Breaking a Rut With A Return To Film – By Chris Ledda

Back in April as the pandemic raged, a quiet chord of inspiration struck me. I made the conscious decision to start shooting on film again. It had been awhile, I’d estimate somewhere in the ballpark of at least 10 years since I last shot a roll of film. When I was 14 my mother gifted me her Canon AE-1 that she had bought in the late 70’s, so from a young age I always had a curiosity and interest in cameras. It was the tactile interactivity that fascinated me. A camera’s intricate simplicity, with all it’s levers, gears, winders and buttons to press and shift. A beautiful orchestra of moving parts working together with plastic and chemicals to capture a 2D representation of our world, what could be better!

It was this interactivity that initially drew me towards photography. I learned to load film and compose an image, this was the second phase of my falling in love with the craft. The joy of going out into the world, shutting off my busy brain and just letting my eyes do the work. These were wonderful heady days.

Shadows on Concrete pt. 1
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | some shadows caught my eye
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | The chimney of my childhood home
Self Portrait
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | a self portrait, oh so young.
Weird Sighting
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | A rare sighting of the mini golf dragon
Main Street | Ocean Street
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | A view of Main Street and Ocean Street
Folk Reflected
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | Reflections of folks
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | Time is fleeting, how quickly it goes by
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | Sailing the streets
From 10 years ago shot on the Canon AE-1 | A family taking a breather!

So what the hell happened? Why did I stop shooting on film, and almost stop photography all together?

Well, that’s a set of questions I’ve been looking for answers to for a while now. Why do we do anything, and why do we stop? Everyone surely has a different answer to these questions. Mine? For the most part, time, interest, depression, money, anxiety, laziness. You know, all the little excuses we make along the way and let override that part of ourselves. I was weak, and in many ways I still am. I still let little things make or break a day.

But I’m learning to let go of those things, I’m learning to forgive myself, push past the distractions, the failures, the excuses. I’m starting to realize that time is precious, so why not spend it doing something that brings you joy. To hell with what everyone else thinks, to hell with the voices in your own head telling you you’re no good, to hell with the demon’s on your shoulder whispering “What’s the point?!” to hell with it all! Go shoot some film!

It Begins Again

So, that’s just what I did, I dusted off the old Canon AE-1, picked up a couple rolls of Ilford XP2 Super from my local shop, loaded up the camera, and got out there. It was incredibly liberating. Aside from being locked up in isolation for the past couple of months, I’d been in a rut for a while. I wasn’t satisfied with my job, I wasn’t creatively fulfilled in nearly any part of my life. I had taken myself off social media which was doing wonders for my mental health, but it had also slowed me down on my creative endeavors. I wasn’t taking pictures, I wasn’t creating things because I felt “what’s the point, no one is going to see them.”

I realized that by going back to analogue, I sort of broke that rut, that cycle of; shoot, post, instant (but ultimately minimal) gratification, repeat. I wasn’t shooting for the admiration of strangers anymore. I was shooting for myself. I found myself excited after finishing off a roll, wondering “hmm, I can’t wait to see how that shot of such and such will come out/look.” It was weird. I felt something I hadn’t in a long time. An excitement, nay, a desire to see my own images. The knowledge that there was absolutely zero pressure to post or share was such a novelty. In this day and age where everything moves so quickly and is forgotten immediately it was a beautiful reminder that I needed to slow down. That I could slow down.

Yashica Mat 124
part of the light-seal from the film canister. Oops.
Big Fan
Honestly, my biggest fan.

Slow And Steady

The nature of analogue photography is incredibly slow by today’s standards. It forces you to think about your shot, it forces you to be patient, it forces you to really drink in the world around you while you’re out there, and then, when it’s all said and done, you need to be more patient while your film develops. The reward for all this waiting however is way more lasting than a little heart on a photo could ever be.

The first hit comes from holding up your negatives to the light for the first time, seeing the images you made potentially weeks earlier in a physically tangible form is pure bliss. I was incredibly fortunate with my first roll I shot, every image came out, and then some, 39/36. Now, none of them were groundbreaking photos and none of them are surely winning any awards, and one is a partial frame but the mere fact that a 30+ year old machine that had gone unused for 10 years was able to perform is a testament in itself.

The next step for me was scanning in these images so my old eyes could really appreciate the time and effort I had put in. This process of course is not a speedy one, nor would I have it any other way. Again with the theme of slowing down, and taking your time; first loading the negative tray, placing it in the scanner, selecting the frames and digitizing the negatives and finally listening to it whir and hum while it works. There is something almost meditative about the process, you get into a groove, an almost trance-like state, and before you know it, everything’s digitized.

These negatives aren’t done giving yet. As I said the lasting reward of this process is well worth the wait. For me this means one final step. Converting those negatives to positives. Now there are many ways to do this and some scanners can do this automatically for you. I chose to convert my negatives in Lightroom using a plugin called Negative Lab Pro. Now this makes for a slightly lengthier process but again I feel the reward is in the wait.

Once everything is digitized converting the negatives is the last piece of the puzzle. It’s also the first time you get to see your images in their true form. That last hit, that tiny little thing, really makes the whole adventure. They say life is about the journey, and not the destination. I’d alter that slightly, and say that life is about both the journey AND the destination. One informing the other.

Moon Landing
one small step for man…

Ropes Beach It's a Sign

Sandy Path
Those leading lines, always drawn to those.
Open and Closed
black and white film lends it’s self well to cloudy days.
Big Chair
Honestly not even sure if it’s actually a chair…
Rock at Fort Hill
Getting back out there was challenging, but so very rewarding.

In Summation

For me, my return to film has been transformative. Giving myself permission to take my time with something, to do something creative for myself, to not worry about the results so much. To allow myself to just have fun again has restored some balance to my life. It’s given me an outlet minus the pressure. A place to experiment and make mistakes, to learn and grow, a space just for me, with no expectations.

Far out
Ilford XP2 super, through the Canon AE-1 | First roll in 10 years

Thank you for taking the time to read.

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About The Author

20 thoughts on “Breaking a Rut With A Return To Film – By Chris Ledda”

  1. Welcome back! I had taken a ten year break myself from 2007-2017. What brought me back was two things, 1) shooting my Canon AE-1 again (like you!), and 2) I was looking at full frames DSLRs and realized I own a “full frame” one already called the AE-1. Three years later I’m having a great time using my cameras (yes I’ve picked up a few more) and getting out there. It’s definitely much more of a zen experience than using a digital camera and getting quick results, as well as shooting way too many shots. I definitely think owning both film and digital cameras has made me a better photographer in that I can use digital as a training instrument to shoot better film shots, and film shows me that I don’t need to shoot 300 digital shots in one day.

    1. Hey Sean, Thanks! It’s nice to hear I’m not alone in that thinking, digital is great but just like you I found my self snapping 100’s of shots and not liking any of them. It became less about shooting photographs and more about a game of odds. It just wasn’t as enjoyable. Coming back to film is definitely teaching me patience and how to just let go. Thanks so much for the comment and taking a read, happy shooting! <3

  2. Primarily print in darkroom 🙂

    I understand the reasons for digitizing (I also do in some cases), but scanning is really meditative for you?
    And converting the negatives is the last piece of the puzzle?

    If you really want to take pictures for yourself, go the whole analog way.
    Scanning, converting, editing in LR/PS, post here, then IG/FB….what is the point? Take off the pink glasses and use digital camera again.
    Or better get a enlarger and then find out what it’s really about.

    1. Hmm. I take umbrage with this. The hybrid process is no less valid. Just because someone enjoys shooting film and then digitising doesn’t mean they are wearing rose tinted glasses, and should shoot digital. This is how I shoot, I have done for years now, and I’ve never been happier with my workflow. What works for the individual is what’s important, not complying to what’s traditionally accepted as the most complete analogue process.

      1. We also need to take into account that darkroom equipment is not feasible for everyone. I develop my negatives in my bathroom and I have barely enough room to do that (in the tub no less!). Using analogue is not about forsaking everything digital. For some, myself included, the portion we want analogue is the action of taking the pic, waiting for those results, and then seeing them come to life, even of that is on a computer screen. Second, there is a cost factor. My first child will be born in June and I am already second guessing the costs of film and developing kits. I can’t imagine adding the costs of darkroom equipment plus paper.

      2. I understand that today film photography is mostly about the hybrid process.

        Just look at some blogs, websites or YouTube channels dedicated to film photography…”how I scan my negatives”, “how I use a $ 3000 digital camera for scanning”, “how I edit photos on PC”

        If this is the current concept of film photography, it’s sad. We have a local group that meets regularly and we show our B&W and color enlargements, wet plates or slides (projector). This is film photography for me.

        Film/analog photography (complete process) is a dying skill and craft. And I’m so sorry that a lot of film photography “celebrities” only promote the hybrid process.

        1. I honestly think you are seeing hybrid photography as something that it isn’t.

          This is the same attitude that people had/have toward digital. Just because it exists, it doesn’t mean it is totally killing off the more complete analogue process.

          Just this year for example, the second most commented upon article on the website was this one

          Intrepid are in the process of bringing an enlarged to market, and it’s fairly well known that there is growth in darkroom printing. I’ve spoken to ilford and Paterson this year who both report big increases in darkroom related sales.

          The beauty of photography as a pastime is the choices it allows us to be creative. The fact that we as photographers can now choose a full digital workflow, a full film workflow or something that takes elements from both to suit the individual is anything but sad, in fact it’s the exact opposite!

          You’re entitled to see hybrid photography as sad because you enjoy a fully analogue process. But please remember that others experiences and feelings are different to yours, and so expressing your views in the way you have is discouraging and unnecessarily divisive. What you do and how you choose to do it is simply different to others. It’s not superior and suggesting it is isn’t particularly helpful to anyone

        2. @Tomren: I think you said it best yourself: “This is film photography for me.” Yes, that’s film photography for you, and it’s great that you enjoy it. But everyone has their own way of engaging with film photography, so why create a “purity contest”. I wrote the darkroom printing article which Hamish linked to, but I frequently use a hybrid process too. I scan all my negatives (only some get printed in the darkroom). The ones I do print, I scan or photograph many of them for sharing online. I often use a phone meter for exposure. The list goes on. Anyway, happy new year, and I hope your 2021 brings plenty of film photography enjoyment – whatever that means to you 🙂

          1. There is one fact that has not been mentioned: no matter if you do full or hybrid, it all starts with film. We may choose to go the darkroom route or the digital route once the film is shot but we’re not going digital to analogue. It all begins with the journey of choosing your film and putting it in your camera.

  3. Thank you for this amazing read. I have been debating writing something similar for a while. You beat me to it! LoL. I suffer from anxiety and had stepped away from film for a while. I had not given up on photography but had completely moved on to digital. At first it was great. I was in my mid-20s and loved doing portraits. I almost exclusively shot with friends. My shoots were often very elaborate and required alterations to the locations and lots of post prod. As I got older, spending several hundreds of dollars to create these images often was getting less and less of a possibility. Also, as my friends and I were getting older, they had less interest in giving up part of their weekends to partake in my insanity. And so shooting became a once every few months thing. When I shot, I had developed a style entirely based on how I would edit the shots, so the camera and taking of the picture were secondary. Now that I have returned to film in 2020, any edits are restricted to Lightroom for colour adjustments and Photoshop to remove defects. Due to lockdown, I have not shot models, mostly parks and nature. I now shoot every weekend if I can. Welcome back into the fold. You haven’t lost your eye for a good frame.

    1. Sacha, Thank you so much for the kind words, I’m happy you could connect with it! As versatile and wonderful as shooting on digital is and can be, I, like you, felt I wasn’t shooting for the sake of shooting but shooting for the edit back home, I wasn’t in the moment.. The analogue process really lets you connect with the world around you and forces you to be in that moment when the image is created. You and Hamish really hit the nail on the head with your previous comments in that; whatever method one uses and gets one out there and allows the individual a way to create is the right way for that person. As an aside, I also think that the slower process of a sort of self imposed restriction can really help push one as an artist/creative/what-have-you and help one grow and move beyond their comfort zone and tricks and techniques one learned on digital or film can be applied to the other.. But I know in my heart I’ll always be unashamedly a romantic on the subject… Thank you again for taking the time to read, and happy to hear you are back at it as well! Happy shooting out there!

      1. And now with film you don’t edit photos at home on PC? Yes, you do. You end up with the same files in the LR as with a digital camera.

        If I’m going to take pictures with Nikon F6 or D6….It’s the same, no need to talk about romance/moment. What is different is what follows. And most people ignore that and don’t even try.

  4. Hello! Emotional article for me. I’m returned to film in 2020 too. I have not gone back to a canon but I am to my pentax me super. I did it to slow down and go back to taking pictures to relax and not for a battle for likes. in January I will start a journey that will lead me to do the project a camera a lens a year project. I don’t know what will happen and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do more than a month. the important thing is that I will start it. a year ago I was taking hundreds of photos looking on the Internet for reviews of the new super lenses with a huge gas problem. it is true that like you I never really developed my photos but only scanned. the time will come for that too. it takes its time, like everything else.

  5. Welcome back to analog capture, the process in which film is separated from digital. When I shot professionally it was with digital. Digital lends itself perfectly to professional photography as you avoid problems not discovered until after the fact with film, you can know quickly when you have “the shot” and it eliminates the digitizing step by presenting results instantly in a usable form. Having been shooting for 50 years and shooting primarily Kodachrome until the late 1990’s, there was no “at home” darkroom part to the equation: I shot then brought the film to the lab for processing. Here I am all these years later going through the “keepers” from decades of shooting and deciding which are worth scanning. I went back to shooting film a couple years ago and am revisiting the debatable joy of having a roll in the camera for months at a time because it just doesn’t feel right to blast through 100’s of shots inevitably destined to never be looked at again. The thrill is gone when you see the results as soon as the shot is taken. It helps when a client is standing next to you. But film lends itself to carefully deciding what is worth photographing in the first place.

  6. A photo is a photo is a photo! From my POV process doesn’t matter, results do. I have film cameras, digital cameras and several iPhones. Therefore I can always pick the right tool for the job.

    I don’t like grain—in the 1960s I shot 120 Kodak Panatomic X (ASA 32) instead of Tri X. In August 2014 Kodak cancelled BW400CN, my all time favorite black & white film. Today I use the Blackie app on my iPhone, for amazing B&W photos. BTW there is no reason that I couldn’t make 10×15 B&W silver gelatin prints from Blackie files. Like it or not, the times they are a-changing. And hybrid workflows are here to stay.

  7. I like this article. I especially like the photos you made as a youngster. I did the same when I purchased my SRT-202 in the mid 70s. I photographed simple things around my home knowing that one day everything would be gone. Well done sir.

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