Film Photography Without Any Film

Photography is about far more than just the final image.

Whilst I’ve never completely forgotten to load a roll of film in a camera before heading out to shoot, there have been a handful of occasions where for whatever reason, the film hasn’t wound on with each shot.

I remember a particular time when I ventured out to a new part of the local woods on a beautiful frosty, sunlit early morning.

I came across a handful of abandon dodgem cars and other fairground remnants.

It was as if an old carnival had been passing through the woods, had become tired and stopped for a rest, then never got up again.

The light was glorious, and the juxtaposition of the decaying old cars and fresh undergrowth gradually reclaiming them to the earth, was wonderful. 

Perfect for photography!

I carefully composed and captured (I assumed) 36 shots. Then another. And another, and another.

Then I realised, the film hadn’t moved a millimetre, and none of those images had been made at all.

But this wasn’t the complete disaster you might think. 

The experience I had of making the pictures, of exploring and composing each frame as I went, was not diminished.

I’d still enjoyed it, I’d still been immersed in it, even if I didn’t have the photographic evidence I had expected.

Plus I could still recall many of the images in my head, just as beautiful as they’d looked the moment I’d released the shutter.

After all, how many times in life do we do something for the experience, and then also expect to have a beautiful collection of photographs to prove it too?

Not many, because usually if you’re focusing on taking a picture, you’re not fully engaged in the event itself.

Few people are their own wedding photographer, for example!

As an aside, how many times as a parent of two children in primary school have I seen other parents at a sports day or concert or play, watching the whole thing unfold through a tiny phone or camera screen? Far too many!

I understand people want to capture some of these moments to revisit in the future, and share with others, but if you’re the one actually there, don’t you want to fully enjoy it through your own eyes? Otherwise, you’re only half there. I digress.

Back to photography without film. 

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I’ve been back to the abandoned dodgems many times since…

This occasion in the woods, along with a handful of others (yeh, you’d think I’d have learned, but that’s what happens when you keep shooting with different cameras and not getting to know exactly how they load!), reminded me of the main reason I wander the rural backwoods, camera in hand.

It’s for the experience, the immersion, and the emotions I feel.

Any resultant photographs I’m proud of are of course a bonus.

But really the camera is just an excuse to get me in those places in the first place.

How about you? Have you ever shot a roll of film only to realise it hadn’t loaded and wound on properly? How did you feel?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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12 thoughts on “Film Photography Without Any Film”

  1. Sorry Dan, Leica again…. The early film cameras from the 1920’s through to the late 60’s (Before M4) were cumbersome to load, but you knew they were loaded when you closed the bottom (Leicas’ have bottoms rather than backs). The M4 introduced as standard an auto load system, apparently much easier to load. I had several bad loads with that camera until I learned how it worked, which really is simple once one reads the instructions.

    What I know for absolute certain though, is that on those occasions, I stood in the right spot and pressed the button at exactly the right time. 🙂

    Just like Garry Winogrand…

    1. Stephen, thanks for your thoughts. No need to apologise about Leica, feel free to talk about any cameras you’ve used!

      Funny you should say about the quality of your photographs not captured, I feel the same about mine like this too…

  2. I remember once going to an old mine which hadn’t been in operation for many years and seeing how nature had taken hold. It was eerie and beautiful in equal measures but I just couldn’t stop looking, looking, looking. I did take some photographs which are in an album somewhere gathering dust, but I remember it as clearly as if it was last week. Thanks for bringing back a wonderful memory.

    1. Thanks Katie. I certainly believe that since I’ve been using a camera with some artistic intention (rather than just for family snaps etc) it has greatly improved my awareness of what’s around me, and increased my appreciation of the beauty in the little details. Because you’re looking with different eyes (ie a photographer’s eyes, seeking out potential photographic opportunities), you see more.

  3. “Only half there.” This is why I seldom take any kind of camera with me on long bike rides. I like to focus on one thing at a time. I have taken some of my favorite pictures during bike rides with my phone, but only during rest periods and only incidentally. Oddly enough the best of them were taken with a very cheap and low quality phone.

    1. Jon I have had a similar experience. I’ve been happy packing my camera away and riding to a certain place on my bike, then exploring on foot, with camera. But having tried riding along with a small camera in my pocket, so I can stop and take a photograph when the opportunity presents itself, I just don’t enjoy. I’m caught between two activities and not fully committed to either. Like you I’d rather just focus on cycling, or photography, at any one time.

      My mum sent me a photo from my childhood the other day, made most likely with a cheap 110 Kodak in the late 70s, and then “scanned” (ie put on a flat surface and photographed from above) with her phone and sent to me. I didn’t really think twice about the quality, what matters is the content and connected feelings.

  4. When we visit “tourist” destinations I have my camera with me but I take very few pictures. What we do instead is buy professionally made pictures – usually souvenir books in the US and postcards in the UK.

    Ditto what Stephen J said about old mechanical cameras. When I wind the film in my Nikon F’s or screw mount Leicas I see both the shutter release button and the rewind knob turning. (In both instances the manufacturers put an offset dot on the shutter release button for exactly this purpose.)

    1. Interesting that you buy postcards Doug… I always wonder who buys them when I visit places near to me which sell them, and why people don’t take their own photos.

      With virtually all SLRs, and most cameras that have a manual wind on, there is a clear indication when you wind on that the film is moving, as the rewind handle turns too. It just took me a while to discover this I guess in my more more novice days! With auto wind compacts etc it’s harder to be sure.

  5. interesting and I agree. Even when I have captured a bald eagle peering down at me, and its a good photo bc i was so close & have a gr8 phone camera, it will never reflect the experience of that moment.. I’m not crazy about wildlife photography, although we have tons of professional wildlife photographers that visit here, some live here- because theres nothing like seeing the real thing. That’s why I want to photograph birds * other critter glimpses for id purposes only. thought chewing perspective 🙂

    1. I’ve had occasions when a bird (or birds) has landed very close and I’ve been tempted to reach for my camera, but instead I’ve just stood dead still, held my breath and savoured the moment. Most recently this happened in the local woods, where I walked through some brambles and disturbed an incredible amount of butterflies – dozens if not hundreds, and far more than I’ve ever seen in one place before in my lifetime. Breathtaking.

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