Nostalgia comes at a price
“Let me see it” is the oft-repeated line from my children as soon as the shutter button is pressed.
They want the instant gratification that so easily comes with digital photography. They love to see their smiling faces on the camera’s small screen.
But this past week, in a fit of nostalgia, I pulled my film camera out of the closet and started shooting. To their surprise — and horror — there was no screen on the back. When they clamored to see their image, I had to explain to them that it was still inside the camera on something called film and we would have to wait a couple weeks to get it developed and then another couple weeks if we wanted a print.
Their brains had no way to process this new information. They couldn’t understand waiting weeks just to see a photograph.
Explaining the science of light and film to a 3- and 4-year-old who have only known digital cameras was exhausting. My 10-year-old even struggled with the concept.
But shooting film again was magic in a way that photography hadn’t been in years. Before my career in newspapers, I was a professional photographer. And I mainly shot black and white film. When most photographers transitioned to digital, I held on to film and pitched it to clients as far superior.
I continued to shoot film, in addition to digital, after my children were born and my newspaper career started. But the time and space required to have a functioning darkroom no longer fit into our ever-busy and cramped lifestyle.
So, eventually, the darkroom was packed away and the film cameras retired. And I soon learned to embrace the instant gratification of digital photography. Just like my children, I also love to look at the images on the back of the camera.
But something began to change for me as a photographer as I fully embraced digital over the years. I didn’t frame my shots as carefully. I didn’t slow down to wait for the perfect moment. I just pushed the shutter button and let the camera rip. If I shot a couple hundred images I could usually find a few that satisfied me.
I grew lazy as a photographer and relied on the camera to do most of the thinking. Most of the time, the results were just as good. But there were times I regretted not capturing life’s moments on film.
So the old Nikon found itself back in action once again recently. To my dismay, I couldn’t remember how to load film in the 1990s relic. So I put the camera down and just stared at it sadly. I once developed my own film and printed in my own darkroom, and now I couldn’t even load my own camera. How pathetic. Thankfully, a quick Google search refreshed my memory.
The first thing one immediately notices when shooting film is that there are only 36 exposures on a single roll. The memory cards in my digital cameras can store thousands.
I also quickly remembered how expensive those 36 exposures are. Once you factor in the cost of the film, having it developed and then shipped back to you, each frame costs exactly 45 cents. That alone forced me to choose my shots carefully.
Every time I picked up the camera, the children screamed to have their picture taken. At 45 cents each, I had to remind them that I took their picture yesterday and I couldn’t afford to take another one today. “Aren’t we worth it?” they asked. “No” was the reply.
So what do you photograph when the price is that high? Since I’m no longer a professional photographer, there are no clients to shoot. Film photographs are of no use at the newspaper. I no longer travel enough to shoot landscapes.
So I turned to shooting what I see in everyday life, and in my case that’s my children. I now have dozens of frames of goofy grins and little girls wearing swimsuits over their sweatpants. All at the ridiculous price of 45 cents each. If we want to get actual prints of those frames, it will be another $1 each.
It’s a high price to pay for nostalgia. But I realized something while shooting all that film. Fifty years from now, when I’m an old man and my children are grown and gone, the thousands of digital photos living on computers and memory cards will be useless. Whatever technology exists in 2066 likely won’t be compatible with what I’ve got now. But film will still be film. Photos printed on paper will still be there. I will still be able to hold up that film to a light and see my children’s smiling faces. I will still be able to turn those images into prints. On film, those memories become permanent in a way that digital ones do not.
That will be worth its weight in gold one day. So I guess 45 cents isn’t too much after all.
Luke Horton is publisher of The Daily Leader. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.