It took me about three years before I could afford my first digital camera, a second-hand Nikon D7100.
Before that, I shot exclusively on film. All archive sub-entries before 2013 go "filmstock - ASA - month developed - camera" and look like: "Agfa Vista 200 Nov Zorki" or "Fuji Superia 200 Apr OM".
Soon, the bevvy of film bodies made way for my extensive digital system. I sold my Nikon EM and Russian Zorki. My Olympus OM-10 and Rollei went into deep storage, and I settled on a Nikon F3 as my main film system, to complement my growing collection of Nikon glass.
My time as the President of the Photographic Society of NUS was when I had the most questions on the best camera to get - was it a Canon? A Nikon? Or perhaps a newfangled Sony?
I had just upgraded to a Nikon FX (Full-Frame) system, and had obtained a Fujifilm X100S as a dedicated street shooter in place of an additional 35mm lens. My answer for a couple of months after was set: Fuji, Fuji, Fuji.
But I might have been stumped if you really asked me what the single greatest influence on my photographic pursuits was. And thought about it I did I had, and for a long time too.
And then it emerged: film had been the greatest motivation, inspiration and raison d'être in this journey.
1. Film makes you slow down.
Film is expensive. There's no denying: I scrimped dollars together to support my film habit back in the day.
Film cameras, or at least, the manual ones, tend to be slow. Of course, trained hands and eyes might actually outstrip amateurs on modern autofocus systems. But teasing the microprism and split image into focus, working the film advance lever, or spending a minute spooling the film back into the canister and loading a new one every 38 frames does take its toll on how fast you can shoot.
But undeniable too is how purposeful every decision becomes.
Frame it a degree off to the right and you lose vital resolution from the scans. Click the shutter a second too late and you can't advance the film fast enough to make it a double-tap to hedge that decisive moment.
And then the conflation of expediency and efficacy.
Yes. My D600 does rattle off at 5.5fps, my D7100 before it at 6fps. The lauded Sony A9 at 20fps.
I'm no fan of post-processing as a craft. I'm a photographer. The thrill comes with shutter, not mouse clicks. Capturing moments, not enhancing them. Necessary evil, perhaps, but I'll take every chance I get to minimize interactions with my Lightroom sliders. I come home from a shoot with 300 shots to filter through. Despite autofocus, lackadaisical skill gives me plenty of misfocused, misframed and insipid shots.
I get 37 frames, 38 if I'm lucky. I make a trip down the to lab to collect the negatives. A few sheets if I had made a large deposit en route home from the airport after an overseas trip. It comes with a CD (who uses them anymore anyway?) and a contact sheet. I peer closely as the CD loads into my hard drive at the shop (I don't own any CD readers - I use their printing terminals).
And there: 37 frames. Perfectly exposed.
The contact sheet gives me an idea how many shots are well-composed. The most effective shots are those that make an impression even as a thumbnail.
Loaded on my laptop, the loupe shows focus. Of course, plenty of misses. My hands and eyes aren't as practiced as I'd like them to be, unfortunately.
2. Film makes you think.
I'd avoid clichés of decisive moments and other reductive photography epithets. But clichés are clichés just like how archetypes are archetypes: precisely because there's a grain of truth in them.
About expediency and efficacy - the 300 shots yield a rate of usefulness rate of less than 5%. Maybe one in three to five scenes turn out well. Well composed and well lit. I fire off another three to five frames per said scene. Even if all have tack-sharp focus, I'd only process one for sanity's (and practicality's) sake. Thus we arrive at a yield of about 5% - at least, that's what it feels like.
I get about three powerful shots per roll. About five to seven more shots that are decent.
There has to be a reason why. The same reason I gravitate to my F3 over my much much more capable digital systems. I definitely don't spray and pray, but the fact that being slow seemed to corroborate greatly with the style and substance of the images I envisioned and leaned toward, I took heed, I watched, and I learnt.
I pack for a day's shooting in the hotel. My digital system is a breeze. I take three lenses most times, especially on assignment. Two primes: a portrait and a wide-angle for the occasional environmental shot, and a normal zoom for 'street sweeping'.
My F3 would share the primes, along with a dedicated normal prime otherwise permanently attached. Ektar? Portra? How about Tri-X or Delta to complement the colours from my digital systems?
ASA? Is it a cloudy day? Would I be shooting into the night?
And you venture forth. Careful to load the canisters in sequence of speeds. Careful to ration the shots to last the light you shoot in.
Of course, chief among the reasons that have compelled me to stick to the medium is the sense of community.
I've seen my share of social media marketing in my time. I know numbers don't mean much. But I know, too, that numbers mean something, nonetheless. I began my journey in social media at the start of 2016, and I have indeed come a long way.
I've come to acknowledge that the number of likes, followers or even business statistics like engagement etc mean little. The plethora of images I have shared, taken with a variety of cameras, have convinced me of something.
Instagram culture and digital photography seems to be weighted heavily against whatever society deems trendy at that point in time - expensive endorsed sneakers, or perhaps architecture - that seems to be pretty much all the rage right now.
The film community, especially centred around #filmisnotdead, #staybrokeshootfilm and the like, remains particularly faithful to the sense of aesthetics and honesty. Bar Steve McCurry's controversy, most, if not all film photographers do little apart from development timings, coloured filters and polarisers to alter the appearance of their image. Pre-processing instead of post-processing, if you will.
Images are visceral. Stark. Candid. Sure, sometimes the skill levels (or lack thereof) do show through. But the images show how life is, brutal, honest and vivid.
This documentary honesty was what drew me to the craft in the first place. Why else would anyone pursue a technical craft despite a university degree?
The need to tell stories, tell them as they are, and tell them in the right, conscionably defensible weighted contexts has never been more apparent in our entertainment culture and sheer, pervasive, mass disinformation everywhere you look.
Nothing is more truthful than an unadulterated photograph. Sure. I choose the subject, the composition, the crop. But so should we choose what we consume, empathise with, and believe in.