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The revival of analog photography

From film to wet plate photography – old school is back in style.

Samantha Francis, editor of a wellness lifestyle platform, fondly recalls how childhood memories of birthdays and other special occasions were always captured with either a Yashica point-and-shoot film camera or a Polaroid camera.

“Even as a kid, I enjoyed taking photos with my mum’s cameras,” says Ms Francis, 31. But she only took her hobby in film photography seriously during her university days when she purchased a film SLR camera. Since then she has done commercial shoots, pre-wedding, and actual-day wedding photography as a side hustle, all on film.

Legal counsel Damian Wong and lawyer Sandra Ong share a mutual passion for analog photography, “as it is a niche and a well-known and long-used medium”, says Mr Wong, 29. The couple share their photos and product reviews on their website, damianwithsandra.com and also on social media.

In an age where taking pictures with digital cameras or smartphones are commonplace, a growing group of young photography enthusiasts are choosing to go the old-school way – by shooting on film.

“To us, being able to capture memories on a physical medium is rewarding and exhilarating, especially while waiting for the film to develop,” says Ms Ong, 30.

Mr Wong adds: “Because of the limited film available in each roll, you really only have one shot to make it count, and therefore that challenges us to take as good a shot as we can.”

They shoot portraits and landscapes on instant film such as Polaroid and on roll film.

“We try to carry a camera everywhere we go; to us, there is always something interesting to capture, even if it seems ordinary, mundane or conventional,” says Mr Wong.

But it doesn’t mean they’ve given up taking photographs using smartphone cameras. There are times too, when they use their smartphones to take pictures because it is more convenient.

  • Analog Photography

    Samantha Francis has been shooting using Polaroids and 35mm film since 2001. 

“Technology can go so far to imitate the look of an analog camera in a digital photo. However, the experience of shooting with an analog camera can never be emulated on a digital medium,” explains Ms Ong.

Ms Francis says: “The analog medium has an incomparable charm thanks to qualities like film grain, imperfections, and beautiful tonal hues. It is something many photography apps have tried to emulate to various degrees, though it’s hardly the same.”

Portraits are her favourite subjects because “people, along with their facial expressions and quirks are interesting to capture”, notes Ms Francis.

She also has a soft spot for travel photography and has published a travel photo book of her film photos.

But she too shoots on her iPhone at times. “The downside is that analog cameras tend to be big and bulky. If I’m after a similar film look on my iPhone, I use apps like NOMO CAM and VSCO.”

According to Mr Wong, nostalgia is also a driving factor in analog photography’s popularity. “This could be due to technology fatigue, in that our daily lives are so consumed by the use of technology and media, that we want to return to an older era where these did not exist.”

Ms Francis believes that cultural trends are cyclical, hence analog photography is enjoying a revival. Then there is also the celebrity factor. “I guess celebrities/models like Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid, who have been seen shooting on film or disposable cameras, reinforces the cool factor of owning a film camera in this digital age,” she says.

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Who’s who in the analog film community:

Goh Rhay Gynn

Filem

  • Analog

    Goh Rhay Gynn (left) is the founder of Filem, which sells vintage cameras (right) and film. 

The next time you are spring cleaning and find an old film camera, don’t throw it away just yet. You might be able to sell it to Goh Rhay Gynn, who runs Filem, which retails old-school cameras.

The full-time university student started selling film cameras on Carousell some years ago, as a way to earn pocket money.

He sources for cameras through his contacts in Japan, China, Thailand and Hong Kong.

“Sometimes I do have uncles and aunties bringing in their old collections of cameras as they find it wasteful to dispose of them, or to simply ask for a second opinion on their value,” says Mr Goh, 24. “I love it, especially when I get calls from people to check out their camera collection as you never know if there are any hidden treasures around.”

Most of the cameras that he sells at Filem are from the 1970s to 2000, although he does have rare cameras such as the Leica M6 Platinum Schmidt edition, of which there are only 188 pieces worldwide; and a special gold collection which comprises a Gold Hasselblad, Rollei 35 and the Rolleiflex.

The cameras are still in working condition, and Mr Goh sells film from known brands such as Kodak and Fujifilm, as well as lesser-known brands Adox, Fomapan and Cinestill. The bulk of his customers are in their 20s and early 30s.

He also offers film-processing services, where film rolls are scanned into a digital format. He doesn’t offer them in print, because the cost is now expensive compared to just 10 cents previously. He recommends customers scan their photos first before printing worthy ones.

Mr Goh developed an interest in film photography when he was given his grandfather’s old film camera, and he started researching how to shoot, develop and print film.

“Shooting on film has its challenges such as the limited number of shots you have per roll. It has taught me to be more careful and have every shot intentionally crafted and framed,” he says.

“Photography should give me a feeling of capturing moments with my heart rather than just pushing a button.”

He adds: “Developing a roll of film is a very meticulous process as it requires precision and adequate control of the liquid temperature. Waiting for my photos gives me a sense of excitement and the anticipation allows me to further appreciate the results, which are often pleasant surprises.”

Kevin Chu

Fotomat

Fotomat

Kevin Chu (left) is the founder of Fotomat, a photo studio where clients can take black and white pictures of themselves using a shutter (right).

If you are of a certain vintage, you would remember the fun of entering a photo booth, drawing the curtain, spinning the seat to an appropriate height, dropping in some coins, and then posing for pictures, before waiting eagerly for a strip of black and white photos to drop.

Kevin Chu, 22, is recreating that experience but with a modern touch at Fotomat, his photo studio at Waterloo Street.

Mr Chu says he enjoys coding while his sister’s hobby is film photography, and he thought about creating an experience that would combine the two.

He came up with Fotomat.

“I wanted to create a new photography experience in Singapore by letting people take their own portraits with the use of a camera trigger,” he shares.

All photographs are taken with a shutter, which triggers the camera. The shutter and its wire are also part of the final picture to show that the photo is self-directed.

Mr Chu says, by not having a photographer around, this encourages participants to be bolder, more expressive and innovative with their poses.

“The entire experience at Fotomat is all about letting customers see the results of their own artistic direction,” he adds.

Only black and white photography is offered as Mr Chu wants to reduce distractions and allow participants to focus on their expressions and poses.

For S$30, participants get to take as many photos as they like during a 15-minute session, along with two photos that are printed on professional photo paper.

Mr Chu says the quality of the photographs is of higher quality than taking a black and white selfie on a smartphone.

Fotomat has been a hit with folks of all ages.

“For the older generation, black and white photography reminds them of the days when formal family portraits, especially on occasions of significance, were often taken in studios,” says Mr Chu.

“For the slightly younger generation, Fotomat might remind them of the Neoprint machines that were all the rage back then. But for the really young, this would probably be an alien concept.”

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Ryan Lee

Hip Xiong Photo Studio

  • Hip Xiong Photo Studio

    Ryan Lee (left), founder of Hip Xiong Photography Studio, finds analog photography a ''breath of fresh air''. The Hip Xiong Photography Studio (right) is designed like an old photo studio. 

For his wedding several years ago, former creative director Ryan Lee wanted the kind of photographs that his grandparents and parents had – old-school black and white photos taken in a photo studio, where everyone stood ramrod straight with small smiles. He couldn’t find such a studio, but in the process, he chanced upon wet plate tintype photography, which was invented in 1851 and predates film photography.

“It is one of the purest forms of photography that is still being practised today. It blurs the line between alchemy and photography,” says Mr Lee, 40.

Instead of a portrait printed on paper, wet plate tintype photography shows the image on a metal plate. Some equipment that Mr Lee uses include an analog camera, thin aluminium plates and a variety of photosensitive chemicals.

Mr Lee taught himself the technique and the first wet plate photo he produced was his self-portrait. At his Hip Xiong Photo Studio in Geylang, customers have the chance to go back in time to get an old-school photo of themselves.

The process involves sitting in front of the camera with bright lights all around. There is a sudden flash of light that captures a a moment in time and to get a proper exposure. The key is to sit very still because any slight movement from the camera will cause the subject to move out of focus.

The look on most portraits is a pensive one. But Mr Lee says looking pensive is not a requirement. “People tend to use their default expression because they need to stay still for a while and it is very tiring to hold a smile,” he quips.

After their picture is taken, clients head to the darkroom with Mr Lee, where he shows them how their silhouettes emerge on the plate using chemicals. Time is of the essence here, because if the plate is developed a few seconds shorter or longer it makes a difference in the outcome.

The plates are varnished to prevent the silver on them from tarnishing and will last for years.

Compared to digital photography, Mr Lee finds analog photography a “breath of fresh air”. He also dabbles in film photography and says: “Because now I only have a finite number of shots, it forces me to put more thought and deliberation before I press the shutter. It slows time down to a point of stopping it – I feel like I am in the moment more.”

Most of his Hip Xiong clients are there to commemorate a special moment. “But there are also those who just want to try something so rare that not even their grandparents have a chance to experience,” he adds.

Brian Ho

thegaleria and The Leather Mallet

  • thegaleria and The Leather Mallet

    Brian Ho (left), founder of thegaleria film photography studio and The Leather Mallet, is said to be one of the few wedding photographers in the region who still shoots on film, and is recognised for his black and white images of bridal couples (right). 

Brian Ho, founder of thegaleria film photography studio and The Leather Mallet, a company that upcycles old film canisters, isn’t one of those millennial or Gen Z types who recently discovered the wonders of film photography.

Instead, he has been shooting on film for most of his career and isn’t going digital any time soon. Mr Ho, 45, is said to be one of the few wedding photographers in the region who still shoots on film, and is recognised for his black and white images of bridal couples.

He started thegaleria 15 years ago when digital photography was starting to take off, but he chose to stick to film and lives by the saying that “once a film photographer, always a film photographer”.

He says: “Analog film photography goes beyond love. It’s an obsession. There’s something magical about the old-school medium that words cannot explain.”

Wedding couples who hire him want that classic analog look in their shots, he says, and are prepared to wait for the final pictures to be processed. Trust between the couple and him is key, Mr Ho says, regardless of whether the wedding photos are shot on film or digitally.

“Film photography is not a game of chance where you hit the shutter and hope that things will turn out well,” Mr Ho notes. “It is quite the opposite. Most film photographers hit the shutter knowing that they have nailed the shot. This confidence comes with experience and an acute knowledge of your camera and how it reacts to the environment.”

It is not only wedding couples who appreciate Mr Ho’s film photography. He’s also found a new following via his other business The Leather Mallet. Over the years, he has amassed a large collection of used film canisters which would be a waste to dispose of.

He now turns these film canisters into film scrolls, which customers can personalise with photos and messages printed on little strips of canvas. The film canisters are carefully opened up and the scrolls placed in them.

“They are a personalised greeting card of sorts,” Mr Ho says, and they are popular as wedding invitations and for birthdays and anniversaries.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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