How Film Photography Made Me Better

These days, film photography is an all but forgotten art form relegated to niche markets like those stubborn traditionalists and hipsters. It’s rarely taught in high schools or colleges now because, let’s face it, digital photography has surpassed film in quality as well as in cost. It’s simply more sustainable.

I’m actually very sad about that. I was probably in the last few years to receive this kind of traditional education in photography, it’s one big reason I got so into this field – I fell in love with the process. My very first day in high school when I got the first taste of it – the little intro to the class and a tour of the darkroom. My sister actually helped get the photography program started in my school, but she’s about 8 years older than me, so it had been there a while by the time I got in. I was disappointed to see that the creepy face that had been painted on the door was gone, but that’s neither here nor there.

The big part here is that film photography gives a grounding, a strong basis, for photographers. Sure you can learn photoshop, you can master your digital camera and do the work, but there might not be much understanding there, especially for new or self-taught photographers.

Let’s use the Burn and Dodge tools as an example. If you’re familiar with photoshop and you’ve used these tools, you’ll know that Burn makes the image darker and Dodge makes it lighter. But did you ever stop to wonder why? How about if you’re a more advanced camera user and you know that your camera can do “double exposures” where it will combine two images into one without even touching the computer? Well here’s how they actually worked:

Burning makes the image darker wherever you pass your tool over. Did you ever wonder why the image on the tool is a little hand making a circle between the fingers? That’s because in the darkroom, photographers most often used their hands to shape the light.

Dodging does the opposite, and lightens the image wherever you pass the tool over. The icon for this one looks more simplistic – just a circle on a line. Well that’s also the tool most often used. A circle on a stick. Sounds simplistic, but it works!

You see, the light sensitive paper sits in a tray to hold it in place under something called an enlarger, which holds the negative and projects it to the paper, which captures the image for printing once it’s exposed to the proper chemical baths. Most often, after you make a print in this traditional way, you might notice pieces of the image that need to be either lighter or darker while the overall image is perfectly fine by itself, and that’s where you’d use these tools. As the image is projected, anything that passes between the light from the enlarger and the paper will be blurred.
So to burn, you would need to expose the paper for the proper time, then cover it with whatever you have available, then create a hole to allow more light to pass only in the areas you want. It can be an inexact science unless you’re absolutely sure you know where to burn.
Dodging can be a bit easier. You’ll take that little circle on a stick and, while you’re exposing the paper, you’ll move that along the parts you want to lighten up. It will be too blurry to capture the shadow of the stick, so the only light parts will be under the circular area.

Double exposure? At the most basic, you would take a picture and then take another picture. Back in the day, you would have to manually “advance” the film, bringing it to the next negative frame. By not advancing, you would essentially be exposing that light sensitive negative to light twice, which looks like what you’d expect: two images plopped on top of one another. It can look extremely sloppy unless it’s done right. Silhouettes are the most popular way to use this technology because it’s just two parts: a really bright part and a really dark part. On the final print, dark means a lot of light and bright means very little light. On a negative, that’s reversed with the dark spots being light, or clear, and the light being very dark. So taking a silhouette of a face, for example, would have light blasting on the background and the face obscured by darkness. The white background is already as dark as the negative will go, but the face is clear, because no light has touched it. Once another photograph is taken on that same negative, only the parts that are on top of the face will show! That’s the only part that isn’t already exposed to so much light after all!

Nowadays in Photoshop you can achieve that same look with two images and different blend modes, making the traditional “in-camera” technique obsolete. Does that mean it isn’t necessary to know where it came from? Yes.
Does it mean that knowing where these things originated won’t help you? Not at all. I did minor photoshop work before I went to college, but not much. Once I actually got to college and started working more in-depth with Photoshop, it was much easier and faster to pick up on these techniques because of my training in a traditional medium.

Apart from a deeper understanding of the modern tools of the trade, it’s very very useful to start working with something manual to help better utilize the modern, automated tricks and tools of the trade.

Also, this is what personally made me want to be a photographer for the rest of my life, which is now a part of me as the color of my eyes. That first paper showing me an image was one of the defining moments of my life. In my opinion, that’s much better than just watching a printer shoot ink on a piece of semigloss paper.

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