There was a time, not quite so long ago, when film photography really was the Golden Age of Photography and it was so alive and cool. My guess is that it all started when the first film cameras were manufactured on a large-scale and became available to the general public. And it was finished when the digital camera was made available to the people – the DSLRs and the compact digital cameras. Or maybe when the post-processing softwares were created. There was a time when RAW conversion and Photoshop could not save your wrong exposures and you really needed to master the camera and the procedures of making photography. There was a time when to be a photographer, a strong passion and a set of solid skills were required. You may say that this still applies today. Maybe, but today everybody is a photographer (until they turn the main dial to M Mode, or never do). With the rise of digital cameras, so accessible to anyone and let’s not forget the smartphone cameras, that get better and better (not to say incredibly good), photography became as popular as breathing.
Well, we need to clarify something here: when we say everybody does photography, it’s just a way of speaking. If there are 5 billion mobile phone users, that own mobile phones with cameras, could we say that we have 5 billion photographers? Isn’t it healthier to separate the meanings? A snapshot is not a photograph. A snapshot with your smartphone is an image “taken” from the space-time local universe and digitally recorded on your phone storage. But an image with a clear subject, story, emotion, structure, where soul and mind are required for this composition is a photograph that was “made” to be this way. So, after all, we don’t have over 5 billion photographers, out there, just camera users that record thousands of trillions of useless images. And a small part of them, are photographers.
You see, back then, there wasn’t this type of constructive separation. There were the people who own a camera and the people who don’t. And the people with film cameras, needed to master the techniques. Pressing a button and that’s it? No, no! Of course, as in any era, there are talented people and less talented. But when you had a camera, you had the responsibilities that come with it. Talent, or no talent, artist, or just the regular guy (more or less – owning and using a camera already meant “not so regular”) with a camera, you were inclined to be (and become) more of a photograph maker, than a snapshot taker. The film costed money, to develop it costed, to print your photos costed. A roll of film was not like a 64 Gb SD card. Such hard limitations surely forced you to think. And feel. Make the best of it, without wasting precious exposures. When your freedom is limited, when the technical means to achieve your target constrain your moves, you become responsible. Fully aware! Better at what you do. Creative, thus, an artist.
I was born and raised during the communism era, in a place where the freedoms, or better said, the lack of freedoms forced us to build ourselves a parallel personal universe, where we could resist, develop ourselves, grow up and live. When technology and almost every contact with the foreign, western cultures were harshly limited and discouraged, when there was nothing on TV except political propaganda, then what we had left? We had each other, we had the books, the music, we had time for art and culture – a very solid escape and the mean to grow up. Time for poetry, painting, classic music concerts, endless cultural and philosophical dialogues. We had photography, too!
And now, we have what most people, 40 years ago couldn’t simply imagined possible. We have everything and this is why he have so little, in comparison to what I call the Golden Age of modern times. A time of culture, refinement, quality in most of what we did. A time for real art. Remember (or have you heard of) The Beatles, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd? And later, Madonna, Simply Red, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Eric Clapton, Human League, Queen and Phil Collins? I grew up with their music. I was a fan of Pink Floyd at 5 years old and a fan of Dire Straits at 11. The cheap quality music of those years was made by Modern Talking. Can you imagine that? Right now, if you turn off your lousy radio, Modern Talking would be a bliss for your ears, compared to the noise that’s constantly broadcasted.
The photography has its place among arts, but also important, in history as well. I feel we need a connection with this history, a link to the past, through its great artists that still inspires us today and through the photographic gear they used. We need to understand why we are here, by taking a good look at where we were, in photography. For me, I am certain it all has something to do with the photography skills of my grandmother. She was a studio photographer, the last one of her kind in our city, before the photography became popular with its 35mm film compact cameras and later, with the digital era. She used to work with large format cameras and back then, the photography involved the fine art of using correction pencils on negatives. I feel I have inherited this passion for photography from my grandmother, with a twist regarding the strong magnetism towards the photographic gear of the analog era. I don’t necessarily see myself in the dark room working with chemicals and developing films, but I see myself collecting a set of manual focus lenses, perfect to be used with both film and digital cameras. I just can’t image I will ever let go of all manual focus lenses, even if we’ll reach that level of photographing with autofocus by the power of thought. More about this you can find in one of my previous articles.
If you are not captivated by an analog camera, you should get one and use it from time to time, just to exercise your skills, your composition, taking your time to create your shot and manually focus on your subject. Using manual focus lenses will surely refine your abilities as a photographer, bringing real improvements to your compositions and exposures. You will focus more on the artistic side of the photography, while being careful how to overcome the technical limitations and still deliver great results.
There are good, great and excellent lenses from the film era, that can bring their personality to your photography. Today’s lenses are so clinically sharp and perfect, controlling the flare, bringing amazing levels of micro-contrast, that sometimes you feel photography is a science, more than an art. Why the M42 mount? Because my first manual focus lens available to me was the amazing Russian Helios 58mm F2.0, mounted on my father’s Zenit camera. I guess the very popular M42 mount has the maximum number of available lenses. I had compared this lens to my stunning modern portrait lens from Fujifilm, the XF 56mm F1.2 R and boy! What character this little old gem can have!
I have some dream lenses on my list from Carl Zeiss Jena, Meyer Optik Goerlitz, Asahi Takumar and Voigtlander and the budget is the only limit. Most of them are in the Portrait Photography area. This world in itself, of thousands of manual focus lenses is truly fascinating. Just try a few of them and apart from the reasons explained above about sharpening your composition skills, think about the budget-friendly prices, the unexpected availability (maybe you already have access to some of those lenses from your family, friends, relatives), their great built quality (glass and metal), their incredible optics with strong personality and the list of reasons can go on.
But if you have your roots too deep within our modern days, with digital photography, it will do you good to mix a little bit the eras of photography. Keep your digital camera and get a few of the marvelous manual focus lenses that are out there. With the right adapter, you will learn to use the manual focus and improve your skills. Have a taste of the old days. See what is like to leave behind, for a moment, the race for the ultimate sharpness and micro-contrast and experiment with a soft and full of character, old lens. It will slow your pace and it will give you peace and joy. You will carefully consider your composition. Just think about those experiments with film photographers, when they were given a single roll of film and they were told to imagine this would be their last roll of film. How careful would you be if you would know these are the last 10 or 20 photographs of your life? Would you cherish every exposure and try to make them all valuable, unique, wonderful and full of emotions? I bet you would. Let’s just hope film photography will survive, be here to stay, forever, because we are “a few” that cannot let it go. May the Light be with you!
All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2017 / www.sebastianboatca.com