This is the 1st of a 3 part series on my experience jumping back into film photography after a 10 year hiatus focusing purely on digital photography.
10 years ago I vowed I’d never shoot film again. I enjoyed shooting film to a degree, but compared to digital it became unnecessarily onerous. Back in the day I was shooting 35mm and medium or large format photography was both imposing and expensive. As much as I said “never again” to film there was a 0.01% chance I might jump back in, but it would only happen if I ever landed a very special camera. In the late 90’s I always dreamed of owning Fuji 6×17 medium format film cameras. They were used by top landscape photographers and produced amazing panoramic photos. These cameras and their lenses are so good it’s one of the few film camera systems that have held their value the longest. Fast forward to 2013, I set up an eBay alert for GX617 cameras in the event the right camera at the right price surfaced. It only took a couple of years but earlier this year the right camera finally surfaced. I found someone selling a pristine Fuji GX617 with a 90mm lens (20mm equivalent for 35mm cameras) and 50 plus roles of 120 film. Even still it was a bit of a hit to my budget, but I finally took the plunge.
This Fall when I decided to dedicate a trip to using my new 6×17 camera I started to wonder if I’d be able easily transition back to film photography. On one hand I didn’t want to waste any of the film I acquired (Fuji Velvia 50 & 100) and on the other I was concerned I’d take a hit to my pride feeling like a beginner again. As I dove in using the camera it became clear that my nerves were unwarranted in this area. A firm understanding of photography fundamentals will take you far no matter what system you use.
That said the Fuji Gx617 is very different than a modern DSLR and if there was anything that made me feel like a beginner again it was my lack of familiarity with how this camera functioned. The camera doesn’t have a mirrored viewfinder to preview your composition. Instead it has a dedicated viewfinder for each lens to approximate what will be exposed. The lenses are focused based on the approximate distance of your subject from the camera. Aperture is set manually with levers. A roll of 120 film produces 4 exposures and changing lenses mid-roll is not an option as it will expose the entire roll of film. Becoming reacquainted with manual photography versus relying on a variety of automatic systems we take for granted every day with 35mm DSLRs was quite eye opening.
If any one thing tripped me up in my use of the Fuji GX617 it was establishing a routine to avoid basic mixups on selecting my camera settings. Even compared to my 35mm film SLR this was quit an adjustment. Film and digital SLRs enjoy a certain degree of automation where as a camera like the GX617 requires every setting to be made manually. After a couple slip ups I finally established a routine of composing my subject with the “external” viewfinder, check distance, set lens focus, using a light meter to determine exposure settings, set aperture, set shutter speed, and finally tripped the shutter via a cable release.
It all sounds logical, but being new to the camera it took some time to get this routine down. Distractions were plentiful so more than a few exposures were lost as a result of breaking from this routine. Sometimes the basic step of recomposing my next shot was enough for me to miss a basic setting adjustment. Complicating things further was retraining my brain to visualize how each focal length and aperture setting will translate to the medium format look versus 35mm. As an example 300mm on this system equates to 73.5mm on a 35mm system. Also depth of field is different for equivalent aperture settings. The fun was in the discovery.
Intent & Purpose
One thing that I found incredibly refreshing while using the Fuji GX617 was how the manual settings helped me slow down and connect with my subject more. The manual operation of the camera granted me time to take in my surroundings, more thoroughly observer my subject and feel more connected with Nature. I was far less prone to jump into a scene, rapidly setup & fire off shots and then bolt to the next location. The combination of camera adjustments taking time and only having 4 exposures to a roll put me in a mindset of wanting to get the most out of the location I was photographing. If I was going to use a precious frame of film and devote the time to set up I made sure that my image was going to not just expose correctly, but connect with viewers & myself. The end result was a much more thoughtful effort with less wasted time and film that produced higher quality results.
Continue on to Part 2 in this series – Revisiting Film Photography After 10 Years: Composing Through New Eyes