Think about this the next time you see a young person capturing his or her own gorgeousness on a mobile phone a few dozen times before uploading the most flattering photo to a thousand or so close friends on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr and the rest: there are an awful lot of photos being taken these days. With 1.8bn uploaded each day to social media, I’d hazard a guess that more pictures are being snapped around the world every second than were taken every week just a few decades ago, in the days of film.
Nobody under 30 remembers this, but film photography was expensive, inconvenient, not always very good, and frustrating for a variety of reasons – among them, you couldn’t see what you’d taken immediately and if you ran out of film, you couldn’t just delete a few duds and keep on shooting. Now consider me, one day last spring, with a few hours to spare in Istanbul. Round my neck I had a 1959 Rolleicord 120 format twin-lens reflex camera bought on eBay for £100, complete with its box, and the original receipt from Wallace Heaton in New Bond Street for £56 17s 6d (the equivalent of about £1,200 now).
The camera was in mint condition until a tiny knock on the way to Istanbul dented it; quality German engineering and a thing of great retro beauty it may be, but in practice it’s a bulky and delicate kilogram of metal and glass, awkward to use and able to take just 12 photos per £6 roll of film. Even loading the first of my two rolls of film into the Rolleicord was tricky; it took me 15 minutes with the 1959 manual in the departure lounge of Heathrow Terminal 2, with me concentrating so hard I failed to notice the flight had been called and nearly missed it. My Leica IIIa, by the way, is simpler to hold and shoot with, but in other respects – loading, focusing in particular – even more fiddly. But it does at least allow 36 photos on one roll.
By the time I started taking photos in Istanbul, I hadn’t a clue if my film was even winding properly through the Rollei, let alone if the photos would “come out”. Shooting was difficult. Time and again, I would line up a scene looking into the viewfinder (you hold a Rolleicord at chest height and peer down into it), get it in focus (no small achievement) and then forget to “cock the shutter” – a preliminary lever-pull you have to make before you click the photo.
Yet from those two 12-exposure rolls, plus the expenditure of about a litre of sweat and adrenaline, I got three photos I’m really proud of, as well as missing one superb shot of a bunch of feral cats because of the brain-stretching way the Rollei viewfinder reverses the image, so when you move the camera to the left, what you see somehow shifts to the right; it’s like trying to write in a mirror. I’d say three good photos out of 24 is a pretty good ratio, though. With the Leica I get two or three worthwhile shots per 36.
Why was I making this cumbersome attempt to re-experience film photography? I was inspired by two events last year, along with a story I heard from a retired press photographer at a party.
The first thing was seeing the Oscar-nominated documentary film Finding Vivian Maier. Maier was a reclusive Chicago nanny, who, using a Rolleiflex (the brother of my Rolleicord), took thousands of Cartier-Bresson-like photos, but never showed them to a soul. Indeed, most of her exposed film was discovered undeveloped by the documentary’s co-director John Maloof. Although they had no consistent theme, her street photographs of Chicago and New York were superlative; she got so close to people you wonder whether she somehow made herself invisible.
The other stimulus to my film adventure was Leica’s 100th anniversary celebration last summer in Wetzlar, its birthplace. Leica has long been my camera of choice, but seeing the exhibition of famous Leica photos there, all black and white, I realised that pretty much every great news and documentary photo of the 20th century – at least until Japan’s Nikon and Pentax came to prominence in the 1960s – was taken on a Leica; and as it happens, the few great reportage photos that weren’t Leica were taken on Rollei cameras.
The retired photographer’s story? This concerned a British news agency photographer in Berlin in the weeks leading up to the second world war, who found himself with just six 5in x 4in photographic plates left (this was before even film was commonly used for news) and unable to buy any more. But by meticulously planning each photo, he managed to take four award-winning shots with the six plates. Or so the story goes.
I began to think how profligate we are now that superb-quality photos can be taken free, in infinite numbers, and with the benefit of not having to wait for development – and yet how much better in so many ways, how much more artful and considered, the old-style film photos often were.
Could it be that by deliberately limiting the number of photos we can take, by cutting out the options for effects and technical twiddles that digital offers, and by concentrating on making every frame count rather than shooting indiscriminately in the hope that there will be one good shot among the hundreds, we can actually take better pictures? And could it also be that, just as, in hifi, vinyl records offer a different and more appealing (if not necessarily better) sound than CDs or digital, in photography, photos taken on film are more pleasing and engaging, more beautiful?
So I thought I’d try it out. I bought the Rolleicord first, and also a 1960s Pentax Spotmatic I didn’t use for this exercise because it was already too modern and easy, with its built-in exposure meter. For the 35mm part of my experiment I wanted a Leica, and could have borrowed a film camera released just last year, the hyper-retro £3,095 (body only, without even an exposure meter) Leica M-A (Typ 127). But instead, I bought a Leica IIIa body on eBay for $300 from Roberts in Indianapolis – it just happened to be the best-condition example I could find for a good price at the time.
The Leica historian Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith of Harrow has even kindly located the camera’s birth certificate for me; a handwritten ledger records its delivery to a store in New York on June 12 1937. I coupled the IIIa body with a superb-condition £200 f3.5 Leitz Elmar 50mm lens of the same era from Red Dot Cameras in London’s Old Street, which has a mouthwatering selection of vintage and new Leicas. (There are a lot of old cameras out there and prices can be very inconsistent. For example, I’ve found that they are very cheap in Berlin, where one shop was charging €400 for a rare Leicaflex single-lens reflex. In Amsterdam, by contrast, I saw my £100 Rolleicord with a €2,000 price tag.)
So with the two vintage cameras and a stock of 120mm and 35mm Ilford HP5+ film from Amazon, I was good to go. Except I wasn’t. I didn’t have an exposure meter and wasn’t confident, in this photography-made-difficult experiment, about guessing exposures. I bought a 1960s Gossen Sixtar meter for £20, but couldn’t get to first base with it, and also wasn’t keen on carrying yet another piece of vintage equipment. Surely, I thought, there must be an exposure meter iPhone app? And wouldn’t you know it, there is. The one I found is called MyLightMeter Pro, designed by multitalented Spanish photographer David Quiles. Not only is it a beautiful recreation of a vintage meter, but it’s fun to use and deadly accurate. Brilliant.
So how has my return to film worked out? I have carried one or other camera around with me in London, New York, Istanbul, Los Angeles and the south of France for six months now. I’d go so far as to say that using film is as different from digital as painting is from photography. It’s long-winded and hard, but it’s also unaccountably exciting having an extended period between starting on a picture and seeing the result.
I have learnt that you can appear a bit foolish touting an old camera, with a touch of that “get me, aren’t I eccentric” vibe you emit with a vintage car. (“You look like you’ve learnt to double de-clutch and you’re very pleased with yourself,” commented my wife as I was lining up a shot with the Rollei in St-Paul-de-Vence.)
But above all, I have learnt about being ultra-selective. There is no doubt that film makes you concentrate far more on the photo than on what your camera can do, because your camera can do very little. It was the renowned photographer Tom Stoddart at the Leica celebration who explained that taking photos with this kind of limited equipment, with no zooms or effects, is about being photo-minded rather than obsessing over technicalities. “Above all, you have to get in close and be involved with the photo,” he advised. I have since realised that the Leica or the Rollei – or an old Pentax or a Nikon F – colours the way you think and photograph, just like driving a vintage car or flying an old biplane affects your approach. The machinery in each case is more demanding than we are used to with modern technology, and this hones our skills.
As for the quality of my photos, everyone who looks at my best-of selection recognises that there’s something different about them. Is it the grain, the fact that some aren’t 100 per cent sharp? One normally unartistic friend volunteered that they had a “visible integrity” about them, a phrase that might qualify for the Nobel Prize for pretentiousness, were it not kind of true. My conclusion is that photos taken on film appear historical in a way Instagram tries to achieve by digital processing – but that with film, the effect is just better. And even better in black and white, which, as Woody Allen pointed out about black and white movies, just looks more glamorous.
I asked Elizabeth Roberts, editor of Black+White Photography magazine, to help me out on this quality question. “We are so used to seeing the slick perfection of digital that we are intrigued by the mystique and imperfectness of the film image,” she said. “It asks us to engage with it, to use our imagination to fill in the gaps. It has a soft, humane quality. Also, when you shoot film you have to think about every shot because it’s an expensive process, and you think hard about which images from a contact sheet are worthy of being printed. We therefore tend to view good, edited work. It makes a big difference.”
A word on processing. And on travelling with film. I could process myself, but professional processors do it better, and although they seem intimidating because they deal with people like top advertising photographers, they are welcoming to amateurs with a few rolls. All processors will develop, scan and email your negatives so you can print them or display them on screen. There are also old-style printers some film users swear by, but I haven’t tried any.
In London, I use Bayeux on Newman Street if I’m in a rush, and the wonderful new Aperture shop on Rathbone Place, which is cheaper but not as quick. There was a two-week processing tailback there during the summer – a sign of how popular film is becoming. Aperture also has a great selection of old cameras. In New York, I have had great service from Duggal on West 23rd Street, and buy film at Adorama on West 18th. Why process or buy film overseas? Because of airport X-ray scanners, which can (although, people say, rarely do) ruin film. Best to purchase a lead-lined film bag like my £39 Domke Filmguard, but they do rather draw the interest of zealous security staff.
Doing things the hard way can have a special satisfaction, and none more so than using film from time to time – and, as I chose to, not using recent cameras with built-in light meters, but reverting to the softer, more interesting optics and simpler construction of vintage devices. Old cameras are beautiful things, and the fact that they still work at, in my Leica’s case, nearly 80 years of age is immensely rewarding. If you’re even a little into photography, I’d recommend it.