Shooting film: It's the process, not the results

Last year, with my wife and a couple of friends from the UK, we took a trip to Vietnam. This was my first trip with a film camera since around 2009 and I absolutely loved it. The fact that you are mentally focused on either photographing the scenes around you, or on enjoying the holiday is a breath of fresh air. You're not thinking about the next opportunity to charge your batteries, whether you have sufficient memory, and crucially, you're not constantly looking at the LCD of the camera. 

However, it's not all rosy shooting film. When you come back from a trip you have to process your rolls. After Christmas this year I had 13 to develop, which was quite time consuming. As for printing, that just takes things to another level all together. The first time I made a print in the darkroom I had no idea how time consuming it can be to get things just the way you want them. Initially, I thought that with a bit of practice I would improve and the process would become faster, with less wasted paper and better results. So far, for me at least, the opposite has been true. As I've improved my printing my standards have become higher and I expect every print to be perfect. If part of an image is too dark, or light, or has the wrong grade of contrast, I just have to reprint it. I can't stand to think that I haven't got the best print from the negative that I have to work with. 

A recent example is an image that I've shown before and my favorite photograph to date. It's a street scene that I made in a Ho Chi Minh alleyway. It was also the first image that I ever printed when I was taught the basics last year. 

I managed to get a print that I was really happy with. Great exposure, great contrast and and a thin black border that shows it was an un-cropped, full frame print. I made the print on 8 by 10" paper and it looked just the way I wanted it to. The issues started to arise when I wanted to scale up the print to larger paper, 11 by 14" fibre based glossy. 

I had my print recipe all worked out and with an adjustment of the exposure times I thought I would be able to make a simple test strip and go from there to a larger print, retaining the dodges and burns that I had before, albeit with different duration's. 

The problems started because I bought a new enlarger, a much better one that actually functioned as intended and produced prints with parallel edges. The difference, however was that this was a colour enlarger whereas as the older version was specifically designed for black and white. For contrast control with this new enlarger I would adjust the magenta and yellow channels of the enlarger head to giving access to a continuum of contrast control. Try as I might, however, I just couldn't get a print that had white enough whites, or black enough blacks. I made a million test strips and patches, tried the enlargers supplementary filter and all I did was waste paper. It was really frustrating, especially as this was larger, expensive paper that I was saving for my best prints that were destined for frames on my wall. 

I tried everything but just couldn't get a result I was happy with. To fix the issue I had to buy an 'under the lens' filter kit from Ilford, effectively converting the newer enlarger back into a dedicated black and white tool. 

I finally arrived with something that I was happy with and entered the image into a photographic clubs monthly competition. I came last! I was 'awarded' with an 'Acceptance,' effectively meaning that I complied with their rules and entered a valid photograph. Having developed the film, decided that this was my best photograph, scanned it, printed it in the darkroom, refined the recipe, printed it again and again, wasting paper and finally produced a result that I was happy with, then getting it matted, I was pretty disappointed. This was an image that made it into 'Explore' on Flickr, with around 125 likes and nearly 7000 views, I was sure it was a strong image. If I've learn't anything it's that a photo is only a good one if the viewer likes it! 

I started to think about whether film photography was worth it. The effort you put in versus the results you get back. This experience proved to me that the hours you can put into film photography mean nothing at all if the viewer doesn't like your picture. I began to ask myself whether digital would be a better way forward. But I feel that I realised something. I realised that it really doesn't matter whether others admire your photo. Would I appreciate the image if it was shot digitally? Probably not. I spent so much time on this picture that I knew it was a favourite. 

So what can I take from this? Well, I have realised that it's the process of film photography that I love. Knowing that I was in control of every part of the process is so rewarding. I can truly say that I made that photograph and I have a result that I I love in spite of the rejection from the camera club's competition.  I'm learning not to care about what others think of my photos and perhaps that's the best outcome. At the end of the day there are always going to be better photos out there. So why not just be happy with your best and not care what others think. That's what I'll be trying from now on. Who knows, I may even enjoy the process more.