Essay, Photography

Cameras and composition are only part of the photographic equation, but they’re my favorite part

Photography has changed a great deal in the last 40 years. If you think back 80 years, photography then had more in common with photography 40 years ago than photography 40 years ago has with photography now. Technology has changed so much about it, and I don’t mean just the advent of digital cameras. Technological advances let us easily make photographs now we couldn’t 40, or 20, or even 10 years ago. We can manipulate our photographs with software in ways that wet-darkroom artists of yore couldn’t fathom. How we view photographs has changed radically as well, given that we look at most of them on screens now!

40 years ago, we had film, film cameras, and the darkroom. I was in high school 40 years ago, and oh how I wanted to be in the Photography Club! But to enter you had to take at least one photography class, and to take that class you had to buy an SLR camera. I was so sure that camera was out of my working-class family’s reach that I didn’t bother asking.

I came upon an Argus A-Four, a 35mm viewfinder camera, at a yard sale for four bucks. I puzzled over the controls, as I didn’t know the first thing about exposure. One of my friends was in the Photography Club, so I asked him. “f/8 and be there,” he said as he gave me a bulk-loaded cartridge of Plus-X from the club stash. He told me to shoot the roll, and then he’d teach me how to develop the film and make a contact print in the school darkroom.

I found developing and printing to be tedious and boring. It was sort of cool to see my images materialize on the contact sheet, but the work to get there held no interest for me. I realized that perhaps it was just as well I couldn’t get into the Photography Club, because everybody had to develop and print their own work. I realized that I really wanted only to learn about the camera and about composition.

The majority of the photos members of the Photography Club took never found an audience outside the Photography Club. There was an annual photo contest at the school, and the winners’ prints were displayed in the hallway. Some Photography Club members also made photos for the school newspaper and the yearbook. Occasionally a club member would find their work selected for display at the Art Center downtown.

I still have the negatives and the contact sheet (sadly cut into strips for easier storage). I’m very happy to have these images! I scanned the negatives a few years ago. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll. Meet my friend Karen, who used to drive me home from school every day in her big Chevy.

Karen and her car
My friend Karen and her car. Argus A-Four, Kodak Plus-X, 1984

Now that I’ve started developing my black-and-white film and scanning it at home (to save lab costs and get images faster), I understand well what many photo bloggers I admire have written for years: a negative holds so many possibilities. That’s why the high-school photography class required students to develop and print their own work, so they could experience and understand that for themselves. Knowing how to use a camera and compose interesting and pleasing photographs is only half the equation. Processing the film to get a good negative and knowing how to print (or scan) that negative well is the other half.

Technology has given us enormously capable digital cameras today, removing the messy and occasionally smelly chemicals from the process. Slip your SD card into your computer, fire up Photoshop, and you can do a great deal of processing even to a JPEG to conform it to your vision. If you shoot RAW, you can do a great deal more with your images.

But little has changed for me: I will probably always be happiest when I nail the image in the camera, and then nail the development and scanning when I shoot film, so that I need do little or no post processing to get the image I want. Given my documentary style of photography, I’m looking to capture the scene as I saw it. When that’s not possible, I’ll settle for an image that looks like the scene could look that way in real life.

Meanwhile, I will keep sharing my work here for you to see. The folks in the Photography Club probably would have died and gone to heaven over having that option.

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21 thoughts on “Cameras and composition are only part of the photographic equation, but they’re my favorite part

  1. Me too. I am putting together a darkroom, but have yet to take the plunge and develop my own film. And, I feel a little bit as though I am cheating if I edit an image other than trimming or cropping, even though I know all good photographers do it. Having said that, I have recently started using photoscape, which is free, and remarkably capable.

    • Of everything that happens after I click the shutter, the Photoshop part is my least un-favorite. I don’t mind doing a little tweaking of the images. But only a little!

  2. I have to admit that I ducked the film processing and used to get a lab to do that. But I learned a lot playing with black and white printing.
    I still love to get the shot right in camera.

    • I still send out my color film. Sometimes, especially after a developing session goes wrong, I think I should go back to sending out my b/w too.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Here’s a different viewpoint, but on the same track: As a lifelong professional, who spent most of his time trying to “get it all” on the film frame; when digital came along, and basically took over professional photography, I lost interest! Thank God I was already in management.

    I loved composition, I loved lighting (both selecting the view because the lighting was ‘right’, or creating the lighting with professional equipment), I loved the mechanical equipment (especially view cameras), I loved the lenses, I loved the technology associated with film, both color and black & white.

    I spent years processing and printing black & white film, but only because there was so much variation in the process, there weren’t any labs in my area I could trust. E-6 was so rigid, that a lab was either doing it correctly, or they weren’t, and it was easy to tell. A lot of general labs used to do black & white as more of an “after-thought”, and it wasn’t very good. I actually always loved the skill of doing black & white film, maybe I was just genetically predisposed to be good at it? In grade school, when I first used metal wire spools for film developing, the film fairly leapt on the reels, and I know adults today that have tried for years and can’t do it!

    In the end, it’s the result that counts, I have a buddy who’s a filmmaker, that was an early adopter of both video and digital video. He maintains that the whole focus is to get the idea out in some form that’s viewable. 20 years after the fact, digital video, dependent on the settings, can look every bit as good as shooting 70mm movie film 40 years ago; I know, I’ve seen it!

    Unfortunately for me, for still photography, it’s the whole process for me. I loved all aspects of film work. Testing and selecting film to use for a project, processing and printing black & white, testing new developers, etc. etc. I love virtually nothing about digital, I am just forced to use it professionally. I never got into photography to spend most of my time in front of a computer messing around with photo files. I got into it to meet people, work one-on-one with subjects, and see the beauty of a nice big transparency. I know in places I’ve worked, like San Francisco, today, even people who think like me, can drop their RAW files off at a color service and get them converted to .tiff for an ad agency, having worked with the service before to ear-mark how they like their stuff to look. This service is rarely available in the fly-over, so too much computer work. If I wanted to sit all day in front of a computer, I would have gotten into computer programming 40 years ago, and actually gotten paid for that skill instead of lousy photographers money.

    I tell people I mentor all the time, If photography existed digitally the way it does today, back when I was in grade and high-school, I wouldn’t have even been interested in it; I would be in an entirely different field, and possibly an amateur oil painter or sketcher.

    • I’ve always been drawn to electronics, but I’m not sure I would have been this into photography without film and film cameras. They were the gateway for me.

    • tbm3fan says:

      I am the same way with photography as I think all aspects are part of photography. As a six year old just shooting pictures was amazing. When I reached 12 and the seventh grade, in public school for only that year, I had to pick an elective. I picked printing because I heard if you finished all your projects you would get into the darkroom. Naturally I finished in record time and got the darkroom to myself along with only one other student. That is where I learned my darkroom skills. Started with making our own pinhole camera and worked up from there. Picked it back up in college in the schools darkroom by taking photography classes even though I was a science major. My mother had a darkroom installed in their house which was used from 1973-1995. Today I still get a kick opening up the tank after the washing of film is done.

  4. I’ve never much enjoyed developing film. It always seemed like just a necessary step to get into the darkroom and start printing. And I think, at least for me, the printing process is a lot more fun when you have the proper environment…a decent darkroom with plenty of space, good ventilation, running water and a proper sink, good music and lots of time to just tinker around and get good prints. I haven’t had that kind of darkroom since the mid 1990s in my house in Arizona.

    • I’ve come to the place where developing the film is just a task and I can do it in under a half hour, so it’s not too bad. But just yesterday I developed a roll and something in the process went wrong, probably exhausted developer, and it didn’t turn out very well. Maddening. Makes me want to just let the pros do all of my film like I used to.

      I only printed that one contact sheet. I wonder if I’d enjoy printing if I got into it. I’m not likely to find out; no community darkrooms here, and no place to set one up in this house.

  5. I would suggest to anyone starting out in photography that they learn how to do it “the film way” – even if they don’t use film. The more you understand about getting the shot the way you want it right from the cameras the less time you’ll spend post-processing, whether on the computer or in the darkroom. Using a digital camera as though it were a film one is the best way to get the results you want, regardless of what those results may be.

    • That’s good advice. People sometimes ask me advice on getting started in photography and I recommend they buy an old film SLR to learn the ways of exposure, as most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras never teach that stuff because of all the automation. Seriously, on my Nikon Df, you can just use it like a point and shoot and never learn a thing.

        • Andy Umbo says:

          You’d be surprised about how many “old timers” that love film, have chosen Fuji for their digital camera…ditto about the setting sand dials…I like M4/3rd’s, but the Olympus I have is almost not understandable, compared to a Fuji…

  6. No question that image making has undergone vast technological development. What hasn’t changed is the ad hype about the latest techno gadget being a magical key to making better pictures.

  7. I do enjoy what people do with film and old cameras nowadays but I am very firmly in the digital camp. Maybe it is my minimalist attitude but cutting out film development makes things more efficient and allows to me focus on taking pictures. It is similar with digital post processing….If I can cut it out it helps me focus on actually seeing scenes. Therefore I really like Fuji’s film sims and the ability of electronic viewfinders to accurately show how the scene will be captured.

    I also never get why people do film and then scan the negatives. At least print them out on a physical medium. Maybe it is the process that is enjoyable.

    Nevertheless great that you kept the images from those days. It feels like a time machine.

    • I scan my negatives rather than print them because printing requires a darkroom, and I don’t have space to build one. I’m not even sure I want to go down that rabbit hole. If I need a print — it’s blasphemy, I know, but it’s what I do — I upload the scan to walgreens.com (pharmacy chain) and have them print it!

  8. No darkroom again. Ever. Been there done that. I minimally use Photoshop to remove things in the real scene that I can’t remove with composition. The film world is fun but limiting and the digital world offers endless possibility.

    • I would like to try real darkroom again, make some prints, see if I like it. But I’m not so motivated that I’m going to work hard to seek it out.

  9. I just had this exact conversation with my friend last night. I have zero interest in darkroom technique and I find it annoying that some people use it as a standard to gauge if another person is worthy of “photography talk” or not based on whether he or she enters the darkroom. In any case, your post post made me realize perhaps that’s exactly why so many photographers took up digital photography and never looked back, that the elimination of darkroom work makes the process so much more fun for them.

    • I am currently having a lot of negative feelings about developing and scanning film. Either I pay a lot of money to have someone do it for me, or I do it myself and accept all the ways I can screw it up. If I didn’t so deeply enjoy using my film cameras, I’d give up, sell them all, and just shoot my Nikon Df for the rest of my life.

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