In the spring of 2005, I was 18 years old and a freshman in the Film & Television program at NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, taking a class called Digital Frame and Sequence, or as teachers and students referred to in shorthand, "DFS." Back in the day, the Film & TV program's freshman curriculum prescribed one semester dedicated just to sound, and one just to image, and so starkly to the image that we would only shoot still pictures on 35mm analog film cameras.
We'd come up with a concept, primitively board it out, then shoot the stills and arrange them in Final Cut Pro (sometimes along with music and sound effects, Ken Burns-ing as desired) to tell the story; the idea being that working with very bare bones resources would focus you on the substance and less on the style, on telling a compelling story regardless of perceived limitations, and really making you pay attention to exactly what was in your frame, why, and how it worked.
So my classmates and I would go out and shoot these stills, on film mind you, then take our film to one of the dwindling development labs, wait a few days, pick it up, then begin editing it.
We'd have to wait a few days to see the pictures we took.
We'd have to wait a few days to find out if they'd all been total shit. Or slightly out of focus. Or the victim of a light leak.
Can you imagine?
And since you're paying for each roll of film, and you're paying each time it's developed, and you're a broke college kid with a roommate who keeps stealing your milk, you really didn't want to fuck it up, and didn't want to waste everyone's time with a re-shoot.
Prior to NYU, I shot black and white film and developed it in my high school's dark room. Not only did I have to buy the film, I'd have to buy the paper, and also pray to god I didn't fuck it all up at some point in the rather complicated (for a 16-year old) development and printing process.
Now, 10 years later, we live and breathe digital. Memory cards can hold hundreds, sometimes thousands of images, and you can have enough memory cards on hand that you can snap over and over. If you fill it up, just offload them, format, and start anew. There are no limits of cost, or time, to getting the same shot from 15 angles, or just running in burst mode and taking 10 odd shots a second, knowing the one you want is in there somewhere. It's a mathematical certainty.
The downside is an overproduction of content. As a video editor, I can tell you firsthand the negative of shooting digital is that you end up with way too much stuff, sometimes more than you can possibly hope to wade through in the time allotted to complete a project. Photos are the same. My iPhone is bursting with pictures I'll probably never use or look at again, and I have lots of friends with cameras and memory cards lying around collecting dust, with images they could never bother to upload. When you have eighteen shots of the same thing, there is nothing exciting or special about that image anymore. As there is no cost, it has no value.
As an anxious and perhaps slightly-paranoid person, waiting to get the pictures back in college was always a torturous experience, but finally opening them up and seeing that they were good, or at least not completely black or blurry, provided a rush (and relief) that digital never will. Committing an image, a moment, to something physical is a phenomenon that is getting very lost.
So currently my challenge for myself is to make my new practice the old practice.
Since acquiring my first DSLR in 2006, I've been a total digital shooter. Snapping anything and everything, employing little method to my madness except for "one of these has to turn out." I don't miss the time and money involved in having photos developed, but there is value in giving yourself only one or two tries to get what you want and then forcing yourself to move on, hoping for the best. If you don't get the shot, you don't get the shot, but even the failed shot now carries more importance as a memory of a time and place, and a reminder of what to do differently next time.
The benefits of digital are obvious, and numerous. But there is something to be said for the old way; the measured, practiced way that requires focus, patience, and attention; one shot to get the one shot that is the one you want.
And so now, we must go back. WE HAVE TO GO BACK. I am going to try and go back to that old practice, where I imagine each shot costs money, and take the time to get it right the first or second time, and if I don't, move on anyway. Reduce the excess and the waste that makes photography a safe and easy thing, get out from under the dozens of repeat shots that I cannot bear to dig through, and go back to the challenge of limitation. Walk that fine line between shooting too much, or not all, and simply do so with intention. You don't have to shoot on actual film to make use of film practice.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Keep it simple, stupid."
PRINCIPALS OF FILM WORTH APPLYING TO DIGITAL
- Imagine each shot costs money. If that were the case, would you keep snapping?
- Imagine your access to editing is limited, or none. Take your time to frame, focus, and expose the shot you want instead of leaving it up to post.
- Imagine you only got 24 or 36 exposures. Save them for something exceptional, or make the effort to make the banal into something exceptional.
- Whatever you're shooting, would you want those shots in a photo album lying around your house? Will you ever look at them again?