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Against the Grain: A Journey Back to Film Photography

It was a typical Thursday when the notification on my phone made my palms sweat. The gallery had finally arrived in my inbox.

Excitement and dread fought for centre stage as I pressed the “open gallery” button. Why did I feel like I pinned my hopes on this one simple task? Why was I afraid of failure?

You see, I love photography. Photography has been part of my job for over a decade – from photojournalist to magazine photographer to travel photographer to wedding photographer – and, despite still enjoying the medium, there was something missing.

Like a missing page in a book, it was hard to realize what wasn’t there until you did. Which is why I am now the proud owner of a 1978 Canon AE-1 35mm film camera.

Is film still relevant?

When I worked at a newspaper, I had a print of the first-ever journalistic photograph hanging on my cubicle wall. It shows Parisian streets barricaded during the June Days Uprising on July 1, 1848. Just two decades earlier, the first photographs were ever created.

It hung there as a reminder that photographs are moments frozen in time. They bring history alive and tell stories in ways text never could. I fought (and still fight) for the importance of visuals when telling stories.

Less than 100 years after that photograph was taken, 35mm film became a popular tool for photographers and over the course of just 30 years, became popular for the everyday person.

When digital cameras hit the market in the 1990s, film declined. Photography has been around for under 200 years. Today it’s part of everyday life, with millions of photos being uploaded to the web each day.

Film hasn’t been in the mass market for 30 years. So is it still relevant?

According to Darren Clark, Chair of the Art Department at Brigham Young University Idaho, “Digital and film are two different tools that are available to you like painting vs. sculpture vs. ceramics; it doesn’t really matter as long as you have something to say.”

Film and digital photography aren’t competitors but are two different mediums to create art. And that’s an idea I can get behind.

Why get into film now?

Film isn’t a new medium to me. I took a photography course at my high school, where we used film cameras and developed our own black and white film in the darkroom. (I’m still amazed that our high school even had a darkroom!)

That class was the building block for my life-long love of photography. It taught me about the exposure triangle, the mechanics of how photography works, and how to develop your own photos.

Of course, I was a teenager then and didn’t really take it seriously. I didn’t stick with film for very long. It was difficult to work with and for the final class assignment, most students used their own digital cameras. Having your own digital camera was the epitome of cool.

Over the years, I’ve been a photojournalist, a travel photographer and now a wedding photographer. It’s been an incredible journey, to say the least.

So why, 15 years after I picked up my first film camera, was I wanting to get back into film again?

In need of a hobby

As photography became more ingrained in my life, I only saw it as a way to make a living. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love working as a photographer. Each shoot that I go on is different and each place I visit can be photographed in so many ways.

But.

It felt too saturated. Like everything I was doing in photography was just to be better and find paying clients. At the time, I thought, maybe I need to take a few courses or learn a new way of shooting. I did those things, but it was still to become a better photographer so that I could find more work.

I wanted something where I could learn a new skill, make mistakes and be bad at something before I got better. Something that I didn’t need to worry about.

Something I could call a hobby without the pressure of making it into a paying gig.

Sure, I could put some prose in here about how we millennials were raised in a way to pursue our hobbies so that we could make more money. But there are plenty of articles on that already. We don’t need to monetize our joy.

I just wanted a hobby.

The challenge with film

Apart from film photography being a new and exciting hobby, it was also technically challenging. I had been so reliant on my skills with digital photography, that I was looking at the art-making process in the post-production rather than with the camera itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love to make art by editing a photo, but my camera wasn’t my main tool for doing that anymore. I was still thinking about how to take the photo technically, but I kept telling myself, “well, if it doesn’t work, then I can fix it later.”

With film, you don’t have that luxury.

Exercising a skill

When it comes to taking photographs, the exposure triangle is everything. Change one part of the triangle and the picture could be under or overexposed.

In digital, the light metres built into the camera are phenomenal. They can read a single point or the whole area to give you the most precise light readings. If you’re using a phone, then most of the work is done for you.

In film, the light metres are still accurate, but depending on the camera, not as precise. Some film cameras don’t have built-in light metres at all.

The point is, with film, you need to be able to read the light, make calculated guesses for your exposures. And, you don’t get to check to see if it works.

It’s kind of thrilling, in a way.

24-36 frames

One roll of 35mm film comes in two sizes: 24 or 26 exposures (or frames). Unlike digital film where you have what feel like limitless opportunities to perfect an image, film gives you a finite number.

Sure, you could have multiple roles of film but a standard 64GB SD card is equal to 91 rolls of 24-exposure film. (Or 392 rolls if you just shoot .jpg)

With just one roll of film, you have just 24 chances to tell the story of your subject. You need to carefully plan out your shoot, think about what way you want to tell your story and think about how the photos would be viewed (separately or together).

Slow down the process

Our phones allow us to pull out a camera and, with a few taps, we can access a camera that takes a good photo without thinking too much about it.

With film, you need to think about your lighting situation, the type of film you’re using, your composition and your focal distances before even raising the camera to your eye.

Film lets us slow down and enjoy the process of photography. It allows us to slow down, observe our surroundings and be open to what might make a good photograph.

@ashlaward Take a second and listen #fyp #foryou #aesthetic #lovelife #drone background song: @hannah_harpist ♬ A Moment Apart – ODESZA – Ashley Ward
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It’s easy to forget sometimes that you’re creating art when you take a photo. You’re telling a story and stories need time to be formed.

Like travelling, the feeling of slowing down and enjoying the process is one of the reasons that draws me to film photography. With digital, there are so many incredible photographers out there, so taking photos of everyday things seems like a waste of time. It’s hard to describe, but since you can take photos of everything, only the once-in-a-lifetime photos stand out.

But with film, it’s 100% about the process, like romanticizing your life by focusing on the importance of everyday life.

Finding a 35mm film camera

Finding a film camera wasn’t as hard as I expected. On Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace, you can find a ton of 35mm film cameras for sale. I honed down my search after comparing models and landed on the Canon AE-1.

The Canon AE-1 was on the market from 1976 to 1986. It was a popular camera by many standards and was meant to be a durable, easy-to-use consumer-grade 35mm camera. The camera cost about 81,000 Yen (Roughly $850 CAD) when it was released in 1976. (That’s more than $4,000 in today’s dollar!)

One fun fact about the Canon AE-1 is that you may recognize the sound it makes. Jim Reekes, the sound designed for Apple, used the sounds from the AE-1 to make the sound for taking a screenshot on Macs and iPhones.

I found in my research that it was important to ask when the last time the camera worked was or if it had been tested recently. Some parts might have malfunctioned and you wouldn’t know it until you tried to develop the film.

Putting out feelers to eight different sellers, I finally landed on one from Collingwood, near where I lived. It was in good working order, had extra lenses and accessories plus it was tested recently.

A snag I didn’t expect

While I was waiting to hear back from the sellers, I went on the hunt for film. I googled “what 35mm film should I use?” and fell into a rabbit hole of comparing film types, film speeds, colour tones and so much more. There was also the difference between a consumer film (like Kodak Gold 200) and a professional film (Kodak Portra 400).

It was overwhelming. But I didn’t have to worry about it much longer. Film was out of stock nearly everywhere I looked.

Places like Moment, Henry’s and Amazon all sold film, but many of their listings were back-ordered or out of stock.

Camera stores nearby either didn’t have any in stock or didn’t carry film at all. One only stocked black and white film. Finally, a camera store in Collingwood came through!

Gabriele Photography is like heaven for a photographer, with so much amazing camera equipment packed into the little store. At the back of the store, was one lonely spinning display, holding only a dozen or so film canisters. They were dealing with supply issues too and didn’t have the film I was looking for (Kodak Gold 200) but they did have Kodak Colour Plus 200 and Kodak Ultramax 400, two consumer-grade films.

At this point, I would have taken anything, so I left the store with four different rolls to try out and was eager to get shooting.

Research and inspiration

In the 15 years since first working with film, I had filed away those instructions in a cabinet at the back corner of my brain. I stared at the camera and realized:

I had no idea how to use it.

Sure, I know how to take a photo, how to compose a shot, how to expose a shot. On. A. Digital. Camera.

Now faced with something completely mechanical and with very little room for error, I jumped onto YouTube and consumed as many videos as I could about how to use the camera. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from.

I practiced without film to get used to the controls then loaded my first roll. Everyone on YouTube said this was the most important step to get right, otherwise, you could break your film and ruin your roll.

Let’s get shooting

After a few hiccups, I was able to load the roll and take my first image:

Whoops. I had messed up my first shot since I didn’t realize how the counter worked on the camera, so I thought I hadn’t started the roll yet.

Okay, take two. My (real) first image:

Sure. It’s boring, but okay. It’s in focus. It’s properly exposed. Now let’s go explore!

Collingwood was going to be my first muse. I had bought my camera and film there, so it seemed only right to make it my first subject. I wanted to tell the story of Collingwood in 24 frames.

Since I grew up in rural Ontario, Collingwood is a familiar “city” to me, so I wanted to capture its beautiful architecture. But it’s also a very active place, known for its ski hills, trails and beautiful shoreline of Georgian Bay.

I picked a few places to photograph and said I would find other things along the way. You can see my time in Collingwood here.

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Processing Film

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that there aren’t many places in Ontario that still develop film. There are a couple of one-hour developers out there, but they only offer 4×6 prints. I wanted digital scans (ironic, I know) so I sent my film off to a lab in Toronto that specializes in processing and scanning film negatives.

Waiting for the results was excruciating. Thanks to a delay from Canada Post, it took nearly two full weeks to get the scans. When I got the notification, I felt a mix of excitement and dread.

I was worried that, despite my skill as a photographer, somehow, the roll wouldn’t turn out. Before opening the link, I reminded myself, “It’s okay to be bad at something. You were bad at photography when you first started and you’ll be bad at this too.”

Flipping through the scans, a smile spread across my face. Sure, some of the shots weren’t great, but mostly, I was really happy with the way the photos turned out. The dynamic range and colours were incredible, something that can’t be replicated with digital.

And, I learned so much about myself during this process:

It’s okay not to monetize your joy.

It’s okay to be bad at something.

It’s okay to do something just for me.

Now… what else can I do?

By orutt

Hey, I’m Olivia! I’m the writer and photographer behind My Wandering Voyage travel blog. My mission is to help full-time working millennials wander adventurously through trip planning advice, destination inspiration and photography tips. Since 2013, I’ve been using up every ounce of my vacation time from working as a Communications Officer for a university in Ontario, Canada to explore and photograph the world.

I'm an avid hiker and camper, so one of my goals is to visit all operating Ontario Provincial Parks. 62 down, 54 to go!

Follow me on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.

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