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life in squares

This portrait of my sister and her fiancé is the first of only two shots I took of them that chilly day by the sea; I took a second shot because I had a moment of doubt: perhaps I should take another, just in case. As it turned out, I was right on the money with the first and this is now my favourite photograph from last year.

I only shot two photographs because I was using my Hasselblad 500C/M, a vintage medium-format camera that takes 120 film - when you only have 12 shots, you don’t want to waste a single one. Shooting with film again has transformed my eye. In the early 90s I studied photography at art school; back then we only had analogue cameras, and once a week I’d borrow a Hasselblad from the college technicians, reverently shooting with the same format David Bailey and Diane Arbus used. It was love at first click.

Last year I bought the camera I’d waited over fifteen years to own. Shooting with the Hasselblad is like a meditation; it definitely makes me a more thoughtful photographer. I’m intimately involved in my picture-taking, measuring the light, adjusting the aperture ring, setting the speed and focusing the lens, all the while absorbing the moment. And only when it feels right, when I have everything in the viewfinder as I want it, do I hold my breath and press the shutter. Often I’ll walk away from a potential shot if I don’t feel it is good enough; even with three rolls of film I only have 36 shots, so each one is precious.

The Hassy sits weightily in my hands, a solid chunk of glass and metal that seems to ground me even more squarely in the moment. Perhaps I love this camera because it connects me to my past, to the 20-year-old girl who first stepped into a studio filled with soft boxes and infinity coves. I know I love it for the magic it lends my images, the starry bokeh and cut-glass sharpness.

Of course, like most of the vintage things in my home, it’s old-school photography with a modern twist, as I scan all my negatives and gently hone them in Photoshop. As much as I would love a darkroom in my basement, the convenience of the digital darkroom has won me over. (It also helps that I have a photo lab ten minutes from my house that offers one-hour film processing!)

It’s still possible to buy 120 film and I like that my original images exist tangibly as negatives, rather than digital data in a metal box. But that doesn’t mean I’m a film snob. If shooting medium-format film is a zen walk through the park, picking up a digital SLR again is, for me at least, like going to a nightclub, full of freedom and energy.

So tell me, do you shoot with a film camera? Does the idea excite you or maybe scare you a little?

If you’re keen to try medium-format photography, look out for a Yashica Mat-124G camera on eBay, an affordable twin-lens camera that’ll familiarise you with shooting 120 film. That old Duaflex you use for TtV? Try putting a roll of film through it and see what results you get. And you’ll never regret buying a Holga, I promise. If you haven’t got a film camera you can use, experiment by limiting the number of photos you take next time you’re out shooting. If you only had twelve shots, what would you photograph?

Today's post is brought to you courtesy of guest Shutter Sister Susannah Conway.  You can read/see more of her amazingly beautiful work at her blog, Ink on my Fingers, and purchase some of her beautiful fine art prints at her etsy store.

Reader Comments (41)

with only 12 shots I would capture this fleeting phase in my life- the lines of my husbands sweet face, the pregnant belly that holds our future, and my newly blue hair. =) I love and miss film!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Plouzek
These pictures are gorgeous! Some days I do miss film - making sure to get every picture just 'so.' If I only had 12, I would do a couple of my kids in their finest moments. I would try to capture the love between my in-laws, the sweet smile of my dear grandmother, my best girl-friends, and my own mom. Great post!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCeleste
I love the authenticity of film, and that there is no preview window for people to instantly critique themselves. I remember the first picture I took with a DSLR, I was instantly surrounded by 4 snarky bridesmaids yelling "Let me see it!!!" and asking for 3 or 4 retakes. Gag. One of my all time favorite pictures was taken with a Toyo 4x5.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterToni
Brilliant photo! I really do like the idea of slowing down and really really thinking about each shot. I may have to load up the old film SLR and practice. I've always been meaning to, but this has given me that push. Great article!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlaura-dolcepics
I have an old pentax 6x7 collecting dust on the top shelf of a closet. You're inspiring me to dust it off and take it out to play. Slowing down and thinking certainly has its advantages..but then I wouldn't get pix like these:
Wonderful post!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcie
beautiful photos, beautiful post. when i got my first digital, i loved it for the fact that i could just snap away, erase all the bad photos and perfect the other ones later. it was like speed clicking. i'm now starting to pay better attention, not only to create stronger images but for the feeling i get when i stop and notice all the little details. i get lost in the moment. this post makes me want to find film for my duaflex and go out and play.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeanine
I recently was given my dads old Canon AE-1. I plan on buying some film once the weather gets wee bit nicer and shooting with it. I have never used film except for a point and shoot automatic when I was little. Looking forward to it.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersebrina
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkosenrufu mama
I went on a photo walk with some fellow photographers one Saturday at the local gardens. I shot 300 frames while a friend with a Hassey shot 3. It does make you slow down and thing about the composition, the light, the subject matter. That's the diffierence I've found between my photography with film and digital. With digital I may take 10 frames or more of one thing because I'm struggling for the right one. With film, I have to make sure it's the right one.

I bought a film camera at the thrift store 2 weeks ago, I need to take it out and see what I get.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharlane
So lovely to find you over here Susannah! I love this post and the photos you've chosen to go with it. I've been toying with the idea of playing with an analogue camera for I while. My husband says he'll only teach me the tricks of the trade if I start off with the "real thing"... so I guess I better dig out my Dad's old equipment :) Wish me luck!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa
Sometimes I wonder if I'm "snap happy" I recently wrote a post about pacing myself, perhaps this is an idea I should introduce not just to the number of things I'm doing but the things themselves, photography, reading, art ..... a slow movement in photography.

This site always sparks something in me. Thank you. And the photo above is absolutely breathtaking.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKath
A couple years ago, we were cleaning out my grandmother's house - downsizing to an apartment, and my mum found an old Kodak from the 50s that belonged to my grandfather. Nothing is automatic, you have to move sliders to focus, change the aperture and the shutter speed, the view finder is not attached to the lens, and you have you hand wind after every picture (i.e. press a button then turn a knob, not just flick something).

This was the first "real" camera I had ever owned, and it forced me to understand very quickly how aperture and shutter speed worked. Luckily, I had the original instruction booklet to help, and eventually I bought an analog light meter. This also helped, but with only 4 aperture stops (5.6, 8, 11, 16) and 5 shutter speeds (100, 50, 25, B, T), it wasn't as useful as I had hoped.

This was the camera that got me reading about photography, actually learning and thinking, not just pushing a button on a point and shoot. I experimented with this old one, then moved to a friends Canon 35mm (much more automatic, similar to DSLR), and finally this summer, bought my own DSLR (D80). I have a whole album of pictures taken with the film cameras, and I loved it.

Here's what the camera looks like: a Kodak 35 Kodex No. 1

p.s. Writing this has made me want to go out and use it!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKaty
I actually have no interest in film photography. I'm a late comer to photography and have no real past experience with film that would draw me back to it. I'm also a fairly simple person and don't like lots of clutter and stuff so I own one camera, the d300 (of course a couple lenses) and we sold my point and shoot when we bought this one. So I don't imagine I'll ever experiment much with film, but.. who knows. Never say never.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrenee @ FIMBY
i love my film camera. it belongued to my father, but I borrowed it from him and never returned it.
these are some of my favourites photos:
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteryellow pooky
I've inherited my father's old Topcon 35mm cameras and slew of lenses and gadgets to go with them, and someday I'm gonna use them. I'm just not in a place where I can afford to shot film, nor do I feel I understand the technical side of photography enough to make good use of it. Plus, with all of life's demands, it's just easier right now for me to use the digital. But I'm keeping them safe and in good condition. I will use them.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentershelli
Those images are so lovely. I have a Nikon FM10, Diana F+ Lomo, Kodak Duaflex and of course, Polaroid. Honestly, my biggest issue is loading the film!!! Haha. I really struggle with the little technical functions of film cameras. I love the look of film so, so much. I really need to spend more time getting to know them. I took a darkroom class and just fell in love. These images you posted have sparked my film desire again!!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbethelynk
I miss film. I feel like a film format makes people think harder, not just shoot randomly because there is still room on a memory card. Film makes me consider what I am doing, how I am doing it, and if it is exactly what I want before I waste a shot.

I feel more like an artist on film.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAppleTree
Lovely pictures! A Hasselblad is on my list of wants..... :o) I have several film cameras - Minolta SRT200, Argus Rangefinder, Brownie Hawkeye and just recently purchased an Holga. I am astonished with what these cameras can do. Film really does make you think about the moment and how to capture it. I love film more and more each time i use it.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristin
Before I received my camera as a gift last summer, I thought about this all the time. This is what I took with a small disposable camera on our trip to New Orleans.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPuna
My beloved Minolta X700 is displayed on a dad gave it to me years ago......back then, I thought I was a photographer......but I realized that I only liked to take pictures.....when I graduated to a small point and shoot digital a few years ago.....I continued to carry both.....but I am horrible with getting my film developed! Recently, I pledged to myself that I would start using it again......and I have, but my film.....well, at least I took the first step! haha

January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWayfaring Wanderer
I grew up in the age of 120 film. My first camera was a Kodak Brownie. Then I got a Polaroid. My parents had a Kodak Duaflex II, which they still have and I have access to whenever I want. Graduating to 35 mm, I have an Olympus point and push and my mom has a Pentax K2000 that she also lets me borrow. Currently, I shoot with a Canon Powershot 5.

I love the anticipation of getting film back to see what I actually managed to capture. However, at this point in my adventure, I am shooting digital exclusively. It is a wonderful way for me to learn with immediate feedback and not having to worry about the expense of film--both purchase and development.

Perhaps when my eye is sharper and my skills are finer, I will return to a foray in film. That could be really fun.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWanda
Film terrifies me. I know nothing about it, but I hear it makes you a better photographer. I wouldn't know where to start. This will be a challenge I will take on some day, hopefully soon.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke
I love film cams!! Especially the plastic toy kind. Here is a sample of my most viewed Holga shot:

And one from a newer Yashica film cam:
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbella
I don't know what it is, but somehow there is an eerie connection with Shutter Sisters. Seems I do something, shoot something, or think something and voila the same day or next someone on SS writes about it! How does that happen?

Last night, believe it or not, I dreamt I got a Holga and the dream was all images in my mind about using the Holga. Not only that, because of the dream, I dug out my old film camera. How coincidental is that!!

You ask so many questions but I"d love to attempt a few responses:

You asked: So tell me, do you shoot with a film camera? Does the idea excite you or maybe scare you a little?

Answer: I haven't used film for several years because I've been loving the freedom and dance with digital. But I AM definitely going to buy some film for my old camera and slow waltz with it.

You said: And you’ll never regret buying a Holga, I promise. If you haven’t got a film camera you can use, experiment by limiting the number of photos you take next time you’re out shooting. If you only had twelve shots, what would you photograph?

Answer: I might just buy a Holga for fun! If I only had those 12 sacred shots, I'd photograph my son, my granddaughters, and the special items that remind me of my deceased mother. Treasures.

January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Schuller
Digital is great and I love it but every now and then I miss film. I shot film as a kid and into my teen years. My brother-in-law studied photography and film in college so there are vivid memories of being around the dark room and watching the magic. It's a feeling you can't get with digital.

Sitting in my closet is an old Yashica that my Dad owned. I think I need to dig it out.
Great post as always.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBet
I was just about to sell by old Nikon F4 but these photos, especially the portrait of Susannah's sister and her fiancé, have convinced me to hold on to it. I haven't used it in three years, thank you for the beautiful inspiration!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNicole
I bought an argus75 on ebay for $5 last year to try ttv shots, I was tempted to try film in it, but the shutter sticks. Still got some great ttv shots, even after I cleaned the the grunge off the glass:
I also modified an SX-70 to use 600 film, I was instantly in love with it, too bad the film isn't cheaper!
I'm off to dust off my Nikon FE and 50mm while my digital goes off to repair, perhaps it's time to fall in love with film all over again! Thanks for the inspiration!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterclaudia
In journalism school I studied film photography and appreciated it then - but hated the darkroom work. I now have a real passion for digital photography and have just spent a small fortune on a seriously-good camera and gear. This week I received payment for two magazine articles and for the first magazine piece in which my photos were used. Instead of saving the money, I took a great leap of faith and decided to invest it in myself by buying all the tools to work on improving my photography skills. You're a good inspiration, Susannah! Waiting for that e-course!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterParis Parfait
I forgot to say, love that photo of your sister and her fiance!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterParis Parfait
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkaylaf
oh Renee film cameras are much simpler than those pesky digitals - I took 3 cameras on a 6 week trip and only used the holga and the lomo - I tried to use the digital once and nearly chucked it in the bin as it was useless without a manual and hour and hours of time.

My holga has 4 settings thats it and occasionally I stick a macrolens on. In my opinion digital photos need a lot of photoshop processing to get 'right' - I do nothing to my medium format except to upload it.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercreativevoyage
Love your vibe, Susannah. Still too new to digital photography to add film to the list of things to learn, but I won't say I'm not tempted...
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNotAnna
Your post inspired me to pull out my first roll of film pictures I took last summer with the film camera I bought (in memory of my grandfather's film camera that he always carried with him and always shot pictures with.) My picture of the day (day 9) was created in honor! I spent a day at Coney Island with my camera. Sadly, some of my pictures will never be repeated, as Astroland saw its last season in 2008.

Thanks & beautiful pics!!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia
so good to see you here susannah!
that image of your sister and her fellow is my favorite of yours (and its hard to pick one fave). but there's something so timeless and strong about it.

thanks for the tips on seeing things square...i hope for a hasselblad to be in my life someday, but the tip about the yashica is fabulous...i think i'll try to track one down!

and brought my holga with me on these travels i'm on but have yet to find film....which your words are inspiring me to do!
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentervivienne
as much as i want to hone my skills and get back to the knowledge i have lost in the whirl and ease that is digital, it scares me to death. i have a yashica tlr that i proudly spent $85 on on ebay back in it's early days and it sits as an ornament on a shelf in my kitchen. {{sigh}} i'm afraid that i will find that i am actually no good.
January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbra
Lovely to see you here sister. I have been noticing lately how Lucas shoots with his digital camera as though he were shooting on film. Carefully measuring and adjusting the settings, framing and then shooting. I may take more, but his are better. There is a lesson in there!

If i had 12 shots I would probably keep saving them, waiting for the best moment to use them and then missing out altogether... but I'd like to think that I would simply keep my eyes open for the moments that called me to the viewfinder. x
January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarianne
I always shot with film cameras. I hadn't scanned any of my film photos yet, or uploaded them to flickr or the blog, only a couple of them. But even though I shoot a lot of digital these days, I am totally a film girl.
I use my old Nikkormat. I love taking time to shoot each photo.
Here's my camera:
Here is one of the few pictures I can share so far. The other ones will come soon, I promise:
January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Alvarez
Love that top shot. Beautiful.
Just bought a Diana+ before Christmas and I'm loving the way it slows me down and makes me not want to waste any of my 12 shots. Yet to get film developed though - slightly nervewracking!
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