Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thinking about bits of film

The one on the left is a Canon 60D. It came out in 2010, and I purchased this one during the summer of 2011.

On the right is a Canon AE-1 Program. My sister gave this one to me this past Christmas. Canon produced AE-1 Programs from 1981 - 1987.

So at its oldest, it could be two years my senior. And at its youngest, it could be a few years younger than me, though still old enough to buy itself a drink1.

I started college with an Olympus point-and-shoot 35mm film camera, and by the time I had graduated, I had moved on to a Sony Cybershot and stuck with digital all the way. Only recently have I started taking lots of pictures in earnest, so I can't say that I have any special allegiance to film based on experience or nostalgia for some simpler time.

Nonetheless, film's service towards nostalgia has started to strike me as one of its unique traits. Not nostalgia for film in terms of remembering days past when we all shot film and it was so much fun, but nostalgia provided by the physical material of the film itself.

When a digital camera's shutter clicks, light hits the sensor. The information from that light is processed, recorded, and in many cases, compressed, into the files on the camera's memory card (all at speeds more instantaneous than the description, but you get the idea).

After the files have been offloaded to a computer, the memory card is erased for reuse. They could just as well stay on the camera, or on the phone, but once they've been uploaded or downloaded from there, the info on the device may just as well be the info on the computer or photo sharing site. The bits are immaterial.

When a film camera's shutter opens, light hits the film. Particles and chemicals in the film react to the light, and the film is physically changed. After it has been developed, what is given back to you is not only any prints or enlargements that you had ordered, but also the negatives or the slides- the film material itself that had been present, and physically changed by what it had seen.

Of course, it's all for nought if your film got damaged by an x-ray machine, or if you wound up blowing a deadline because you were waiting for prints to come back. So, sure, for any number of reasons, digital wins an overwhelming number of pro/con arguments as far as I can see.

But there is something to the thought that the negatives or slides that you get back are artifacts were physically present with you at the time the photograph was taken. Not unlike a shirt or a pair of shoes that you had with you, that you could point to on your person today and say, "I had this with me when I was at (xyz) and took this photo." The piece of film was there with you, too, inside your camera. And while shirt or shoes may have moved on since, if you're at all like my family, those bits of film that were there on the scene are likely well preserved in a box or envelope, in an attic or the back of a closet. And another plus over the shirt and shoes, they can show someone what the scene looked like.

I have to backpedal again, though. Because I actually just got the AE-1 Program back from the shop tonight, and haven't yet shot with it. So I have yet to make any recent memory of my own that is anchored to physical bits of film.

Fortunately, there's a developing place that I heard about from a post on The Phoblographer, and they'll be open tomorrow. Their turnaround is 3 hours, so if I follow through and wake up early enough, I ought to have something to post back here by the evening.

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1Riffed from How I Met Your Mother s1 e1, "I love a Scotch that's old enough to order its own Scotch." - Robin