Anxiety of shooting film

Since the very first time I got interested in photography, I was shooting digital. I got very used to the immediate feedback loop: as soon as I clicked the shutter button, I got a preview of the resulting photograph. I could immediately check if the resulting photograph was sharp, correctly exposed etc. However, when I started shooting film more and more, I lost this reassurance. I'd click the button, I'd hear the shutter open and close, and... that's it. I wouldn't be able to see the result until weeks later (after they come back from the lab and I'd scan them). But what if the frame I just exposed is not good? What if I severely under- or overexposed it? What if someone blinked? What if...?

Not being able to immediately double check the result is one thing. But film cameras I own are also slower. They are all manual focus. They all require me to manually advance the film to the next frame, which takes time. And film is expensive. So usually I just have one attempt to capture the scene. Sometimes, for more static scenes, I might take two shots. But that's it.

Not having an immediate preview of the photograph, and not being able to take several attempts to ensure a good frame, was a source of a certain anxiety in the back of my head:

And surely enough, I did make some of those mistakes at times.

Once, right after making an exposure on the 4x5 film, when I was removing the holder from the camera, I forgot to close it. That ruined the whole sheet. However, because I knew immediately I ruined it, I was able to just take another shot. The other time I’ve put the lens hood on my Rollei incorrectly which caused vignetting on every single photograph on that one roll.

204 mistakes

But none of that can hold a candle to the mistake I was continusly making over a span of several months. A mistake that affected every single photograph on every single roll I shot with my trusty Rolleicord over that period of time.

It all started on a short trip with my family. I’ve decided to use Rollei 5.5 x 4 cm masks, to play with a non-square aspect ratio. So I’ve installed both the matte screen mask, as well as the mask that goes behind the primary lens. All went great, and the photos turned out nice.

I removed those masks, and since then I shot 17 rolls on that Rollei. Afterwards I sent all of them in bulk to the lab for development. They all came back not square as I expected, but rectangular. Turns out I removed the mask from the matte screen, but not from inside the camera! For every single photograph on all those 17 rolls, I thought I was shooting a 55 x 55 mm square photograph, as this was what did appear on the matte screen. However only an area of 55 x 40 mm was exposed. Every photo had 7-8 mm strip cut from both the top and the bottom.

Seventeen rolls times 12 frames per roll. I just severely miscomposed 204 photographs. Including all the shots from our family trip to Morocco!

Black, metal masks for the film camera.
Two 55 x 40 mm masks. One is meant to be installed on the matte screen to aid with composing, and the other between the lens and the film to only expose a portion of the film. The second one is the one I forgot to remove.

How to recover?

Well, you don't really fully recover - you can't just go back and fix those photographs. But after, over the span of few hours, I went through 5 stages of grief, I started to appreciate the situation.

Yes, at first I felt pretty angry at myself. Such a silly misstep! So many potentially good photos ruined! I wasn't shocked however. If anything, the surprising thing was that it took me several years of shooting film to make a mistake like this. I found that thought quite funny.

Later, when the film came back from the lab and I scanned it, I saw that some photographs really were ruined with no hope to fix them. Like the ones were subjects' heads were cut off. Most other no longer looked like what I wanted them to when I composed them in camera.

But then I started to look at them more closely and experimenting with cropping. Usually I tend to compose in camera and avoid any significant crops later. This time however all bets were off. I started cropping heavily. And into some unorthodox shapes too, like with the very wide aspect ratio familiar from Hasselblad XPan cameras. I was basically having fun and trying to salvage what I could.

You can see the results in the Morocco album.