Flying Blind & The Zen Of Film

Film is an interesting subject for me as a photographer. Time and time again I’ve been tempted to give it a go, and more often than not I’ve left those one or two rolls lying in the shoe box for months, if not years, but recently I tried an experiment. I told myself I would put down my digital camera until my unused rolls of Kodak Portra 400 were shot and sent off for processing. It only took about two weeks to do so, but it left with a profound change in the way I approach using my camera.

On Camera Displays

Having a display on the back of a camera is a logical choice. It has not only revolutionised the learning process, it also gives you the confidence to approach difficult subject matter and lighting conditions that are less predictable, such as studio work, as it grants you the ability to correct your mistakes immediately and perfect the work, two things I greatly appreciate as someone who has worked in a professional capacity before.

But, as I’ve found over the last few weeks, this immediacy also comes at a profound disadvantage to thoughtfulness. With instant photo review at your fingertips, it’s surprisingly difficult to prevent yourself from checking your photographs, even if just to see what you took, let alone making sure it was executed properly. It amounts to a feeling of instant gratification that provides none of the trust, discovery and meditative qualities that film cameras give you. Instant gratification isn’t always the best thing when you are trying to live and capture moments instead of reviewing them the moment after.

That Damn Play Button

I’ve been photographing for about six years and have been shooting with my Leica M for over 18 months now. I trust it, I know it’s pros and cons and tricks, and I know my own skill level, but even after all of this I still constantly want to hit that Play button.

On the other hand, my experience with a film Leica has confirmed a few things…

Firstly, that I fully appreciate the facility of shooting to a digital negative with great latitude, pixel-level sharpness and no requirement to spend not-insignificant quantities of money on development and lo-fi scanning (or even more money on high-res scanning).

Secondly, that I do trust my camera to do what I need as I see and execute it through the viewfinder. I had to shoot fully manual on the Leica MP, and was more at the mercy of its light meter than ever before, for example.

And thirdly, that I can still make good photographs without the aid of instant photo review. As a disclaimer, my experiment with the rolls of film and a Leica that needs a focus adjustment meant I didn’t have “high quality” images this time for a couple of reasons, but my photography itself didn’t change at all.

The Takeaway?

I now feel like covering up the screen on my digital Leica M. I love shooting with it, and it's a beautiful tool to use, but I don’t feel like I need a display anymore except in some rare circumstances. I absolutely enjoyed simply moving on straight after clicking the shutter without thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if that came out okay?”

Digital camera displays are an absolute necessity for many people and as a photographer who has shot a wide range of subject matter, I can fully appreciate why, but there’s a thoughtfulness, a meditative quality, an intention to shooting without a display or on film that is troublesome to reproduce with a normal camera. When I pick up my digital M next time, I want to add some of that feeling back into it and try to ignore that urge to review the image I just created.

My hope is that the Leica M-D, a recently released display-less digital camera, is not a lone product, and spawns similar bold moves by arguably more affordable camera manufacturers.