For the first two years of their lives, I took thousands of pictures of my twin boys on my phone. With the cloud backing them up and social media perfect for sharing, it worked great for keeping everyone in touch. With recently privacy breaches and data leaks, I started to reconsider how much of their lives I capture online. Right around the same time, I rediscovered a camera my grandfather had owned that thanks to mechanical parts only, still worked fine. With some fresh film loaded up – yes they still make film – I began using it to document their milestones and I’m glad I did.
Mechanical film cameras are awesome in that they have no electrical parts to break. Nearly a half century later, it still works great. Learning to use a manual camera took some time, but thanks to a light sensor that calculates the optimal settings for me, it’s been nearly as easy as using a phone. It lacks the modern features like automatic focus, any image stabilization, and automatic winding, so the pictures aren’t always the best. The lack of these features mean it still works fine though, and more importantly, makes the camera less of a wall between the photographer and the subject, so allows for more candid pictures. The speed of a phone camera is great, but it also means I take more thoughtful, meaningful pictures.
Finding film and getting the pictures developed was also easier than I anticipated. Film is easy to find on Amazon, even in the original color, black and white, and even Kodachrome styles the camera originally used. Loading and unloading causes some anxiety because I worry it will expose the film to the light and ruin it, but so far I’ve been lucky. The manual film winder makes a wonderfully satisfying tactile click when winding it too. Even getting the film developed wasn’t too bad as my local CVS still offers developing services that only take about a week. I even get a CD of the pictures if I really want to digitize them. The quality of the pictures isn’t a great as a modern phone, but the film gives it a classic style over modern cameras that over correct for realism.
These are the reasons I ditched my phone for the film camera
Protecting their privacy – With recent leaks of supposedly private data, hacks, breaches, and even the willing sharing of personal data, it’s no longer safe to assume anything online, even in a “private” cloud is actually private. Data is leaked constantly, and it’s not always publicized. For children, it’s not fair to expose their data and have it follow them around without their say from such a young age. Switching to a film camera means their data stays in a single spot in a physical location.
Less frequent, but more thoughtful memories – With a phone, it’s easy to snap pictures constantly since there is a very high storage constraint. With film, the storage is limited, so I only ever take a single picture of the same thing. With a manual camera that requires setting up the shutter speed, aperture, and focus, each shot has to be composed with some thought and intention, meaning only the most valuable memories are captured. This translates to being more present in the moment when the camera is around.
Forever storage – Unlike cloud services that can go away or be sold, film lasts for a long long time. Sure the film loaded in the camera since the late 80s no longer worked as I found out when I tried to use it, but developed pictures are a medium that lasts a considerable time. The photos I have from my childhood still look brand new in the shoebox in my office whereas I have no clue where the ones from my first digital camera, nearly a decade later are. It also means the boys can see them when a bit older and keep a memento of their childhood if they want, keeping control of them and destroying them if they choose.
Film style – The style of film doesn’t go out of style over time. It still looks as cool and evokes the same emotion today as it did when taken. Digital pictures though don’t age well. Photos from my early cameras look weirdly blue or green, grainy, and really poor resolution. Even more recent ones just look odd with strange noise reduction algorithms or poor white balancing. My pictures from a few years ago even with fairly nice hardware just haven’t aged the same way. Film pictures though look great, even if a bit dated. It’s fairly easy to determine the decade a picture was taken from the color balance of a picture or the film grain.
Connection to my grandfather – The camera itself makes me feel connected to my grandfather who is no longer with us. Part of his phase of a photography habit, using the camera makes me remember his interest in photography when I was a kid and reminds me of him every time I use it. I think this bond comes through in the pictures I take that help form memories and a bond with my children.
There are times a phone camera is great. For anything less than bright sunlight, the film camera struggles with blur. It’s not great for capturing a quick moment. But I think the benefits of being forced to think more about the moment and the shot makes for better pictures and memories. Film also means I keep control of the photos until I can hand them over to my boys and I know they won’t be leaked in a hack or served up for advertising data. There’s also something to be said just for how cool film looks too. I’m glad I was able to get my grandfather’s camera working and discovered the magic of manual film cameras.