I’m over it now, the crushing disappointment that is. And there’s a caveat – the film was expired.
This was the brief: twelve shots consisting of three portraits, three urban landscapes, three landmarks and three animals. And this is the background:
The Two Photographers
I’m Joel, a Royal Navy photographer and travel blogger at thebumpercrew.com, and my colleague is Jimmy, a Royal Air Force photographer. Collectively, we have 37 years of experience as military photographers and have covered operations in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief in the Caribbean, and even worked as the Official Photographer to the UK Prime Minster.
Jimmy and I learned our trades at the Defence School of Photography – one of the world’s last remaining military photography schools, where we had formal training but in very different worlds. Jimmy joined the Royal Air Force as a ‘Photog’ in the days of film, whereas I joined the Royal Navy ‘Phot’ trade in the digital world.
We both have an interest in film cameras, although mine is more to do with how good they look on the shelf, so we decided to shoot a roll of film as a bit of a challenge between us. Having not shot much film, the thought was exciting for me – getting to plan the shots and facing some difficulties that no longer exist in the digital world. Jimmy happened to have a roll of expired Kodak film he’d bought at the vintage market at Covent Garden that he could put to good use.
The One Camera
Jimmy only buys film cameras that work, whereas I only buy ones that look good, working or not. So, Jimmy brought in his old Nikon FM2 for us to shoot on. The FM2 is, or was, regarded as an advanced semi-professional SLR camera, noted for its reliability and durability. However, it didn’t seem that advanced to me. There’s no autofocus, auto modes, or metering because the battery was flat. But aside from that, we were all set, apart from how unaware I was of the varying results of expired film, but I’ll come back to that.
In our day jobs, we shoot Canon R5, and in our own time, we both shoot Fujifilm X-T5. Shooting such advanced cameras for over a decade has spoiled us. With brilliant autofocus, metering modes for any situation and auto ISO, the camera makes life so much easier than shooting on film. Plus, you get more chances to get the shots you need.
There’s no doubt photography has improved since the invention of digital sensors, but it’s also possible to argue digital photography has become slightly sterile. Each new camera is one step closer to perfection, and these days we talk about the ISO range and its noise performance or how ‘pinners’ the glass is. Listening to my colleagues, who all learnt on film, talk about the character of film, the ‘chemmies’, the problems shooting a football match on a ‘Blad’, or the light leaks we now chase in the digital world is quite enjoyable for me, and clearly, something they look back fondly on.
And there’s another benefit of film besides the character and enjoyment it brings. It makes us accept the imperfections because they represent something you can’t change or control in the same way. And there are far more variables in film, as I learned – from the quality of the camera body, lens and film to how the film is stored and developed, and no doubt there are even more variables I am yet to discover.
And beyond the variables of all of this, each frame is valuable. The frames are limited, and they cost a lot of money. Somewhere in the region of 90p per frame, in this case, with developing and scanning, which is not something we consider on a digital camera, despite digital cameras, lenses, and laptops being expensive to start out. Anyway, back to the varying results of expired film and its subsequent crushing disappointment.
The Crushing Disappointment of Film
The first disappointment was discovering I’d run out of film. Another first-world problem for digital photographers. These days, you buy a memory card, stick it in your camera, and it will tell you exactly how many shots can fit on the card. That’s not the case with film, obviously. But what isn’t apparent is that even the dial on the top, which tell you how many frames you have taken, might not even be accurate, as I found out.
I thought I had five shots left. As I lined up the best shot of a pigeon I had ever taken (a female pecking a male in St James’s Park, which I’m sure many of us find somewhat relatable, Ha!), I set the exposure, unlocked the film and pressed the shutter. Nothing happened. What I had left was zero frames, not five. And then I didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t diagnose the problem. There’s no on/off switch to reset the camera. I guessed it was either a lack of film or a shutter problem. The latter was unlikely, so I messaged Jimmy to ask. It turns out there was a problem loading the film, and he had to cut some off. And that was that. Twelve frames turned into seven, and the rest of my shot list was history.
Speaking of frames left, here’s a side note – I learned that film is one continuous roll, and the frames aren’t really frames at all. The frames are created once the shutter opens and the film is exposed. But you already knew that because you’re all die-hard film fans.
The second disappointment, which was the big one, was when the email with the WeTransfer file from Snappy Snaps arrived in my inbox. Initially, I felt super excited until I opened the zip file and discovered the pictures. Never have I felt such excitement so closely followed by disappointment. Ha! The photographs were flat, milky and nothing like I expected them to be because who knew the expired film would be so rubbish? After a few minutes of considering whether the photographs were useable, I asked my wife, Stacey, if I could even submit the pictures for this article. She replied with a positive ‘yes’, as she usually would to any of my doubts. And she was right because this is the beauty of film and the subjective nature of whether you think expired film is rubbish or brilliant.
Hamish, Commander-in-Chief of 35mmc, suggested an edit on the files, which I did. However, I’m not convinced they are any better. Ha. But you can be the judge of that. Photography is subjective, after all. And if you’d like to find out what we get up to elsewhere, below are links to our Instagram channels and website:
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