Simple Machines, Complex Tasks

Calmly, carefully, consciously

I picked up my dad’s Pentax camera sometime in the 1980s and was hooked from day one. By high school I was committed. I set off to college with the vague idea that I would major in photography, but I dropped out before that ever came to fruition.

Like most photographers I made the jump to digital cameras some time ago. I sold my last film camera right before we left on this trip. It was a sad moment, but I hadn’t shot with the camera (a Nikon F3) in years. I knew there were people out there still shooting film, and I wanted the camera to be used, not sit around gathering dust, so I sold it.

I didn’t give film much thought after that. From a technical standpoint 35mm film is massively more expensive, has less resolving power, and it’s more difficult to work with, develop, print, etc.

Then, about six months ago, an editor at Wired reached out and asked if I would put together a guide to film photography. This caught me a little off guard. Film? Did you really say film photography?

I said I would so long as Wired bought me a new film camera because I didn’t think they would do that. Surprisingly, my editor agreed. I went on eBay and bought an old Nikon FE2, which was sort of the less pro version of the F3. It came with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens. I bought some Tri-X, and some Velvia, and went wandering around the Outer Banks trying to remember how to shoot film.

Film photography is not like riding a bike. Everything I once knew… I forgot. But the technical hurdles didn’t really bother me much after the first (embarrassingly bad) roll I developed.

I realized pretty quickly that more than nailing complex exposures, what I really needed to do was slow down my whole way of working. I was trying to shoot film as if it were digital. It is most emphatically not digital. It has a very different process. Film has to be shot calmly, carefully, and consciously.

This I realized is also what elevates something to a craft, doing it calmly, carefully, and consciously.

Could you do with with a digital camera? Sure, but it’s not required. The digital images that aren’t quite right can be easily fixed later on your laptop. Film cannot. My experience has been that if something doesn’t require me to work at something more like craft, often I do not.

What the Nikon FE2 forced me to do was slow down. You can’t just mash the shutter, you have to take everything in first. Look closely at where the light meter is reading on the subject vs the background, which raise the question, what is the subject? Should I recompose? What if I moved so that it was better framed? And so on. Then you have to turn the dials to match the light meter’s reading of scene. Then check your composition again. At this slower pace there is more space to reflect on what you’re doing, what you’re after, and this sharpens your vision. It gives you room to think. You can wander through your memory even, remember other images you’ve seen or made, and use those reflections to steer your hand now. It’s almost like the process becomes similar to reading a book, you generally don’t rush through a book, the world of the book just unfolds at the pace of your reading.

Why would a 40-year-old camera enable all that? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the machine and the complexity of the task. There must be a balance here, but I think on the whole what humans really need are simple machines that enable complex tasks.

The FE2 is very simple. It lets me make the complex decisions. I am in charge of focusing the lens. I am in charge of figuring out the correct exposure. The camera gives me a light reading of the scene in front of me, but it’s an average, and doesn’t take into account the characteristics of the film I’m shooting, the range of light and dark in the scene, where the subject is, or any other of a dozen things I am expected to take into account. The machine is very simple, the task is very complex.

Digital cameras are the opposite. They are very complex machines that can do 80 percent of what I have to do myself with the FE2, all I really have to do is press the shutter button. The machine is very complex, the task is very simple. While the result may be equal, or even better, the satisfaction in the task is less.

We often focus on the results without giving much thought to the process. I think taking the opposite view, that the process is what matters, is the beginning of entering into a craft. Not this is a thing I am making, but this is the process that makes this thing. In many (most?) cases this approach also leads to better outcomes.

It’s tempting to think that it is a luxury to have the time to fully engage the process like this. It’s easy to say, well, sometimes I just want to get the shot of my kids blowing out the candles or perhaps dinner needs to be ready before the kids are off to juijitsu or baseball or what have you. I don’t have time to make this a process, it just needs to get done. But if I’m honest with myself, these are cop-outs. If I’m short on time it’s because I didn’t allot enough time for what I needed to do. Okay, start sooner. You have to give yourself the time to slow down by carving it out. Calm, careful, conscious.

And sure, not everything needs to be a craft. Not everything needs to be raised to that level. I had a friend who would get all zen about doing the dishes. Maybe you do that too. That’s not me. I just want the damn dishes clean. But if there’s something you do a lot, I find that my enjoyment of it goes way up when I slow down and really, carefully sweat over the details. The results are usually better too.

I made an offhand comment in a post about Pensacola’s Navy museum that I think is related. I was wondering aloud really, but I wrote: what if hard is good, struggle is good, and that’s why the past is so appealing?

What if that’s what makes something a craft rather than a task that must be done? What if it’s supposed to be, if not hard, then at least laborious, done carefully rather than rushed? Isn’t that the whole point — to do things well? And doesn’t that usually mean doing them slowly, carefully? I think that’s what film is trying to tell me: it’s the complexity of the task, the difficulty of the task that makes it enjoyable, and more broadly, that the more I slow down, the more I can do carefully and consciously, the better life will be.


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