect anything different from an equally complex digital camera.

Just because the recording medium is film doesn’t mean that the pace of the user is any slower — of course you can work just as slowly, if not deliberately slower, with a digital camera. The medium should not affect your workflow, and chasing a medium will never directly produce a good image. Only chasing good images will ever give you that, or a close approximation of it.

When I started shooting with a rangefinder I was much slower than I am now. But with practice and understanding, I can shoot any rangefinder, digital or film, with the same accuracy and much faster speed than when I started.

I find that between a “slow” or “fast” approach, my experience of shooting film is quite the opposite of the common idea that film ought to slow; in fact, quite the opposite: film photography actually speeds me up in quite a few ways when compared to a digital workflow.

The first indicator of this was that as I took film more seriously the way I worked changed from a “fishing” mentality to “hunting”. Especially for street photography, hunting and fishing are useful ways to describe different approaches to a situation.

Fishing the scene involves finding a background (interesting setting, light, reflection, etc) and then waiting for the right subject to enter the frame, or interact somehow with the rest of the scene. Hunting involves less waiting around and more decisive action/reactions to scenes that unfold in front of you.

When I first started shooting street photography, I was a digital user, and my approach was far more patient and considered — very much a fisherman. The live view capabilities of my cameras meant I could really take my time and finesse my composition, working on the exposure, cleaning up the edges of my frame, and making multiple images of the same stationary scene until I felt I’d got it right.

With a film camera, especially a rangefinder, this kind of careful crafting doesn’t offer as much instant satisfaction, and as a result, my approach shifted along with my mentality. Instead of seeking out large scenes of light, shadow, and atmosphere I looked instead for fleeting moments, characterful expression, and dynamic action.

I didn’t lose my patience but instead reapplied it. Scenes that would have caught my eye and held my attention until I’d achieved the shot were replaced by much more time walking around, waiting for situations to present themselves in often more subtle ways.

When looking at a comparison in my photojournalistic, behind-the-scenes, and street photographs I can’t really say that there is anything truly different in the way I approached those images compared to the way I would have shot them digitally — the medium itself didn’t affect my choice of images. Rather it was the mindset I possessed while working that offered the biggest changes.

For example, I am often drawn to more fantastical, or bizarre themes in my street photography. With the introduction of film, my work became less aesthetically surreal and instead embodies more empirical, human surrealism. I wasn’t forcing a mood or atmosphere through clever composition or exposure, but rather by spending more time actually seeking out things that were actually happening — things that could be well exposed for and presented cleanly, and still introduce the viewer to that unusual reality.

Some may say that film leads to a process of being deliberate and precise with your frames, but again I don’t see why this is not something that could be achieved with the digital medium. I would argue that I have always shot deliberately and precisely, whether on film or digital.

You can compare a film contact sheet with one of my digital ones, and see the same amount of work put into each image. There are the same kinds of iterations and tweaks depending on what I’m trying to achieve, but you can see the difference in my patience between hunting with film and fishing with digital – there is a quantity with the digital frames, but the quality of the result from each is the same.

In photography, I don’t think that the medium has as much of an influence on the work as many photographers believe it does. Shooting on film or digital has as much to do with the final image as sculpting with granite or marble does for a sculptor. If the only redeeming quality about an image is that it has the “film aesthetic” then I don’t think that warrants any merit at all.

However, it can influence the workflow to a degree that I think more people ought to consider. For example, I spent some time with an RZ67 medium format camera, and while this was an interesting experience and I enjoyed using it for portraits, it simply wasn’t a good fit for fast-paced photography. I am sure in the hands of someone more competent with the viewfinder and focusing system that it could be used more quickly, but to me, it would lead me back to a fishing approach, which is not where I want to be currently.

Different cameras warrant different behaviors from their users, and similarly, different mediums encourage different mindsets. Shooting film through a rangefinder offers me no depth preview, nothing to hint at what my frame will look like besides what I can imagine based on my frame lines, understanding of depth of field, and the film I am shooting. None of this is exact, and this encourages me to simply let go, to allow myself to simply shoot, and not nitpick the detail.

This naturally leads to a faster shooting style. It means that any image I spot potential for but would require waiting is one I can return to another day, with either a different camera or different conditions to play more with light architecture and precise compositions. None of my images necessarily need to be exact anymore, but it helps that they are as a result of practice and deep literacy with my tools.

This approach continuously builds on a series of habits, as well as confidence that can be applied to any genre of photography. Familiarity with kit and process and personal process — an understanding of light and subject; these will all determine whether or not you are able to “speed up” or “slow down” and not what the image is being recorded on.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.