In this series, we’re highlighting and celebrating women in photography. 27 year old Lea Elm works as a bookseller and shoots film photography in her spare time. Originally from Denmark, Lea now lives in Kent.
Marie Gardiner: What is it about film photography that appeals to you?
Lea Elm: When I first got seriously into photography around the age of 17 I bought myself a Canon DSLR to teach myself, but for many years I only ever shot in Auto and took hundreds of photographs of the same subject that just ended up on my computer hard drive. It was all very automatic and while I occasionally got a good photo, it didn’t teach me a lot about how to use a camera.
I started getting into film photography about two years ago and I wanted to get back to basics and really learn the craft of photography. What’s so appealing to me about film photography is that the whole photographic process becomes a tactile and manual experience; physically loading the film into the camera, setting the focus and pressing the shutter, hearing the sound of the mirror as it turns and then physically winding a lever to wind the film back into its cartridge.
I literally go through the motions in order to take a photograph and to me that makes it more personal.
MG: We’re so used to seeing what we’ve taken immediately, is the wait to get images developed frustrating, or exciting?
LE: I tend to send my film rolls in batches to the lab and that 1-2 week wait has become part of the anticipatory pleasure of shooting film. By the time the prints arrive in the post, it can be weeks or months since I shot them and I’ve often forgotten what I’ve photographed, so when I finally see them, I really see them for the first time.
Sometimes I get disappointed because a photograph I‘d been looking forward to see is out of focus, composed badly or just uninteresting but most of the time it’s magical to see what they’ve turned out like, as I really don’t know when I take them, especially if I’m testing a new type of film.
MG: Do you feel you put more thought into what you’ll take with a roll of film?
LE: I shoot with 35mm film and there are only ever 24 or 36 frames on the rolls I use. It means that I’m much more careful and selective about what I choose to photograph. I once shot 300 photographs of the same church with my DSLR but ended up with maybe 20 that were the ones I wanted to keep.
I can’t do that kind of careless shooting with film because it’s not only too expensive, but I also don’t want to risk running out of film in case a sudden photo opportunity appears. So I carefully compose my shot and decide on settings before I press the shutter for the final image I want and I’ll usually only use 1 or 2 frames for a subject.
It also means that before I take my camera anywhere, I have to think about what I plan or expect to photograph that day and make decisions beforehand about what type of film to bring. Is it a subject that’s better suited for black and white? Will there be colour I will want to capture? What’s the weather going to be like? It all affects the kind of film I end up choosing to use and that’s what makes film photography so unique, I think.
MG: Have you had any major film disasters?
LE: There was an incident where I lost an entire roll of film to light leaks, but it turned out to make for some interesting images, so in the end it was a bit of a happy mistake. I‘ve also experimented a lot with cyanotype printing and the first few times all the chemicals just washed straight off, leaving me with no images. Other than that I’ve been fairly lucky for a film photographer and most of the time the only regret I have is about photos I wish I had taken.
I would like to start developing my own black & white film and maybe learn to do some printing in a darkroom and I’m sure that once I start doing that, I’ll make lots of new mistakes and experience more disasters. It’s something I’ve had to learn about film –photographs don’t necessarily come out perfectly, but it’s part of the learning process.
MG: How does your kit vary from when you shoot film, to digital?
LE: I have a Canon DSLR for digital and a Ricoh SLR for analogue, and I use a 50mm lens for both of them because I prefer to keep things simple. Less is definitely more, and I like limitations and restrictions which mean I can focus on my subject, whether that’s a street scene, a ruined church, or a pair of shoes in my hallway.
The biggest difference is probably that my SLR doesn’t have any automatic or semi-automatic functions, so everything is done manually.
I do still shoot digital but these days I often leave the house with just my film camera and all my personal projects are now being shot only on film. I have a road trip along the South Coast of England coming up soon and I’m considering just bringing my film camera, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to risk it yet.
MG: Are there any particular considerations you need to give to film over digital?
LE: There is a lot of decision making that takes place long before I press the shutter and while some of those are the same as digital, like choosing aperture or focus point, there are others that are exclusive to film, such as grain and ISO.
Photoshop and Lightroom can help you out a lot with both film and digital (especially when something might have gone a bit wrong) but there’s only so much they can do to change the look of a particular film you chose to use or how the film has been developed.
Living in England where the weather is so changeable and unpredictable means that I tend to use film with ISO 400 because it’s versatile and works with different light conditions. I like grain, too, so these suit me perfectly and the kind of mood I want in my photographs. I prefer to go handheld as often as possible, so that’s another reason I like fast film.
MG: Is cost a factor and do you think shooting film is becoming prohibitively expensive?
LE: While I’m old enough to have grown up with film being used for our family and holiday photos, I’m not old enough to remember what it used to cost, so I don’t have anything to compare the current prices with.
Cost is a factor however, and the price of both film and developing means that I might not be experimenting as much or taking as many chances or risks as I would otherwise. I simply can’t afford to. So it would be nice if both film and processing was cheaper and if it was, maybe film photography would seem less intimidating.
However, the cost of film has also stopped the mindless kind of shooting I used to do and that’s a positive for me. It means that photography has become precious, that each frame or print that I have chosen to spend money on, is something valuable to me. A bit like photographic minimalism, you could say.
MG: What are your top tips for people wanting to shoot film?
LE: Buy a black & white disposable camera! They are fairly cheap, easy and fun to use, and the quality is surprisingly good. I found analogue and film photography very daunting at first, but using disposable cameras helped me get interested in film photography and made me get used to the idea of shooting on film and not being able to see the photographs while I shot them. Like me, you might find using an SLR camera with a few more settings less scary after that.
About Women in Photography series writer, Marie Gardiner
Marie Gardiner is a photographer and published author (Sunderland, Industrial Giant: Recollections of Working Life). You can see more about Marie at her Website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Missed the previous episode of Women in Photography? Check it out today: Women in Photography: An interview with Linda Wisdom.