I spend far too much time on Flickr and a lot of that time gawking at photos shot on old-fashioned film. Flickr may have millions of users toting digital-compacts, and probably just as many who are unhealthily obsessed with their DSLRs, but it also has a really strong community of those who won’t – and it’s mainly won’t, rather than can’t – move from film to digital. And many of them take some really beautiful photos.

And you can see why. For one, some films seem to impart a unique look to photos that’s at best time-consuming and at worst impossible to replicate on a digital image. I loved the look I could get from Provia in my F80, even if it did cost a fortune to process and posed serious questions about how much film it is acceptable to keep in a small home fridge:


Film also imposes some discipline that’s helpful if, like me, you have a tendency toward crap photos. Each roll holds only a few shots, so you must compose each carefully. And then there’s the cult-of-film aspect: unlike the millions of plebs who take digital snaps, film photography is, now, a more niche pursuit. Those with a liberal arts degree might want to to knock up one of those dichotomy lists so beloved of theorists and/or poseurs (digital/film, many/few, snapshot/art, blah), not that it would prove anything. But anyhow. I owned several film cameras, then sold my best to buy a DSLR because digital photography is, in every way, more practical.

And then on Sunday, while diving through cardboard boxes in pursuit of batteries, I found one of my film cameras: a “vintage” (old) 1973 Zenit E SLR. This camera was made in the USSR, designed with the aesthetic care and attention usually lavished on anti-aircraft emplacements and made from what I think is a solid chunk of aluminium. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be radioactive – it’s got that “made before safetly considerations” look to it. And then, lurking in the bottom of the box, a spare roll of film. What better way to waste a sunny afternoon than to give it a whirl.

The Zenit has five shutter speeds (plus one for bulb exposures) selected via a dial that regularly falls off the camera and its light meter gave up the ghost some time ago. Probably before I was born, actually. Remarkably the results came out pretty well exposed, and a few of them look OK. I quite like the soft background and colours on this:

Zenit E: Blossom

while Hunter survived his visit to the 1970s, too:

Zenit E: Hunter

And there’s no denying that using the Zenit is strangely fun: the viewfinder makes everything look like a 1980s Thames TV broadcast viewed on a slightly frazzled Trinitron, all colour-cast and barrel distortion, and there’s an amazing mechanical KER-CHUNK noise when you press the shutter accompanied by the whiz of the speed selector spinning around and doing its best to remove the skin from your hand.

There’s also something undeniably neat about taking photos with a camera that requires not a single battery: the Zenit could probably survive a nuclear blast and still work (in fact, it’d serve as a handy hammer should you need to take part in civilisation-rebuilding). Truth be told, everything about taking photos on film again was enjoyable. So will I start lugging the Zenit, or perhaps a more practical film camera, around along with the D80? No chance. And here’s why:


Dust. Gets. Fucking. Everywhere.

That’s the shot of Hunter in Lightroom, and each circle is a dust spot correction that I had to add to remove the assortment of crap, crud, grime, hair and fluff that my film scanner picked up. And that’s on a negative strip straight from the lab (there’s one, conveniently, across from my office). Argh. And many of the other frames were far, far worse, to the point where I couldn’t be bothered to clean them up. If it weren’t for Lightroom’s tools I probably would have just given up and chucked the film out.

So that’s quite enough messing around with stips of chemically-treated plastic for now. I’ve packed the film scanner away again, and put the D80 back in the bag with a 4GB card (400 JPEGs – luxury. In my day, etc). But I won’t be throwing the Zenit away – I’ll come back to give it another try. Next summer, maybe.

All © 2020 Tom Royal