Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Back to the source

My new friend Raul held a sidewalk sale Saturday in the East Village. Nestled among the clothing and household goods he had on a small folding table was a 35mm film camera that I zeroed in on from a distance.

Up close, I saw that it was a mid-1970s-vintage Nikkormat FT2, a quality camera made by Nikon to allow photographers on a budget to own a genuine Nikon product at an appealing price. More importantly, it gave such photographers a camera that would accept the dizzying array of Nikon's professional-quality lenses.

Raul was asking a ridiculously cheap price for it.
I thought to myself about the comprehensive 35mm film system -- two camera bodies (one of them a superb Olympus OM-3Ti), assorted lenses, the works -- I had sold last fall. I thought about the investment I made in a great digital SLR with the proceeds of that sale. I thought about how much better the computer-based "digital darkroom" was, compared with the "wet" chemical-based darkroom of film photography.
I put the camera down, thanked him for letting me handle it and started to walk away.
He responded with a price even more ridiculously low than the first.
I couldn't resist.

The camera needed a minor repair that I was able to do in 20 minutes at home, and the roll of film I ran through it showed that it was in good working order, right down to the light meter -- not bad for a camera that sat unused for several years.
The lens that came with it was an old, beat-up Nikon lens that I replaced Tuesday with one in near-mint condition.
A fire was rekindled.

I love digital photography. I love its versatility. I love that the results are visible instantly. I love that it eliminates the expense of film. I love that I can do the same things and more with Adobe Photoshop that can be done in a traditional darkroom, and without the smell, mess and fuss. And, unlike in the darkroom, image editing done on a computer can be reversed if I don't like the result or make a mistake.

But I also love film.
I love the grain one gets with certain black-and-white films such as Kodak Tri-X. I enjoy the ritual I go through in loading the film, composing the shot through manual focus and setting the exposure by hand. It's what a friend of mine in Japan once called "making hand-made pictures."
It's a labor of love that has a more organic vibe than the one I get from my digital camera, even though I'm still setting the exposure by hand and (often, but not always) using manual focus in much the same way as I did years ago, before the digital revolution.

I'm into digital photography for the long haul. I don't plan on completely retracing my footsteps. But I'm going to tote that Nikkormat -- built like a Russian tank, and about as heavy and durable -- in my camera bag next to my digital camera.
I never know when a very special portrait opportunity will require the very special treatment that only a 35mm film camera can give.


Matt K. said...

Much as I love digital, I know vaguely of what you're talking about with working with the film - I had some experience as a film student at Hunter and NYU. I remember getting excited about working with different types of film, lenses, filters, etc. to produce different looks for the scenes I shot. I miss that a lot, but I had a mortgage and car payments, so film school fell by the wayside. Now that I'm half-way to single, I've been considering some of the options formerly left behind...

Brotha Buck said...

I took the old fashioned photography in high school, where you develop your own film in little black canisters, hung it dry, cut it, inserted it into a projector, exposed it to paper, and developed, neutralized and rinsed it clean. Ah, I love photography, too.

Michael said...

There's something about film that transforms makes photography magic. And I say this as a committed digital camera/Adobe Photoshop user.

Unfortunately, I never got as into the darkroom work as you did. I always relied on another person's eyes and sensibilities to convert the negatives into prints. With digital, that middleman is eliminated. But I wish I had delved far more deeply into the darkroom than I did.

forman said...

yeah i miss the sharpness and the grain of the ol' 35. don't miss all the time- effort- price-storage of the old stuff though. still when the golden picture oportunity comes, it would be nice to shoot it with film.

Michael said...

That's my thinking exactly.