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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.