I woke up and peaked outside. Still dark. I was up editing past midnight. I needed more sleep. But then, I noticed that flashing green light.
The white screen of my phone shocked my eyes. The email icon displayed. "Probably junk I thought". I was right. “20% off at Old Navy”. I unsubscribed.
Before laying the phone back down, I checked my spam. At the top, unopened, "the dark room lab" read. Again, I clicked open, and began to scroll through my scans.
A roll from Moab from last month, and the one from those two November days in New York City. Each representing an end of the spectrum of my love hate relationship with film photography.I was about three weeks in to my summer in Alaska, when my Sony A7 failed on me. Purchased in July of 2016, the thousand-dollar mirrorless camera quit reading cards. Likely from my days of frequent editing, my best guess is that popping cards in and out exhausted the thing. But, in any case, I was frustrated with the failure. And being in Alaska, I found myself in a difficult situation.
I could have sent the camera off for repair, but from what I read, I was facing at least a 300-dollar repair. And even more disheartening than a bill was the idea of being without a camera in such a beautiful place, for an extended period of time.
I'd liked the idea of regressing to an old SLR camera for quite some time. The utilitarianism of it. The lack of manipulation. It seemed pure. So, instead of spending time and money on having my Sony repaired, I ordered an old Nikon F3 ($399) with USA NAVY engraved in its base.
With a pack of Porta 400 film (5rolls for $50), and a 50mm Nikkor f1.4 lens ($200), about a week later, the camera arrived. In my dimly lit employee housing bunk, I attached the lens without problem, but then came the adventure of loading the film. I watched a YouTube video on the subject, and within five minutes, I was ready to fire.
I rushed out onto the deck outside my room and began peaking at the scene through the viewfinder. That's when it occurred to me. There was no way for me to review what I'd seen. Yes, I know, it's ridiculous that I hadn't realized. In my defense, I was prepared to wait for the film to be developed, but I guess I thought there'd be some sort or preview screen? The revelation was... well... eye-opening, and this potential issue manifested itself during my first field outing with the F3.
As I boarded the park bus, I took the back seat. I like to have a full view of the scene. And as we bounced through the daylight, the couple in front of me caught my eye. Her flowing white hair, flapping in the breeze, the stripes on his shirt, mixed with those striped of light. The metal canopy of the bus. The blurred trees.
I held up my camera and attempted to focus. Made easy by the buttery smooth focus ring. Although, I did find myself wishing for the focus peaking feature of my Sony. I fired. The camera produced a soft, satisfying clap.
But, had the photo been achieved? The anxiety of the unknown got the best of me. I held up the camera again and repeated.
Over the course of the next couple weeks, I shot my camera regularly. I'd decided that since this was the first roll, I wasn't going to be too selective, opting instead to be experimental and to finish the roll quickly.
Another trip the park, some shots around town, and a few attempted portraits rounded out roll 1.
After some research online, I settled on the dark room lab, printed the label, and sent off the film. Developing and digital scans ran me $11, but then I paid an extra $4 to get "enhanced scans", which brought my total to $15. At the time, I declined the prints for another $5, a option I’ve since adopted. Given that film is about ten dollars per roll, and that you get about 36 shots per, as I waited to receive my first developed order, I realized that this new venture would cost me about $1 per photo.
About a week later, I received the email. My photos were available to view.
It hadn't been long since I'd finished the roll, but as I scrolled through, I found it exciting to remember each time I'd pressed the shutter. As for the quality? There were definite issues. Most were underexposed. Several we're out of focus. The ones in motion were blurred. But a few photos showed real signs of hope.
I reloaded the camera and set out again. I finished the second roll in no time, and then moved on to the third.
A road trip to Fairbanks, a hike, some wildlife, and a two week stretch of blue sky. I couldn't wait to see roll three. But, when I went to wind it for extraction, something happened.
At first the lever stuck, and then the film began to rip inside. I popped the cover open on instinct to have a look. It wasn't until later, that I realized. The afternoon sun had claimed every photo I'd taken in roll three.
I could have given up on film right then and there. Maybe I should have. But I loaded the camera again, and vowed to never repeat the mistake. Three weeks later I scrolled through roll 4. The results? Still some out of focus, but only a couple, and the exposure was consistently good. For the first time ever, and several times in fact, I'd captured exactly what I'd seen.
I was elated, but then again, my rollercoaster relationship with film photography took a dive.
I loaded my fifth roll sometime in mid-late July. In Denali National Park, summer had finally hit full stride. Bright, blue days, yellow rays, warmth, and a plethora of wildlife. My mom came to visit, and we took the eight-hour trip to Eielson station. It was quite a ride.
Grizzlies, everywhere, caribou, an eagle. On the first stretch of the trip, we saw more wildlife than most people see in a lifetime. At Eielson, Denali dominated the skyline. I captured a picnic on a mossy mountainside.
The fourth roll was good but roll five promised to be amazing. I saved the last photo for a portrait at the post office of me sending it off. I had my mom press shutter, and she handed the camera over to me to advance it. But instead of hitting the end of the roll, the lever pushed right through. "Okay, another try" I said. It appeared I'd squeezed out an extra photo. No resistance again. The panic set in.
The guy at the local camera shop used his dark room to investigate my issue. And when he returned from the back, he presented me with a pristine roll of film. I hadn't loaded it properly. It'd come unwound. None of those photos were recorded. I was devastated.
For a few days, I put the camera away. But then, the leaves began to change.
I finished two more rolls of film in Alaska before my summer job came to an end. And I carried that momentum into five more successful rolls through Europe.
Which brings me to the two I received today. The roll I shot in NYC is beautiful, but more importantly, when I view it, I'm transported through place and time. I remember how the air smelt as I held it in to keep still. I remember the sounds coming from every direction in the streets.
In contrast, is the roll from Arches NP. I was really excited about this roll, and it just didn’t produce. Rather than my usual choice of Porta 400, with this roll, I strayed to porta 160, for the first time. The results? Not so great. Not horrible, but certainly a step back.
Some underexposed, a bit of blur, and a consistent muddy haze. At a dollar a photo, I need better than this. But then again, the NYC roll is a reminder of why I stick with it.
Shooting film can be an absolute nightmare. It can and has caused me great grief. It's the antithesis of consistency. But then again, there's an undeniable satisfaction that comes with using such a utilitarian mechanism. There's a deep personal nostalgia to it. It can and should be done without editing which makes it so much more authentic. It challenges me. It calls out my bullshit. It makes me think. In a digital world of filters, hdr, autofocus, and nearly limitless memory, film photography feels real. A dollar a photo it'll continue to be.