Learning to shoot film in Japan

I got inspired to write some thoughts on my experience learning to shoot film in Japan because of the way I shared my work with my family after my trip. Like any good business school graduate I created a slideshow with maps, information, and of course my photographs as a means to share my stories. In the process of creating this I was able to relive not only my experience in Japan, but my journey learning this medium and becoming a stronger photographer.

So I thought it might be fun to share some of those thoughts here and hopefully leave you either:

  • Inspired to pick up a film camera and shoot or
  • Laughing at my misgivings if you’re a seasoned photographer

Color15_LR_16

In early 2018 I embarked on a three month trip to Japan. I wanted to be in one country for three months to soak up the culture as best as I could and Japan’s culture is awesome. I mean that quite literally – Japan is an awe inspiring country full of natural beauty, massive urban centres, welcoming people, and an allure that comes from perfect balance between history and modernity.

Was I a photographer before this trip? 100%, unequivocally, no. I owned a Nikon D3000 for a few years but never spent the time required to learn how to use it properly or develop any photography skill. So when I left for Japan without that camera I forced myself into choosing to pick something up upon arrival or go about my journey with my phone and my notebooks.

It was pretty early into my trip that I realized how fortunate I was to be in such a cool country for so long and I was eager to find a way to capture the charm of Japan. My good friend Sam (you know him as the other half of Box Speed) pushed me into getting a film camera, “Japan is the film mecca”, I can still hear it in my head. He recommended that if I want to get into this I should try to find a fully manual SLR, which is now my recommendation to anyone who asks me how to get into film photography. I cannot thank him enough for the introduction to this medium.

Unbeknownst to me I didn’t really take his advice though because what I ended up getting was a Yashica Electro 35 CC, a decent rangefinder that shoots aperture priority only. I meant to buy an SLR but my broken Japanese, the store owner’s broken English, and a shit Google translate did nothing to help me out, paired with my literal zero knowledge on cameras I walked out of this cute shop with my dinky rangefinder. It did the trick for two weeks until I realized the light leaks were terrible, and exaggerated in any amount of daylight.

BW1_1
My 0th frame on an analog camera

This is how my first four rolls went:

  • 1st roll: some good shots, loading, shooting, dropping off for development was seamless
  • 2nd roll: loaded incorrectly but didn’t know until development results were 100% blank
  • 3rd roll: (see 2nd roll)
  • 4th roll: finally back to seamlessness but started seeing the leaks
Color3_30
I actually like this shot but you get the picture

Luckily I found a good deal on an Olympus OM10 from a store in Kyoto called 三條サクラヤ写真機店
with a manual shutter speed adaptor and the rest is history – well kind of. I shot 15 rolls of whatever Fujifilm 400 speed was available with my OM10 over the course of roughly two months but this is the start of where learning something equally complex as it is rewarding, like film photography, in a foreign country and on a time sensitive trip is a double edged sword.

On the one hand when I look back at my work from Japan I still feel that romance I love with film and I can put myself back into my shots and remember the sights in my viewfinder and the feelings I had pulling the camera away from my face. But on the other hand I knew I left things on the table by not taking advantage of what you can do with film because I wasn’t focused on truly learning.

I try to conceptualize this in two buckets:

Not testing things out

First of all I didn’t shoot any black and white with my OM10 while I was there (thank you for the gasp, I too regret this). I also didn’t shoot any professional grade film. Is this the end of the world? Of course not but if I had the chance to do it again I’d experiment more, I’d try harder to get out of my comfort zone and create works of art that challenged me.

And not trying to get better

I also didn’t have any access to editing software, like Lightroom which I use sparingly now. I’m not a huge editor of my work, I prefer to keep things simple but what I enjoy the most about using Lightroom is cropping and analyzing my work with the rule of thirds, golden triangle, etc. Whether or not I end up actually cropping is another matter but I find value in comparing my work with those well established standards to find trends and get better. I definitely relate this to my previous thoughts on being more intentional when you shoot.

Color10_LR_5

I’d like to leave you with reiterating what I was saying earlier because albeit not perfect, Japan was an amazing place for me to fall in love with film photography. Every setting you could want to shoot you can find in Japan and as my good friend told me, it is the Mecca for film. Next time I’m back I’ll be applying what I’ve learned and developed since being back home to create pieces that inspire me – and I hope to be back soon.

Much love,

Nick

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