Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Published 7:05 PM by with 3 comments

Analog and Digital and the Meaning of Life

By the time I realized capturing pictures was what I was meant to do, the digital age was already maturing. For me it began with a video camera. Super 8, the last consumer film medium, had long passed. Even analog videotape was near death. Instant gratification was the first thing that thrilled me about digital video. I was lucky enough to be able to afford a fairly sophisticated video camera at the time and, although the myriad buttons, sliders and switches was intimidating, I vowed to learn about every function.

In my younger days I played in a rock band. Back when I started in the eighties, everyone was playing synths so I decided I was going to be a keyboard player. There was an immediacy about the sounds that could be produced on a synth without me having to be much of an actual musician. Cool. When I saved up enough money and bought my first Casio keyboard, all I had to do was press down two or three fingers on the keys and, voila, it sounded like an orchestra. As I progressed in my musical "career" however, the challenges presented by being self-taught became all too obvious. I was now in a much more sophisticated band and was having a hard time keeping up. I found myself wishing I had taken formal lessons. Still, there is an argument out there that a different kind of creativity can emerge when you are faced with limited resources. Maybe I wouldn't have played that note here or that chord there had I actually known what I was doing. As a result of this lack of training, I was never a confident musician. I was happy to be in the back of the band onstage behind my banks of keyboards while escaping the spotlight both literally and metaphorically.

So when I first picked up a video camera, I promised myself I would do it right this time around. I would immerse myself in the theory of making pictures and really understand how to rely on manual control rather than the universal auto button. Fortunately I had a voracious appetite for knowledge. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know. It was like I was looking at distant mountains and the peak of that one right in the center was my penultimate goal. When I finally reached it, I found there were more mountains twice as far off in the distance. I actually loved this. I love discovering that, after investing huge amounts of time learning about something, I realize it's only the tip of the iceberg. Learning about photography is a lifetime pursuit. You can never know everything about it. Ever.

Fast forward eleven years to the almost present. I realized sometime back that, although digital technology has given me a portal into my creative passions; music, filmmaking and photography, I still found myself going back to the roots of each medium. With music I went back to the original blues recordings of the early twentieth century. I also preferred to play organ and piano to digitally sampled versions of the same. I preferred vinyl over mp3s, film over video and finally film photography over the ones and zeroes equivalent. Digital was just too perfect to me, too clinical, too sharp, too....something. I craved the warmth of analog.

Although I grew up shooting snapshots on film, I never thought about adjusting buttons to change exposure. Why would I? The camera did it all. I only ever understood the word "manual" if it was coupled with "labor". I didn't even know it existed on cameras. Professional cameras were out of my league and my interest at the time. So now I found myself as a digital photographer trying to make everything I shot look like it came from a film camera. I would layer my photos with dust and dirt and various kinds of textures to give them an antique look. Hell, I became a Photoshop expert because of it.

One day I posted a photograph on Flickr of an antique camera I had just bought on eBay. I was attaching it to my digital camera so I could use the lens of the old camera to get a more filmic look to my photos. Rarely do I get any kind of comments beyond "cool!" and "awesome!" on Flickr but this one guy asked me why I just didn't shoot some film instead of spending so much time in Photoshop.

I didn't want to admit that I was kind of afraid of film. I was used to instant feedback and being able to adjust anything that wasn't right based on what I could see in the LCD on the back of my camera. To shoot film would mean I would have to really know what I was doing and, because it actually costs money to develop, I also had to be judicious about how many shots I actually took. I couldn't just fire off twenty shots and pick the best one. Well, I could, but my bank account would not be able to sustain that kind of behavior for very long.

My wife had an old Canon Elan 7 film camera that had been sitting around for almost a decade so I decided to dust that off and give it a try.

With film loaded, I remembered how I felt the first day I started shooting Super 8 film. Yes, I had done that too but after digital. I was a Super 8 late bloomer. Each cartridge shot two and a half minutes of film. I couldn't waste a second. I scrutinized everything. I second guessed what was or was not a good composition and got to the point where I didn't know what to shoot. My right brain was under siege. My left brain was making every decision resulting in a serious brain freeze.

Eventually, I learned to trust what I was shooting but it required a lot more preparation and much less spontaneity than digital. So as I stood there with my Canon still film camera, I had the exact same thoughts. I only had 24 shots on this roll and I wanted to make every one count. I didn't want to shoot duplicates of anything. Every photograph had to be unique. 

Thought paralysis is a horrible thing and it has plagued me my whole life. I had stage fright a lot when I was playing in my bands but my friend Jack would always calm my nerves. Daniels, that is. 

I had to do some serious gymnastics in my head to get everything to calm down and take the self-imposed pressure off. Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow, I would say over and over again. It's like a big highway with endless possibilities but think about it too much and it's like installing traffic lights as far as the eye can see.

I finally did get to a place where I became confident about shooting film because, armed with my trusty light meter and the knowledge I had accumulated, it really was fool proof. I loved not knowing exactly what I was going to get once I clicked the shutter. It kinda slowed things down for me. When I went out shooting in the early morning, instead of coming back with a hundred photos (as would be typical in my digital realm), I had only a handful of images to show for my efforts but I could remember every single one of them.

Even when I got the negatives back a few weeks later, there was something rewarding about each shot. Not all were great, most were not even good but the experience was a much richer one from start to finish.

Recently I have let my film camera go back to bed for a while. I have more pressing things I'm working on that require a digital workflow but I will once again return to film. It will help me to remember that capturing a worthwhile image is not a quick drag but a slow burn. If you don't take the time to appreciate what you are shooting then you've already missed a huge part of what photography truly is.

Here's a sampling of my film photos...



luvglass said...

I've got to admit my eye is not sophisticated enough to see the difference between digital and film, but all of your work is uniformly impressive. Thanks for sharing your process.

Robert Nuttmann said...


I still have most of my film cameras plus some digital ones. It is certainly easier for me to get good pictures using a digital camera than any of my film cameras except maybe my favorite SLR from the early eighties. Your pictures are beautiful. You have obviously spent a lot of time to get them to that level. Bob

Steven Dempsey said...

Thank you, Bob, I appreciate your comments.