Midnight Pub

36 lessons


I've been already thinking about this topic and, thanks to a vaguely related

~jetgirl's post,

I've finally gathered myself enough to externalize it. So there it goes.

36 lessons

36? Wait, this number seems familiar. Oh no. Is he gonna shill for film? Well... kind of, but hear me out.

Film photography is a very inadequate medium if you compare it to modern imaging technologies. It's slow, demanding and clunky. Low–light performance sucks ass. No burst mode. About five available, woefully low, ISO speeds with no per–photo change luxuries. Preview? Haha. Relatively narrow range of shutter speeds. Wow, you've got 1/1000 s and 1 s, good for you. Forget about using flash anywhere near that millisecond though. Everpresent grain. Accurate light metering? Maybe. Autofocus? You wish. Ergonomy? Don't hold your breath. Awkward cartridges that must be bought and replaced after measly 36 frames. Time consumed on developing (I'm not feeling ready for that yet) or waiting for them to get developed by somebody else. And only then you realize that your ancient chunk of brass and glass now sports a light leak and the photos are all streaky. Or that you loaded it poorly and the film perforations got torn so everything slipped, causing overlaps right on the nicest pictures. But they're kinda beautiful in a particular way. Not fully domesticated. They're imperfect, scarce and tangible, just like yourself. You've brought them into existence through a laborious, intimate process — intently (let's hope) conceived every shot and carried its latent existence in darkness and dim redness until it has been finally revealed, born at last into the world as a small and fragile half–transparent rectangle. You can touch it, thold it against the sun, keep in a drawer and print again after the last bit of data on Earth rots.

I'm not saying "fuck digital". I play with film /and/ digital. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, unique place and voice. I love the flexibility and perfection of digital. I love the character and slowness of analog. Dabbling in film has transformed my general artistic expression and forced to really be mindful of what I'm doing. You can get carried away and unload a whole roll in quick succession, but then you look at the developed photos and they're all too similar and have that hint of wastefulness. It happened to me a few times, but there's no crying over spilled milk. It's a lesson.

Yet 36 is not even an accurate number. On paper yeah, but with some skill you can squeeze a bit more. That half–white 00 with a surprisingly interesting random shot taken right after putting the film in. 37, 38, maybe even 39 or 40 if you really nailed the loading process and your camera is willing to honor it. Still, every supernumerary cocked shutter is a pleasant surprise. You learn to be grateful when you have so little.

When you can't (or choose not to) just set your camera to auto and shoot away to heart's content, something great happens. You start to see and learn to choose. Instead of collecting every possible view to sift through later, you actually think hard about which would be the best, visualize it, look for it — and it's an impactful choice, because there's only so many frames to fill. I vaguely recall someone's quote that goes like this: "We're taking so many photos that we can't find the good ones among all the bad ones anymore". I'm trying to remember this while I'm shooting digital as well. I wouldn't artificially force anyone (or myself) to take only a set amount of digital photos, but this self–restraint is a wonderful exercise that, frankly, can improve us in many seemingly unrelated areas. And it's just so damn satisfying when you gather its fruits.

My camera is a temperamental specimen. Zenit TTL, an all–black Soviet era tank with no smarts apart from the battery powered built–in exposure meter. It once belonged to my uncle and spent over a decade in a cupboard before getting into my hands. To my amazement, the old button battery was (and is!) still good. The mated Helios 44M–4 lens had a stuck aperture and needed to visit a professional. Everything is now working quite well — the image in viewfinder is really dark and slightly rotated, some photos come out unevenly exposed, and the mirror slap is obnoxiously loud. Needless to say, I'm very fond of this brick. Shooting with it has its own unique flavor, felt the more when you take your time to befriend it. I'm also becoming acquainted with a medium format beast, the beautiful Pentacon Six TL, but that's a story for another time and another beverage.

I think that it's harder to have this kind of connection with a new camera. If it's old and obsolete, possibly older than you, you'll likely accept its quirks and shortcomings, seeing it as it is: a timeless artifact that happens to be still working. If it's new and full of tech, it probably won't escape the steamroller of ever more unflattering comparisons to The New Thing Out There, because it's not detached from the present. Yes, I'm aware that it's a shifting and fuzzy distinction, but one that I find valid in principle. And I continue to like my digital camera as well, although not as personally as the others.

The takeaway is, we should respect those 36* little reddish rectangles. They are a good teacher.

Picture related: my first ever film photo.


Edit: Link syntax is weird.