Philosophy & Reflections Photos & Projects

The Remains of the Abandoned Microscopy Lab – Shooting Expired Film – Pt 2 – by Ricardo Andrade

November 4, 2020

In the previous chapter, I explained why I started shooting expired film. Briefly, I work as a microscopist in life sciences at the University of the Basque Country, in Bilbao, Northern Spain. After the transition to digital microscopy, I used the remains of the photography equipment which was abandoned at our laboratory. After almost 10 years, I have shot and developed about 100 rolls of expired film, using 21 different cameras I have been acquiring from friends or local vendors. Although It may sound as an economic folly, I have spent much less money in my 30+ film camera collection than in my 2 digital cameras. Besides, I could always sell them and recover part of the investment, something not possible with my devalued modern cameras.

In this chapter I am going to dig a little deeper into the results of my nonsense endeavour. I will show you some of the images I have obtained while searching for a photographic style. I will discuss the differences between shooting film and digital, and how grateful I am, as film photography has changed my perception of the world surrounding me.

Nature I:  tree branches remind me to the neurons I see under the microscope.

Still searching for a photographic style

I started reading books about photography. First about the technical aspects, then I focused on composition, on the different types of photography and the great photographers. I checked nature photography, street photography, portrait photography, macro photography and so on. I realised that I like them all (except war photojournalism, because then I would have to go to war). I also realized I am not good at any of them. I guess I don’t have the photographic eye, like my wife has. However, it is my hobby, not my job, so I don’t need to excel at it. I just have to enjoy it. And I do. A lot.

So what is my photography style? I just don’t have one, I am an omnivorous photographer. But there are some recurrent patterns I tend to photograph, so I have gathered the images under the following topics:

– My patient family
– In the city (buildings, the elderly)
– Nature (trees, cliffs, landscapes)
– The pandemic Guggenheim

My patient family: film photography is fun but takes time, it requires preparation, will and feedback. My teenage daughters and my wife wait patiently while I fight against my old cameras and my aged sight.

Why I don’t shoot (a lot of) digital

After a few compact digital cameras, I bought an Olympus EP1 in 2008. I used it extensively while my daughters were growing up. I enjoyed it a lot, and played around with vintage lenses, bellows and adapters. The shutter died after 35000 shots, so I bought the same camera from a friend, and then I got a second hand Olympus EM5, which is my current camera.

It is the one I use to digitize the negatives, using bellows together with a Leitz focotar lens from the old enlarger we had at the laboratory. However, my phone photography took over my digital camera as soon as they became good enough. I have used an iphone 5, a Samsung S7 and an iphone 6s. I use google photos to upload and synchronize every image I take.

The problem with phone photography is that it is too easy. GAS becomes PAS (Photography Acquisition Syndrome) and the number of photos becomes unmanageable. Too many bad photos. And besides, everybody does it. Instagram is full of great photographers, but we all can be good photographers by statistics. You shoot at everything you see and some of the photos are good, or even great. However, I ended up getting tired and did not have as good a moment when composing with a phone, when compared to using an old camera with a story behind it, loaded with outdated film from the lab.

In the city I: buildings

Slow photography: eyes wide open

Going out for a walk in Bilbao with a different camera or film every time is now part of my routine. Visiting neighborhoods I still don’t know from my own city. Seeing how this city is changing rapidly. The Guggenheim museum has surely changed the rough soul of Bilbao, but it has also provided us with a future other than the grey post-industrial debacle we were heading to. The COVID pandemic has now left an empty museum worth visiting, in case you get the chance to travel.

As I roam around the streets of Bilbao, I look at people and I try to muse about the story behind them. I especially worry about the elderly, sitting lonely on a bench at a park during their eternal afternoons. As anyone doing street photography, there is a mixture of curiosity, restlessness and tribute, but I don’t like being morbid and taking photos of the unfortunate people wandering around.

In the city II: the elderly

In a more relaxed photographic style, I enjoy watching the facades and doors of buildings. I am always amazed by the structure of the branches of the trees in autumn, resembling the neuronal connections I usually capture under the microscope. Shooting film and not knowing if the images will come out or be valid is another flux of excitement that is not easy to explain to people outside film photography. Remembering those vanished moments by swiftly looking through the developed negatives while they are still wet is a compulsive act I enjoy every time.

In the city III: slow photography. I consider myself a walk photographer rather than a street photographer.

The pandemic Guggenheim

Bilbao became a touristic spot when this magnificent museum was built, in the ruins of the post-industrial dismal. I enjoy being a tourist with a camera in my own city, although I do notice I repeat myself a bit too much. The COVID pandemic has suddenly emptied the surroundings of this amazing piece of art.

The pandemic Guggenheim: a tourist in my own city.

The album

Shooting “only” 36 shots reminds me of the music era, when I would listen to full albums from my favorite bands, or I would make a mixtape for a friend. Music is also another of my hobbies. I used to play in indie bands, toured extensively in the early 90s and worked at a record store temporarily. I wish I had more photos from those days.

Now I use Spotify and I discover great music everyday. As with digital photography, music access has become too easy, but I enjoy discovering new music through this media and I hardly listen to my collection of CDs and vinyls anymore. However, at present I don’t get the same joy taking pictures with phones or digital cameras. I guess that’s why I shoot film.

Nature II: cliffs & landscapes

Looking back: was it all worth it?

After almost ten years of film photography and 100+ expired films, I have decided to write about my experience for the first time, as I am not present on any public social network. It has been hard to organize everything and to select the images. It is also a bit embarrassing to see some of them or to show you the mistakes I have made, due to my lack of knowledge, my impatience or my joy collecting junk cameras.

If you have not used film cameras before, or if the last time you did it was some decades ago, would I recommend you to start doing it? Well, only if you want to slow down. Only if you want to think twice before shooting, spend more time composing, checking the available light, control aperture and shutter speed, focus on your subject instead of letting the camera do it all for you. If you are tired of pixel peeping and want to enjoy the grain of film instead, then maybe you should give it a try. If you happen to like it like I do, it will probably change the way you look at the world around you, from the fast perspective of a phone screen to the narrow but more focused sight through a viewfinder. Whatever you do, happy composing!

Note: in case you are interested to know which camera or film I used in any of the pictures, or see any mistakes that deserve correction, or just want to comment about any other issue, please let me know in the comments section.

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  • Reply
    November 4, 2020 at 10:43 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. I am a newbie to film photography, recently bought a 35mm camera and became hooked. Much the same sentiments as Ricardo.

    I have just bought a 6 x 6 medium format camera also, and will only use the digital camera for my wildlife photography.

    Still on a learning curve with film, to use a cliche, it’s about the journey – rather than the destination.

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    November 4, 2020 at 1:28 pm

    This was a great read. I especially like the picture of the boy on the beach with flag. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Peter Kornaukhov
    November 4, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Perfect thoughtful filmshots. I’ve got only a digital chromatograph in my lab and so cannot get the materials and shoot film so much 🙂

  • Reply
    Stuart L Marcus
    November 4, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    Lovely article with excellent and even outstanding photographs. You prove once again that there are no great cameras without great photographers! I hope you will consider publishing future articles, perhaps using a specific piece of gear for another project.

  • Reply
    Ben Garcia
    November 4, 2020 at 10:05 pm

    Lovely pictures, Ricardo! I, too, cherish the part of film photography that makes one slow down a bit. Not knowing exactly how the image will turn out is the best part of it all, imo. Because of that, I’m more drawn to the not-so-perfectly-made cameras like the Holgas and Lomo What-nots.

  • Reply
    Paulino Vito Varela
    November 4, 2020 at 11:53 pm

    Olá Ricardo, buenas noches. I enjoyed you words an feelings about photography. I ama a person justa like you: several old câmeras and experimenting than in many ways. I do have some idgitla stuff but I enjoy the slow film picture taking, developing and printing. I still keep my old photo lab. Good lucky and keep sharing your thoughts.

  • Reply
    Jonathan MacDonald
    November 5, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    A very enjoyable article with some superb photos. I’d like to know more about your software process for treating the negatives after “scanning” with the digital camera as the results are excellent.

  • Reply
    Ricardo Andrade
    November 5, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you all very much for your comments. It’s great to know we are so many people “complicating” our lives with vintage photography. Jonathan, there is nothing special in my digitazing process. I have been using different setups through the years, with what I had available at the time. Now I use an old 35mm negative holder (of unknown origin) in which the film strip is sandwiched and I can move it fast from frame to frame. My latest ilumination source is an LED downlight panel I got at a depot store (at home illumination). It takes about 5-10 min to shoot a 36exp roll with my Olympus Em5 mark I, using bellows and an enlarger lens. I shoot in jpeg, monochrome, low ISO and play with exposure, nothing fancy. Afterwards, I open all the images as a sequence in FIJI/ImageJ, an amazing open source software we use in microscopy. I batch invert them and save them as a sequence of images with the proper name (roll number, camera and film type). That’s another 5 minutes. I upload them to google photos and play with them until I am happy with the results (adjust them to taste, they say). Photoshop, Lightroom, Gimp or even Picasa were much better than google photos, which is quite limited and lacks many important features, but I have become another google dependent lazy human… uups…sorry for the long reply

  • Reply
    November 11, 2020 at 11:40 pm

    Great to read your words and see your photographs, Ricardo! -Marq

    • Reply
      Ricardo Andrade
      November 12, 2020 at 7:45 am

      Hi Marq, great to hear from you! Thanks for your comment. Hope to see you soon taking pictures at the azkena

  • Reply
    November 16, 2020 at 8:06 am

    Very interesting essay about the joy of photography. I stopped shooting film so long ago I almost forgot. I remember writing all my notes in my notebook. Technical notes, mainly aperture, exposure time, ISO speed and focal length of each of the 36 pictures in the roll. Then I became a pro, the digital revolution caught me fully and a few years after I hid all my old analogic equipment. I miss that, for sure. Reading this article and watching Ricardo´s black and white shots taken in my hometown brings back so much memories, all of them good. So, if I ever take my old equipment for a photostroll again, you, tocayo, will be to blame 🙂 And you´ll be the first to know, too. Cheers!!

    • Reply
      Ricardo Andrade
      November 27, 2020 at 11:30 am

      Tocayo!! que ilusion!. I remember you were always hanging around with a film camera and lots of guitars. Now I wished I knew more about photography back then, so we could have shared not only rehearsals and gigs, but also taking photos. Next time you come home, we have to meet and do some film experimentation. I would love to learn from you again, this time about photography. Big big love to you & your family. Can’t wait to meet Elliot…

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