My Frugal Film Project and Making Peace With Online Spaces and Social Media


Photography is something that I have been interested in for quite a long time, but I didn’t always follow up or follow through with my interest. I probably could have made it happen in high school, because I was close friends with the only person I knew who had a “real” camera in our tiny town and I was also one of the favorites of the teacher who was the school photographer and sponsor of the yearbook. Anyway, I was just secretly interested in photography, and then went to school with people who brought real cameras to college and used them in their daily lives and adventures. Again, I never expressed this interest outwardly. Some of the lack of follow up had to do with my lack of funds, but mostly my lack of bravery (yeah, a recurring theme in my life, and in this blog) to see if it was even possible. I did buy a little point and shoot film camera in my senior year of college and it had a little zoom lens, but I still have very few images from college or in the early years following school.

It wasn’t until several years later when my younger sister moved to Germany for a couple of years, and I went to visit her for a couple of weeks, that I bought my first “real” camera. A good friend at the time generously donated his airline miles to me for the plane ticket, so I used my plane ticket dollars for the camera. It was a digital Nikon with a kit lens aimed at beginners. I was in heaven. I chose it after reading a couple of issues of Consumer Reports and their take on “good” cameras, in terms of ease-of-use, performance, and of course, because it was Consumer Reports, bang-for-the-buck impact. I bought it at Target, along with a couple of memory cards and a little camera bag right before my big trip. While I was in Europe, I mostly placed the camera in auto mode and used the “spray and pray” approach to photography, which experienced photographers laughingly describe beginners doing, taking a bazillion shots while hoping a few will turn out. Yep, I was one of those sprayer/prayers, and occasionally, still am, to this day. Digital photography, in 2008 when I bought this camera, and even now, gave me a sense of freedom, because I could see, at the end of the day, what I had in terms of images, instead of being disappointed by two rolls of film with out-of-focus images and not-great compositions. I could also then choose, which images, if any, I was going to print, instead of being bummed by the expense of buying the film and then getting it developed.

My interest in photography waxed and waned over the years, and I didn’t always follow up, much as before. I did take my camera on lots of day trips, around my neighborhood, on hikes, or wherever I happened to be. In fits and starts, I would play with the camera and have fun finding new scenes, and new challenges with trying to capture beautiful landscapes or to get even one decent frame of beloved sandhill cranes, either in Nebraska or New Mexico. Almost always, my camera was set to auto. Fast forward to 2020, and I revived my interest in photography again. I picked up my old Nikon and went on walks to a nearby park for sunrises, and zoomed in on the giant pine tree outside my patio window to see my feathered neighbors. Sometimes, I was successful, sometimes, not, but I always enjoyed the exercise of putting the camera up to my eye, and the feel of this beautiful piece of engineering and magic in my hands.

It turns out that sometime in the 20-teens, and maybe even earlier, just as film photography was declared dead, there had been a renewed interest in film. It was somewhat fertilized by people who only knew film as a distant memory, or as a new medium by those who knew screens as part of their daily experience, and those who maybe wanted to return to a slower, and more deliberate form of photography. In the early days of the pandemic, to escape the chaos and to find comfort, I discovered some of the depth of YouTube and all these film photography folks who made vast declarations about the “best” film camera, while they waved around beautiful vintage SLR cameras (single-lens reflex camera, the film version of what you might think of as a “real” camera with interchangeable lenses) or cute little point-and-shoot cameras while they talked to a camera in dark, sparsely lit, home studios. It turns out, I wasn’t the only one returning to a dream of photography, as a hobby, and a way to navigate the ups and downs of life. I learned about Holgas, and the joys of toy cameras, and something called Lomography, which is both a company, and a whole informal sector of photographers who appreciate the flaws of film, and the specific flaws of less-than-perfect cameras, with light flares, vignetting, the accidents and intentions of double-exposure, and so much more. These people spoke to me. I wanted their cool confidence, and knowledge of photography. I also learned about the weird obsession with certain cameras that drive up their prices to astronomical rates, called cult cameras, and the understandable and yet confusing infatuation with equipment. Because there are hardly any new film cameras currently beig produced, the passion for film photography has driven up the prices for many what used to be cheap vintage film cameras. It seemed weird to me to obsess over shelves of beautiful cameras rather than just going out and using said equipment, even if it was just around to take photos on a walk around the block.

Flashback to pre-pandemic times. Sometime in the spring of 2017, frustrated with my lack of photographic ability, I had purchased access to an online photography class. It was one of those “lifetime-access” online classes that are now ubiquitous, maybe the on-line equivalent of those old late-night 90s-era infomercials, where your lack of sleep and the narrator’s supreme confidence in that mop or cleaning fluid make you think that this $19.95 wonder is the thing missing from your life. There were 34 sessions, all 45-ish minute lessons, led by a thick Irish-accented photographer with impressive credentials, who walked the participants through the basics of photography. I recently re-took this class and its lessons finally kicked in to a sense of realization for me. I won’t nail the professor or the online institution, but I will critique the one-sided lessons, which are helpful, but can be tricky to navigate when you can’t raise your hand in the digital lecture hall. The assignments are theoretical, and there is no real-time feedback as you explore the foundations of the exposure triangle and equipment choices and try to apply that to your images.

Anyway, back to pandemic times, in the fall of 2020, bored and at home, I got excited about photography again, and also about cheap and small film cameras. I bought a couple of new low-cost Holgas, one using 120 film which was a whole new adventure, and even a new version of a digital beginner Nikon DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) as an xmas present for myself. I learned about and enjoyed the fun of winning at online auctions to get a film or digital camera for much less than its street value or reported online price. A good friend of mine used his knowledge of the ways of online auction sites and my renewed preoccupation with cameras and photography to unleash a couple of huge boxes of cameras delivered to my house. I slowly unwrapped his gifts and had to search how to use and understand the beauty of these cameras. Thanks to this friend and those online auctions, I now have a fairly substantial collection of cameras, both film and digital. It’s the first time in my life where a collection feels fun, and not a burden. I have released most of the collections that were given to me or started for me in childhood, but this one, of cameras taking up a bookshelf in my bedroom feels like opportunity and occasion, not someone else’s vision. Most of the cameras are not valuable in terms of money, but they all have their advantages, flavors, strengths, features. They each provide multiple lessons in photography, whether it’s pinhole or panorama, crap-tastic plastic cameras or cult-appreciated tools, or the joys of just getting out with a camera and seeing beyond your own vision.

Last fall, I participated in Holga Week, a week designated in October, to celebrate the beauty and weird-yet-inspiring limitations of various film Holga cameras. It was cool knowing that others were using their little plastic cameras in the same week that I did. I had never participated in a photography contest, so it was a thrill going through my pictures and picking my “best” three shots, uploading the digital scans of the film pictured, and then voting for the amazing work of others in the people’s choice category. I couldn’t have cared less about winning, but I loved doing the same as all these other people across the globe. I love sharing something I love with other people who love the same thing, whether it’s a concert and love of the same band, a conference and love of the same profession, or a camera and love of the images and limitations of the weird little plastic light-box. I think COVID has brought to me the renewed interest in connecting with others over small and enjoyable hobbies and pastimes.

Anyway, at the beginning of 2022, I found out about the “frugal film project” from one of my favorite YouTube photographer personalities, “The Old Camera Guy” who had mentioned more than once his participation in the “frugal film project.” For 2022, the rules were slightly different than previous years. Pick a camera and lens (if applicable) for less than $75 and pick a cheap film and take pictures, one roll of film per month. I located the fb group, picked a camera and film, and even posted my choices in late January, but the fb group made me reassess my alliances. The group seemed like a lot of fun and everyone was really supportive in early 2022, as people chose their cameras and shared their first rolls of film. I haven’t regularly logged into fb since the spring of 2016, and I really detest the platform. I quit the fb group and decided I would start the frugal film project when I was finally ready, but more as an individual effort.

I don’t like social media (I know, the irony of a blogger), and have struggled with it for some time. Basically, I have found a minimalist social media presence since mid-February. Now, I have a much healthier (determined by me) and more peaceful relationship with these platforms and my phone. I have to intentionally log in, and I have carefully eliminated some platforms and/or people I followed or subscribed to. I don’t want my real-life to be clouded by digital platforms and distant likes. Now, my daily or weekly log-in is mostly to check in on the very young generation of our family, whose parents graciously post adorable and disappearing videos and pictures of these brilliant youngsters as they do and say hilarious things. The parents do it specifically to share with close friends and family, and most of the posts are quick and disappear, just like those fleeting moments of childhood. For our family, this is the digital equivalent of the dime-store photo album of generations past and I am grateful to witness these moments of growth and beauty and hilarity. I also appreciate the proximity to a few close friends, even while I sometimes miss knowing I had ready and instant access to lots of college friends and people from my hometown in New Mexico. To deal with this, I have reached out to old friends to see if we can have phone conversations and to get postal addresses, so that I can connect occasionally with letters and post cards.

Just like I had to come to some kind of peace with social media, I had to make some decisions with this blog. If I was quitting fb, could I still share personal stories of my life online in my own writing? I have been writing for this blog since the fall of 2010, but not always regularly. This spring, I decided that I would keep the blog, as an outlet for writing and creativity, but not to actively share my latest posts. I would rather have a few people who read this, in the spirit of community and connection, where what I write is directly shared, rather than a few more who might mindlessly find it in an evening phone scroll. It’s the same with my film project. Rather than share with some random strangers, I will occasionally share some images on this blog on my own timeline, if I so choose, or create a printed photo book for myself at the year-end of the project.

In the spring of 2022, the price of film, due to popularity and the weird global supply chain, is difficult to call frugal, but I love the intention, connection, feel, and delayed gratification that comes with it. I picked my camera and film to use for the next 12 months, a small weather-proof point and shoot camera. It fits in a hoodie pocket and I scored it off an online auction last fall for $20, with the caution that it hadn’t been tested. My $20 bet on the Olympus Infinity Stylus Zoom (not to be confused with the expensive cult camera of the Olympus Mju II) with free shipping paid off. I wanted something little and versatile and simple, that I could take just as easily on a hike, or a walk with my sister’s dog, or to dinner with friends, or maybe even a vacation. It has a little 35-70mm zoom lens, not unlike the point and shoot camera I picked out in my senior of college. With this camera, I can think more about composition and whether or not I want to use the flash, rather than feel embarrassed I have a big camera with me on solo forays or with friends and family. I picked black and white film, because I love it. To go along with the frugal theme, I already had two rolls of the Kodak 400TX, so I can take my time finding 10 more rolls for this 12-month project. I picked 400, because I wanted as much versatility and flexibility with the film as with the camera. A 400-speed film in black and white will work in the brightest of days and also in the dimmest of evenings and night. It turns out 400TX (also called Tri-X) has a legendary status, unbeknownst to me when I first bought it, and I’m looking forward to the grainy adventures.

Are you looking forward to new creative adventures? Are you cutting away some of the digital noise of social media to find your voice and passion? Are you finding a way to find deliberation and connection with a few, rather than with the supposed multitudes of digital strangers? What are you creating? What are you enjoying? What are you making in the time and space you have?

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this! I have just recently started my blog, after feeling that Facebook isn’t reaching the right people anymore, and instagram isn’t all that better. I feel like I can tell better stories through a blog as opposed to social media alone. at the moment just waiting on getting film developed! can’t wait to see your shots for your Frugal Film Project!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, leah! I think you’re right, that a blog can be what you want it to be. I think what I like about blogging is you get to shape it as you want. I will head over to your blog and take a look. It will be fun to see you on your journey! Yay, that you’re getting film developed! I am planning to take pictures this weekend and then drop it off to get developed. Thanks for sharing!

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