I’ve been meaning to blog about my film-shooting experiment for some time, pretty much ever since I bought a Nikon FM2 off eBay for £100.
I can’t really remember when it was that i started to want to try shooting film. I think it was around about the time that Sarah and I decided that we wanted to drive California highway 1. In my head was the image of us driving through the desert1 and occasionally stopping in some interesting old town2 and shooting some frames on film. Why film? I’m not really sure.
Whatever the fever-dream reasoning that made me decide to do it, I bought the FM2 and decided that it would be my camera for our holiday on the Norfolk Broads. Since I didn’t have time to get a roll of film developed before we went away I took the G10 as well, just in case I discovered on returning home that the FM2 had some kind of horrible light leak that made everything look like I spent the entire two weeks photographing ghostly Norfolk apparitions.
I’ll be honest here: I love using the FM2. The fact that it’s a mechanical camera, so it has very few electronic parts (only one, actually, the meter), means that I never have to worry about batteries running down. And it’s built like a tank; I have no fear about it getting accidentally dinged when it’s slung over my shoulder, as I would with, say, my D40x, which has a plastic body. I like the experience of shooting film, too, of having to consider more thoroughly what I’m actually about to photograph and how to frame it. I love the texture of the images when they’re developed – there’s something about the grain of HP5+ (which is the only emulsion I used; I’ve still got six rolls of it left at home) that just makes the image feel more real, somehow, more lived-in.
What I don’t like about shooting film, though, is very, very straightforward: the cost.
I had my films developed at a specialist lab, Farnell Photographic in Lancaster. Since I don’t have a film scanner of my own, I paid for development + scanning, at medium resolution, of each film, which comes to £9.99 + VAT. I used up four films on holiday, and another one in the week before that when I was just playing around with the camera, so that means that processing cost me more than £50 in total. In addition, many of the scanned images have dust or scratches on them (though the negatives, so far as I can see, are undamaged, so I suspect this is due to a dirty film scanner at the lab). I can touch some of those scratches up in Lightroom and Photoshop, of course, but the worst ones make the scans pretty much completely useless.
Now, I know I can offset the cost. I could buy a film scanner, for example, and scan the films my self, which would save me money in the long run and also mean that I could re-scan images whose scans didn’t come out right first time. Trouble is, I’d have to be shooting a whole lot of film to be able to justify the cost of the film scanner in the first place. I could develop the films myself, too, but that’s an expensive undertaking to set up, and besides, making a light-tight room in a rented house is always likely to be a bit hairy. And the artistic advantages I get from shooting film – having to think harder about the composition and the settings – are actually offset by the fact that I bracketed a lot of shots because – as Jay Maisel says – “who’s confident about exposure?” And in any case, a bit of black tape over the display on my DSLR will achieve the same effect, won’t it?
In the end, then, it seems like shooting film is a love / hate thing for me. I love the experience and the images that come out, and I love the challenges that using a completely manual camera poses for me. I hate that getting the film developed and scanned costs so much, and I need to look into other options for that.
I think the FM2 is going to stick around, though. I can’t say for sure it’s going to come with us to California next year, but it may. Or maybe next year I’ll have had some other idea about experimenting with a different camera and have bought myself a used Leica or something. I don’t know.
One thing I will say, though, is that I’m glad I’ve undertaken this experiment; it shows me that I’m progressing as a photographer, since I wasn’t struggling for compositions or settings all that much. That, at least, is something of a win.
1 I’m aware that there’s not a whole lot of desert along Highway 1 in the real world. On my mental planet, though, there’s enough for this particular thought-bubble image.
2 For some reason the always look like something out of Dusk til Dawn.