Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Film Pace

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Spend enough time with film photographers in the digital age, and you will inevitably hear someone say, “I shoot film to slow down” or “I shoot film because it encourages me to stop and think before I take a picture”. I call this assertion “film pace”, and it is usually untrue.

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The excuse that shooting film leads photographers to become more deliberate about their work is an unnecessary qualification for using an analog format over a digital one.  Certainly, there are things about the process of shooting digitally or with film that are idiosyncratic to either approach (ie. loading film cartridges or LCD image review), but the differences are usually to do with what comes before or after taking the picture.

During the exposure, digital almost exactly emulates the film camera experience because digital cameras were designed with a film heritage in mind.  Digital photography does not have to function in this way, and it is almost certain that, at some distant future point, digital photography will not function in this way.  For now though, you still usually bring the camera up to your face, compose your shot, and trigger the shutter in much the same way when using a digital SLR as a traditional film SLR.  So why does this equivocation of “film pace” exist?

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As the Founder and Director of an organization for photographers with hundreds of members, I see photographers who routinely shoot many more images than they need, and it is true that some of those images lack the standard trifecta of good photography (proper exposure, proper focus, proper composition).  The film photographer, who is limited in frames because of what they can carry or afford to process, views the photographer who shoots this way (creating thousands of images to pull out the best) as an affront, but it should be noted that nothing about the format requires the digital photographer to work in this way, or conversely, that nothing about the format requires the film photographer to shoot less (unless you want to count the likely technological advantage of frame rate in the digital cameras).

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In fact, in the film-only days, some photographers (sports, wildlife, news, etc.) shot with much the same mentality as this digital example.  What’s more, there are modern digital photographers who shoot just as deliberately and restrictively as their film counterparts.  The truth is, if you want to force yourself to shoot more slowly and deliberately, you must condition yourself to do so whether or not you use film.

I think that the reason why film photographers feel that distinctions between formats must be pointed out is because there are so many more obstacles to shooting film than there are to shooting digitally, just as there are so many more obstacles to shooting with a DSLR than there are to shooting with a smartphone, though in both cases, this is much more about technology aligning with the shortening attention span of consumers than about inherently better or worse ways to make a photograph. Still, with film, you are conducting a chemical process mechanically with your hands (if you see everything through to the print), which is perhaps a further leap than the gap separating digital platforms.

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As someone who shoots both digitally and with film, I see advantages to both. For me, digital is the more convenient format that offers both laser accuracy (in terms of reproduction and color) and extreme manipulation (Photoshop), whereas with film, I value the process and slight unpredictability. Though, with either format, I do shoot at the same slow and deliberate pace.

How about all of you; do you value film or digital above the other? If so, why (though, if you say that film forces you to slow down, I might find you where you live…)?

All images shot at Fort Bellefontaine in North St. Louis County. This, the first U.S. Military fort west of the Mississippi, harbored Lewis and Clark upon return from their westward exploration in 1806. Though the stone structures appear very old, they are not a part of the original Fort. The walls and stairs were built as a Works Progress Administration project, and were designed for recreation, not defense.


7 Responses

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  1. christierooks said, on March 9, 2016 at 1:46 am

    I’m a student so take what I say with a grain of salt I haven’t been taking pictures for more than a few years. I started with a digital. It was helpful to learn with a digital and have the instant feed back as to what I was doing and have the metadata to analyze, granted I could done that by taking field notes but that’s just one more thing to carry. I’ve been doing black and white darkroom developing for the last 6 months. I totally agree that film does not have to be the thing that makes me slow down and think before each shot, but it does. I’ve also come to realize that you can still use the bad shot, I have more of an appreciation for the captured light on film that I’ve labored to developed. My hand developed images have a very different quality than my digital pictures. Each format has their pros and cons I don’t want to pick sides.
    Your images are beautiful the second one is just gorgeous.

  2. Snaptastic said, on March 9, 2016 at 2:38 am

    Nice article, and you make a valid point, however: Yes, the experience is the same, but you seem to be forgetting the cost difference when the shutter is clicked. (Ok, the cost comes both before when buying film and after when spending the time/money developing it, but it is directly related to whether or not you choose to take the shot.) For many (most?) this is a significant factor. I learned to shoot pretty slowly and deliberately with my dslr before I started using film, but I still probably shoot 2-3 times slower when I shoot with film. In my case, “film pace” is not the reason I shoot film, but it can certainly could be for some people. In particular, people who spray and pray at 9fps could learn a lot from shooting film and “film pace”.

  3. Jason Gray said, on March 9, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Hi Snaptastic, thanks for your response.

    I would definitely agree that, for 35mm shooters, there is a cost barrier to using film long term compared to shooting a full-frame DSLR (even with the initial higher cost of the digital camera), which is probably where the notion of “film pace” comes from. However, for larger formats, the cost tends to favor film. After all, you could go through a lot of T-Max and chemistry on a used Bronica ETRSi before you ever get close to the cost of a Pentax 645Z (let alone a Phase One or digital Hassie).

    You bring up time, and although the length of time to shoot, process and present a single image is longer with film, I would argue that this swings opposite when comparing the time investment between doing this for a roll of film vs. 10,000 digital images shot at the same event at 9fps. I know many digital wedding photographers, for example, who spend several weeks (sometimes months) editing their images from a single event in order to achieve a very specific look.

    My whole point being that one should shoot with a careful consideration of the resulting image no matter what format you choose, and that most examples of film photographers shooting slower/less have to do more with the cost of 35mm film vs. 35mm digital than any factor truly unique to film (after all, most Phase One shooters I know still shoot very few frames with those cameras).

  4. Jason Gray said, on March 9, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Hi Christie, thank you for your reply to this post!

    Also, very interesting article on how the mind perceives visual stimuli. In the Museum/Gallery world there is a traditional argument about how best to present artwork in those settings to maximize the viewer’s relationship to those objects. The Louvre established the Salon method and has presented research illustrating that even when works are tightly grouped together, the brain has the ability to separate them and analyzes them independently. Most other Western museums feel that space needs to exist between works for the viewer’s mind to properly engage. Have you come across these declarations?

    I digress… Back to your reply. I think that you summarize my view when you say, “film does not have to be the thing that makes me slow down and think before each shot, but it does.” We can have, and should have, that same approach when shooting digital, but perhaps we get too caught up in the temptation to review the shot or the pressure to immediately share it online that this is interrupted for us when using digital cameras. Try taping over your back LCD screen in order to build a resistance to that urge to review the image directly after the shot. I shoot very similarly using either film or digital cameras; with DSLRs, I turn off the auto-review feature, and often shoot an entire set without looking at the screen. You’ll find that eventually you get a “feel” for what the exposure should be, and even when you question that, a quick bracket (just like in the film-only days) solves the problem.

    That said, utilizing the back LCD for tricky lighting situations or for when the exposure must be perfectly accurate does not make the digital shooter less than the film shooter (I know that you haven’t said this). In the commercial film studio days, Polaroid film played the same role.

    You bring up darkroom printing, and you are so right, there really is no digital equivalent to the satisfaction of seeing that image emerge from the developer, even when it is a crappy shot.

    Thank you again for writing, and for the kind words on my work. I am going to follow your blog and see what else you are up to!

  5. Jason Gray said, on March 9, 2016 at 9:53 am

    This was a comment on the article from my Facebook Page. I am adding it here to keep the dialog centralized.

    David Rocco: “This is a non-issue created by folks who pick up a film camera (which is probably not a pro-level auto everything, motor driven camera from the mid90’s) for a couple weeks and realize they technically have to slow down and adjust. This becomes attached to a pseudo-spiritual or nostalgic experience which seems to disappear rather quickly based on my personal observation of the overall lack of analog photographs and exhibitions, generally speaking (outside of the classroom).
    Take away the associated costs of film, you’re left with the time it takes to reload. If you’re working a real journalism or sports gig (which one wouldn’t use film for) you’d have two cameras and a motor. I’m not old enough to have had that experience, but it appears they made it work just fine.
    When I rarely pick up my 5dmkii, I tend to shoot double what I would with my M6. Mostly, these extra frames are during speed bursts as I make micro adjustments to the composition. I tend to come away with better success shooting digital, which is why I find it boring. I’d call it ‘digital pace’.

    I believe ‘film pace’ should also include ‘print pace’. A scanned film negative is nothing more than a raw file which I consider digital imaging and not photography and to me rendering it pointless in the film vs digital conversation. A negative has the same potential of a brush with paint on it. It is a means to an end, with great power, of course. (I’m not diminishing the creation of the negative)
    ‘Print pace’ would have to include the time it takes to actually make the analog print from the negative, thus keeping with the medium. In my view, a raw file is a digital image which is designed to be manipulated digitally, and printed in any number of ways. Overall, the pace here is rather quick and not very exciting, based on my experience of using this process for thousands of images in the past.

    To conclude, I agree with your article. Different mediums, different naturally occurring paces, which is ultimately controlled by the user. The film v digital conversation was only relevant around the turn of the century when the quality of digital images was still only worse or as good and what a negative could produce and pros/consumers had to decide on when to switch.”

    Me: “Hi Dave, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to the article. Do you mind if I copy and paste it to the blog? It just makes for easier and more organized archiving of the conversation. I had a feeling that either you or Andy (or both) might respond to this, and hoped that the writing does not come off as negative toward film. I would disagree that the film vs. digital argument is no longer relevant, but I do believe that the wrong arguments are still being made (such as “film pace”, film resolution, the disembodied angel songs played when one holds a film camera, etc.). In fact, there are many fully rational reasons to shoot one over the other. For instance, if you need the benefits of a larger format, film is much less expensive than its digital counterpart when you move up from 35mm, and film has a proven archival history if you care about the longevity of your images. You get the picture… ;)”

    David: “Sure thing, copy and paste away. Thanks for keeping the dialog going!”

  6. christierooks said, on March 10, 2016 at 12:07 am

    I’ve had minimal seminar discussions on this but I understand the difference of the salon versus modern gallery. I’ve had three different public exhibitions of my classes works. The first was a salon style it was an inquire based relief printmaking. I’ve had two in the modern style of my classes black and photography. Personally I find space desirable. Just because a brain has the ability to separate the images it may not happen easily. Why make it work harder than it has too? I find white space is like a breath of fresh air, it lets the eyes rest.
    When I use my DSLR I don’t use the auto review it drains the battery and it get’s in the way of night photography. Working in the dark has given me a better understanding how to use photoshop. I’ve been doing experimental dark room developing reflecting on layering in photoshop has helped me see how to manipulate my images in the darkroom.
    If you can’t tell I rarely post on my blog. I prefer working with and on substrates. I’m working on posting my latest project. I’ve made 10 images that correspond to my dream psychology journals entry. I may share a few of my dreams with their waking world representations. This was a very surreal class at a strange school.

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