When is the last time you took a photo with an old-school camera — the kind that doesn’t have a wireless connection, needs to be loaded with finicky rolls of film and is too bulky to slide into a back pocket?
Unless you are a professional photographer or an artist, it has probably been a while. Most people have abandoned film cameras for digital models or, more recently, smartphones outfitted with lens accessories and apps like Instagram that make photo-sharing extremely simple.
But film photography is having another moment in the sun, thanks to some hip, quirky companies like Lomography and the Impossible Project, which are resurrecting this seemingly archaic art for enthusiastic hobbyists. These companies and their customers tend to embrace the imperfections of film, rejecting the cold precision of digital photos.
It is important to bear in mind, of course, that film photography takes a little more effort than tapping a button on a screen. In my experience, the pros outweigh the cons, but both are worth considering before you invest a significant amount of time — and coin — into this hobby, particularly if you are new to the world of film.
Let’s start with the cons. Analog cameras require a little more precision to operate than digital ones. It can take some time to figure out how they work and to learn how to reload them without dropping them on the sidewalk. The film itself is fairly delicate and often needs to be refrigerated and shielded from the sun. The pictures are rarely perfect. Certainly, the artsy streaks and blurring that some of the cameras mentioned below can give to images are part of the charm and overall appeal. But it can be frustrating to have a sprawling white smear blotting out the scenic vista you were hoping to capture.
Cost is another factor; expect to part ways with a few bills at first, for getting set up with equipment, and then for buying the film and having it developed. Even finding a place to develop film can be challenging, although many chain drugstores and professional photography shops still do.
Given all that, the upsides to working an old-school camera into your daily routine are numerous. Perhaps the most interesting benefit is how it shapes the way you interact with your surroundings. The luxury of documenting every meal, sun-soaked afternoon and live concert with a smartphone’s vast memory bank does not exist with film cameras. You have a limited number of frames to shoot with, forcing you to carefully weigh what you want to capture. That sounds like a drawback until you consider the advantages of being more present in the moment, since you aren’t constantly engrossed by the screen of your smartphone.
There is also something refreshing about not immediately knowing what your image will look like. It instills a kind of patience that has all but disappeared as we surround ourselves with real-time technology. And when the prints show up, there can be wild variations in color and the sort of unpredictability that turns a photo into something that seems like a unique piece of art.
As an added bonus, film cameras are the ultimate icebreakers. Spotting a Polaroid camera in the wild is rare, so if you walk into a party with one, you’re guaranteed to be the most popular person in the room.
Here are some options available to those who want to try their hand at wielding an old-fashioned camera.
LOMOGRAPHY This company manufactures and sells a line of quirky cameras online and in a handful of stores around the globe, including locations in New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and London. Their offerings, which start at around $50, all use 35-millimeter film. They include the simple Russian LC-A+, which produces whimsical, color-drenched pictures; cameras with a fisheye lens that create a bulging, surrealist perspective; and the Spinner 360, which comes rigged with a manual ripcord that whirls the lens around to capture a panoramic image.
My personal favorites are the cute DianaF+ and La Sardina, stylish and compact machines that fit easily into a handbag and look like something you would see on the set of a chic Italian movie. For the ambitious, the company recently began selling a camera called the LomoKino that captures short movies on 35-millimeter film.
It takes a while to get used to a Lomography camera when you’ve been shooting on an iPhone or digital camera. I never knew if the film was advancing properly, and once I accidentally yanked off the back panel, ruining at least five exposures by baring them to the light. But once you get past the initial awkwardness of the machinery, it’s so much fun to take photos of your friends on a crowded dance floor, flowering trees and lazy dogs lolling in the sun with a funky, old-looking camera. No one minds when you stick it in their faces to get a shot — making it an easier sell than the intrusive glowing screen of an iPhone.
THE IMPOSSIBLE PROJECT When Polaroid announced it would cease production of its film and abandon its signature technology in 2009 amid flagging fortunes, a group of Polaroid fans leapt to attention and started campaigning to save the format. After raising money from backers, they began hiring former Polaroid engineers and buying the company’s equipment, determined to reverse-engineer its chemical formulas and production techniques.
Those efforts were successful: The Impossible Project manufactures and sells a variety of instant film, online and in stores in New York, as well as through various art galleries and dealers around the world.
The company’s film is designed to work in the Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras. If you cannot find one in your parents’ attic, you’ll have to scavenge your own from eBay, Etsy or a garage sale. Or you can buy a camera that the Impossible Project has salvaged and refurbished. A starter kit containing one Polaroid camera and a pack of film starts at $129. These neat machines generate gasps of awe when you pull them out.
FUJI INSTAX Another company that still makes instant film, Fuji, recently released a small line of instant cameras that are available from a variety of online retailers, starting at around $100; a pack of 10 shots costs $10. Although I begged my sister for a Fuji Mini for my last birthday, thinking it’d be easier to lug around, I wound up preferring the larger 210 format, which my friend Alan brings along on all of our social outings. The photos that the Mini camera spits out are adorable, but tiny, and harder to hang on a wall or frame and give to a friend.