If you’re old, like me, chances are you’ve used a film camera, or at least seen someone else using a film camera. If you were born after the 1990s or, if you were born in this century, then you may have never even seen a film camera, or film.
Today, people have many options to capture images. A few years back, it was estimated that over 200,000 photos are uploaded to Facebook alone every minute of every day! So, photography is very different now than it was when I was growing up. And it’s used in ways we never thought it would, or could be. A few weeks ago, I was shooting some photos at an event with my DSLR, and I didn’t have the GPS enabled – but I had my phone with me. Later in the day, when I was loading my images to Google Photos, I noticed that the images had an approximate location tagged to them. It actually said something like, “Estimated Location”, but (and I had to derive this from what I saw) Google knew the time the image was captured, and it knew where I was at that time because of my phone – so I concluded that my photo had a timestamp, and Google put it together and assumed the photos were taken at that location. Cool, and a bit scary at the same time.
So, let me step back in time with a very, very brief history of photography as I understand it. First, let me mention there’s a great overview on Wikipedia (here), so feel free to read to discover more details. I was privileged to take a class in art history, taught by Beaumont Newhall, at the University of New Mexico, and I was intrigued by the development of photography – maybe even more so than I was in the art of photography itself. At the beginning of the 19th century (and earlier), people in multiple parts of the world started figuring out how to use simple cameras and lenses to actually capture images. The trick, as it seems, was not to merely capture an image – but to make the image permanent.
In the first half of the 19th century, the Daguerreotype was a popular way of capturing an image. It involved a piece of metal coated with a highly polished silver. It required very long exposures, but Daguerre introduced post processing so the image became much more distinct, and permanent. I’m intrigued by the Daguerreotype and how it looked – with a mirror finish, it can look either positive or negative depending up on the angle you hold it at. Since they are very delicate and can easily be scuffed or damaged, most were placed in a case with a glass cover to protect the image.
The second half of the 19th century saw the Daguerreotype be replaced by images on tin, glass, and paper. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer published his wet plate, or collodion process. This process allowed producing positive images on glass or tin, or producing negative images that could then be used to make prints on paper. I’m not sure the tin type was the most popular of the 3, but a lot of tin types remain today, probably because glass and paper are a bit more fragile and just have been destroyed over the years.
Throughout the 20th century, negatives on both glass and cellulose (plastics) became very popular. The process of using chemicals to make both negatives and prints permanent was perfected, and widely used, right up until the time when it all became obsolete (argue with me if you want, but it won’t help to fight it, it is what it is) with the introduction of computers and digital imaging…
So, that’s where we come in. We live in the 21st century, and very few non-digital cameras are even made anymore. But we want to experience what photographers did before digital. We want to know what it was like to take photos and not know the results until we get the film developed. I like to have a little more control over actually “creating” an image. And some of us actually think there’s a property or properties of analog photography that may be lost since digital took over – something about analog images that’s different, distinct – and maybe even better!
So, how do you start? First, you’re going to need a film camera. Some older film cameras have cool features, like not requiring batteries! How could that be, you ask? It’s like magic – well, not good magic, but it is cool. So, visit your local thrift shop, dig through your closet, go to yard sales and estate sales, or find a local camera shop that has some used equipment. You can always buy a film camera online, but I’d recommend visiting a local store to see what they have first. I think it’s important to support our local stores, and buying a camera is a personal thing – it’s nice to feel and hold a camera before you buy it. You might even want to discuss the different models available. If you’ve never owned one before, stop by a store and at least see what they have. I’ve found most of the local camera store sales people are very helpful – and will try to steer you in the direction of a camera that will be best for you. In Austin, I frequent Austin Camera & Imaging. Their staff is very friendly and helpful – and they have a nice selection of vintage cameras and other equipment. They also have repair services which I’ve used several times to keep my used cameras in good operating condition.
There are a lot of cameras out there, with a lot of bells and whistles. I, personally, like the cameras that are more manual – and may have some automatic features. I would stay away from some of the cameras that are all automatic – and don’t allow you to manually override the auto settings – after all, you’re trying to learn and experience the way it was early in the history of photography. You should understand how to measure and set exposure yourself – in my humble opinion. And if you want one of the cameras that require no batteries, they will be pretty much all manual.
Here’s a tip about older cameras, specifically SLRs. Because I have bad vision, the viewfinders of many cameras don’t look sharp, or clear, to me. And because of my vision, I have trouble focusing certain cameras. Modern cameras generally (at least my Canons do) have an adjustable eyepiece. So, there’s a small adjusting knob on the camera, near the viewfinder, that can adjust the strength of the eyepiece. Because of my vision, many of the older cameras are unusable to me out of the box. Older Nikons and Canons generally had add-on eyepieces that had various strengths. They are called diopter adjustment lenses, and screw on or slip over the eyepiece to compensate for poor vision. All my 60’s and 70’s vintage Nikons were like this – the viewfinders always looked out of focus for me. So I went online and purchased a couple different diopter adjustment eyepieces, and they’ve made all the difference in the world. They come in various strengths (+.5, +1, -1, -2, etc.) I can actually focus my Nikons now! I’ve always had trouble with Nikons, and this may be part of the reason. I don’t seem to have quite as much difficulty with my Canon, or Olympus cameras. It may be the default magnification is slightly different in the various camera brands – in any case, that may be another reason to check cameras out in person – when you look through the viewfinders, different cameras will just have a different look.
I sometimes use a handheld light meter as well, since some of my film cameras don’t even have meters built in. My favorite light meter is the Sekonic Studio Deluxe. The Studio Deluxe and Studio Deluxe II are older – from the 70’s and 80’s, but I like them because they’re simple, and they work. The Studio Deluxe III is newer. These models are mostly intended for studio work as incident meters – that means they measure the light falling on an object instead of measuring reflected light as built in camera meters do. They have an attachment to measure reflected light – but they are honestly better suited to incident readings, which is a bit limiting – but I don’t mind. They also run on silicon cells that don’t require batteries – which I really like!
In a future entry, I may talk a little about how you can develop your own film. I develop black and white film since it’s less involved than developing color.
I’d love to hear what kind of film camera you end up with – if you decide to try going analog.
Here’s an interesting article about the history of photography – enjoy!
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