The Perfect Hobby For Scientists?

We are living in a digital world, but there is something about film photography that appeals particularly to scientists.

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AsianScientist (Dec. 19, 2014) – Almost exactly four years ago, disillusioned with my digital camera, I shot a few rolls of film on an old Nikon SLR unearthed from my parents’ house. What began as a spur-of-the-moment experiment has since morphed into a happy obsession and I have yet to go back to digital.

I could go on for hours about why film photography appeals so much to me. Its effortless rendering of colors, shades, and textures that digital photographers spend hours in front of the computer trying to replicate. The joy of shooting with beautifully-made, completely manual cameras that go for a song on eBay. The excitement that accompanies getting negatives and scans back from the photo lab.

But this is a science column, so I will contain myself, barely, and get to the point, which is this: I’ve often been struck by parallels between film photography and laboratory research, and suspect this is partly why I feel so drawn towards the medium.

Experimenting with film

For a start, instant gratification doesn’t exist in either of these worlds. Just as it is difficult to gauge the success of a months-long experiment without waiting it out completely, there is no comforting LCD screen on the back of a film camera to tell you whether or not you nailed the shot. You have to finish the roll, take it to the photo lab, and wait for it to be processed before you find out that your focus was terrible, or that you loaded the film wrongly (tragic story, but never again!).

We’ve all seen, or rather, heard, people using digital cameras as if they were machine guns, firing off shot after shot in burst mode in the hope that one will turn out better than the others. Film is the bully that snatches away this crutch. Every exposure counts, unless you feel like making Kodak and your local photo lab very rich, and this has definitely made me a lot more deliberate about what I’m doing. It’s the same in the lab, where performing experiments without careful planning and you could end up frittering away time, effort, and the equivalent of a small country’s GDP.

Without the preset modes and instant feedback that digital cameras offer, film really helps photographers grasp the fundamentals and put them into practice. Knowing your stuff brings you much closer to the actual process of creating an image, which for me is as enjoyable and as important as the end result. This is also true in the lab, where experimental technique can dramatically affect your data and subsequent conclusions, and where understanding the reason behind even the simplest step in your protocol can be tremendously useful.

The perfect hobby for scientists?

For scientists who are used to tinkering around in the lab, shooting film may be the perfect hobby because there is so much room for experimenting. Even the initial task of settling on a camera can be daunting—analogue’s huge and wonderfully varied arsenal of toys makes digital look positively vanilla. Next, film stocks—there are probably almost as many of these as there are cameras, and each comes with its own character and quirks for the photographer to explore and probe the limits of.

When it comes to actually taking the photograph, the possibilities for play are endless. To give you an example: to achieve a certain look, it’s possible to deliberately underexpose film when shooting it, and compensate by asking the photo lab to overdevelop it during processing. This is known as “pushing” the film. Different film stocks respond differently to pushing and pulling (the converse—overexpose and underdevelop), so you will need to do some experimenting before deciding on your personal preference. Life with film never gets boring, just as there is seldom a dull moment in the lab if experimenting is what you enjoy.

There’s never a complete separation between the different aspects of our lives, and experiences that we absorb during work and play could flow both ways. There’s evidence that people who engage in creative hobbies are also more creative and collaborative at work. I like to think that, in addition to being a lot of fun, shooting film may also in some subconscious way make me a better researcher, and vice versa.

Film suits my personality and shooting style, but isn’t for everyone—and to each his own. But if like me four years ago, you look at your digital camera and feel absolutely zero excitement at the prospect of using it and of sifting through the approximately one gazillion images you will generate while on holiday, you might want to give it a try.

This article is from a monthly column called The Bug Report. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Sergei Kvaratskhelia/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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