35mm Cameras: Gadgets That Forced Us to Take Better Pictures

These days, we give hardly a thought to how many photos we snap on our phones or digital cameras or the kinds of photos we can take. (Selfies! Pictures of the back of someone’s head as we’re waiting on line! And other even less desirable photos!) There was a time, though, when 35mm film reigned and we were more selective about the photos we took.

We had no choice, of course. Rolls of film allowed only so many frames, and you couldn’t just delete the bad ones as you snapped away. In fact, you couldn’t even tell if the photos you took sucked because there was no instant feedback, no LCD screens to review your last shots. Unless you processed film yourself in a darkroom, you had to wait days for the film to be processed and printed onto photo paper to find out how the pictures came out.

Like most throwback subjects, film cameras are seen as painfully limited and complicated compared to today’s digital photo technology. Cameras now not only take photos, they record high-definition video as well. The Lytro lets you refocus photos after you take them. And many cameras have Wi-Fi capabilities, so you can wirelessly and automatically transfer your photos to your computer.

But also like most throwback subjects, film cameras inspire nostalgic praise for a reason. For one thing, these analog devices offer a different tactile experience than today’s tap-and-shoot process. Open the film door, place the film snugly into its pocket, pull the leader part of film across to the spool, close, and use the rewind knob to tighten the film to the camera, if needed. After finishing the roll of film, use the rewind crank to rewind the film back into the canister so it’s ready for developing. These manual steps — along with the other, non-digital controls — maybe gave us more of a sense that taking photos was a craft and reminded us of the physical medium on which our precious pictures would be stored.

More important than that, though, is the fact that film — and manual cameras, like the classic student camera, the Pentax K1000 — forced us to think hard about composition, lighting, focus, and all the other elements that make up a good photo. We couldn’t afford to waste shots or film, so instead of taking ten pictures of friends standing in the same spot, we tried to take the best photo for each story.

So far I’ve been talking about film cameras in the past tense. While obscure, though, they’re far from dead. Filmmakers like Christopher Nola, J.J. Abrams, and Quentin Tarantino are lobbying for studios to continue supporting film. Professional photographers like Ken Rockwell continue to recommend film. The reason? Aesthetics and visual technical superiority. Rockwell writes that “Digital is easier and cleaner, but even 35mm film shot on a 52-year-old camera still has more sharpness and resolution.”

I have decades’ old negatives and slides of family photos–still intact and viewable without any digital device, and I’m sure many others do as well. Properly stored, I expect them to last many decades more–far into the future when our digital storage formats will have changed countless times. Used film cameras are still available for purchase on sites like eBay and Amazon, but if you just want to wax nostalgic with me about vintage cameras, there’s the Tokyo gallery you can check out — essentially, “cameras and photography spotted in Tokyo.” Enjoy.