Expectations vs. reality in film photography

Expectations vs. reality in film photography

Analog photography really has a way of curbing your enthusiasm. Because you don’t see your shot immediately, you have all this time to romanticise the image in your mind before seeing the results. The camera is remorseless and records everything that you point it at. Your mind isn’t that remorseless and you often times notice only certain things in the scene that you’re shooting.

It requires somewhat of an expert eye to spot some of the distracting aspects that might come into play. For example, a someone really beautiful caught your eye and you manage to take his/her shot just in time, but you weren’t able to pick up that the lighting wasn’t good or there were distracting elements in the background. Or — just for some reason the image just didn’t turn out just as well you expected. Why? Here’s what I think.

Camera will record everything and notice things that you don’t

Your mind might not be able to pick all the forming factors up, but the camera is. That’s why it’s often a complete surprise to see the actual image and notice all the elements and factors that make the image. (Sometimes they can be happy accidents too, forming interesting relationships with other elements in the photo, making it multi-layered and captivating.) Because you don’t see the photo immediately, what caught your eye, most likely stays in your mind and you’re pre-visualising the image based mostly on the image of the beautiful person you just photographed, without even noticing — no to mention actually remembering — the distracting factors in the background.

Correlating your sense of achievement with the image

Many times it feels like a such an accomplishment when you manage do take the shot in the first place, that you correlate that sense of achievement with the actual image. They may not have anything in common though. If it is a hard shot — let’s say that it is a socially and mentally challenging image to make, when you have to conquer your own fear of approaching the subject, or something like that, you may feel like you’ve just made the most awesome photo in the world, just by being able to pull it of in the first place. But unfortunately it is not the most awesome photo in the world. You just attached your sense of gratification to the image and form a conception in your mind of what the image must look like when you develop the negatives. Looking at the final image objectively may reveal that there isn’t actually anything spectacular about it.

Sometimes I find something so interesting and cool, that I can’t wait to see the image I took of it. Especially then I start to romanticise and my expectations get a bit unrealistic. On the other hand, if I forget what I’ve been shooting, I usually see the images objectively, because I had time to forget all about them and detach myself from the emotional bonds that were created between me and the image, by the time I was shooting it.

Here’s an anecdote and a photo to go along with it. I took the photo above just few days ago. I was walking in the park with my camera and I saw two very beautiful women. The other was taking a portrait of the other and they were both dressed up and looking really good. I walked pass them and then decided to turn around and take a photo of them photographing each other. It was a spontaneous decision and I felt somewhat proud of being able to go in to the situation. That is the first feeling that got attached to the photo. Then I got noticed by the woman who was being photographed and she started to giggle, which to me, felt very good – almost like being kissed to the cheek or something. It was so nice that she started to smile. After that I saw the entire scene through rose red glasses. That was the second feeling that I attached to the image and completely distorted the image that I was drawing in my head. I mean — who doesn’t like to get smiles? My attention was drawn very strongly to her smile, body language and just the kind of positive vibe they both were sending out. The setting, background and lighting were seemingly perfect and I felt that this might turn out like the best truly spontaneous street photo I’ve ever taken.

Okay and then I developed the film. I don’t think the result is a bad image as such, but it definitely doesn’t meet up with my over romanticised expectations that I had right after taking the shot. The composition was much less interesting than I remembered and even the pretty woman looked completely different from what I remembered. The third feeling attached to this photo was the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Of course I was worried that the girls would be bothered by presence, which turned out to be the opposite. It felt like huge win. I still like the image very much and it was such a nice situation that I’ll be sure to remember it warmly.

Another similar example. This woman was drawing in the park and it seemed almost like a perfect subject. Light, setting and subject matter seemed to form a perfect combo. The result is a nice image, but definitely not as mind blowing as I was expecting right after taking the shot. The elements come together nicely but their greatness were multiplied in my mind tenfold. 

To me something like this happens all the time and I’d assume it’s common in street photography, that is very social in nature. You’re constantly having to deal with fear or invading someones privacy or worrying that you’re bothering someone. At least for me, street photography situations require pulling myself together and working really hard to take the shot. To be honest, I don’t like pointing camera to people’s faces. I just like to make art and there are no other way of documenting people, in their natural environment, than pointing the camera at them. It makes me feel very uncomfortable and nervous sometimes. If I don’t push myself, I can’t make the shot. When I succeed, It feels very good. That’s why street photography is so rewarding. I may feel like jumping up and down from the feeling of accomplishment. This feeling is very often mixed with the expectation of the result. I can’t even begin to tell how many times I’ve sat in front of the scanner and seeing the images appearing to my computer screen and starting to feel less and less accomplished after seeing the photos in all their glory.

Pekka

Graphic designer and a 35mm film photography enthusiast. I enjoy straight photography on natural/available light and in-camera techniques. I'm inspired by early and mid-1900's classic photojournalism, street photography and documentary photography. Currently shooting mainly with Leica M6, and Olympus OM-4.

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