How Film Guides My Approach to Street Photography by Simon King

October 14, 2019

For Street Photography I think that the largest shift in my mentality and approach to my moment-to-moment shooting workflow came when I transitioned to shooting on 35mm film. Although I have always been frugal with my shots, and make an effort to achieve “the shot” in one attempt, the physical restrictions of film amplified this constraint, and turned it into something very useful.

It took me a few months from switching to shooting the majority of my personal, documentary, and street photographs on film before I was able to finesse my reaction to these limitations, and become entirely comfortable with the way I found myself working.

36 exposures per roll seems like it isn’t a lot, but I find it’s often enough to last quite a few days of shooting street. It comes down to whether you are used to seeing with your eyes, or through trial and error producing multiple exposures from different angles to capture what you are looking for. By training yourself to observe first, and understand the image you want to take before raising the camera to your eye you should be able to reduce the number of trial and error attempts to your finished image.

You can also learn to identify the more sociological aspects of a scene; people watching to decide when the ideal moment to make the image will be. This reduces the need to shoot in bursts and select the best image while curating after the fact. Find your composition, raise the camera, and then wait while the scene unfolds.

By becoming more discretionary I have managed to shoot film very slowly, but have far more keepers than compared with the sheer quantity of digital images I must have produced over time. Having high standards about where I choose to spend my time while shooting is a real benefit to my work, and leads to an approach closer to photojournalism, where I scope out my locations beforehand, explore the kinds of character that might be around, and try and really focus in on the story of a particular area. Compared with walking aimlessly (which I still do practice) I much prefer the considered approach.

When reviewing my contact sheets it is much easier for me to identify patterns, and potential connections between images when holding a physical page of images. I can make notes, and annotations, and have a much better sense of organization than when compared to digital folders of possibly tens of thousands of images. It is a far more daunting task (in my opinion) to curate these kinds of numbers into anything meaningful, than my quality over quantity film work.

Many see the inability to instantly review an image taken with film as a drawback, but I think it is a fantastic asset. Once you understand how your film camera works you can develop a trust that everything is working as it should. The shutter is opening; the film is advancing correctly, and so on. You know that the image WILL be on your negative; so worrying about the actual mechanics of the process becomes irrelevant.

Part of the trial and error process on digital is the ability to immediately see your images, and make those instant tweaks to the composition. My digital images tend to be very “technically perfect” as I am able to exploit this feature. On film however I don’t have the patience to bracket my exposures/focus, and I am much less of a fisherman as a result. Film photography keeps me constantly moving around, hunting for those more fleeting moments as opposed to large scale compositions. Being unable to see what I’ve captured means I have become much better at reading and exposing for different kinds of light and effects, and have a more trained capacity for pre-visualization.

Another implication is that I don’t obsess over potential “gems “ I may have caught that day. I find I sometimes see an image on the back of my digital camera and decide that I’ve done the best I can for that day, and stop really trying for the rest of my walk. Film keeps me on my toes, constantly investigating for the next image, rather than dwelling on what’s past. At the end of the day there is no editing, I simply put my finished rolls in a box, and wait until I have maybe twenty before doing any development. No instant gratification, just constant attempts at betterment.

Always looking for the next shot, never settling.

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