Artistry, vintage and modern: A personal essay

In defense of the film camera

Nikon film camera
Pixabay/Creative Commons

The summer before high school started, I found a dated film camera while scouting my father’s desk drawer in our study: a Nikon FM2 made in the early 1980s. With only minor scratches on its body and a lens and a viewfinder that were slightly blurred, the camera — well into its 30s — looked to be in great condition, if not brand-new.

As I was born and raised in the new millennium, vintage cameras were something distant to me. I have long associated such cameras — many of them no longer in function — with dusty antique shops, such as what I came across when visiting my grandparents in Shanghai as a toddler. Scenes such as this have been disappearing, replaced by modern shops with digital cameras in all sizes and shapes.

With curiosity, I started to take pictures with a film camera — which is not an easy job, or at least it isn’t with the antique I found in my father’s drawer. The camera doesn’t have an autofocus, so each time I use it I have to set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO — or sensitivity of light — manually, almost empirically, based on a slightly wrinkled chart, before I click the squeaking, not-so-agile shuttle. After pressing the shuttle, I pull the film lever so that the roll of film rotates and I can mark the next piece of celluloid with light.

As each roll has only 36 pieces of film, I have to carry extra rolls every time I go out with my film camera, for these celluloids sustain the life of film photography. I also began to take pictures in a more deliberate manner, as films are not very economic, and replacing the used-up roll of film inside the camera with a fresh one takes time.

As I was born and raised in the new millennium, vintage cameras were something distant to me.

So, instead of taking a hundred snapshots, trying to find the best lighting and angles and deleting the repetitive ones afterward — as I always do with a digital camera — with this camera, I only take one-of-a-kind pictures. After all, it is not possible to find the best shot instantaneously after taking a series of shots, as it usually takes a week after exhausting a full roll of films to get the pictures digitized. This means I often have to bear with the imperfection of the pictures taken, since by the time I see the pictures, there is essentially no way to replicate them in a more satisfactory manner.

What’s more, I feel slightly uneasy when people begin to stare at me, seeing me holding a clumsy film camera that makes a squeaking sound when pressing the shutter or standing there awkwardly with a camera in one hand and a roll of film in another, desperately trying to replace the film while not smashing the antique on the ground.

So why bother with all the trouble?

As Susan Sontag noted in her book “On Photography,” photography as a craft is fairly limited: It only employs one of the senses — namely, sight — and ignores the others; it captures instances in time but fails to connect them with the flow of time and events within the “broad backgrounds” that historians or sociologists are interested in.

A film camera makes me feel more creative compared to the photography in Sontag’s narratives. Each time light comes through the lens and strikes the surface of the film, I am creating my own pictures, grainy and vignette. The deliberate act of taking pictures makes each of them unique, not mass-produced snapshots — in the literal sense — that are posted instantaneously, everywhere and every day. Rather, these photographs are artworks whose value doesn’t depend on quality, a ritual that mixes history with the to-be-discovered in front of the lens. People are not mistaken when they say photography is an art with light, and I resonate with this sentiment when taking pictures with my film camera.

Finding my oddity out of place and time-consuming, my mother again and again has urged me to replace my film camera with its digital counterpart or to just take pictures using my phone. Her suggestions are understandable from her point of view — every time I go on family trips with my parents, film camera in hand, I always lag behind while they stride ahead. I have to ask them to wait repeatedly and, in my mother’s eyes, perhaps annoyingly.

Each time light comes through the lens and strikes the surface of the film, I am creating my own pictures, grainy and vignette.

Indeed, to journalists, reporters, travelers in a rush or most utilitarians (like my mother), film cameras are outdated. For them, the value in a camera lies in the quality and the accessibility of the picture — both of which, in the case of film cameras, are lost in the grainy celluloid pieces, the verbose process of rotating film levers and replacing rolls of films as well as the costly practice of purchasing film and developing pictures compared to the relative ease provided by modern digital cameras.

We value modern technology and the convenience it brings us, but more often than not, embracing these conveniences comes along with an unconscious rejection of the “outdated”: what was also considered “modern” at some point but now pales in comparison and is thus thrown out of the mainstream.

Wandering in Osaka, Japan this past summer, I passed by a Nikon store with walls full of cameras — old and new, film and digital, auto- or manual-focused. As I spectated in awe, I realized that I often unconsciously assume that film cameras — together with many of their contemporaries — can only be found in antique stores, separated from their digital peers displayed in shiny shop windows.

My unconscious assumption is now falsified by my film camera. What my Nikon FM2 has taught me (besides its methods of operation) is the possibility of coexistence and collaboration — rather than discordance — between what stems from different time periods.

Just like the camera store in Osaka that I randomly passed by, I can also combine the modern with the antique: be it through sharing the developed pictures with family and friends on social media (a recent invention) or enjoying the new discoveries and artistic creativity that film photography has given me. My film camera is a shift from the utilitarian endorsement of the modern and the advanced, a manifestation pushing against the dichotomous notion between the new and the old.

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Contact Tianyi Ding at [email protected].