Philosophy & Reflections

Reflecting on Some Film Photography Failures – by Simon King

December 7, 2019

As we approach the end of the year, and nights draw in closer, and colder, I’m taking the opportunity to go through my archive of photographs, in order to start curating them into some form of order. 2019 has been my first serious year for film photography, having settled into my gear and workflow. I’ve been shooting exclusively film for my personal, street, and journalistic work.

The more I shoot the more mistakes I make, the more lessons I learn, the better the work I produce next becomes. I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made both in my understanding of the film process and the improvements to my style and approach when actually shooting.

In film photography I can’t simply delete my failures, they exist next to my best images, on the same negative strip, side by side. I can’t look at one without seeing the other. This means I am constantly reminded of areas I can improve, especially when it comes to technical aspects.

I’ve always been happy to share my failures, but it’s interesting in a piece like this to see the diversity of the sort of mistakes, whether through a shortcoming of knowledge or simple slip-ups. After all, to shamelessly paraphrase Anna Karenina: every well exposed image is the same, but every mistake is made differently!

I have far more than these examples of my failures, but the “5 Frames With” format works excellently for making a point succinctly, so have included only a handful – I selected images which I think have some kind of artistic merit despite the obvious mistake.

An accidental double exposure at the end of a roll of FujiFilm Venus 800, on my Olympus XA. I overwound it and didn’t realise it was the last shot. Featuring fellow photographers Bas, and Rhea.

Underexposed long exposure – totally losing the detail of the train rushing past on the lower half of the frame. Needed to be at about 1/4ths, instead I metered at 1/15ths – however this was on JCH Street Pan, which I think let me down on a few exposures.

Cinestill 800 on my M4. This one was an absolute beginner move, it was the last shot of the roll and I opened the back of the camera, eager to load the next, while totally forgetting to rewind this one! Luckily only this and a couple of other frames were affected, the rest of the shots were clean. This was the closing fireworks display at Green Man Festival, 2018.

This frame was the first of the roll, again loaded in a high pressure environment and I wanted to take this immediately. If I’d wound on properly and “wasted” the 00 frames then this would be a neat row of Officers – instead it’s only the one at the end. Delta 100.

I’m still not sure what went wrong with this shot. Again, Cinestill 800, and taken on my F3 while in Iceland in January. I was on Langjökull Glacier, which at its highest point is 1480m above sea level. I’ve read that elevation, or icy conditions can cause electrical discharge, but I’ve never seen these weird circular patterns appearing across a frame. The grain is also very odd, and a shame as the images not taken on the glacier on the same roll were clean in comparison.

If you enjoyed this and want to see my work that actually turned out as intended (or close enough) head over to my Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

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  • Reply
    Dave Donnelly
    December 7, 2019 at 11:09 am

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s interesting the types of failures and I bet that these are more common than we think. I shoot more digital and I’ve noticed my hit rate with film better and hopefully this will impact my digital hit rate. I can’t remember who said ” to double your success you will double your failures “, but you can’t improve with out making some mistakes .

    • Reply
      December 7, 2019 at 11:27 am

      That’s a great saying! I’ll have to remember that!

  • Reply
    Steve Wales
    December 7, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    Interesting article Simon, and written so well as usual. Also reassuring I’m not the only one to make duds,
    I’ve always pondered on the aesthetic of film v digital and the trade off between ‘wait and see’ compared to instant results. As a dual media user I suppose I benefit from both.
    May I ask you what draws you in particular to the emulsion for your private and photo journalistic work?

    • Reply
      December 7, 2019 at 3:58 pm

      Thanks Steve! I think there’s a real value to sharing all aspects of a process – success and failure. It can really bring things into perspective to those looking to learn, or improve!

      I’m not sure what you mean by drawn to the emulsion? Could you kindly elaborate?

      • Reply
        David Cuttler
        December 7, 2019 at 9:25 pm

        You might consider picking one film and developer, and sticking with it. Then there will be less variables making it easier to identify your mistakes. Don’t change more than one thing at a time.
        A good choice would be either Tri-X or HP5+ and D76.

        No matter what, you will still make mistakes. Everyone does.

        • Reply
          December 8, 2019 at 4:10 am

          That’s close enough to my current approach – I’ll soon be dropping everything but Ilford for my black and white work, and only use Kodak for colour – but I wouldn’t be developing this myself so there’ll always be something out of my hands!

      • Reply
        Steve Wales
        December 10, 2019 at 7:35 pm

        Hi Simon, thanks for replying. I was basically interested why you choose film over digital.

        • Reply
          December 10, 2019 at 7:45 pm

          Ah, I see. That’s a long question, and you can kind of track my answer through my blog pots dating back as far as 2016ish! The simplest answer is that I started off digital only, and didn’t want to touch film, but I felt an obligation. Then after time I felt I started to prefer it until where I’m at today, where it’s just what I enjoy more. Every part from the shooting, the process, the community, and the feeling of accomplishment – that my work exists as a limited medium, in a legacy format.

  • Reply
    George Appletree photography
    December 7, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    What about development failure the last one?, drops not properly dried (those would have relief although some times not even that and won’t never disappear) or developer or even fixer. Or strangely somehow shadows of bended film holes on the film itself.
    Anyhow those kind of failures are not the worst and many times become the best shots of the roll. The really ugly failures are the ones in conception, when the whole picture is just a crappy idea from the beginning.
    Also, … a lot of dust in your scanner

    • Reply
      December 7, 2019 at 4:27 pm

      That’s a possibility – I don’t develop my own C41, so don’t know what specific errors can occur.
      I’m aware of the dust, and really don’t mind it. I’m always sure to clean my negatives and projector when printing though! That’s what matters.

      • Reply
        George Appletree photography
        December 8, 2019 at 11:18 am

        If you use them just as samples or just practice. But if your workflow is digital, it won’t never become a serious work from eventual scanner dust

        • Reply
          December 8, 2019 at 12:01 pm

          My scans are usually for online use – instagram, blogs etc. If the worst criticism someone has when they see them there is that there’s dust then I’d count that as a win!
          If I’m producing a darkroom print that will be dust free – any other situation as long as it doesn’t detract from the essence of the image I’m perfectly fine with it – I’d rather not spend time in photoshop, or even excessively cleaning my scanner and negatives, when I could be writing or shooting.

          • George Appletree Photography
            December 9, 2019 at 2:00 pm

            It’s an article about film failures this one. Removing all dust in a dark room is really a challenge just skilled personal can comply perfectly. But believe me, it would be double win if you remove it from your digitals too. I was also purist of the non perfection, but failures failures are

  • Reply
    Mark Kronquist
    December 7, 2019 at 11:25 pm

    The glacier one looks like Leica M9 sensor corrosion! Static discharge on winding in very cold, dry climates is not at all uncommon

    • Reply
      December 8, 2019 at 4:11 am

      I think that’s the most likely possibility!

  • Reply
    December 8, 2019 at 1:58 am

    I’ve given up on Cinestill 800. I used to love it but recently I’ve been getting an awful lot of light leaks and other abnormalities that I never get with other films used in the same cameras. Their quality control seems to have dropped off as I never had these issues a few years ago.

    Fun article!

  • Reply
    Matt Parry
    December 8, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    It’s a great article, Simon. I think it’s important to sort of celebrate those mistakes. And like you said they are right there on the roll. No getting away. I am sorting a project at the moment along these lines and I wonder if you would want to contribute to it? A zine of mistakes and errors.

    • Reply
      December 8, 2019 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks Matt! I think maybe not celebrate but definitely acknowledge and learn from! That sounds like a great project – feel free to reach out to me on instagram to chat about it!

  • Reply
    Ananya Shankar
    March 18, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    Hi, I’m just dipping my feet into film photography, just as a hobby and the variety of options for a camera is so confusing! I love your photographs, could you recommend a camera for a beginner?

    • Reply
      March 18, 2020 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks Ananya! For a beginner I think the Pentax K1000, Nikon FM, or Minolta x370/x700 are excellent choices. Any 50mm f/2ish will suit for the lens.
      Best of luck!

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