Do You Remember? Five Memories From the Days of Film


With apologies to our younger or newer photographers, today I am wearing a fine pair of rose tinted spectacles. They are quite an old pair of spectacles, bought, in fact in the days of film photography and their effect on me is to induce a certain amount of melancholy for the days of celluloid, chemicals and red lights, photographic red lights, I should hastily add. Join me in a trip down memory lane to revisit some of the great (and not so great) things about film photography.

Fuji vs. Kodak

Forget your Canon v Nikon or Apple v Windows, the big fist fights back in the day were over what film you used. Up until the mid 70’s everyone used Kodak, except Germans who used Agfa. By the early 80’s Fuji had made huge inroads into Kodak’s formidable line up and the fight was on. Fighting the battle for Kodak were Ektachrome and the seemingly invincible Kodachrome. Lining up for Fuji were the incredibly rich and saturated Velvia and more sublime Velvia. It was a true battle royale, one that set photographer against photographer in the ranks of the local camera clubs. Who won? Well in that specific battle, no-one, digital came along , opening a third and ultimately victorious front. Fuji adapted eventually, Kodak didn’t.

testing... testing... 1 2 3
A selection of analogue memory cards. Photo by kris krüg

Changing a Film in Ten Seconds

Whatever the film you used, it was a matter of pride how quickly you could whip out the used one and load a new roll. The pros and the rich enthusiasts would have motor drives on their cameras, bulky, battery sapping chunks of pig iron attached to the bottom that would allow you to shoot at up to 5 frames per second. By clicking the right combination of buttons and levers, that same motor drive would rapidly rewind the film, usually only about halfway because the batteries would die. Meanwhile, Joe Average with his non motor drive Nikon FM2 had flipped up the rewind lever, wound the film back and popped in a new one. By the time Joe was back shooting, Mr Motor drive was still changing batteries.

Nikon FM2n
A nice looking Nikon with a battery vampire attached. Photo by Sompop S

A Mini Lab on Every Street Corner

Up until the early 80’s, there were two ways to get a film processed. Taking it into your local drug store and waiting two weeks or slaving away under a precariously balanced enlarger in your darkroom, sorry, I mean blacked out bathroom. That all changed with the introduction of the one hour mini lab. These amazing little machines would get a full roll of 36 prints developed, printed and packaged in less than an hour. I didn’t take long however, for the lab operators to realise they could charge a premium for the one hour service, and so the majority of films got developed in 24 hours not one. Still, the rise of the mini labs was seemingly unstoppable, even local grocers stores had them. Quality was another question, many of the operators did little or no training and the colors emanating from these machine often bare little resemblance to the original scene.

Instant Photography Without Digital

The name was Polaroid and it stood for instant prints for the masses. Their somewhat bulky and basic cameras, took a film pack underneath. When you press the shutter, the image was recorded directly to a print that was developed in the camera and then slowly eject out the front. What emerged at first appeared to be a blank white and slightly moist piece of paper yet magically, in front of your eyes, an image would appear. Tourist spots in the 1970s were often replete with people frantically waving their little instant prints in the air, trying to dry them off before showing them to their amazed friends. Today, sadly and like Kodak, Polaroid is just a shell of a company, a proud name used to adorn cheap electronics.

[2014_09_22] Polaroid OneStep
Polaroid, the digital of its day. Photo by Shaun Nelson

Mail Order Equipment

Even in the days of film, the high street photographic retailers had competition in the form of the mail order companies. Pick up any photographic magazine from the 1970s or 80s and the last third would be page after page of obscure companies selling the next big thing in photography. The adverts were sometimes comical but amongst the comedy were some gems. Also there were the big mail order retailers enticing us with photo adverts of all the camera we had read about but never seen in our local camera stores. In reality, it's not so different from today, we just read the adverts on paper rather than a computer screen.

Olympus OM System - 1985
The Olympus system in 1985. Photo by Jussi

This can only be a short trip down memory lane. There are so many memories from the halcyon days of film, I am sure those of you old enough have some to share. Do I miss it, yes of course but I don’t want to go back to it, except perhaps in a twice a year, nostalgic hobby sort of way. Let us know your memories of the days of film.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Don’t forget those of us who liked 2 1/4 film and medium format cameras. I still have my Rolleiflex 1950 automat and my 2 Nikon 35mm cameras.

I’m now working with a film SLR camera. A Nikon N80. I bought it from a lady in Michigan for $30. I love it. I will be using it in a wedding next weekend shooting two rolls of pro black and white film, along with my two DSLR cameras.

Memories? Film is my sensor of choice in photography. Just made the jump to medium format and I’m loving it. Film photography is very much alive 🙂

I remember those days with a couple of Nikon FM2s with motors, an F3, great Nikkor lenses and a closet for a black and white darkroom. Those were the days…..

Because of the tight temperature tolerances, only selected shops could process Kodachrome. But we could buy “pre-paid processing mailers” from Kodak, ship our Kodachrome off to Rochester, and have it back from the Mother Ship in about a week. Seems like it cost about US$3 at the time.

My Dad was a wedding/portrait photographer from the late 30’s to the mid 70’s. We had a Kodak Fridge. downstairs Always full of film. Still miss the smell. He bought his suits a size larger so he could carry all the film and bulbs without looking like a shoplifter. My first experience was shooting a high school basketball game with his Speed Graflex. (4×5 sheet film, stacks of sheet film holders, flashbulbs, large suitcase, light meter). Felt like one of those guys with the fedora featuring a “Press” card in the brim. Great stuff.

Agree TOTALLY. Still use my Olympus OM stuff. And “new” lenses and other accessories are now dirt cheap for the OM because its film and “outdated.”

Another professionals/advanced photographers’ habit: Having Fuji Velvia 50 or Provia in the freezer, then letting them slowly thaw in the fridge a few hours short of the actual shooting taking place.

I still use my Nikon FTN, my Nikormat and my nikormat e.l. More fun with these old cameras than the point and shoot digitals now.

Ah yes, I remember the days of film. Like yesterday, when I went outside in the snow and shot some 35mm film and some 120 film.

I’ve been shooting film again as my primary means of capture for the last 3 years. It’s not dead, and the “days of film” are happening right now. Articles like this only serve to convince people that shooting film is no longer viable, which is 100% incorrect. Maybe next time you should do some research before writing an article based entirely on your own assumptions.

When I worked as a newspaper photographer in the 1970s we always ran our darkroom chemicals slightly warmer than recommended-speed was of the essence- AHH still remember that aroma!!

Colour Reversal–My purpose built home darkroom has now been digitised into a guest bathroom, dam silly thing to do!

What memories….I’m shooting about 30% this year with my mirrorless and my Nikon film era lens and 70% with my F2 and my F4S with Agfa and Portra and Ektar and even some expired 2002 Konica film.

As a poor Seattle art student in 1967, I shot with a 35mm East German Practica (Pentax thread mount, no penta-prism – pop-up hood with backwards ground glass image). Anyway, in those days, the mail-order ads in PopPhoto were page upon page of mouse-print, which I read religiously. One month I came across a listing for a 15mm lens w Pentax mount. I’d never heard of a lens that wide, and just out of curiosity I wrote to Olden to inquire about its specifics. Well, you can imagine my surprise when the box arrived — they sent me the lens on spec!!! The front element was *enormous*. Even for an off-brand, it was quite expensive. Way beyond my budget. —I lived on crackers and peanut butter for months!

As a photog I remember the metal trunks packed with hundreds of rolls of film and polaroid going on mail-order company shoots and the resulting overweight. The heavy Tamrac bags of med.format and 35 mm gear slepping from Atlanta Airport Int.gate 01 , to Miami gate 56. Now only a fraction allowed in hand luggage. The fear of something beeing damaged by xray on the way back from the Seychelled and the many hours spent at the pro lab painfully explaining a printer the colors and contrats you wanted. One must say, there was a lot of negative in film.
Does a b/w print shot on Tri-X look better than a digital photoshopped one, of course it does..Does a new Nikon 85 1,4 in plastic feel the same as the previous metal ones..Nope! And Does anyone pay you a good vaue for a used Nikon D3, of course no one does. When I speak to young photogs or new assistants with wet eyes about the ol good days..they look at me thinking “wtf is this guy talking about…. Think TriX is Toyotas new SUV. It, s a generation thing…everything in this world gets better and at the same time worse. Thats how it always was. Personally I don, t miss film because my young clients never saw a great big on Kodak Tri-X shot black and white print and my shoulders are less sore.

While I am not old enough to remember some of this I started right before the change. Film still has a place in my bag(just shot a roll today) and I love it. Both my n80 and speed graphic get regular use to this day.

I don’t miss a single thing about film, except maybe the fine Nikon filmers of the day which I still own. From the Nikkormat ftn through the fabulous F100 that is loaded with Kodachrome this moment, classics all….

I do remember!

I remember carrying a little notebook around to jot down my camera settings on each shot because that was the only way to learn what worked and what didn’t. I remember scouring through Photo magazines, checking out the latest equipment. I remember ordering boxes of Velvia 50 and then having to wait would seemed like forever for delivery. I remember ‘6-8 weeks for delivery’ on so many things.

No doubt that the digital era has it’s pros and cons, but in terms of delivery options and times, I’m really glad it’s now and not then…!

What I remember from the days of film…

The constant awareness that every time I pressed the shutter, I’d just spent $0.25. It was quite the limiter on experimentation and creativity.

The smell of stop bath. You couldn’t wash it off.

Trying to get a commercial printer to produce the print I wanted. Futile and annoying.

Digital has it’s limitations, and sometimes I’ll see an old film camera and be tempted to purchase… but then I remember these things, and I’m happy to leave film behind.

My first encounter with film was when my uncle bought me a roll of film for my Dad’s old Ilford box 120 camera and said let’s take some pictures and print them today! I was about 12 at the time. We went out to Brixham (UK) and shot some street scenes, buses mainly. Then back home in the bathroom we processed the film by using both hands to draw the film back and forth through a dish of developer, a bit like a cotton reel on a string. Then a quick wash and into the fix. Finally we could turn on the light and see the negs before us. Next the film was passed through a bath of methylated spirit, CH3OH, to dry it rapidly. Half an hour later we were processing a contact sheet. My uncle had been in the RAF during the war and processed film from reconnaissance missions. It was magic and I was hooked!

I well remember the days of film, and my motor drive’s battery never ran down during a re-wind! I loved the darkroom with the exception of film developing which I thought was boring as hell. We used 3.5 gallon deep tanks for developing and the replenishment method with the chemistry. It was amazing how many rolls of film one could develop with that system! Seeing that print come up in the developer was so much more magical than any digital download. We would work and work on a print, making subtle changes in dodging and burning, and then when the prints dried it was really hard to tell one from another! That was the days when everyone envied photographers and everybody wanted to one. Now everybody is one, and well, things have certainly changed in our business.

You’ve hit the nail on the head!
Seeing a latent image become visible in a tray of dev’ was magical (although 25 or even 50 prints from the same neg was less so) and is something I miss to this day. Even fosicking about loading film onto spirals, or 5×4 hangers in the absolute dark was art in itself.
And I’m sure that cuts on your finger healed quicker if you got some fixer in them!

Nostalgia, it ain’t what it used to be.

One Hour Photo?

I ran a series of West-End mini labs in the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s, tourists by day, paparazzi by night!

One customer wanting 10×8 blow-ups from their 110 negs (or worse, doc film :-)), another wanting us to speed up the processor unit as he needed The pis is 30 minutes to persuade an Ad Agency to give him the job!
Film is dead, long live film.

I began in grade school in the 60’s with a 4″ x 5″ camera, only had 2 cut film holders, 4 shots. Got hired in high school by the local paper to run their photolab. There were 4 photographers, I learned an enormous amount being around them daily.
Now it’s 2016 and I’m building a new Darkroom. Perhaps film based imaging is becoming an exotic process indulged in by die-hard fanatics, but the main reason there are still so many film shooters is that it’s all about the journey, not the speed or the instant gratification that digital provides.
I wonder if in 50-60 years someone will be going through Grandma’s stuff and will find a Compact Flash Card and wonder what in the hell it is?
Film is tangible and real. The rest of you………….hang on to your pixels.

I started my photography path on digital and a couple of months back I was given a old zenit eleven I now own 2 35mm and a old helina prefect 120 film which is awesome 🙂 I have developed my own black and white film which I think is the best part and film photography for me has just started a whole new journey 🙂 I do have a question does and body no how to develop kodachrome at home as I have a old kodachrome film which hasn’t been developed and I haven’t a clue. How to develop it. Many thanks 🙂

you cant develop Kodachrome film at home.its a very complicated process only done by Kodak or a few labs in new York of the greatest film ever made

I took a group of high school students out on an excursion with a bunch of Olympus Trip cameras I found in the storeroom a couple of years back. After guiding them through the settings they all took their first shot. One turns to me and asks ‘Now how do I look at it to see if it’s good/?

I worked in photography retail trade for nearly 30 years between 1977 and 2006. I remember the start or the fade called digital photography starting in the late 1990s. The beginning of the ‘end ‘ of film photography..

For me, film lives again, now that I have access to a pro lab that does high resolution scans that I can tweak before having them printed. I’ll be shooting my next project or two with film. If I have to get something done quickly, or if it’s the look I want, I use digital. At this point, we have the best of both worlds. I wouldn’t go back to the “good old days” of giving my exposed film to a quick and cheap lab that left scratches and dust on my negatives, and home developing is not an option for me. I’m grateful for digital technology, but happy also that good film is still an option.

Film is still alive. It is in some ways more instant than digital. You can shoot a million frames a second digitally with all the bells and whistles. No skill in that. Capturing a moment in time is what it’s all about, for me anyway. Blurs, light leaks … its all good. Just keep snapping.

(TLDR: I love DIY end to end film photography and this was a fun read. #ilovefilm ::)
Well the stock the color stock that I shoot is whatever is at the nearest drug store, usually Kodak Gold or Fujifilm Global Superia X-tra and I’ve only shot a couple hundred of each and since both are good daylight balanced color films am fine with switching back and forth. Black and white I shoot Photo Warehouse Ultrafine or, if someone else is buying my stock, I use ILFORD PHOTO (Official Page)…anything both of them by the 100 foot roll. Fortunately most people old enough to have lived through the grudge that still do film stuff are usually just thrilled to see another generation of film shooters and I haven’t had film beef yet. I figure another decade of muscle memory and I’ll have the quick change down and I love my windowless bathroom…except for color printing since I don’t have a JOBO analog drum type processor or a The Imaging Warehouse Nova processor slot type processor which means printing in a dark sauna…ugh. Black and white processing from end to end is a breeze and so much cheaper to do it yourself. Color will be easy too but only after the initial outlay for a machine which is totally fine since I’m already doing film production work so hopefully someone is going to buy me one of these are part of my compensation. Also screw anyone that processes film for people and do not return the neg; more control, D.I.Y. or DIE! Ahem, sorry about that…
So medium format instant film like FujiFilm FP-100c is dead but available at 25-40bux a box and I bet Jason Lee’s large format instant film budget is pretty high. Plus even the Impossible HQ film is expensive but it’s good film and is a blessing to those of us that still use instant all the time like Crom Schubarth. The Polaroid 600s are always a steal at thrift stores, like I’ve bought 3 recently for 5bux eaxh and the nice ones like the SX70 are still reasonably priced (my buddy got 2 for 25 bux each at a swap meet a few months ago). Of course thrift makes the gear a crap shoot I’m 3 for 3 in polaroids, 1 for 1 in 35mm (Canon AE1program with no lightleaks and the meter is still on!), 2 for 2 in 120mm (Lubitel2 and Mamiya Leaf USA RB67 with both a 120 and polaroid back), and 1 for 2 with the glass (the 28mm fd for the AE1program is my primary film body/lens but the fd 75mm aperture is locked to 2.8). Fotowarehouse does mail order by catalog (haven’t picked up any dedicated photo rags yet so I don’t know about print ads in magazines) but even though the interwebs is a much easier way to go my grandfather was a photographer that didn’t want to learn to internet so mail for those that need it is a nice thing to have. Since I’ve only been shooting film for three years this is more of a learning article than a nostalgia article for me and it was a fun read, thanks for the article.
Justin Brown Justin Photography

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