Why Film Photography Sucks (and Why I Love It Anyway) / by Ray Phung

The result after a laborious effort to crop all the burn marks out. 

Shooting in film really sucks sometimes.  Rest assured, for those of you who know me well, I routinely sing the praises of film photography - the look, the feel, the methodology, the technical demands.  I love it.  I feel my own photography has drastically improved since shooting film.  It's one of few things I truly get super, unabashedly geeked out about. And nothing is quite as exciting or as satisfying than holding a properly exposed, properly developed negative.  But there is a dark side to this:  there nothing quite as devastating as when the perfect shot is ruined because I flubbed it.  Big time.  And while this doesn't happen very often, it does happen, and it's beyond frustrating.  

Holy overexposure Batman.  A great bouldering landscape shot got awry.

I recently read the book "Photographs Not Taken," edited by Will Stacey, which is a collection of essays about moments where famous photographers did not take a photograph.  This is because the moment was not right or was too powerful, or the question of morals and the photographers place as a documentarian came into play.  It's a great book, and I highly recommend it.  After reading it, I began thinking of instances where I didn't take a photo and I found myself coming up with more instance where I did take the photo, but it didn't turn out for whatever reason.  I have many of them and this post is dedicated to all those lost photos.  The ones that got away.  

Developing Issues

I start with the image at the title of this post.  Developing is easy for the most part, but there are several steps, each of which can introduce opportunities to mess things up.  I went out with my friend Seth to test out my new Shen Hao wooden 4x5 camera.  We visited an old burnt out building in the inner east side of Portland, which used to be an old electric company.  In the winter, the bottom of this roofless graffitied building fills with water and makes a perfect reflection.  When I returned home and developed the 5 shots I took that day, I forgot which side was the emulsion side in the sheet film holder and loaded all the film backwards in my tank.  On all the surfaces where the film touched each other or the tank, the film did not get developed and created these large white splotches all over the negatives. When I pulled out the first negative, it looked like this:  

Title image, uncropped.  

To the right, I put the uncropped version of the title photo.  Luckily, this photo came out relatively unscathed, with only a couple of black splotches.  I was able to crop using a 16:9 aspect ratio.  I salvaged it, but now it's going to be a pain to matte and frame.  

Next photo, I took near Maryhill, Washington on the way back from a trip to Leavenworth.  The wildflowers around the wind turbines were in full bloom, and I had an amazing shot in mind.  


When I got back home to develop them, I didn't put in a enough developer to cover the film.  The agitation process then caused bubbles, which can be seen on the top 1/3 of the photo.  And now, it looks like sky is falling, apocalypse style.  

Operator Error

I suppose developing errors are a type of operator error, but now, I am referring to errors at the camera level.  Sadly, these happen more often than they should.  Operator Errors can come in many ways, like simply screwing up the basic exposure (See overexposed 2nd image above).  These are two accidental double exposures that came out of my Hasselblad and Nikon FM2.  

Me and Hanna, sort of.  

Mono Lake, doubly exposed. 

Taking the film backs off the Hasselblad before you wind the film can cause this.  The first was taken in the Olympics.  The photo to the right happened because I unknowingly hit the double exposure switch. Whoops.  So then when I wound the film, the current exposed frame remained.  It looks like a photo of Mono Lake and of a campsite somewhere.  

Linda, the faceless zombie.  Now it's just creepy.

The photo on the right was one side of a double-sided film holder for 4x5 sheet film.  My friend Linda was trying to expose one sheet, but accidentally pulled both dark slides out of the holder.  This photo was on the side facing the ground glass and got exposed to the sunlight.  It fogged everything up, making Linda look like a faceless zombie.  I think this would have otherwise turned into quite a lovely portrait.  This was from the same vantage point of the wind turbines mentioned in the last section.  All the shots taken on this pit stop during our trip back from Leavenworth turned out to be a total disaster.  Maybe it was the wind making me frazzled.   

One of the most idiotic, palm-on-forehead moments happened on the summit of Mt. Whitney.  I was the only person who brought a camera and I was ambitious to bring one camera and two rolls of film to document our entire backpacking/climbing journey to the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  The first roll was finished right after we reached the summit.  I snapped a couple group shots and finished off the roll with some shots of the registration book, the storm hut, and some other random shots.  Perhaps the lack of oxygen my brain was getting at 14,500 feet altitude is to blame.  When I tried to rewind the film, I forgot to turn the "Rewind" knob on my Olympus OM-1, which caused me to rip the film from the end of the spool.  Of course, I didn't realize this until I got back into my tent, tried to load up another roll, and shined my bright headlight right into the exposed film on the take-up spool.  

The only evidence I was there! Of course one of the few pictures I got taken of myself got ruined.  

It gets even more complicated, as we had to fly out to Sacramento.  I was using Fuji Provia 400X slide film (expensive by the way), which easily fogs when subjected to x-ray scanners are the airport.  I had to mail my entire camera back, and was unable to take any more pictures this trip.  When I got the film developed, I only lost the last 4 or 5 shots and luckily the group shot survived.  

The group shot survives. 

Oh, and lets not forget about the time I exposed an entire roll of 160 ISO film at 400 ISO.  This happened when we reached the upper section of the Enchantments, which to me was probably the coolest section of the loop.  Dark stormy skies, ominous peaks looming over us, desolate snow covered terrain dotted with pristine blue glacial lakes.  Every photo I took was underexposed.  I had my lab push process it a stop, but it just made everything grainy and the colors just turned to mush.  This backpacker is supposed to have a face and is walking away from the bluest water you'll ever see.  Or I guess you won't see in this case... 

Light Leaks

Light leaks are the bane of my existence.  I have nightmares about them.  They are the worst, and are usually no fault of the operator.  It's a direct consequence of using old cameras.  Film compartments and film backs are usually lined with foam to "ensure" light proofing.  And after 30 or 40 years, this film goes to crap and disintegrates.  Thus light leaks are introduced to ALL of your treasured photos.  

Severe light leak.

Less-severe, but equally annoying

The photos above where light leaks from the deteriorated foam in the light-traps of a Hasselblad back of mine.  The foam is supposed to seal slot where you take the dark slide in and out.  Both of these photos were taken in Joe's Valley this fall.  

This same thing happened to the foam in my Nikon FM2, which was the only camera I took with me to Bishop last March.  About 20% of the photos I took from this trip had some light leaking evidence, though creative-cropping salvaged some of them.  

Light leak from my Nikon FM2.  

So unbelievably annoying.  

Film spacing problems.  

Mechanical Problems

The photo on the left was taken with a Linhof roll film back, which takes 6x7 photos on 120 film using a 4x5 camera.  This was from a test roll on it.  The results?  The back had a spacing problem.  Whereas normally you would get 10 shots from a roll of 120, this particular back added extra spacing between all the frames, which resulted in cutting off the last two photos.  I believe this was because when the back was first designed (in the 50's), roll film was much thinner.  Since film emulsions are thicker now, it adds extra space between the film.  And so now I have a half bouquet of flowers.  Great.  


Film is not all sunshine and unicorns, and is sometimes a disappointing, headache inducing experience.  Shooting on film requires a level of technical ability to make sure everything goes off smoothly.  When it does, the results are very rewarding. Yet, mastering these skills can be downright frustrating.  But really, this is also what I love about film - having to trust your own abilities, being able to accept the disappointment when things do not turn out how you expect, and moving on (also all great life lessons).  Sure, all the photos on this post are "ones that got away," but I never dwell on this.  It's a creative process.  And I suppose it gives me a really good excuse to embark on another adventure to re-capture the moment perfectly.  

I leave you with this last photo.  I am not sure what happened exactly.  But something isn't right.  Was it in development?  Did I accidentally open the film compartment?  Did I spill the filling of a jelly donut on it? Doesn't that unidentifiable shadow look like a sperm? Or is it a lamppost?  You decide!