Simon King is a London-based street and documentary photographer who is currently running webinars and online tutorials for the Leica Akademie. We caught up with Simon to see how he uses 35mm to slow down and improve his workflow at home.
The varieties of limitations offered by 35mm film photography are some of the most useful ideas a photographer can harness. As someone who started out as a digital photographer, I felt that any attempts to try film would result in foisting my digital habits into that analogue workflow. Instead, after time and practice, the reverse has been true – the influence of a film mindset has done more to influence the way I shoot than any other idea I’ve explored in the art of photography to date.
The requirements of using a physically limited quantity of frames per roll mean every single one is an opportunity to value to the fullest; not something to be wasted. A badly exposed digital frame is of no true consequence and can be instantly reviewed and remedied. A botched frame of film is a black hole on the contact sheet forever. These, and any other kind of mistake will exist physically on that strip of negatives right alongside all of the keepers; when reviewing contact sheets there is no avoiding having to understand your failures just as well as your successes.
Film photography with a Leica rangefinder means no burst mode, no autofocus, and no crutches that take control away from the camera operator. True command over every aspect, coupled with the understanding that in every 36 exposures I will be dedicating more of my limited resource to whatever I am working on: a powerful shift in the way I go about photography. Where I would once shoot hundreds of digital frames a week, I now make my way through fewer than a dozen rolls per month on average. This subtraction in quantity represents a significant advance in the quality of images I make. I have more to show from my last year as a film photographer than from my first three as a digital user.
There’s more to this than simply shooting less; it involves a mental regime change, adoption of a truly focused and intensive analysis of why I choose to be in a space, what I’m looking for and why, and how I’ll compose an image around situations I see. I orient my goals around specific values, and balance those out as and when I need to make a decision about spending a frame. Allocating my time, energy, and resources in this very applied way is exhausting but very productive.
Rationing myself across an individual roll is more interesting and is something I make an effort towards every time I load my camera. I want to waste as little as I can, instead putting value into as many of those 36 opportunities as possible. On a good day of street, I now shoot maybe two to five frames, and am far happier when I see the results than I ever was after curating hundreds down to a handful in a digital workflow.
The work that goes into a single frame of film must take place before the shutter is pressed. This means that I find myself using my eyes more than the viewfinder to figure out where I need to be in order to capture everything as it falls into place.
The ratio of my frames to keepers is now much higher, despite both numbers being reasonably low. By constantly checking over my contact sheets I can see how trends develop and the way I adapt my style for different situations, which helps in my process of what essentially comes down to overthinking and self-criticism. I would rather work like this and actively engage at all times with the process than know that if I really wanted to, I could rely on any of those digital features.