The last time I was in a dark room was probably 2002, and the last time I shot film wasn’t too long after that. By the time I graduated from photo school I had switched to digital with a lot of conviction. I remember debating with some of my more reluctant classmates about it, and my argument was that I felt I could ultimately provide a better image with digital. It gave you more options, I said. Then around the middle of 2012 I started shooting film again, mostly out of boredom. After nearly a decade of digital, I found the experience of shooting on film to be a revelation.
People ask me why I prefer to shoot film, expecting me to say something romantic about the way film looks, the texture of it. Instead, I completely stay out of that subjective and tired debate of whether it looks better than digital (off the record, I do prefer the way film looks). But what I discovered when I returned to film was that it had more to do with the absence of the LCD screen on the back of the camera than anything else.
Putting any camera up to your face takes you out of the moment, but taking a picture and then looking at the screen on the back of the camera really takes you out of the moment. The disconnect is at its worst when making portraits of people. It’s uncomfortable enough to have your picture taken, but it’s even more uncomfortable to be snapped, and then seemingly judged by the photographer as he’s reviewing the image. The temptation to check the screen is way too strong.
I’ve tried to turn it off. I’ve put gaffers tape over the screen. But these efforts are no better then a New Year’s resolution that I’ll never keep. Invariably, the subjects want to have a look for themselves and unless you’ve just shot a Pulitzer Prize winner, they’re probably going to feel less spectacular about themselves. Often subjects, assuming I’m shooting digital, will point to my camera and ask “can I see?” and I’ll respond, “No, but neither can I.” They then seem to be reinvigorated by the equality between us.
I find that if I’m shooting with digital, I’ll be tempted to over-perfect any one shot. The instant feedback from the LCD allows me to make tiny adjustments, which many times are not imperative. Most of my best work is reactive, and when I start spending too much time on one shot I’ve only succeeded in making myself less open, less creative. Whereas with film, I may take two or three pictures of a scene, then say to myself, “OK, this is getting expensive, time to move on,” and then I change positions drastically, or take the subject to an entirely new location. As a result, by the end of the shoot, I’ve come away with true variations rather then just 75 versions of the same image. As it turned out, I was wrong about what I thought ten years ago; it’s actually the process unique to shooting film that seems to help me make a more creative image. Shooting film is a constricting parameter, and it’s well known that sometimes it’s easier to work when confined.
Of course I still shoot digital for certain jobs, and for some applications, it’s the way to go. I can’t find an underwater housing for my Pentax 67 and I get seriously wet on a lot of my shoots. I can imagine digital is great for shooting tabletop still life with the client in the studio. For me, however, most of my best work comes on location assignments after I’ve had a day or two to get into “the zone.” Without trying to sound all metaphysical about it, shooting film seems to lessen the time it takes to get into the zone. I know I’m there when I’ve stopped thinking about the equipment, even stopped thinking about the composition. I only know I’ve been in the zone after the fact. You can’t be in the zone and recognize it at the same time; if you do, you pull yourself out of it. Digital, which makes so much possible, ironically causes me to be occupied by distracting technical options. Too many options are bad.
It’s counter-intuitive but film makes me care less about getting the right exposure. (It must be said; the dynamic range of film is an amazing and forgiving thing.) Perhaps it’s because I’m preemptively measuring the light more often. Constantly taking meter readings, I have greater faith that my next shot will be properly exposed. In any case, I feel more present and more in tune with my surroundings, and I don’t have to spend much thought on operating the camera. I make do with what’s loaded in the camera, knowing that I can push process the next roll if I have to, and that’s that. Yes, it’s more challenging to shoot film but it’s less distracting then digital. Ironically I find shooting film to be more peaceful, almost meditative, and all I have to think about is where to put the viewfinder’s rectangle.
Michael Turek is a New York-and London-based photographer.
He first fell in love with photography on family trips to England and his high-school photo teacher urged him to pursue the medium. Four years later, he graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a photography degree and moved to Manhattan to assist prominent names. He soon began accepting his own commissions from publications on both sides of the Atlantic.
For Turek, photography is a way of experiencing life; it’s suggestive of a memory, but the immediacy forces him to move past the pictures he has taken to the images he hasn’t yet made. He is the recipient of accolades from American Photography, Communications Arts, and PDN; and he maintains The Turek Atlas, an online travel guide featuring his images.
Michael shoots with a variety of cameras but he is particularly fond of his Pentax 6×7 and KODAK PROFESSIONAL PORTRA 400 and 160 films.