Close your laptop lid; take a break
January 24, 2020
Me in the highlands of Scotland doing some landscape photography.
Photography is my passion. The art of composing a picture, shooting manually to understand how to get the right ratio of aperture to shutter speed, the cropping and editing process, and yes even the pursuit of the new and interesting gear are all elements of this hobby that I enjoy. Amazingly I’m using the same hand-me-down 35mm film Nikon N6006 today that my parents gave to me in 2000. The reason for this is that I embrace the medium of analog photography because it isn’t dependent on a computer and it’s an activity that gives me something real at the end of the process.
Yes, I have a digital SLR. A Nikon D200 was my trusted companion through college that I used working as a part-time photographer for the school’s communications office. I brought it with me when I moved to DC and spent many weekends on photography adventures with friends, but when it came time to edit what I had captured, I’d feel a certain exasperation. I’m a software engineer by trade, and so much of my professional life is spent staring at the sharp blue light of a MacBook Pro’s display. Technology is then another passion of mine, and I use computers just as easily as a limb. However, every time I’d load my shots onto my laptop for editing, I’d quickly lose interest and move onto something else. Picking the right photos out of the hundreds I’d shoot and working towards a final edited master just lost appeal for me, and I realized it was because of the inherently ephemeral nature of digital photography left me with no real artifact at the end of the creative process. Sure, I could print and frame the final edited photos, but that was not a part of the process I enjoyed. This is a hobby, after all.
So, when we moved into a townhouse in Alexandria, VA in late 2017, I carved out a little corner to become a darkroom. After cleaning up my old film Nikon, purchasing some used darkroom equipment on eBay, and mixing the development chemicals, I began my re-entry into the world of analog photography. With my first two rolls of 36 exposures, I spent hours in the darkroom under the warm red glow of the safety light crafting a few treasured pictures. In the 2+ years I’ve spent back in the world of film, I’ve shot hundreds of rolls of film and printed many more pictures. Rarely, a film camera doesn’t accompany me on a trip somewhere or even a walk to get coffee on the weekend.
This is my small but functional darkroom/workbench. Here I'm developing rolls of film inside a development tank. The bottle is light-proof so I can pour in and pour out the development chemicals without exposing the film to outside light.
With a digital camera’s capacity to store practically unlimited quantities of images, I’d take hundreds of photos and like none of what I captured. With film, I have only 36 exposures and each one represents a fraction of what I spent to buy that roll of film. Each time I take a picture, it costs something to me, and so that encourages me to think about the value of what I’m shooting. I carefully consider what I’m doing each time my finger falls on the shutter button – what this picture means, how I can develop it, and what I can do with the final print. The development process is the same way. From a roll of film, I have to make careful choices about which few shots I think are the best to make into final prints. When taking pictures with my digital camera, I rarely thought about the value of what I was shooting, and I can scarcely recall anything about my day around the time I took a digital photo.
While I’m developing, that’s the sole thing I concentrate on because there’re no distractions from notifications on my phone or computer. (It’s hard to mindlessly scroll through Instagram when every light source is a risk to ruin your film!) By the end of the process, I wind up with a handful of physical pictures that mean something to me. They document an idyllic winter morning in DC, or a wonderful trip abroad with my wife, or perhaps just something beautiful I saw while exploring. When looking at a finished picture, I can often remember what was happening when it – how I was feeling, what the weather was, who I saw that day, etc. The process captures whole memories that run deeper than what the negatives show.
This process fulfills me and gives me a creative outlet. When I return to that blue light of my laptop, I feel refreshed and I find my ability to enjoy my work there increases too. By growing my fulfillment outside of the digital world, I’ve increased my overall satisfaction with my digital life. What is your version of “going analog?” If you live and work in the world of technology like me, you often find your favorite activities associated with a device – whether it be a laptop, phone, etc. Ask yourself if that’s working for you? Perhaps there’s a way you need to ditch devices for a while to take part in something that provides more fulfilling value to you. Analog photography might just be that way.