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Film is Hard

Flowers in the Dirt

I was tempted to call this post, “I hate film,” but that’s not true. I don’t hate film. It’s just that so far, for me, film has proven very hard to love. There are a lot of little reasons — like the insane (compared to digital) price per frame in terms of film and processing, or the fact that you can’t take hundreds of shots on a single roll (well, unless you use that NASA back). But the two big reasons are:

I suck at math and chemistry,

I suck at math and chemistry. Seriously. There’s a reason why I’ve always specialized in the humanities. There’s also a reason I don’t bake that much. And it’s not that I’m incapable of doing math, and it’s not that I’m incapable of understanding chemistry (well, maybe…); it’s that when I move my brain into number-space, it stumbles. This isn’t so much a problem when I’m shooting film, so much as it is when I try to do darkroom printing. I feel like the moment I step up to the enlarger, I undergo an instantaneous lobotomy. Sort of like location-based Flowers for Alergnon. I step away for a minute, and suddenly I’m back at full capacity, just in time to want to slap myself for the stupid thing I did. Then I step back to the enlarger to try again, and here comes the stupid once more…

The pace of feedback

The other reason why digital photography works so well for me, and why I have so much trouble getting comfortable with film, is that the pace of feedback is radically different. With digital — even when working with my old non-metering lenses — I can always see what I’ve done, and make changes accordingly. Sometimes those changes are very sophisticated, and I have no problem with that — so long as I can see what’s happening. I glance at the LCD, and I can usually tell instantly what I need to do.

The Odds are Good but the Goods are Odd

With film (excluding Polaroid, RIP), there’s no playback of images, no option to check the histogram in a pinch. The closest you get is in the darkroom, where you can see the results and make changes, but it’s still on a very frustrating timescale — several minutes between exposure and image review, meaning that a few small changes to an image can easily eat up an hour. This is not only inconvenient, but it makes it very hard for me to bring my intuition into play.

Changes are also non-reversible. There’s no undo button; you can repeat a process as often as you can afford, but you can’t toggle back and forth to see the image with and without an edit, or manipulate a slider back and forth to get just the right degree of change.

The analogy to baking is good here, too. I’m not a bad cook, at least with some kinds of food. My spinach is the stuff of legends, but with the spinach, I can brood over it, taste it, constantly re-balance the seasoning. I don’t have to wait for it to come out of the oven before I can taste it and make adjustments.

God, I would be a horrible baker.

Hopefully, practice will eventually make perfect, or at least passable. I do have some film images that I like, although, lamentably, these are usually images that require extensive dodging and burning to print well, and I am, as yet, quite clumsy when it comes to that.

It’s easier to scan the images and tweak them in Capture NX, and I do that, too. The two images in this post are examples. But even in digital, garbage in tends to be more or less garbage out, and it may be a while before I can consistently put anything other than garbage into the process.

This is pretty frustrating for me — if you know me, you know that I’m used to being good at the things I care about — but that’s probably a good sign in itself. It’s been a while since I had a challenge that wasn’t related to staying sane or staying alive. I’m probably (hopefully) at a point where I can step a notch or two up the hierarchy of needs. : )

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