A Starter’s Thoughts on Film Photography

By Nhi

New York City

After several months of reluctance and unfocused attention on an old film camera sitting at a corner of my small room, I have finally taken this little “toy” out of the gray bag, fiddled with it in my clumsy fingers long enough to finally absorb the marvelous beauty of something so ancient and distant to my existence. A film camera? How could I have got used to this bizarre feeling while growing up in a world full of fleeting moments created by digital cameras and smart phones that make the arduous job of capturing beauty seemingly easier than it really is?  Why would I nervously look at this strange item and endure the searing insecurity of my photography skill, while I could opt for the easy option of choosing the best one from many photos shown immediately on my digital screen? What creates this unwanted excitement that thrills me, persuading a frugal college student who likes to limit her food expense to fifty dollars a month into finding every reason possible to justify the money spent on rolls of film and developing them?

The film camera that I am using now is a Canon AE-1 Program, which was first introduced in 1981.

I remembered playing with my family’s negatives when I was very little. Those are vague and imprecise memories. I curiously explored thin strips of transparent plastic film, put them in front of the lamp light, looked through them to find lines that formed our printed images, naughtily bent, cut, even unsuccessfully tore them. How do these strips of film become photos?, I questioned.

I never looked for the answers.

About more than twelve years later, in a late afternoon of April, I hastily pushed the glass door and walked out of a camera store in Brooklyn with my heart beating fast. I just developed my first two rolls of film. How bad did I screw up?, such first thought crept into my mind. The breeze slipped through my locks of hair and swirled the falling leaves. Staring at the bags containing my films, I could not wait to go home and look at the scanned photos. I raced my steps to the subway station, trying to suppress my worried smile in a world full of strangers who would walk by too fast to pay attention.  I wondered, questioned, to suddenly feel the odd familiarity of these thoughts. I did this before, didn’t I?

Film photos were part of my childhood, I quietly exclaimed in amazement. I was in a film photo, I put my hand over my mouth which already let out a gasp. I thought about the photo of me with my cat when I was five and realized that a digital camera would not be able to produce such colors.

It was like meeting with an old friend whom you knew very little of but felt like you two had a special history together. You felt regretful because you didn’t do a lot to create memories with your friend. You wished to reconnect.

Spring in New York City

Elmhurst, Queens

Taking photos with my DSLR is a comfortable hobby when I don’t think too much about it. It is convenient, pressing the release button for multiple times and feeling certain that at least one of my photos will be good. It is almost easy, adjusting the camera’s numbers to produce a better photo based on my examination of the photos shown immediately after shooting. It is thrilling, when I randomly have a good picture among many failed attempts.

But, something was not right.

I took too many photos to put extreme hard work into one photo. I thought too little before pressing the release button. I didn’t plan; I took photos with my gut feeling, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I wanted more than that.

“You should consider taking photos with a film camera. A film camera will help train your eyes,” my professor said.

That was the first time I considered film photography. I told myself, “Why not?” and borrowed an old film camera from him in the December of 2015. It was a Canon AE-1 Program that used to belong to his friend, who was a soldier in Vietnam. On his way back to the States, he picked it up in Japan. And now, several decades later, the camera is in the hand of a Vietnamese student studying in the United States.

“Use it for as long as you want. Practice film photography. I would much rather have this one being used by someone who appreciates it,” my professor said.

I am forever grateful for his generosity.

On 7 train’s platform


Film photography is exciting. It forces me to slow down, do hard work, and feel insecure. I start using a small notebook to write down subjects, reasons for shooting, dates, and meters of each shot, so I have a film diary to learn my lesson from and preserve the contexts in which my photos are taken. I also limit my use to 12 rolls per year, with one roll allowed each month.

The moments that I take photos aren’t fleeting anymore. They are heavy. They stay longer, leaving me more hungry, pressured, and appreciative of all elements that help create my photos. But every time clicking the shutter button also leaves me stranded at a place where I feel lost, because very cautiously so, I let go a part of myself whenever I decide that it is the time to move my finger bone.

It is everything that I have ever wanted to become better at photography.

I am currently shooting my third and fourth rolls of film.

“How are you going to continue with your photography during the summer, Nhi?” another professor asked me during out monthly conversation. I have never had a class with her, but as I reached out, she graciously agreed to have appointments with me — a kid who does not even minor in photography but only wants someone to answer my questions. She listened to me talk about On Photography by Susan Sontag, or Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, offered constructive criticism on my photos, recommended me new books, directed me to photographers whose works might intrigue me and encouraged me to never abandon photography.

“Oh, so I plan to purchase a new lens that can help me take better portraits. I will need your advice on which one to buy!” I answered.

“No, I mean the concept. Where are you going to go from here? What kinds of pictures do you want to take?” she asked.

I fell silent, and answered,”I don’t know.”

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Embrace, NYC
Subway, NYC

2 thoughts on “A Starter’s Thoughts on Film Photography

  1. Wonderful post! It brought back memories of the days when film was the only choice and, because of the cost, each exposure was made with care and planning. Just as you describe here, notes were taken about the images for review when the film had been developed. Keep up the good work, I look forward to seeing what comes next.


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