Schrodinger’s Photo: The Qualities of Film Photography That Are Both Its Best and Worst

Schrodinger’s Photo: The Qualities of Film Photography That Are Both Its Best and Worst

Much like the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, certain facets of film are both its best and worst qualities, and you won’t know until your film is processed. 

For those that are unfamiliar, Schrodinger’s cat is a reference to a thought experiment from the 1940s. In said thought experiment, a cat is placed into a sealed and completely opaque box along with radioactive poison. At a certain point, it is possible that the cat has been poisoned and is no longer alive, but until someone opens the box to find out, there is no way of knowing. As such, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously and remains in those two states in parallel until someone opens the box, and the two possible outcomes/realities converge into one reality. If you happen to be a physicist, please forgive my plebeian understanding. If you’re not a physicist, I hope you found my potentially overly simplistic explanation of this thought experiment helpful. 

Physics aside, the concept of Schrodinger’s cat is very much applicable to film photography. For those that have never shot film or have minimal experiences with it, the delay between exposing the film and seeing the developed image may well be the scariest or worst part of shooting film. It is in this way that I would argue the exposed but not yet developed film photograph is both as good as or better than you expected and not as good as you expected. For those with experience, you probably know exactly what it's like to shoot a frame and leave with the feeling that it was well exposed with excellent framing and perfect tones only to at some point have a fear of the shot being far under/overexposed, poorly framed, or having weird color shifts. As the thought experiment goes, these states exist simultaneously until the film is developed and viewed for the first time. 

The procedure of exposing a frame and then, at some point in the future, having the film developed and viewed on a light table doesn’t bother me. I don’t know that it bothers most film photographers as it comes with the territory. It is kind of expected that there is some delay in the process. That’s not to say that I don’t, in some circumstances, drop off my C-41 on the same day I shot it or process my black and white the same evening I shot it; I’m just saying that it isn’t typical. At the time of writing, I’ve been building up a collection of E-6 for processing that I will inevitably have to mail out. Still, it’s been sitting here for a few weeks and will likely not be mailed out for another month or so until the coronavirus situation has died down. For slide film, in particular, I have high hopes that the film is correctly exposed and the colors look gorgeous. However, I won’t know until I get the film back, and given the tendency for slide film to get blown out at the drop of a hat, screwed up shots are entirely possible. If you think that this makes me crazy, I would imagine it is because you don’t shoot film. There’s a patience that comes from it that cannot be taught shooting digital. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing — only that they’re different. 

I would even argue that there's a beauty to approaching photography this way, as it is, in many ways, reflective of life. When I want to try a new beer that seems kind of out there (as many are in the U.S.), I don't know if it's going to be amazing or terrible. The same thing goes for new friendships, books, music, or anything else. Even more so, this experience is very similar to test-taking in school. Having taken and proctored enough college statistics exams, students feel as though they're in limbo until the exam is given back. Diving into something not knowing what's on the other side cannot be emulated with digital photography, where the feedback is instantaneous.  

What are your thoughts? Have you ever shot film? Is the delayed viewing of your work your least ilked or favorite quality of shooting film, or is it somewhere in the middle?  

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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Being among the digitally dyslexic, and fumbling around in the often frustrating attempts to use a digital developer and Light Room, and then get decent prints made on decent photographic papers, film and darkroom are a fond memory...

There’s nothing quite like a nice print in a darkroom.

There is always a Zone system which reduces uncertainty nearly to nothing.
But that's a thing for patient and organized...and for those shooting sheet film or capable of going through the whole roll in one outing/light situation :)

I'm not sure that there's any way to truly reduce the uncertainty of shooting film to nothing. Between sporadic light leaks and slightly missing focus and weird color casts, experimenting with a new film or new film camera always introduce uncertainty. Using the same film in the same camera over and over again, sure. There's just so many films out there to try!

Well, yes, one has to have his stuff tried and tested to be confident with it.
About light people get those? Seals rotten away? I've been using some humorously low-quality cameras occasionaly (e.g. Diana) and never had a light leak. Once I even left a 120 roll all afternoon on direct sunlight to defy "it's gonna leak around the paper on the sides" what people were telling me - it did leak on first 2-3 frames, but all well within borders, as it usually leaks even when you load the film cautiously...

Man, I’ve had light leaks at the weirdest times and places on 120. Up to this point, I’ve never had any when shooting 35mm (knock on wood) but I’ve had them show up every now and again in the middle of the roll of 120. Of the 3 backs I have for my Mamiya645, all of them have leaked at least once but none of them have had a leak on the last 10 or so rolls. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it

Up until yesterday, I would have sworn I’d never had a light leak issue on my RB but I was reviewing some one negatives and sure enough there were 3 rolls with a giant leak in the same place on the rolls. I had never had them before and I’ve not had them since.

Hm, I have never bothered (partly because of budget, partly never considered it a benefit for me) with any system that has interchangeable backs...maybe the added complexity of camera-back interface and darkslide does not hold well with age. Good luck with hunting and eradicating it down :)

Oh, it's totally worth it if you shoot film. Switching from one film to another, back-to-back is under rated. True, the dark slide can be a little annoying but you get over that quickly.

Sure, the concept is fine, but not for me. I'm trying to go as simple as possible (failing miserably at times, now having a new obsession in shooting negatives on paper last few days, damned quarantine), not distracting myself with choices (which, at the end of the day, aren't that crucial for the resulting photograph). One camera with non-interchangeable lens and one film that I know in and out how to handle and develop in variety of conditions. It's paralyzing enough having at the moment a choice of three papers with three developers (which will affect tone in various dilutions) and two toners in my darkroom :D
Sometimes I feel that having only one choice is very liberating & allowing to shift attention to more important things...

I found that the Zone system served three passions of mine. That of the technical precision using testing and densitometers, applying it in the field, and teaching; students thoroughly understood their cameras and the film they used.
I am sure I would no longer look forward to spending 8 hours in the darkroom to make 3-4 prints that I was satisfied with.

Even theoretically knowing zone system (without testing & applying) has benefited me tremendously, I'd say.

Yea, got myself a rule - if I can't get a satisfying print in an hour, I'm not yet ready for that negative and should revisit it few weeks or moths later (or, well, it's actually utter unmanageable rubbish and should not be looked at again :).

I know it's not the point of the article, but let me try to explain anyway. The point of Schrodinger's thought experiment in which the killing mechanism is triggered by the radioactive decay of a particle is not about the uncertainty of what's happening inside the box (i.e. "the cat is alive *or* dead, but we'll only know when we open the box"). The point is that until we act on the system by observing if the particle has decayed or not, quantum mechanics tells us that the particle is in a state where it has decayed *and* not decayed. Therefore, the cat is both dead *and* alive, simultaneously.
Sorry about the physics pedantry! :)

By all means, specify/correct my attempt to explain it. Haha. If there’s one thing I appreciate, it’s intellectual engagement. You’re helping me better understand and explain the concept!

Unfortunately, Schrodinger's cat is often used to illustrate the weirdness of quantum physics. But Schrodinger's point was to take quantum predictions to absurdity, making it clear that something better was needed. But I like the analogy with photography: waiting for those Kodachrome slides to come back was definitely an exercise in uncertainty!

Absolutely. It was a criticism of the Copenhagen interpretation, showing that "transfering" principles from the quatum world to the macro world leads to situations that are intuitively absurd.

What if I told you that, some years ago, we didn't have the choice ? And we were all trapped in the Schrodinger uncertainty.
If you were a hobbyist photographer, then you had to wait sometimes a week that your film is developed. Meanwhile, we used to do other things, like going to the movies, meeting your friends over a drink, spending time in the disc or book store, feeding your creative side. And you could engage a nice conversation in the photo lab, learning what the non-existing internet couldn't provide. (gosh, I'm not even 50 and it seems I talk about the Middle-Age...)
If you were a professional, the market had tools for you. In the studio, you would shoot a roll, then send a courier to a lab who would develop it in one hour, or even just a test strip out of it. For medium and large format, there were the Polaroid backs you could use to have an immediate results.
But all this helped you to think first, and shoot after. Film was scarce, 36 shots for one roll. You wouldn't want to waste it.
And then, you took time to choose the best shot of all, sometimes one per film. And if you had to enlarge it, then you would engage a process of planning the modifications (dodge and burn mostly) beforehand.

All this to say that, nowadays, it's a choice of yours to shoot film. And then you choose to face all its aspects. Good and bad ones. It's a kind of luxury and opportunity to slow down time, to bring back thinking to the process instead of sometimes rushing. I may be wrong, but I don't think it can be harmful, can't it ?

Very well said. I think most people who shoot film these days do it because of the way it makes you slow down and think more carefully. And most everyone deals with waiting even longer than someone would have in the 90’s - now days many people have to mail their film off to be processed and then mailed back so they can scan it. That alone can take weeks.

It's very true that the limitations didn't affect how good or bad was their photography. But the thing is that you didn't have the choice. I think that now the slow of the analog process is very known and thought about when someone choose to shoot film.
Of course it doesn't make the result better or worse, it's just a different way to work.

That's not what I'm trying to say. I understand the that for photographers in the pre-digital era, there wasn't a choice and now days there is a choice to it. I don't believe that a photographer has to have self-imposed external limitations to practice thoughtfulness or patience. For many photographers like myself, however, where digital photography has been around for close to half or more of our lives, immediate gratification of seeing the photo on the screen of the camera is expected. There's something to be said for what it takes to force yourself out of a habit.

It might be one of the reasons why they shoot film, (I guess there are plenty others) but at least they do this choice consciously. It's also possible to develop at home. But still, it takes time.

True that. I develop B&W at home and love it. It's quite cathartic.

For me, I definitely did feel this way for a while when I started shooting film as everything is so new. After a while though, provided that your equipment is working as expected you do start to feel like you captured what you wanted when the shutter goes off, and you're able to move onto the next shot without thinking about the previous one. Changing any of those variables can make that feeling come back (different film stock, different cameras etc) but that confidence does come back.

I don’t know that I would describe it as a lack of confidence such that it’s a bad thing. For me, it’s a point of excitement. Trying out a new camera or lens or film or whatever and not really being sure what the results will look like but keeping my hopes high and my fingers crossed. Then, finally getting to look at the negatives on a light table makes it all worth it.

2 decades after switching to digital, I have restarted film photography this month with an Yashica Electro 35 GSN. I have a Fujifilm GA645 and Hassey 501c on my radar if this goes well. Fingers crossed.

That’s so exciting to hear! Keep me posted on how it goes. I’m curious to know if you fall (back) in love with it or decide to go back to shooting exclusively digital.

Nice to hear ! Anything that inspires to shoot, analog or digital, is good. The Blad is a tremendous camera to use ! Just find the right tool ;-)

Over the winter, I resurrected three ancient film cameras -- a Yashica Mat 6x6 from the 60's, a Miranda Sensorex from the early 70's and a Nikon F4 from the 80's. I shot a roll with each -- very random scenes. Every time I snapped the shutter on each I reflexively lifted the back of the camera to my eye before remembering that an image there just isn't going to happen. I sent the rolls off to a specialist BW developer about three hours and three days mail each way from my home. She said it would take a week once the rolls got to her While waiting, in addition to worrying about exposure, focus and ASA(!) settings I had the other exquisite agony of wondering whether any or all of the cameras actually worked, given the deficits I knew were already in them from years of neglect. Two weeks after I mailed them off, the answers were in a brown envelope that included the film and the contact sheets. OMG -- there were images from all three cameras! The Miranda worked perfectly, even though the exposures clearly did not match what its built in meter (which required a special battery I was able to find and fit) told me. The F4 also provided me a full 36 images, and, after scanning and printing the best shots, the tonality was exactly what you dream of in shooting Tri-X 400. The Yashica Mat images were horribly blurry -- but the more I worked on them the more I realized that was probably my lost muscle memory in focusing a twin lens reflex, held chest high. If this damn pandemic ever goes away I will be eager to work with them again -- even with all of the inherent frustrations. I actually fixed something! Take that wife.

I'm always glad that someone finds some happiness in anything, moreover when it's about photography.
I didn't know the Miranda, but it reminds me the radiator grille of a Dodge (or is it only me ?).

The F4 was one of my dream camera, years ago, but I could never afford it. I still have my F801 though (and many others...).
I had a Yashica Mat 124, and I remember that the use of lens hood is mandatory. When I had forgotten it, the images were like taken in the fog. I guess it is caused by the fact that the lens is very flush (I hope it's the good word. I mean it's not deep inside the camera but close to the surface_English is not my native language) hence makes it prone to any rays of light and unwanted flare. Maybe it can explain the blurry effect you encountered ?

I can't imagine how many photographers will run free when the time comes !

O think you just identified the cause of one of the problems with my first roll on the Yashica Mat -- the blur may have been accentuated because it was a very bright day with a lot of sun being reflected off the water that I was quite near. I don't have a hood for it, but will search for one online. Great to find someone else who used that camera.

I'm glad if I could help. I remember that I tried once or twice to shoot without this little piece and I could see the consequences : a kind of haze on all the images. I guess you might be able to find one online.

I did find it -- B&H. But, yesterday the winder jammed and it takes a lot to get it unjammed and the film advanced. And, as always with film, I have no idea if I got anything with each advance I did get. I will wait to see if I can fix the winder problem (I've discovered it's well known) before investing more in this particular project, as good fun as it has been. Many thanks.

Oh, I never had any problem with the lever, but I guess these old ones can be fixed. No electronics ;-)