COLUMN: The patience of the 35mm camera

Sparked by a new interest in photography, I went to Vintage Vogue a few weeks ago to find myself a little 35mm camera, one that requires you to load a roll of film.

I spent only $10 for a weather-resistant, zoom-capable, auto-focusing, redeye-removing, hyphen-and-hyphen Pentax. In the early 1990s when it was first sold, it probably cost 10 times that. It’s a hefty camera too, one that I can feel bumping against me when I keep it in the pocket of my coat.

With the meticulous air of a nineteenth-century scientist, I carefully inserted a roll of 36 exposures into the back of the camera, crossing my fingers that I would not somehow screw up and ruin everything. After I snapped the cover shut, the camera whirred as its motor reeled the first frame into place, and the number on the LCD panel bumped from zero to one. Success.

I was relieved that I’d come this far without mistakes, since mistakes seemed easy to make. But there was still the question of whether this old camera could still capture images properly. I was eager to take just one picture and then look to see if it was good, but that is not possible with an analog camera. After all, there’s no screen to view. You have no way of knowing if a picture turned out okay until you get around to having it developed in a lab.

But that is how it used to be. Our modern phones and digital cameras allow us to review every picture we take instantly, although even the word “instantly” doesn’t feel fast enough. Computer memory is hardly an issue either—your phone alone can store thousands of pictures, so you don’t have to worry about deleting them.

The experience of the analog camera, however, is quite different from the digital cameras we’re now used to. I’ve realized that analog cameras and camera phones bring out different qualities in ourselves. The camera phone asks us to be spontaneous, simply because it allows us to do so. There is nothing holding you back, it exclaims, time and memory are problems of the past. Come on, you can look at all your photos right away, no need to worry at all. The more the better. Every moment spent without a picture is a moment lost forever.

On the other hand, film cameras ask something quite different of us. Slow down, they say. You have only a set number of pictures you can take. Make them count. Take pictures only of the moments that you think matter.

In other words, film cameras require more thought and patience of the user than the digital ones. You can’t take a hundred selfies in one sitting, or else you’d be wasting your roll of film. Rather, you have to think hard about what to photograph—when you see the right moment, you don’t let it go.

Weeks pass by between when you snap the first frame and when you finally get to see it. So film cameras are a way of reminding us of our recent past, which often gets forgotten in our phones or erased altogether on Snapchat. When you get back your pictures, glossy and slightly grainy, you go back in time. This picture is from the party. This one is from the cookout, the football game or the time it snowed.

Personally, I’ve gotten the urge to look over my pictures again and again now that they’ve come in—it feels almost nostalgic. The waiting has paid off.

I’ve been wondering if maybe we are moving so fast that we too easily forget the details of what we’ve done in the past weeks and months. We’re focused on the present and the near future, but it’s good to remember what we’ve just done instead of putting it to the back of our brain or phones. Film cameras are a good way of allowing us to do that.

Maybe that is the lesson to learn from these older, slower pieces of technology. We need to be more patient, more reflective of life as it passes by and take things at a more deliberate pace.

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