The Forgotten Excitement of Casual Film Photography

The Forgotten Excitement of Casual Film Photography

Do you remember the excitement and anticipation of dropping off film rolls at the photo development lab, waiting days or even weeks to get your printed photos back? For those of us who grew up in the pre-digital era, film photography was a much more nostalgic experience than the instant images we can take and view today.

I fondly remember the days of carefully choosing the perfect 36 shots on a roll of film. With a limited number of exposures, each photo felt precious. You had to snap that image just right in the camera, with no way to preview it or know if you got the shot. After finishing the roll, you’d take it to the photo lab, fill out the envelope with your details, and then came the waiting game.

The wait to get your prints back felt excruciatingly long as a kid. I’d think about the photos I took and try imagining how they might turn out. Days would pass endlessly until the trip back to collect that precious envelope of prints. It was such a thrill to tear open the envelope and shuffle through the photos for the first time, revealing the captured moments as if opening a gift. There were always surprises — some blurry shots, some near-perfect, and some happy accidents.

Part of what made film photography so nostalgic was its physical, tangible nature. Seeing your photos as physical prints made them feel more real than an image on a screen. The wait to develop film also created a sense of longing and importance. Film was precious, and you wanted to make the most of each exposure. 

When I got my prints back, I’d lay them out on the floor or bed and review each one. My family and friends would have viewing parties, laughing at funny expressions or mishaps. We’d pick our favorites to pin on our walls or desks and return to the lab to order extra copies to hand out. I’d flip through those prints repeatedly, remembering the day and feelings the image captured.

With film cameras, you never knew exactly what you shot until prints came back. Sometimes, weeks would pass between a memorable event and seeing photos of it. It made reminiscing feel more significant. Today, we compulsively snap and share hundreds of phone photos daily from each event. But the nostalgia of waiting weeks for prints made us savor those images and memories so much more. The weight of each image is mostly gone nowadays.

Paradoxically, despite social media, film prints were also more social. Friends and couples would trade prized prints, display them proudly at home, put them in wallets to carry around. Images felt precious when you only had one copy. Photographs were gifts shared between loved ones, not just digital files. With the arguably cheapened digital snapshot, you can distribute it for free, so we put it out into the world without regard to whom it is going to or the relationships we have. Strangely, the increased dissemination makes the whole process more isolating. 

Thinking back on it, the limitations of film photography made it more nostalgic and romanticized. With only 24-36 shots per roll, you had to choose subjects carefully. You looked forward to the results for days or weeks, instead of instantly checking them on a screen. There was mystery, uncertainty, and real magic in the process. The physical nature of prints made photos feel substantive and permanent. And the social experience of waiting, viewing, and sharing prints together made photography feel more communal.

While the convenience of digital cameras today is incredible, there is something nostalgic lost from the ritual and mystery of film photography. The delayed gratification heightened the excitement of finally seeing your developed prints. It imbued more sentimentality into the images. The printed photos felt more real to hold in your hands, to stick in albums and frame on walls, lasting for decades if cared for.

So, while photography today is instant, abundant, and accessible, all of which are fantastic traits, those beloved rituals of film development are nostalgic reminders of a magical time. The anticipation of waiting for prints, the delight in shuffling through their reveal, the subsequent sharing and storytelling over precious prints — those are nostalgic experiences we have lost in the digital age. But for those who grew up with film, no smartphone photo can ever quite compare to that. The photos from those golden days remain among our most treasured. Arguably, that nostalgia is a big reason a lot of casual photo filters try to emulate the film look.

Film cameras themselves also carry a certain nostalgia. Those chunky, mechanical SLRs with their interchangeable lenses, viewfinders, manual dials, and buttons — today they seem retro and iconic. Handling a heavy but satisfyingly sturdy camera body, hearing the click of the shutter, advancing film with a lever - the physicality made photography feel substantive. The smartphone offers none of those properties. 

Another bygone relic of film days was photo albums — thick, decorated volumes for displaying prints. After getting photos developed, half the fun was decisively choosing favorites for album inclusion. Carefully mounting prints on thick black pages with adhesive corners, adding captions below in colored marker - this was an art form. For a big event like a wedding or family vacation, you'd have giant photo albums to display and share those moments, often sitting in a communal space for guests to view, such as on the living room coffee table. Today's digital photo albums, while convenient for organization, can't compare to the nostalgia of tangible, crafted photo albums showcasing prints selected with love and care. The time and thought required made printed albums more meaningful. Who remembers sitting with family and friends, flipping through albums one page at a time, and allowing the photos to rekindle memories and discussion? I remember making an album of my 50 favorite pictures to take with me when I left for college so I'd have reminders of home. Choosing which photos to frame and place around my room was one of the most important parts of making a space feel like a home. 

Another nostalgic film era was Kodak's Advanced Photo System (APS) in the 1990s. APS introduced easy drop-in film cartridges and cameras with new features like selectable aspect ratios. The iconic APS cartridges made loading film quick and hassle-free. But for me, the real fun of APS was its printed strips of small thumbnail images you got along with your main prints. Seeing tiny previews of all your shots made reviewing images extra thrilling. The index print strips felt like miniature contact sheets. Some APS cameras offered multi-image panoramic frames too, stitching exposures together on print. The novelty and options APS introduced made photography flexible and contemporary. While short-lived, APS film was a memorable bridging of analog and digital in the 90s. The convenient cartridges and printed metadata strips made film photography as fun and innovative as it would get before going fully digital. It made the casual photographer feel more official. I remember taking my first APS camera on an 8th-grade trip to Gettysburg and experimenting with panoramas. The resultant shots were pretty middling, but the novelty was unmatched at the time. 

While digital photography brings the instant gratification of immediately previewing your captures, it eliminates that anticipatory thrill of waiting to see your film prints. With digital, there’s no mystery or delayed payoff where you eagerly wonder for days how shots turned out. The images are right there instantly on your screen. While convenient, some magic is lost. There's also far less risk. Perhaps one of my fondest memories is of a 5th-grade family vacation to Hawaii. My parents saved airline miles for a decade, and when we finally took that trip, we took a ton of pictures, of course. But the funniest moment was when we went on a volcano tour and took some one-in-a-lifetime photos, only to get back to the car and for my mom to realize she hadn't put film in the camera. Even though we had no photos from that day, that mishap that arose from the nature of casual film photography sticks in my head as a fond memory.

A shot from Hawaii we actually got. 
That week-long wait after dropping off film used to feel agonizing but so exciting. The time away made you nostalgic for the moment you were trying to capture. It built up a longing to see the prints. Then, that gleeful rush when you finally got to tear open the photo lab envelope and peek at your stacks of prints for the first time - nothing compares to it.

Maybe it’s human nature to appreciate things more when we have to wait for them. But that delayed gratification made images feel more precious and personal. The days spent wondering about your shots heightened that ecstatic reveal when prints came back. You appreciated them more having eagerly awaited their arrival. While digital photos deliver instant satisfaction, they can feel disposable and less valued. They don’t evoke that same feeling of nostalgia and magic that film prints had when you waited and wondered over their development, and that's something I'll always miss.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Film has gotten so expensive that at least my days of casual shooting are sadly gone. However, reading your article makes me think I should at least try to be more casual and try to recapture the excitement I used to feel.

Nearly everyone has printer at home... Print your photos 4x6... For me it was waste of loads of paper back in the days, because I loved to experiment and there was no other way... Thanks god we have screen on the camera and photoshop

"Some APS cameras offered multi-image panoramic frames too, stitching exposures together on print." If only it actually was a good as you remember... all that the panorama mode on APS cameras did was tell the printer to crop off the top and bottom of the image, giving you something exactly as wide as the H "high definition" setting.

Film is too expensive to shoot casually anymore :(

Most snaps were trash... This nostalgia for a capture medium is getting insane. How many great shots were lost because slide film was so demanding? Unless you processed your own film (I did), your nudes were seen by a lab tech before you saw them, and while print film has a wide latitude, how many of your best images were unusable due to autofocus pinpointing the wrong area of the image. In the studio, who misses a Polaroid back to check light and composition?
Not me...

So so true. At least we still have those photos. I also miss a V8 Hemi.

Oh gosh, my old truck was a six-speed V8 Hemi. I miss it!